Despite it still being new to downtown Nashville streets, officials in charge of the Music City Circuit — the free downtown circulator bus — have quickly discovered that Fridays are good days.
“Friday is turning out to be the highest ridership day to date,” said James McAteer, Metro Transit Authority’s planning director and the man who oversees the hybrid-bus circulator service that runs Mondays through Saturdays. He said ridership for Friday, April 23 neared 1,000.
According to transit authority statistics, the first four weeks of operations saw 10,680 passengers on the Blue line and 5,337 on the Green line. The Blue line has averaged 445 passengers daily, with the Green line boasting 222. Although Blue line usage has been stronger on average, Saturdays have seen the Green line numbers rival those of the Blue — likely because the Green accesses the Gulch’s restaurants and bars.
“It looks like the noontime trips are downtown office workers headed to lunch or to a meeting, while the Saturday ridership is a combination of tourists and residents,” McAteer said.
Paul Ballard, MTA’s chief executive officer, said he originally anticipated ridership for the first month at 500 passengers per weekday and 250 on Saturdays.
“I should have picked more of a stretch goal,” he said. “We’re well ahead of projection.”
Despite the encouraging numbers, both Ballard and McAteer acknowledged it is difficult to fully assess the MCC’s success after only four weeks.
McAteer said he has contacted other cities with downtown circulators to gauge the level of usage. But the comparisons are not necessarily apples to apples. For example, in Alabama, Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority’s Downtown Area Runabout Transit trolley-replica buses charge 50 cents a ride and circulate through both the central business district and Southside — the latter the rough equivalent of Nashville’s Midtown. The Chattanooga Area Regional Transit Authority provides free electric shuttle bus service, but the buses cover a modest geographic range.
According to CARTA statistics, electric bus ridership in April 1992, the first month of service, was about 9,740 riders (compared with MCC’s approximately 16,000). Of note, the number catapulted to about 78,060 the next month. Today, CARTA’s electric buses accommodate about 1 million passengers annually.
Tom Dugan, CARTA executive director, said Nashville should be pleased with its first month.
“Any new service takes time to really take hold,” Dugan said. “I would think that the MTA would be happy with 16,000 during the first four weeks. I know we would.”
Tom Turner, executive director of the Nashville Downtown Partnership, called the ridership figures “impressive,” noting the future of NDP’s LunchLINE yellow bus shuttle service, which overlaps that of MCC, is being evaluated.
“If that [lunch-time service] need is filled by the circuit, there certainly wouldn’t be any reason to have both,” Turner said.
McAteer said a key challenge will be monitoring ridership during various times of the day to maximize efficiency. At times, for example, the larger buses can be seen with few, if any passengers, while occasionally the smaller buses are packed.
“We will have to make sure we’re meeting the demand with the right-sized bus equipment,” he said. “When conventions are in town, we’ll have to be aware so we are sure to maximize the available capacity and use the larger buses.”
Ballard said May should prove a successful month for the circulator, particularly with nice weather.
“We’ll certainly revise our expectations up,” he said.