BCR's Daily Fishwrap Report for December 29, 2008
Rumor: Bean Trader's to open a coffee kiosk at Alivia's?

Still more analysis of Durham v. Chapel Hill on the transit fare-free front

We talked here a few weeks back about the proposal to take the DATA bus service fare-free, a long-desired item by the program's administration but one which has at times seemed to meet a wary eye on the City Council side of the budget ledger.

One of the big debates that erupted at that time was what impact going fare-free would have on the entire bus system -- especially in light of claims sometimes made about the drastic increase that such a change purportedly had on the Chapel Hill bus system some years ago, 43% by one Chapel Hill councilwoman's estimate.

H-S metro ace Ray Gronberg noted in the comments here the difficulty of teasing out how much of an impact the fare-free change itself had on total ridership, versus the presence of other changes simultaneously:

As for fare-free, the ridership increase is real but offers a whole lot more in the way of analytical complexity than the N&O story you quote makes out. First, simultaneous with the launch of fare-free, CHT also layered on a bunch of extra UNC-funded express service to the outlying park-and-ride lots. The people using those routes accounted for part of the ridership increase. Also, an unknown fraction of "new" riders were people who before the advent of fare-free were walking or riding bikes. Bottom line, only part of the immediate ridership increase was attributable to fare-free. The town's never really tried to tease out which part because DOT and the feds for purposes of capital funding don't really care -- all they look at is the bottom-line number.

Meanwhile, another BCR reader noted that Chapel Hill took at least an introductory look at the question, in a paper produced internally, a version of which has made its way to us here at Bull City Rising.

So: what do the data tell us about what's actually going on with fare-free service, and the impact it's had on our neighbor's streets?

The short answer: there's a lot more study needed to understand the impact that Chapel Hill saw, or what impact Durham might expect. But a comparison of DATA and Chapel Hill Transit data, using publicly available material at the National Transit Database, supports the argument that you cannot examine the impact of fare-free service without looking at transit expansion -- and that Chapel Hill and Durham seem to have different ridership and transit use characteristics.

First off: by what I'll soon note is the crudest of cuts (for reasons that should be clearer later), on a sheer passenger trips per-capita basis, Chapel Hill's system has seen phenomenal growth since the start of the decade. Note throughout this post that CH's fare-free program went into effect in the middle of what's reported as the 2002 year:


By this very coarse measure, Chapel Hill's system was already seeing a higher per-capita ridership than Durham's before the funding transformation ever began. To put these figures into perspective, if Durham or Chapel Hill were included in the list of the 100 largest cities in the U.S. for transit purposes, Chapel Hill's system in 2000 would have ranked with much bigger 'burbs like Atlanta, Las Vegas and Baltimore by this measure.

By 2007, Chapel Hill-Carrboro would rank as the sixth-busiest in the country by this measure, just behind Boston and ahead of Chicago. Durham, meanwhile, has been consistently sitting with cities like Albany, Buffalo, Tucson and Sacramento in terms of its transit utilization.

But, of course, this notion of trips per capita is a rather poor metric when you're looking at a town like Chapel Hill -- a place where there's a single dominant employer (UNC) that's structured its parking structure in a way as to strongly encourage the use of the bus system for daily "last mile" transportation from car to workplace.

Given that some of these CHT riders may be driving in from other cities (including Durham) and relying on bus service for that on-campus service, a better metric is in bus productivity, which measures ridership per hour of revenue service -- that is, the total number of hours that buses are on the road in an average day, a figure that grows as additional routes or buses are added.

By that picture, the two transit systems begin at a similar point of utilization in the early 2000s, with CHT seeing a fairly strong -- though less dramatic -- increase over the decade:


The national average by this measure in 2003 was about 34.5 passenger trips per revenue hour of service, according to the American Public Transportation Association's 2005 factbook -- suggesting that Chapel Hill's service has gone from matching Durham's just before fare-free service was implemented (at a below average level) to exceeding that service average, even as Durham has remained in the mid-to-high 20's.

Yet Chapel Hill also pares back its service significantly on weekends, especially Sundays, while Durham runs most routes just on reduced headways. This fits with a picture of different patterns of usage, suggesting that Chapel Hill's system is significantly oriented to work-a-day needs of commuters going primarily to and from UNC's campus, versus a DATA system that serves a more socioeconomically broad clientele for employment as well as shopping, entertainment and the like.

