With gasoline hovering around $4 a gallon, it's no surprise public transportation ridership is on an upward trend.
Among Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority's HARTFlex lines, the recently added Northdale route consistently is posting the biggest numbers, accounting for about half the total ridership in the county's five zones.
Flex, which is essentially an on-demand, curbside van service, is more efficient for HART and riders than traditional buses, said transit authority spokeswoman Marcia Mejia.
Since July 11, when HARTFlex was expanded from two to five zones – including Northdale and Town 'N Country - ridership has increased, following the trend for the conventional bus service.
HART reported bus ridership for 2011 was almost 14 million, an 11 percent jump from the previous year.
The Northdale route debuted with 2,250 riders for July, followed by nearly 3,800 for August, its first full month of operation, HART figures show. The route hit its eight-month peak in October, carrying 4,500 riders, a mark nearly equaled in November.
"Within the first couple of months we added some fleet to that HARTFlex zone to better meet the demand there, because it was taking off so well," Mejia said.
The popular Northdale route runs between St. Joseph's Hospital North, on Van Dyke Road; to Fletcher Avenue at Dale Mabry Highway. At that southern terminus of the Northdale Flex route, riders can transfer to HART Route 36, which continues along Dale Mabry/Himes Avenue to MacDill Air Force Base, or to east-west Route 33, ending at the University Area Transit Center.
Northdale Flex replaced the northern stretch of Route 36. Additionally, the route that previously had traveled only as far north as Lakeview Drive was extended to the hospital, 4211 Van Dyke Road, Lutz.
"The reason that was important is because that hospital is rather new and we wanted to serve the employees in that area, including the hospital," opened in 2010, Mejia said.
"It's easier for us to maneuver a van in the suburbs, whereas a bus works more efficiently in the urban core," Mejia said. "It's easier to bring a van onto St. Joseph's property without having to install the infrastructure for a bus."
Out of necessity, Carrollwood resident Frank Morales became a Northdale Flex passenger months ago. "My car isn't working right now," he said, citing a $2,000 transmission repair he is pondering.
In the meantime, the bus stop is a five-minute walk from his Swan Lake apartment near Gaither High School, and the commute to his convenience store job on Fletcher Avenue at Rome takes about 30 minutes, he said. The one-way ride, including transfer to a HART bus, costs $3.75.
A one-way trip within the Flex district costs only 85 cents, or $1.85 for a card, sold aboard the van, good for all-day Flex use.
Morales works days, so the public transportation schedule suits his needs.
But Flex operating times, which vary by route, are too limited for some other people.
Kathy Holmes, a HART customer for four years, lives a short walk from her job. She doesn't rely on public transportation to commute. Still, she finds the cutoff time of Saturday Flex service – like 6:30 p.m. for Northdale – too restrictive. "I'd like to move, but I'm limited to where I can move," she said, citing her dependence upon public transit.
"Also, it should be more frequent; and that's a complaint for all public transit," she said as she rode the Northdale Flex to her weekly appointment at Jenny Craig Weight Loss Center on North Dale Mabry.
"We need more transit," she said. "There's going to be more people coming to the system; everybody's feeling the pinch" of skyrocketing gas prices, she said.
HART's spokeswoman said Holmes' observation has merit.
"Our ridership has been going up month to month for more than two years now," Mejia said. "When gas prices go up, we certainly gain new customers. And a lot of times they stay on with us. That's' what happened in 2008, when gas prices went up then."
HART's total ridership of nearly 1.3 million last month represents a 5 percent increase – more than 60,000 trips – from March 2011, figures released last week show. To date, ridership for the fiscal year that began in October is up nearly 7 percent over the same 2010 period.
Flex curbside service is provided via a telephone reservation, but also offers the flexibility of a traditional bus route, with walk-up service at all HART stops along the designated Flex route.
Each 16-passenger Flex van has a rack that carries two bicycles, and a lift and accommodations for wheelchairs. "Some folks might think it's just for persons with disabilities, but HARTFlex can be used by everyone," Mejia points out.
"It's really a win-win," she said of the much smaller vehicle, able to serve some stops that cannot easily accommodate a full-size bus. "We get better gas mileage and it's easier to maneuver. And it's a win for the customer, too, because they pay less and they have that on-call feature."
For information, including bus and Flex schedules and route maps, visit www.gohart.org or call the HARTinfo line, (813) 254-4278.