For this month’s installment of Deep Drive, we’re going to dive into exactly who rides PSTA. From students headed to class and employees commuting to work to citizens on their way to doctor’s appointments, hangouts with friends, or running errands, PSTA has the privilege of transporting people from every walk of life imaginable.
If you don’t ride the bus or are new to taking public transit, this Deep Drive will give you a clear, data-driven picture of how diverse PSTA riders truly are!
The Truth About Ridership
First, let’s talk about ridership numbers in general. There’s no question that ridership plummeted during the COVID-19 pandemic, the steep descent beginning in March 2020. Between May and June of 2020, national transit ridership has slowly risen, although it has still not yet returned to pre-pandemic numbers.
But what about PSTA, specifically? In PSTA’s 40-year history, the agency’s highest ridership was 14.9 million in the post-recession years of 2014 to 2015. In 2023, PSTA’s latest annual ridership was 10.4 million and rising as riders returned post-pandemic.
In the table below, you can see PSTA’s annual ridership since the agency’s incarnation, as well as how certain events have affected ridership like the 2009 recession and the 2020 pandemic. While that is 30% lower than the 2015 peak, it should be noted that 2023 also saw a 19% increase in ridership during 2022 due to the end of the pandemic and the launch of the new bus rapid transit service, the SunRunner.
Table showing PSTA’s yearly ridership, 1984–2023
But what’s driving these changes? To put the decline in ridership into context, let’s take a look back at the notable economic conditions of the past 20 or so years.
- Home prices peaked
- Home prices troughed with a total decline of 43.49% in value
- Unemployment: 8.3%
- Unleaded gas prices in Florida: $4.032/gallon
- Median Household Income for Pinellas County: $44,819
- Poverty Rate: 14.1%
- Auto Vehicle Sales (US): 14,433,200
- Home prices returned to prior peak
- Unemployment: 3.4%
- Unleaded gas prices in Florida: $2.834/gallon
- Median Household Income for Pinellas County: $52,226 (average annual inflation 2.84%)
- Poverty Rate: 11.7%
- Auto Vehicle Sales (US): 17,224,900
Compared to 2022:
- Unemployment: 2.1%
- Unleaded gas prices in Florida: $3.021/gallon
- Median Household Income for Pinellas County: $61,851 (average annual inflation 3.27%)
- Poverty Rate: 12.3% (2021)
- Auto Vehicle Sales (US): 13,750,000
Smack in the middle of The Great Recession, 2012 saw declining home prices, high unemployment, lower household income, higher poverty rates, and high gas prices. These factors likely contributed to a steady rise in PSTA ridership from 2009 to 2015, with 2015 being the highest ridership in PSTA’s history.
So, why has ridership declined since 2015? Well, by 2018, the economy had improved significantly with historically low unemployment rates, higher household income, lower poverty rates, and gas prices that were much easier to swallow.
With more money to spend on a personal vehicle since The Great Recession, people have gradually relied on public transit less and therefore, accounts for the steady decline from 2015 to 2019. And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, throwing every aspect of life into chaos and public transit was certainly not spared.
It’s important to note, however, that both PSTA’s ridership and national ridership are slowly but surely trending upward yet again. Between the slowly recovering post-COVID economy and environmental impacts becoming more prescient in people’s minds than ever, riders are rediscovering the value of public transit—for their own lives and for the environment.
PSTA Rider Basics
With the big picture stuff out of the way, let’s talk data! But don’t worry, this won’t turn into a statistics class. PSTA uses data from its On-Board Bus Survey to get an accurate picture of our current riders so we can anticipate their needs during service changes and to aid us in the development of new programs or routes.
These numbers are based on PSTA’s On-Board Bus Survey conducted on August 18th, 2023, with 6,431 respondents in total.
PSTA Riders by Time of Day
We were able to determine the percentage of riders throughout times of the day, as well as the amount of riders on the weekends.
Bar graph showing ridership by time of day
PSTA Riders by Age, Gender and Race
Let’s go over the basic demographics of our riders, specifically the distribution of ages, genders, and race.
