Petaluma resident Yemina Ibanez has been riding Petaluma Transit for 16 years. She doesn't own a car, so the bus is her only means of transportation.

"I use it to go shopping, run errands, visit friends, everything," she said. "It's been really handy for me."

Ibanez is just one of an increasing number of people turning to the local bus system as a reliable way to get around, something that Petaluma Transit Manager Joseph Rye partly attributes to a recent restructuring of bus routes.

Ibanez said that she remembers using the transit system in Petaluma before it went through a massive restructuring in 2010, and said that she finds it much easier to get where she needs to go since the updated routes took effect.

"Before it would take a long time to get from one part of town to another, but now the ride is much faster," she said as she sat waiting with her two children at the transit center on Copeland and East Washington Streets to catch the number 24 bus to visit a friend.

Her 11-year-old daughter, Amber, said that they ride the bus almost every day. "It's really fun to ride," she said, grinning.

Rye said that the July 2010 restructuring dropped service hours by 16 percent, but simultaneously managed to increase ridership by a whopping 40 percent. He credits public surveys and focus groups that his organization conducted with helping to transform Petaluma Transit into a more user-friendly service.

"The old system was very downtown-centric," he said. "But we discovered that most of our riders live on the east side of town and that service wasn't very good over there. So we restructured the routes but kept most of the stops the same and we created the transit hub on Maria Drive, which allowed for an easy eastside-to-eastside trip."

Rye acknowledges that the economic downturn and reduced tax revenue forced his organization to push for restructured routes.

"We just lucked out that there were some major changes needed when I came on," he said, adding that he didn't anticipate pulling any more "rabbits out of our hats" in terms of increasing ridership while cutting costs.

"Rapid growth in ridership is slowing down, but hopefully slow and steady growth will continue," he said.

The 36-year-old Petaluma Transit system currently has six routes that run Monday through Saturday. During the 2011-2012 fiscal year, ridership soared to a record 300,000, up from approximately 154,000 in the 2008-2009 fiscal year. Rye said that he hopes to continue expanding service and added that thanks to more riders, transit has already increased service by approximately 500 hours since the system revamp in 2010.

Petaluma Transit has an annual operating budget of approximately $2 million, though it pays $800,000 for out-of-area service routes from Golden Gate and Sonoma County Transit. Rider fairs and advertising account for approximately $250,000 of their revenue, while the rest comes from state transportation taxes and grants.

On a recent afternoon roundtrip ride departing from the transit mall on Copeland Street, the route 11 bus never filled to its 35-person capacity, though it got close several times. Riders jumped on and off at different locations and chatted with the friendly driver, Phay Quan.

Armed with groceries and other purchases, patrons pulled $1.25 from their pockets, dropped it into the cash collector next to Quan and flopped down onto clean seats. They rode until their particular stop, before pulling the yellow stop cord, tossing Quan a cheerful &‘thank you' and hopping off.

While most of the riders traveled quietly, a woman and her school-aged companion cursed loudly as they rode at the back of the bus — heading to help set up their midweek church event — all within earshot of a young boy who giggled and grinned at his mother. She rectified the problem by shaking her head and putting her iPod earphones into his ears.

But overall, riders seemed happy with the service and happy with their driver. Quan, who has been driving buses for more than 20 years, said that his favorite part of the job is meeting people. He has only been with Petaluma Transit for a month, but said that he has enjoyed meeting almost everyone who has gotten on his buses.

Rye said that the next year's budget contains enough money to do two or three significant improvements, which the transit advisory committee will discuss at their June 28 meeting.

"We're headed toward providing Sunday service and extending service hours to 7:15 p.m. during the week," he said. "Getting service to seven days a week so that folks without a car can get around town and do their business is really important to us. And as ridership keeps building, we will keep building."

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)