Bus riders wanted: Officials are trying to figure out why so few are using the Lakes Region Explorer.

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The Lakes Region Explorer makes a stop in Naples during its inaugural run in November 2013.

The Lakes Region Explorer, an 18-seat bus that makes four trips each weekday from Bridgton to Portland and back, has yet to catch on with the public.

To turn that situation around, town officials and representatives from the Lakes Region met on Tuesday to discuss marketing strategies for the Explorer, which began operating in November 2013.

The Lakes Region Explorer makes a stop in Naples during its inaugural run in November 2013.
The Lakes Region Explorer makes a stop in Naples during its inaugural run in November 2013.

Don Willard, town manager of Raymond, was among a number of officials to express concern about the lack of awareness of the bus in the community.

“There are a couple active, local riders,” Willard said, referring to two professionals in the area who take the bus daily. “But I don’t think word is out (about the bus service).”

Attendees at the meeting, which took place at the Naples Town Offices, expressed confidence in the future of the bus, saying that it is a good, reliable service, but that the bus needs more advertising to attract riders.

The Explorer is owned and operated by Portland-based RTP. The bus makes eight stops in five Lakes Region towns, with a final stop in Portland at the Elm Street “Pulse,” the hub for all of the downtown buses. The fare is $3 for a one-way ticket and $2 for seniors and students. The fare also allows the rider free transfer to any downtown bus.

Last August, the route was extended to include a final stop at the Bridgton Community Center. Around the same time, voters in Bridgton, Naples, Casco and Windham each approved $9,656 in funding for the bus. Raymond voters passed an article that included $5,000 in funding.

The bus primarily targets professionals who live in the Lakes Region and work in Portland, according to the meeting’s facilitator, Selena Barlow, a market research and planning specialist for Transit Marketing. She said the most popular times for the bus are the morning and evening commute. The bus makes a 6 a.m. trip from Bridgton, which arrives in Portland at 7:30 a.m., and a 5:30 p.m. trip from Portland, which arrives in Bridgton at 7 p.m.

Barlow said she rode the bus from Bridgton to Portland and back on the early morning commute, and spoke with a number of the riders, many of whom were going to work.

According to company records, the bus had 323 boardings in January 2015, its lowest ridership of the year, and 730 boardings in July 2015, its peak ridership total. This averages to about 16 boardings each weekday in January, and 37 boardings each weekday in July. Data is collected by bus drivers, who count the number of boardings at each stop.

According to the data, monthly ridership of the bus increased 20 percent in 2015 from the previous year. Charles Rutkowski, assistant director of the Community Transportation Association, said a service “needs three years for ridership to grow” and that he is “very encouraged by the growth we’re seeing.”

Nevertheless, because the bus runs solely on Route 302 and does not run through some of the outlying residential areas of the Lakes Region, the majority of passengers either drive or receive a ride to the bus stop, according to Barlow.

Anne Krieg, director of planning, economic and community development in Bridgton, said although the bus is targeting professionals, she was “pleasantly surprised” by the number of riders who used the bus in the summer to visit Bridgton from Portland.

Krieg said she wants to “make sure people know the bus is there.”

Those at the meeting discussed a number of means to improve outreach and awareness in the Lakes Region, including fliers, advertisements on local TV stations, promotional events, and an increased online presence. Attendees said they would like to increased outreach while targeting a range of different markets, including young people, seniors and tourists, with tailored advertisements and marketing plans.

When asked if it was possible to target such a variety of demographics, Barlow said the bus “couldn’t be everything for everybody,” but that targeting advertisements to different markets, particularly seniors, could increase the ridership on some of the trips in the middle of the day that are underutilized.

Barlow said they don’t expect the bus always to be full, and that some trips are necessary simply for the purpose of bringing the bus back to its starting point. But if the Explorer could increase ridership on those off-times, she said, it would be a financial bonus.

The attendees discussed plans to reach out to a number of community groups to raise awareness for the bus, including the Southern Maine Agency on Aging and other social services.

“This is a resource for communities,” said Barlow. “A lot of people don’t know it exists because for the 50-60 years they’ve lived here it hasn’t existed.”

A Closer Look

For more information about the Lakes Region Explorer, including schedules and stops, visit www.rtprides.org/lake-region-bus.

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