Monica Chen's article in today's H-S repeats the wisdom being received from many media outlets, that buses and trains are getting busier throughout much of the Triangle, with the Triangle Transit intracity system getting a 30.2% boost in ridership year-over-year in June. Amtrak services have had an 11.7% increase to boot.
Yet DATA, Durham's city-run bus system, has seen ridership increase only a measly 5.4% in the first half of '08 vs. '07.
There are, of course, many possible reasons this could be so. For one thing, using a bus for, say, a 5-7 mile commute within the city of Durham is so much less convenient than driving a car the same distance. Such that for so-called "riders of choice" -- those who are able to afford to own and operate a car -- it's often just not compelling to use transit for short trips.
For the longer inter-city trips, like the Durham-to-Raleigh express route, the fastest-growing one in Triangle Transit's system, the much larger savings in pricey gasoline costs and the reduction in I-40 commuting stress are much greater, and more likely to draw riders of choice.
Which would explain the faster growth. If you can't afford to own a car and use the bus service daily anyway, you're already using the bus system and energy price-sensitive growth wouldn't be likely to occur.
But is it strictly Durham's geographic size that governs the impracticality of broad use and adoption of bus service? Chen suggests otherwise in her reporting:
And according to the hot and frustrated passengers waiting for DATA buses in the sweltering heat downtown Thursday afternoon, service has gotten worse.
Many commuters at the terminal in front of West Village said the wait is often 30-40 minutes, sometimes an hour. Buses don't come on time and drivers are often impatient, pulling away before everyone can get on.
"A lot of people with good jobs are now riding the bus. The gas prices are making them think of this now," said Willie Jackson, a disabled man who waited in the heat in a crisp white shirt and gray dress pants.
We haven't looked closely at DATA since last summer's daily-commuting series on the subject. But since then, I've come across the following intriguing data point, which dates back to 2005 service numbers from each of the major local bus systems:
(The missing row on this column is for vanpool service, which isn't included here but which factors into the overall service miles.)
The simple question that jumps off the page to me in this report is, do we have enough of a bus fleet to support our ridership -- which, as measured by the number of "annual passenger miles," makes Durham's bus service a larger effort than either Raleigh or Chapel Hill?
What this graph looks at is essentially the intensity of use of the capital assets Durham has for offering the bus service: the number of passenger miles of service delivered per bus. (One passenger mile means the service drove one passenger one mile; it's likely calculated by looking at ridership on routes relative to their length.)
And the numbers clearly show that from a bus perspective, Durham gets twice the utilization out of its bus equipment than our neighboring cities do.
Now, I have no way of knowing what the benchmark level is for how many passenger miles per bus are ideal. It could be the case that Raleigh and Chapel Hill just have too many buses and Durham's "on track."
Still, my gut instinct tells me this likely isn't the case.
DATA's plagued by a reputation for vehicle breakdowns and late buses -- both of which, putting an operational management hat on for a second, are classic signs of overstretched capacity. (That is, if you use any machine beyond its appropriate utilization level, you see large numbers of breakdowns.)
Bottom line: from a ridership level, Durham's DATA system is more popular than Raleigh's or Chapel Hill's. Yet we make do with fewer buses than either system.
One would be hard-pressed imagine a system that could improve in service quality -- or in increased route frequency -- at this level of funding.
Another intriguing question: though we have the smallest bus system of the three, we have the largest transit "demand response" fleet of the three systems. (In most communities, Demand Response refers to smaller buses used for paratransit and other special services.) 42 of these vehicles delivered 528,890 passenger miles in Durham in 2005, or an average of about 12,500 miles per vehicle.
Raleigh's CAT delivered 751,689 passenger miles of service, on the other hand, with just 18 vehicles -- almost 42,000 passenger miles per vehicle.
I don't have any easy answers to share on this. But it's data like these that should raise more questions than answers about the nature of Durham's bus service investment.