One way to approximate this is by looking at the average number of weekday passenger trips versus Saturday passenger trips for both services; each service reports these data to the Federal government annually.

In 2007, for instance, DATA sees an average of 15,973 weekday trips versus 9,184 Saturday trips, reflecting a weekend demand for transit that, from a ration perspective, has been relatively unchanged since 2000. Yet Chapel Hill Transit's service, already more focused on weekday transit than weekend service, skewed remarkably more towards Monday-to-Friday trip levels in recent years:


Put another way, eight years ago CHT was already much more significantly focused on weekday traffic, presumably commuter-oriented services focused on the university, than DATA, whose ratios suggest some combination of less commuter use and, more importantly, greater core use of buses for lifeline/critical transportation.

Further complicating a simplified analysis of the fare-free impact on ridership is the question of whether ridership increased solely in response to the pricing change, or to what extent increased service played a part.

Over the course of this eight-year period, Chapel Hill massively increased its total number of bus service hours, from 392.48 in Jan. 2001 to 620.73 in 2007 -- a 50% increase, corresponding with a 109% increase in ridership through 2006.

As the CHT report on fare-free service notes, that growth in ridership has not been evenly spaced across the period:

Ridership has increased every year since the fare-free system began in 2002, however the annual rate of increase has slowed.  The annual percent increase was roughly 25-30% in 2002 and 2003, 10-15% in 2004 and 2005, and slowed to 3.5% in 2006....

Of particular interest are these data, comparing the growth in ridership annually to the growth in total bus service in hours:


The CHT report also emphasizes improvements in headways (the time between buses) as well as expansion of service and routes as key factors in increasing ridership. As the chart shows, ridership grew at a fast pace after the introduction of fare-free service, but that change happened in conjunction with increased service/routes. Ridership has continued to grow since then, though at a slower pace.


So: What lessons could we take away from Chapel Hill on the possible impact of fare-free service on Durham's own service? First off, these are very limited data on which to draw conclusions; ultimately, this is a topic ripe for a significant level amount of additional study. As one reader has noted, it's necessary to look more fully at UNC's parking changes, if any, or population size changes to really suss out what impact fare-free has had in Chapel Hill. Still, a couple of thoughts jump to mind for me.

If there's two generalizations I am interested in entertaining more based on these data, they are the ideas that:

  • Chapel Hill's fare-free service's impact can only be considered in conjunction with its increasing service quality through lower headways and improved routes; and,
  • Significant growth in ridership is more likely to come from changes that improve the service's utility for commuters and other "riders of choice"

The data above -- particularly the weekday-to-weekend ridership figures, and the growth levels -- suggest to me that DATA already captures and serves a market of riders-by-necessity, those who use DATA because they cannot afford to drive, or cannot drive themselves.

It's really not clear whether growth would be seen in ridership in the absence of a concomitant increase in routes and service levels. Of course, fare-free service by itself is certainly be important to many from an economic/social justice perspective -- increasing ridership will not necessarily be the only metric of success to everyone. (In fact, some might note that DATA's current service characteristics, which suggest a greater relative use of transit for core transportation as opposed to weekday transportation, suggest heavy use by the disadvantaged, who would benefit by not paying a fare.)

To the extent that some may be interested in increasing transit utilization as a way of making Durham a greener community, though, or in encouraging denser, more transit-oriented development, the real key to growth in usage is likely to come through increasing the utility of DATA service in serving employment centers, and in providing more frequent service.

At the same time, I can't help but come back to Durham's relatively lower use of transit, on a passenger trips per service hour basis, than the national average. To the extent that measures to increase routes and frequency improve utilization of the service by new transit riders, it also makes a better overall DATA service for all Durhamites.

To this end, I'm intrigued by data from the US DOT made in its 2004 report "Status of the Nation's Highways, Bridges, and Transit"--

The operational performance of transit affects its attractiveness as a means of transportation. People will be more inclined to use transit that is frequent and reliable, travels more rapidly, has adequate seating capacity, and is not too crowded....

