A free bus route serving downtown Mesa has more than doubled ridership since it began service at the start of this year.
The Downtown Buzz had more than 19,000 riders in October, which the city figures is good considering it cobbled together the service with no additional funding. Plus, Mesa had to rely on word-of-mouth to promote the route because there was no marketing budget.
“It was a totally different service than we’ve ever run, so we really didn’t know what to expect,” said Mike James, deputy transportation director. “But we’re very happy with how it’s doing.”
The Downtown Buzz began in the waning days of last year to coincide with Metro light-rail service beginning Dec. 27. At that time, the city rerouted several other routes that went through downtown to better coordinate with Metro.
Several north-south and east-west routes had spaghettilike twists through downtown to reach various destinations, but transportation officials straightened out those routes to make them more efficient. That left some gaps downtown and between routes, so Mesa created the Downtown Buzz to fill the void where the routes no longer went.
The straight-line routes saved fuel and miles driven, which freed up enough money for the Buzz, James said. The city reused several old Dial-a-Ride buses, which only needed paint and a logo to be usable.
The Buzz circles through downtown and then reaches into neighborhoods north and west of downtown. The idea was to bring people from those areas to downtown merchants and destinations like the Mesa Main Library, the Mesa Arts Center, the Mesa Multigenerational Center and municipal offices. Also, the route serves Westwood High School, and Banner Corporate Office East.
The Buzz ridership falls into two main groups, James said, based on interviews he’s done with passengers. Many students take it to and from school, and residents of surrounding neighborhoods use the bus to shop downtown or at other places on the route.
The Downtown Mesa Association has a push to get a more diverse population downtown, and the Buzz is helping, executive director Tom Verploegen said. He rode the bus at lunch one day and saw students, the elderly, a disabled person and passengers who seemed to have a wide variety of income levels.
“There was a whole mix,” Verploegen said. “I was very impressed.”
Verploegen said he figured some of the passengers may not have had other transportation and the free bus brought people to downtown who otherwise might not have visited.
The Buzz carried about 9,300 riders in January, its first full month. That climbed to nearly 16,000 in April, but dipped in the summer as expected because school was out of session and the heat typically deters transit use. Ridership will likely level off once the service has been in place a year, James said.
The route generally goes as far north as Brown Road, as far west as Alma School Road and as far south as Main Street. The eastern edge is Center Street, which James said has generated some complaints that it does not go to Mesa Drive. The city would like to extend it eastward, but the city’s budget crunch doesn’t make that likely soon, James said. Transit officials will look to that in the future, however.
“We know there’s a want, at least,” James said.