Lauren Olzak rode TARTA's Perrysburg Call-A-Ride bus for the first time last week to get home from summer school at Perrysburg High School. An hour later, Ray Murphy boarded for his daily trip to lunch at the Perrysburg Senior Center.
Theirs are the faces that best represent a majority of riders using the Perrysburg route that the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority started March 31 as a suburban transit experiment.
“It's convenient - it's a good idea,” said Mr. Murphy, who got a quick three-minute ride from his home at Colonial Gardens to the senior center. “In the wintertime, it'll be nice to have.”
But after Dec. 31, continued operation of the Perrysburg Call-A-Ride is not a certainty. Richard Ruddell, the transit authority's general manager, said it's too soon to tell whether ridership is good enough to justify continuing the service beyond year's end.
A study of the results will begin in October, once the bus has been running for six months, Mr. Ruddell said. Also still to be determined is how long the route's introductory, 25-cent fare will remain. TARTA's standard bus fare is 85 cents, although it offers discounts for children, seniors, and people with disabilities.
As of June 30, 4,592 passengers boarded the bus since service began - an average of 49.9 riders per day. On an annual basis, that works out to about 17,250.
TARTA doesn't keep records of how many riders from each suburban community use its various suburban routes. However, Philip Caron, the Perrysburg delegate to the transit authority board of trustees, said a two-week survey last year indicated Perrysburg ridership of about 18,000 a year.
On that basis, he said, the new service is nearly doubling the number of Perrysburg riders.
“We're getting more people to ride public transit in Perrysburg than ever before,” Mr. Ruddell echoed.
But after starting with 1,769 riders for April, route ridership declined to 1,546 in May, and to 1,277 in June - an average of 42.6 per day in the most recent month. Ridership has been particularly weak on Sundays - only 12 passengers on June 16 - while generally strongest on Thursdays and Fridays.
Mr. Ruddell acknowledged that ridership “has tapered off since school let out.” Teens headed to or from after-school activities accounted for a large share of Call-A-Ride passengers, said James Gee, the transit authority's planning director.
Matthew Prater, 14, who boarded the bus at his Sandusky Street home on Thursday, said he regularly used the service after school and still rides occasionally to visit friends in his old neighborhood.
“They're pretty quick. It's better than walking too,” he said.
Betty Armes, the route's regular morning-shift driver, said the teens who use the Call-A-Ride “have this on speed dial” on their cell phones, and the seniors love the route's flexibility, compared with what senior center vans or the Toledo Area Regional Paratransit Service offer.
“If they want to go to the store or the doctor on their own, they call me, and I do what I can to get them there on time,” Ms. Armes said.
A vast majority of rides are booked by phone - only a handful of passengers are found waiting along the route, the driver said.
That's probably a good thing too, because at times on Thursday the bus's timetable was more a suggestion than a reality. While the schedule is well padded to give the bus time to make door-to-door side trips, arrivals at timetable stops quickly fall behind after several such trips on the same run.
TARTA's rules for the service specify that the bus is to divert from its route only at the point closest to a requested pick-up or drop-off, then return to the route.
Ms. Armes, a 27-year TARTA veteran, said other drivers running the route have bent that rule, making the service more taxi-like - which creates problems when riders learn to expect direct rides.
On Thursday, that meant that younger passengers were on the bus a lot longer than their elders.
“It's taking a long time,” Miss Olzak said with a grin-and-bear-it smile as her trip time approached an hour, which included a 10-minute wait for a no-show passenger at the Heartland of Perrysburg seniors' home. The trip in Dad's car usually takes 10 minutes, she said.
And when Ms. Armes detoured to pick up Mr. Murphy, 15-year-old Rita Incorvaia, whose cross-town trip was approaching the 40-minute mark, shouted from the back of the bus, “Excuse me. Do you still know where I'm going?”
The teens riding the bus Thursday left little doubt that for most of them, the bus was a last resort they used when they couldn't get a parent or friend to give them a ride.
Mr. Caron said he was surprised more children aren't using the bus during the summer. But even if ridership is not overwhelming, he said, the additional service means Perrysburg is getting a better return on the nearly $1 million in property taxes its residents are likely to pay into the system this year.
If the service area were to be expanded, he said, it would have a 10-mile radius, including major destinations like St. Luke's Hospital. While the hospital now can be reached by transferring to the regular No. 10 bus, he said, “if you're not a seasoned commuter, transfers are intimidating.”
But such a radius would include areas like Perrysburg Township that aren't part of the TARTA service zone, so for now the bus legally can't go there.
Area transportation officials are proposing a transit-needs study to determine how the transit district might be expanded, with an eye toward more Call-A-Ride service in lightly populated areas.