The NHTS found that 49 percent of all passengers who ride transit wait 5 minutes or less and 75 percent wait 10 minutes or less. Nine percent of all passengers wait more than 20 minutes. The relationship between the time spent waiting and frequency of service is not clear. Waiting times of 5 minutes or less are clearly associated with good service that is either frequent or reliably provided according to a schedule. Waiting times of 20 minutes or more indicates that service is likely both infrequent and unreliable. Waiting times of 5 to 10 minutes are most likely consistent with adequate levels of service that are both reasonably frequent and reliable....

Passengers from households with annual incomes of $30,000 or more have a greater chance of waiting 5 minutes or less than passengers from households with incomes of less than $30,000. Passengers from households with incomes of $65,000 or more have an increased chance of waiting 6 to 10 minutes rather than more than 10 minutes (Exhibit 4-17). Higher-income passengers are more likely to be choice riders and choose to ride transit only if the service is frequent and reliable. In contrast, passengers with lower incomes are more likely to use transit for basic mobility, have more limited alternative means of travel, and therefore, to use transit even when the service is not as frequent or reliable as they may prefer.

In short, the question that an economic justice argument over service quality has to wrestle with is: if there's truly a trade-off between fare-free service and routes/headways -- and it's not clear this is at all the case, as I address below -- are disadvantaged Durhamites better served by a free, low-to-medium quality service (headways are currently 30-minutes-plus in the Bull City), or by a higher quality service that continues to charge a fare?

A separate but related part of improving service comes back to a central point BCR reader Erik made on the earlier post: the importance of serving major employment centers in driving traffic. DATA provides some routes that serve Duke, for instance, but almost all such riders pass through downtown, versus direct runs to the largest employment center in the County.

Same with RTP, for which Durham riders generally rely on Triangle Transit. (Interestingly, and positively, a number of the new routes proposed in the short-range plan match this, with service directly from outlying parts of Durham to Duke's campus.)


Of course, as noted above, the goal of improved headways and routes is by no means necessarily at odds with fare-free service. Still, a worry expressed by some upon the earlier mention of fare-free service was the possible crowding-out that fare-free service -- and the accompanying loss of local revenue -- could have on increasing service and headways.

Ultimately, it comes down to the willingness of the City's elected officials, particularly in tough economic times, to determine whether all the priorities -- fare-free as well as improved service -- can be met.

To this observer, this is the critical question. If it's not possible to go fare-free while still managing to add routes and decrease the waiting time for buses, it takes away some (but not all) of the interest I'd have in fare-free service.

Of course, the current DATA short-range wishlist calls for doing all of these things; assuming that the funding is available, it'd be great to see fare-free included with the other efforts.

But while we don't know this for certain, there's plenty of anecdotal evidence from the Chapel Hill experience that fare-free alone may not increase transit usage; increasing routes and headways seems to be part and parcel of the overall improvement picture.


Michael Bacon

Excellent analysis, Kevin. For me, the number 1 priority, above circulators, fare free service, and express buses, is increased frequency of service. I don't think Durham's central hub model is necessarily bad, but as long as buses are once every 30 minutes, it's just not good service.

If fare free service makes this politically more palatable or makes us more eligible for federal grants, I'm fine with that. But ultimately, $65/month, which is what an unlimited bus pass roughly costs, is a pretty minor charge, and is much less onerous than the burden of dealing with dysfunctionally sparse transit schedules.

Frank Hyman

Clearly it's going to take more frequent service to get choice riders on board--and that means more money from the feds or state or city. I wouldn't mind seeing that funding coming from a higher gas tax myself--talk about a green economy.

There's also a lot of virtue in eliminating the fare, if we can do it and expand service as Chapel Hill managed to do. A big difference is that CH gets a big chunk of change from the students fees and from the state (because of the students). Duke and NCCU don't have quite as many students as UNCCH,(can someone tally the # of grads and undergrads for each?) but seems like the right sort of campaigns could chisel loose some $ from those areas.

Finally, at $65 a month for an unlimited monthly pass, you're looking at almost $800 a year in savings if we went totally fare-free (seniors and perhaps some others are fare-free now). For someone without a car and working full time and earning less than our living wage of about $20k/yr. that's a major, major savings. Interesting to think about the possible results if bus riders ever got organized and started lobbying the city council, Duke and the state for more service and free fares.....

