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:
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:
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.