VIA Metropolitan Transit tracked an upward trend in overall ridership in 2019, reversing a years-long pattern of declining ridership.

In 2019, people took 34.9 million trips on VIA vehicles. That’s a 0.3 percent increase compared to 2018, when riders took 34.8 million trips. It’s a small boost, but the last four months of the year showed larger increases.

Between 2018 and 2019, ridership on all VIA routes increased between 2.7 and 5.9 percent in September, October, November, and December. Much of that growth could be attributed to routes that VIA improved wait times on, said President and CEO Jeff Arndt. VIA increased frequency on 18 bus lines in 2018 and 2019 with funding provided by the San Antonio City Council and dubbed those “partnership routes.”

“As you improve a set of routes, it can make it more attractive to those who see those routes,” Arndt said. “For example, if I’m not on a partnership route, but I transfer to it every morning, if I know I have a shorter wait for that transfer, it makes it more attractive. It’s a bit of that ‘all ships rising’ [idea]. … As any change is made to an element of a system, it can ripple through the system.”

To VIA Metropolitan Transit leadership, the reason behind the reversed trend seemed clear: Investing more money into the bus system works. In 2018 and 2019, the City Council allocated $10 million to VIA to increase bus frequency on the “partnership routes.”

“I have to tip my hat to the leadership of the council and the mayor, because they allowed us to run an experiment: What would happen if we invested in our highest-use routes?” VIA board Chairman Rey Saldaña said. “Our hypothesis was if you improve frequency, you’ll see a correlated increase in ridership because folks will realize there isn’t an hour-long or 45-minute wait between buses. It’s not a hugely complicated formula – it was important for us to try it out and it was not possible without funding from the council.”

Routes that were upgraded in 2018 and 2019 showed increased or relatively stable ridership. But between 2013 and 2018, the system saw ridership decline by 9 million trips, mirroring nationwide transit agency trends during a time when the economy was good and gas prices were low.

VIA continues to seek more funding to further its “VIA Reimagined” goals, Saldaña said. The strategic plan includes building a better bus system, pursuing dedicated lanes for advanced rapid transit, and integrating technology to improve riders’ experiences. Increasing frequency on multiple routes fits into the category of a better bus system, Arndt said.

“I think we are putting a lot of our confidence in the results we’ve seen,” he said. “It’s one thing to say, ‘We’re going to do this and we expect this to happen.’ We can say, ‘We did this, and it did happen.’”

While ridership data showed improvement, the numbers alone cannot tell the entire story of VIA’s role in San Antonio, Saldaña said.

“I want folks to make no mistake about why it is I believe funding and supporting mass transportation is important,” he said. “It’s because of the people who are riding it today. They are, by any measure, the hardest-working San Antonians I’ve ever met. I was on a bus at 5:50 [a.m.] that was packed with people who were going in to cook everybody’s meals that morning at a fast food restaurant, to make clean beds for six-hour shifts. These are the people that make San Antonio move and operate every day.”

By investing in and improving the transit system, San Antonio will improve the lives of people who need to pick up an extra shift for the income or return to their families late at night, Saldaña said.

“Investing in our transportation system is one of the best ways to be a disrupter of poverty,” Saldaña said.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.