Frank Hyman


Duke (6250 UG, 6850 G) + NCCU (8400) = 21, 500
UNCCH (17650 UG, 8200 G) = 25,850

I don't have numbers for total employment of the unis, only faculty numbers. People say the Duke Med has 30K employees, though. That is a huge number of commuters that gets bigger every year.

Interesting to note, however, is that Duke requires students to live on campus for the first three years (some juniors get exceptions). This means that a most undergrads are taking Duke Transit all day (and on the weekends thanks to their drunk bus). Duke started up a new bus route this year that goes down LaSalle and hits the Research Drive area. This is getting heavy use with grad students, but it also has 30 minute headways. I know I wouldn't want to wait 30 minutes if I missed the bus by a few minutes (I'm lucky enough to be within walking distance from my job).

I still am holding out hope for 15 minute headways in addition to fare free, and more bus shelters that actually have sidewalk connectivity. We'll see...


a monthly pass in San Francisco is $45; $35 for low income; and $10 for seniors over 64 and youth 17 and under.

In Philly, a monthly pass is $78, although that may not be comparable since there is more overlap between transit and commuter rail there. (The SF pass does not include the BART, for example, while SEPTA in Philly includes some commuter lines in addition to the in-town bus and trolley system.) Discounts are available for many demographic groups like seniors and students.

In Phoenix, a monthly pas is $45 for local routes, and $68 if you want access to the express routes, with a half off discount offered for seniors, youth, and the disabled on the local route.

Another point that is hardly ever considered by DATA is the impact of their system of people who don't use the bus. Bust stops that lack the most basic amenities, such as benches and trash cans, end up looking like dumps. People who live near them hate them, and can't understand why their tax dollars should support a service that they will never use. DATA needs to increase the number of people who have a stake in a good transit system in Durham if they want to accomplish their goals. Making the system fare-free is simply not the necessary first step in doing that.

Not saying it's a bad idea, mind, but that upgrading bus stops and increasing service to 10 minutes during commute hours and 15 minutes most other times should be a much higher priority.

Michael Bacon

Barry: 10 on peak and 20 off peak would be plenty, I think.

Frank: $65/month isn't chump change, but it's also less than your average driver is going to pay for gas, much less car payments, insurance, and maintenance. If the choice is between the current system for free and $65 for a system with better head times and bus stops, I say the better system is a far more progressive option. (Something I wish Paul Luebke understood better.)


Wow, this is a very impressive analysis Kevin. Since we first discussed this issue a couple weeks ago, I've been looking at a lot of research out there on the effects of fare-free systems and they really echo the main point that you make: The best way to improve productivity and attract all types of riders to a transit system is to improve service quality, not the fare structure.

I think what most people don't realize about what Chapel Hill/Carrboro/UNC did is that they incorporated what my professor used to call "an integrated suite of solutions". Going fare free was only one component of the overall improvement of transit.

As you and Ray note well, they added quite a bit of service and improved the service that already existed. But perhaps as or more importantly, they actually reduced the amount of parking on campus when they constructed new buildings on south campus and greatly increased the cost of the parking that remained. And the most underrated thing they did was adding a number of Transportation Demand Management (TDM) measures such as offering the GoPass so any student, staff, or faculty can ride Triangle Transit for free.

Quite frankly, I just don't see any or all of those things happening in Durham anytime soon unless there is a major shift in philosophy. Who is going to pay the enormous investment to go fare free and add the required extra service? Duke? They already have a fare free system and are served by only two routes on DATA. NCCU? Too small. That leaves the City of Durham, who haven't approved any service increases that didn't have a federal grant attached to it in a LONG time.

And all the other stuff? Restricted parking...ha! Talk about a needed change in philosophy.

On the bright side, some TDM efforts are finally starting to get through. Duke started offering reduced-price transit passes this past fall, which was a big (and extremely underrated) thing, but they are not to the point of offering free passes like UNC and NC State have done for years. I know that some civic institutions in Durham are considering offering more transit subsidies as well.

But these types of measures are very much in their infancy...I just don't see any of the major players in Durham being ready to support a fare-free system anytime soon. And honestly, I'm not sure it would be a good thing for Durham. Most of the places around the US that tried going fare-free as a trial gave up almost immediately because they could not financially support the increased demand and service quality actually dropped SHARPLY. People tend to not value things that are free.

