Despite sharp fare increases, the number of passengers taking public transportation held steady in July, surprising transportation officials who had braced for a decline.
After fares jumped an average of 23 percent July 1, projections had called for a 5 percent decline in MBTA ridership. Instead, the number of passenger trips on an average weekday, 1.28 million, dropped just .1 percent compared to July 2011, the MBTA announced Thursday.
Jonathan Davis, the transit system’s acting general manager, said the latest figures show that the trains and buses are generally seen as convenient and affordable, even after the fare hikes.
“People continue to value public transportation,” he said. “We’re glad to see ridership is holding.”
The number of bus, ferry, and commuter rail trips climbed from July 2011, while subway rides dropped slightly. Trips on The Ride, the agency’s door-to-door service for those with disabilities, declined more steeply. The agency makes year-over-year comparisons to account for seasonal changes.
Davis said the rebounding economy and an improved job market played a substantial role in boosting demand even as fares increased.
Paul Regan, who directs the MBTA Advisory Board, a watchdog group, said the steady ridership figures are encouraging but more information is needed before the impact of the fare hike can be accurately gauged.
“One month is not a trend,” he said. “They need at least a fiscal quarter before it means anything.”
The improving economy, he said, may be masking the impact of higher prices. But if ridership can remain steady despite the increases, “it’s cause for celebration,” he said.
At the same, the slight decline in overall trips was the first since January 2011, reversing months of often substantial gains. Between July 2010 and June 2011, the agency recorded 379 million passenger trips, a record high.
Compared with last year, The Ride had a substantial decline, from 7,900 to 7,000, after the cost doubled from $2 to $4.
Davis said officials were expecting a decline in users of The Ride, but were somewhat surprised by the extent of the drop. He said some passengers may have shifted to the bus or subway but that the agency needed to study the issue in more detail.
“We’re concerned,” he said. “We work hard to be sure we’re serving the people who need public transportation,” he said.
The cost of the service, which is mandated by federal law, has soared in recent years.
Bill Allan, advocacy director for the Disability Policy Consortium, said the price of the Ride increase has affected those least able to afford it.
“Clearly some people are rationing their trips,” he said. “These are people on fixed incomes.”
Many elderly and disabled people who rely on The Ride live in nursing homes and have almost no spending money, he said. With the higher fare, many are taking fewer trips, hurting their quality of life.
Pam Edwards, a community organizer with the Massachusetts Senior Action Council, said many seniors cannot take the subway or bus and rely on the van service to get around. The fee hike, Edwards said, was not intended to boost revenue but to drive down ridership.
“To them this is a good number,” she said of the decline. “This was the goal.”
Eric Bourassa, director of transportation planning for the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, said the cash-strapped agency could certainly use the infusion of revenue created by higher fares and overall stable ridership. Yet the agency’s financial troubles, he said, remain daunting.
“Unfortunately, the T’s finances are still in tough shape,” he said. “Ridership alone isn’t going to solve their structural deficit.”
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority could not provide July revenue numbers Thursday.
At the JFK/UMass Red Line station Thursday evening, riders said they were annoyed by the fare hike i but not enough to change their routine.
“If you have to pay it, you pay it,” said Andrea Glynn. “There’s no way around it.”
From her house in Upham’s Corner, Glynn takes the commuter rail to the Red Line, then the bus to Watertown. The trip takes 55 minutes on a good day, she said. She thought the increase, while frustrating, was reasonable.
“Everything else has been going up, too,” she said.
Peter Schworm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.