Phoenix-area circulator bus routes expand – Small, local bus routes connect neighborhoods to other transit

by David Madrid – Jul. 26, 2012 10:32 PM
The Republic |

Buses with quirky names like Zoom, Buzz, Orbit and Alex have become a critical piece of the Valley’s transit puzzle.

Neighborhood circulators — these small buses with unique names — offer localized service designed for specific purposes in their cities. They carry fewer people, are inexpensive and are more user-friendly than the larger traditional buses, officials say.

And in some southwest Valley cities, they now play a much more important role. Avondale’s Zoom circulator has been used to replace inefficient bus service and to fill gaps left by state budget cuts and falling county transportation revenue.

On Monday, Tolleson — which lost two of its four routes because of budget cuts — joined the Zoom to beef up its bus service. Avondale also now makes a stop in Goodyear at the Southwest Valley Family YMCA.

There are about 20 neighborhood circulators in the Valley, including Scottsdale’s trolley system. In addition to the Zoom, there are Mesa’s Buzz, Tempe’s Orbit and Flash, Glendale’s Gus and Phoenix’s Mary, Alex, Dash and Smart.

These buses help expose new riders to mass transit, said Susan Tierney, a spokeswoman for Valley Metro.

“They really get into the neighborhoods where the people live and the destinations that they go to, and it can expose them to transit service,” she said, “especially for those people who have never ridden or have never been exposed to transit service before.”


With 30-minute service between stops, the ridership on the Zoom has increased 62 percent since it began a year ago to more than 400 boardings a day.

That includes riders like Tolleson resident Maryann Rocha, 50.

Her daughter, Jasmyne Ramirez, a 16-year-old student enrolled in summer programs at Estrella Mountain Community College, can now walk down the street to catch the Zoom near City Hall instead of catching it more than a mile away in Avondale.

“That’s the only way she has to get there,” Rocha said.

Jodi Sorrell, Mesa interim transit services director, said the city’s Buzz was developed to make traditional bus routes more efficient.

“If you go back to 2008, we had like a spaghetti of service in the downtown area, and our buses were moving in all sorts of crazy ways downtown,” Sorrell said. “We wanted to streamline that to make it more effective for our fixed-route riders so they could get to their destinations in a more timely fashion.”

Both Mesa’s and Avondale’s buses are owned and operated by Valley Metro, the Valley’s regional transit system.

Other neighborhood circulator systems in the Valley are owned by the cities that operate them.

Paying for service

All the circulators are free to ride except for Avondale’s Zoom, which costs 50 cents, and Gus, which costs a quarter.

Traditionally, public transit is heavily subsidized and the fare doesn’t fully cover the cost to operate the service.

The more buses that a city operates, the more expensive it is to maintain the system.

In Tempe, voters approved a half-cent sales tax, part of which is dedicated to its circulator system, said Sue Taaffe, Tempe’s transportation spokeswoman.

Tempe has its Orbit routes and provides Arizona State University with its Flash routes.

“It is something that our residents wanted, and it is a qualify of life issue, in that it helps get people into a fixed-route or light-rail system, so we’ve had very successful ridership on the Orbit,” Taaffe said.

Tempe owns nine Flash buses with seven in service and two spares.

The cost to operate the five Orbit routes is $9 million annually. The cost to operate the Flash system is $790,000 annually, which is paid by ASU.

In comparison, Avondale’s cost is $500,000 a year and a federal grant matches that.

Tolleson will pay $122,500 for the Zoom service, while a federal grant adds $120,500. The Zoom operates five buses and has one spare.

As cities struggle to fund transit, it has posed challenges for the circulators and for overall bus service.

In Phoenix, Alex serves Ahwatukee Foothills; Mary serves Maryvale; the Dash loops from downtown to the state Capitol and Smart serves Sunnyslope.

“We put them (circulators) in the neighborhoods where the big buses can’t go,” said Marie Chapple, a spokeswoman for the Phoenix Public Transit Department.

Because the struggling economy has hurt tax revenue, it can be difficult to provide enough funding to keep the circulators operating every 30 minutes.

In transit circles, the magic number between stops appears to be 30 minutes. When cities lengthen out those stop intervals, ridership falls.

Without adequate funding, stops are eliminated, pick-up times are changed, and frequency suffers.

Chapple said Phoenix, which has a .4 percent sales tax devoted to transit, reduced overall circulator service by 58 percent and saw a drop in riders. However, those rider numbers are beginning to grow again, as people have readjusted to route changes, she said.

Tempe has also adjusted routes because of the drop in sales-tax revenue.

People are more comfortable boarding the smaller buses in their neighborhoods than the bigger buses, Tierney said.

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