Finally, I hope the City puts a larger emphasis on the need for Durham to not only add service to the major employment centers and increase the frequency of some routes, but also on making routes MORE DIRECT and MORE TIME-COMPETITIVE with automobiles.

Triangle Transit's most successful routes recently have been their express routes. The route from Durham to Raleigh only ran once an hour and the buses were so full, they had to add an extra trip in the morning and afternoon. Service once an hour, by anyone's measure, is not very good service. Yet it was more productive than anything else in the system because it was time-competitive with the auto and it hits the major employment centers in Raleigh (NC State and downtown).

I urge everyone to look at a system map of Chapel Hill Transit and a system map of DATA. Not knowing the fares, the transit-friendliness of the destinations, the parking situation, the frequency, or anything else, what do you notice? Chapel Hill Transit provides MUCH more direct trips to campus than DATA does to downtown. Follow the path from Sedwick Road in South Durham to downtown on Route 7. How about Front St to downtown on Route 1? By the way, this is not a knock on DATA planners - they inherited this system and have made repeated efforts to improve it only to be shot down time and again by City Council.

I just think time-competitiveness has not been focused on as much as it should in these discussions. To me, it's just as important as directly serving the high employment centers and increased frequency. And it's way above fare-free.


Just a point of clarification: the 30 day DATA pass costs $36, while $64 gets you a 30 day regional pass, good on DATA, TTA, CAT, and OPT. I'm not sure it makes a difference in the debate over fare-free, but I thought I'd throw it out there.

I'm also curious: how many of those who have been participating in the discussion of the transit issues actually use the bus on a regular basis? I can tell that some of you do, but I wonder how much others' opinions might change if they rode the bus. (And for the record, I ride TTA to work several days a week, DATA a handful of times a month. I'm hoping to use DATA more once the new transit center opens and makes TTA connections easier.)

Kevin and all commenters, thanks for the continued discussion and information, and I look forward to hearing more.


Wow, the lefty shtick around here is stultifying. You can badmouth Paul Luebke all you want, but the bottom line is that this is a moral issue -- fare free service helps the poor, plain and simple. It's why I proposed it in my campaign for NC Senate.

Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. And if you think I'm being harsh, wait until Dr. Allison weighs in on this topic.



Way to oversimplify the issue (you really should be a politician). I've never read anything on these comments stating that fare free would be a bad thing.

The point that I think many of us were coming to was that making DATA fare free BY ITSELF might actually make the system WORSE, not better. And that's for everyone, the rich, the poor, and everyone in between.

When you made fare free service part of your campaign, did you also propose adding extra service to routes that would likely overcrowd when fares were stripped away? All of the research and practice shows that you have to take several other measures to improve service along with making it fare free.

The things I am pushing for: routes to major employment centers other than downtown, more direct routes throughout the system, and higher frequencies along high-use routes, would benefit EVERYONE. If you spend all new money on transit just recovering the lost revenue, those other improvements become much harder to make.

And if you really want to be a politician, you should know that you have to get buy-in from a majority of taxpayers to get something passed (prepared food tax, anyone?). If you make improvements to the transit system that helps more people use it more often from ALL demographics, more people will buy into making the system fare free.

Frank Hyman

@ Erik,

I have a question for ya, offline. Pleasee shoot me an email at fincaminor@mindspring.com. thanks Frank Hyman


No, I get your point that going fare-free by itself will make things worse. I simply disagree with you.

One the most important purposes of government is to ensure equal treatment under the law, regardless of your income level. This means looking out for the poor who have a hard time affording a bus pass, even if means that more "middle class" riders are crowded together.

I'm not opposed to all of the other things you suggest: expanding routes, changing development policies, reducing headways, etc. I'm just saying that as a political strategy you should keep your "eyes on the prize", and don't let your insistence on all of these wonderful improvements stand in the way of helping the most disadvantaged among us.

BTW, I was proud to be one of the folks responsible for defeating the food tax (along with Dr. Allison and Paul Luebke).


I guess you'll need to define what the "prize" is that I should be keeping my eyes on. For you, it seems to be free transit service. For me, it's improved transit service. And the research shows that those two things are not necessarily the same thing.

The comments to this entry are closed.