Dial-A-Ride, Hillsdale’s public transportation service, suffered a 33% ridership loss in March 2020 after the COVID-19 pandemic and school closures.
Dial-A-Ride is funded mostly through ticketed fares. As a result of lost revenue, the bus service had to restructure its labor while implementing new cleaning and disinfecting protocols, according to Director of Public Services Jack Hammel.
“It affected us quite a bit because we saw a big decrease in our service, at least initially,” Hammel said. “A lot of that had to do with school closings. We provide a lot of rides for charter schools that don’t have bussing of their own.”
School children comprise a large portion of Dial-A-Ride riders. In January of last year, 786 of its 2,508 fares involved taking children to school, according to Susan Kehn, Dial-A-Ride’s dispatch supervisor. Though that number suffered initially, last month, Dial-A-Ride counted about 600 student fares as schools reopened.
The City of Hillsdale bought Dial-A-Ride in February 1975 from a private owner, Kehn said. She knows the program’s history because of her own long bout with the service. She joined the team as a driver in 1980 to make a little extra money.
As the dispatch supervisor, Kehn figures out how to run the buses most efficiently, saving the most miles and gas, while fielding calls and meeting everyone’s needs. The service drives anywhere in the city limits. On occasion, it makes longer trips for an increased fare.
Overall, Dial-A-Ride lost 35% of its riders compared to last January. Last month the service only provided 1,638 rides.
“We didn’t want our public transportation to become a superspreader on wheels,” Hammel said. “We started implementing a very regimented cleaning disinfection schedule. We also implemented personal protection equipment for our drivers and changed our methods for handling cash and tickets.”
When they call, Dial-A-Ride now asks its riders a series of questions to determine if they have or have been in contact with COVID-19. Some of the questions ask about symptoms and others ask if the individual knows they’ve been in contact with a sick person.
Hammel said he thought it was important to approach COVID-19 with caution because the program’s busses service lots of elderly who can’t drive on their own. In addition, Hammel said many residents who use Dial-A-Ride have health complications that put them in high-risk groups when it comes to COVID-19 infection.
Though the service’s ridership has plummeted, Kehn insists it doesn’t have financial problems. “There haven’t been any,” she said. “At this point, we keep on going like we always have.”
The buses operate mostly during normal business hours Monday through Friday, according to the City of Hillsdale’s website, and normally costs $3. It also offers half price discounts to children under 11 and residents over 60 years of age, which might explain its dependence on those demographic groups.
Since the city purchased Dial-A-Ride more than 40 years ago, little has changed about how it functions. Today, though, some officials are investigating a new county-wide public transportation model that would incorporate Dial-A-Ride.
“There’s been some things the city manager spoke about publicly,” Hammel said. “There is a group looking at creating a transportation authority within Hillsdale County. It’s in the infancy investigative stages right now.”
The investigation, he noted, involves Key Opportunities, a nonprofit located less than one mile from the college. Hammel stressed that, at this point, the efforts at the county level are purely exploratory and he doesn’t expect anything to change for at least two years.
“People are exploring it, though. It would include Dial-A-Ride,” he said.