Bar graph showing ridership by age
Pie chart showing ridership by gender
Bar graph showing ridership by race
PSTA Riders by Employment and Income
Public transit is often seen as a service mainly for those of lower income or unemployed. However, this is not the case for many transit authorities, including PSTA. Individuals of all types of employment and income levels rely on PSTA every day.
Bar graph showing ridership by employment
Bar graph showing ridership by income
PSTA Riders by Purpose
While discussions around ridership often focus heavily on commuters and students, PSTA riders take the bus for all manner of occasions. We were able to determine the percentage of riders who took the bus for 12 different purposes.
Bar graph showing ridership by purpose
PSTA Student Riders
Although school busing services try their best, some areas lack the bus routes needed to transport grade school students. In addition, college students without vehicles of their own rely on PSTA to leave campus for groceries, doctor’s appointments, and socializing.
Bar graph showing ridership by student type
Community Sentiment Survey Results
Between March 9, 2023, and April 4, 2023, PSTA conducted a Community Sentiment Survey in order to determine how the community associates PSTA with its intended mission and vision. The data collected will be used to guide future planning, track progress, organizational goals, and strategic planning.
The survey was held via telephone and involved 1,000 non-rider respondents aged 18 and older. Here’s the profile of the survey respondents:
Respondent Profile for the Community Sentiment Survey
Here’s what the community had to say!
Brand Awareness & Community Familiarity
Respondents were first asked how familiar they were with PSTA or Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority. Results indicate that 89% of respondents could recall Pinellas County’s transit organization by name, 9% could recall the name “PSTA,” and 90% could recall its name being “Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.”
Brand Awareness Results From the Community Sentiment Survey
Respondents who were familiar with PSTA were then asked if they had used PSTA and what they associated the organization with. Among those familiar with PSTA, 14% were unsure if they had used PSTA’s services, 37% answered “yes” to using PSTA, and 49% answered “no” to using PSTA.
When asked what things come to mind when thinking of PSTA, the top answers included:
- 51% said “bus company”
- 47% said “public transit”
- 44% said “Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority”
- 37% said “trolley services”
- 3% said a “general positive comment”
- 0.2% said a “general negative comment”
Community Familiarity Results From the Community Sentiment Survey
PSTA also asked respondents if they had heard of the many services, programs, and amenities offered by PSTA, and compared them to data from 2018 and 2019 in the graph below. Awareness of each listed program, service, and amenity has risen significantly since before the pandemic.
Community Familiarity Results for Programs, Services, and Amenities, From the Community Sentiment Survey
Community Sentiment & Perceived Value
Aside from understanding the level of awareness of PSTA and its services, the heart of this survey was to learn how the community feels about PSTA and how the agency serves the community.
Although the responses indicate mostly positive sentiments with the community, PSTA sees the opportunity for growth among these numbers. In a rapidly changing, post-pandemic world, we seek to keep the community engaged and educated on our essential services and our commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equality.
Community Sentiments Results From the Community Sentiment Survey
When asked if PSTA delivers value, the responses were positive and, in some cases, higher than in pre-pandemic years, as seen in the graph below.
PSTA Delivers Value Results From the Community Sentiment Survey
Funding & Future
In the final portion of the survey, respondents were asked about their sentiments on funding public transit through tax dollars, as well as whether PSTA is adequately funded. An overwhelming majority agree in their support that tax dollars should be used to improve public transit—95% of respondents, to be exact.
In terms of PSTA’s level of funding, there was a marked difference in the response from 2019 to 2023, with more people believing PSTA was adequately funded rather than underfunded.
Funding & Future Results From the Community Sentiment Survey
While community sentiment seems to shift to the view that PSTA is adequately funded, the fact remains that PSTA is the least funded transit agency in the state. Despite how efficient PSTA is with the funds it receives, lack of funding has long been at the heart of what holds PSTA back from expanding its services and programs to Pinellas County.
If you’re curious to know just how much funding PSTA actually receives, check out our Deep Drive: How PSTA is Funded and learn more about how property taxes fund PSTA by reading Deep Drive: How Your Property Taxes Move the County Forward.