More people rode the Red Rabbit this year than ever before, making Hall Area Transit one of the fastest-growing bus systems in the country.
According to the American Public Transportation Association transit ridership report, the number of people riding the Red Rabbit grew more than 47 percent during the first three months of 2008, compared to the same period last year.
The average growth in customers for a city in the same size range as Gainesville was less than 8 percent.
The report is based on how many "trips," or single routes, not including transfers, are taken per month.
From January to March 2007, Hall Area Transit made 13,200 trips. From January to March 2008, it made 19,500.
Janice Crow, the general manager of Hall Area Transit, said she thought the high number of new riders was due to both publicity and higher gas prices.
One bus trip costs $1, only 50 cents for senior citizens and students. With gas at $4 or more a gallon, riding the bus has become economical.
"I think fuel prices (were) sort of the straw," Crow said. "I think more and more people were hearing about us over the past year. And then come January when those fuel prices spiked, the folks who had heard about us ... started riding."
Crow said because it is a fairly new system, such a big change was impressive, but not outrageous. Ridership increased by 30 percent from 2004-07.
"We were already having really good increases. We’re a new system. We’re growing, we’re catching on," she said.
Expanding bus service in some capacity is likely within the next few years. Hall Area Transit is funded by both Gainesville and Hall County, so depending on how much money the governments can provide, new buses and extended routes could be possible.
"We’ll just have to see how things go with the budget. We’ll implement as best we can as we go," Crow said.
Community Service Center Director Phillippa Lewis Moss said she hopes more people continue using Red Rabbit buses so elected officials will see a high demand for services.
"Use it, and they will build it. That’s the philosophy," she said.
She said some improvements, like extending bus routes, will likely begin in spring 2009.
Driver Litisha Lawrence said though she hasn’t noticed an extreme spike in ridership, she feels the bus routes should extend farther than they do.
"People need this," she said.
Another driver, Ed Heaton, said he also noticed that the number of Hispanic riders has increased significantly over the last two months or so.
"We made a concerted effort to reach out to the Hispanic community," Crow said.
She said there is no way to measure if the increase is related to the enforcement of 287(g) — a local-federal partnership that gives law officers the authority to begin deportation proceedings for anyone brought to the county jail and determined to be in the country illegally. This has led to more immigrants using public transportation to reduce the chance of being caught without a valid Georgia driver’s license.
However, most people agree that it’s simply more economical these days to take the bus.
Curley Merriwether, a cook, said he started riding the bus because it was cheaper than driving, and he is able to get to most places he needs to go riding the bus.
Children also have an incentive to ride the Red Rabbit this summer.
To encourage them to read over the summer, Hall County librarians will give kids a sticker to put on their library cards that will allow them and a guardian to ride the Red Rabbit to the library free until Aug. 31.
"This is such a positive thing for the children in the community, and I hope they take advantage of it," said Gail Hogan, a library assistant with Hall County libraries.