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December 29, 2008


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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 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.

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