SMART ridership declined in 2nd year, but weekday use growing, newly obtained records show
Ridership on the SMART train dropped 2.2% in its second year of service, but is slowly starting to recover, according to newly disclosed passenger data that provides unprecedented detail about use of the region’s $600 million commuter rail system.
Daily ridership figures show that just over 706,000 passengers rode Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit in its second year of operations, or 15,600 fewer than its inaugural year that began in summer 2017.
The data was obtained by The Press Democrat under the California Public Records Act after SMART repeatedly refused to release the figures, claiming the agency did not break out daily or weekly passenger totals commonly reported by other transit systems.
The decline in ridership during the second year of service stemmed from a 30% drop in weekend ridership. That slide has continued in the first three months of its third year, when weekend ridership fell another 7.4%, a Press Democrat analysis found.
However, the data shows that SMART is building ridership on weekdays, making progress toward one of its main objectives - providing an alternative for commuters driving to work on Highway 101. Weekday ridership rose 4.2% in the second year and was up another 4.2% in the first three months of the third year.
Until now, SMART has not provided any data to the public or its governing board showing any declines in ridership. SMART has only announced the total number of passengers who have boarded its trains since service started Aug. 25, 2017, a figure that increases every month and exceeded 1.6 million riders through November.
The second-year drop surprised members of the agency’s board of directors, who believed the rail system had been growing steadily based on total ridership figures provided at each board meeting by SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian.
“If our ridership has declined in the second year, then we should have a theory about that, or at least how we can move it in a positive direction,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who has served on the SMART board for a decade.
Mansourian did not respond to repeated requests this week for an interview to discuss ridership trends or the data.
Zane suggested the decline in weekend ridership was not unusual for a new transit system. Weekends provide an opportunity for members of the public to try out the trains and see how their tax dollars are being spent.
“I do think that sometimes there’s a novelty behind it and a transit system does well initially,” Zane said. “But if we are on track and are increasing in these last three months, that’s a good thing.”
The daily ridership figures reveal the train’s average weekday passenger totals were previously overstated by Mansourian, who has been at the helm of the agency for eight years. In November, he told the Marin Independent Journal that on average the system carries about 2,800 riders each weekday. But the agency’s figures show it averaged roughly 2,300 passengers on weekdays during its first two years of service, according to a Press Democrat analysis of the data.
That discrepancy in figures amounts to a difference of more than 94,000 passengers each year, or nearly a sixth of SMART’s annual ridership. In an interview last month, Mansourian said that he would not go into detail about ridership until after the agency’s board received a presentation about the data at its Jan. 8 meeting.
Since beginning passenger service, SMART has transported 2,800 daily passengers only two dozen times, including nine days where it allowed all passengers to ride trains for free, the data shows. Paid ridership hit an all-time high on a day in December 2017, when trains carried 3,045 passengers.
Average weekday ridership is far less than the numbers provided by Mansourian, according to the data released by SMART last week — and even lower in figures reported Dec. 20 to the agency by its own consultant.
An average of 2,040 people rode the typical weekday train, and about 800 each on Saturday and Sunday, according to Corey, Canapary & Galanis, a San Francisco market research firm hired by SMART in late 2018 to conduct quarterly passenger counts during the first nine months of 2019. The numbers had a margin of error of 10%.
SMART spokeswoman Julia Gonzalez said Mansourian’s stated average weekday ridership figure of 2,800 riders was an estimate. Agency staff had not had time to further analyze the data, she said in an email. Gonzalez also said the consultant’s numbers represented just one set of data and, in some cases, represented an undercount based on verified paid fares. SMART staff would continue to calibrate the two sets of information to provide the most accurate ridership data, she said.