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Athens Has the Fourth Busiest Transit System in the U.S.

Athens-Clarke County has the fourth-busiest transit system in the country, according to an analysis by the data journalism website of National Transit Database numbers.

ACC averaged 99.5 trips per capita in 2013, meaning the average resident boarded a bus about 100 times last year. That figure is based on ridership numbers ACC and 289 other cities report to the Federal Transit Administration in order to receive grants. FiveThirtyEight divided those numbers by 2012 American Community Survey population estimates.

The FTA measures unlinked trips, meaning transfers count as a separate trip. (Athens Transit gives transfers; UGA, being a free system, does not.)

What do these numbers mean? That a lot of UGA students and employees ride the bus. 

Campus Transit has about 11 million riders a year. Athens Transit has a little under two million, about half of whom are affiliated with UGA.

The busiest transit systems in the country are a mix of big cities and college towns. As one might expect, New York, Chicago and San Francisco are highly ranked. But Champaign, IL, is No. 7, State College, PA, is No. 8, Iowa City, IA, is No. 11, Gainesville, FL, is No. 14, Davis, CA, is No. 16, Bellingham, WA, is No. 17, Eugene, OR, is No, 19, Ann Arbor, MI, is No. 20, Durham, NC, is No. 21 and Blacksburg, VA, is No. 25.

There’s really no way to know how many non-UGA riders are using Campus Transit, but we do know that more than 80 percent of bus riders in Athens are using free and frequent Campus Transit, as opposed to Athens Transit, which costs $1.75 and comes once an hour or half hour. And the majority of Athens Transit riders do not pay, because UGA picks up the tab.

Some have argued that Athens is too small and not dense enough to support or benefit from an expanded transit system. However, for cities with populations under one million, FiveThirtyEight found no correlation between population density or total population and transit ridership.

Clearly, people in Athens will use public transit if it’s free and convenient. That’s a great argument for reforming Athens Transit—something to keep in mind when Athens-Clarke County commissioners start discussing a transit master plan at a work session Aug. 11.

UPDATE: Athens Transit Director Butch McDuffie passed along the following response.

While I appreciate the coverage and this isn’t a complaint, I understand that some in the community have advocated for “free” transit service, I though I would provide some clarifications. 

1.  UGA affiliated riders do not ride for “free”.  The University pays a bulk “per trip rate” to ATS, equal to the rate very non-UGA affiliated citizen, that purchases trips in bulk pays. This is essentially a “pre-paid” fare, that these UGA riders pay for access to our services up front, when they pay their student fees or buy a parking permit. UGA does not simply “pick up the tab.”

2. Depending on passenger location, Route and time of year, some ATS services are provided at 15, 20, 30 minute or hourly frequencies, not only once an hour or half-hour. Also, comparing UGA and ATS services is like comparing apples to oranges, UGA has a very defined densely populated service area, designed specifically to serve campus and UGA affiliated individuals. ATS transports riders from all over our community and is charged with serving all citizens, regardless of any affiliation with any entity. (Not to mention the difference in budgets.) 

3. Yes, approximately, 60 percent of ATS annual ridership is affiliated with UGA, however, this does not discount the fact that regardless of who riders are, almost two million trips a year are provided by ATS services. 

4. Although the information in the  article includes combined UGA and ATS ridership, when you run the total ridership numbers for only ATS, our local trips per resident comes in at 13.6, which places the overall ridership on ATS at 109, out of the 290 systems nation-wide, regardless. Which, I think that is an outstanding achievement in itself.