In front of the entrance to Duke University Hospital on Erwin Road, Lynn Brandon stood with her daughter late one afternoon, waiting for the bus after a long day of work at the hospital. Brandon has a car, but chooses to ride the bus for one simple reason: “Convenience.” She doesn’t have to worry about parking, and the No. 11 bus takes her straight home.
Darius Brown, another Durhamite waiting at the stop, was using the bus that day because his car was in the shop. “Otherwise, I’d never take the bus for any reason,” he said.
Durham transit officials would love to lure more riders like Brandon and Brown. According to results from the 2017 GoDurham passenger survey, 63 percent of GoDurham riders do not have vehicles in their household. By increasing the number of riders who could use their own cars, the city’s transit agency reduces the number of cars that need parking and other services.
“Of course we want to respect the people who are already riding our buses, but we also want ridership to be more diverse,” said Anne Phillips, who handles the city’s Transportation Demand Management program. “The cost of land in Durham is going up, and it’s more expensive to make parking lots and infrastructure for cars.”
One strategy: working with employers to provide incentives to employees to ride the bus more by offering benefits such as a discounted GoPass and educating people on how the GoDurham system operates throughout the city.
“We want commuters to not depend on their car, especially those who work downtown,” she said.
What’s the deal with Seattle?
It’s difficult to separate commuters and their cars, said Steven Polein,director of urban mobility research at the University of South Florida’s Center for Urban Transportation. In fact, car ownership has gone up in recent years and use of public transit has declined.
“Cars have become very affordable with interest rates, so a lot of transit people are leaving it and we’ve seen a pretty significant decline pretty much all across the country with very few exceptions,” he said. “Auto availability is at its highest level, and if people have a vehicle they’re dramatically less likely to use public transportation.”
Survey results show that 68 percent of bus riders use GoDurham to get to work, and 75 percent make less than $24,999 a year.
Polein said improvements to transit systems don’t necessarily get more people to ride. “Transit is doing what it can to stay in the game. A number of systems are making efforts to speed up bus service, increase frequency, or lower the number of stops, making them more attractive,” he said. “But the reality is, unless you have intense development (that drives up the cost of parking and congestion), it’s a challenging competition.”
Ride-share apps like Uber and Lyft have also captured the ridership of a “non-trivial share of folks” who would otherwise have used public transit, according to Polein. Environmental factors can play a factor as well: Some cities like Washington have systems with severe maintenance issues, while San Francisco has chronic problems with homelessness and unsanitary conditions that deter people from using the buses.
One city that has beaten the odds is Seattle, which enjoyed such an incredible jump in bus ridership between 2010 and 2014 that, according to CityLab, “at its peak in 2015 around 78,000 people, or about one in five Seattle workers, rode the bus to work.”
Seattle has an urban environment that’s perfect to encourage bus ridership, with very congested roads and not enough parking in many of its central downtown areas. The city also “implemented substantial increases in bus service as they planned long-term investments in light rail lines,” according to StreetsBlog USA. The Seattle Department of Transportation funded repairs for traffic-heavy routes and inefficient bus stops that had been causing problems.
Seattle voters showed they were willing to pitch in. In 2014, voters approved a measure that increased the sales tax and implemented a vehicle license fee in order to raise about $45 million annually for transit.
Providing more incentives
GoDurham wants more employers to provide workers with incentives to ride the bus.
Duke University is the largest GoPass provider in Durham. It offers a GoPass card to all its students for free, and “eligible faculty and staff” can buy one for $25. The card “is a free transit pass offered to employees and tenants by the employer… Tenants and employees ride for free for one year on all transit routes in the Triangle with any agency.” Other Durham employers that provide GoPasses include American Underground, Suntrust, the ad agency McKinney, and the City of Durham.
GoTriangle hosts the Golder Modes Awards each year in order to “recognize companies, organizations and people who best use their resources to influence Triangle employees and university students to pursue smart commuting options.”
Last year, one of the winners was Christi Turner, Facilities Operations Program Facilitator at Red Hat, a software development company, in downtown Raleigh. Red Hat provides GoPasses to its employees, as well as a bike-share program, and it also organizes R line events that encourage coworkers to get comfortable with riding the bus.
Another winner was the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, which got recognized for its “efforts toward improving air quality and reducing congestion in the Triangle region” using a tremendously successful bike share program that encouraged employees to take breaks and bike around the neighborhood.
But Polein is skeptical whether benefits like these actually encourage more people to ride. “Customers generally require a very high-quality level of service,” he said. “They want it to be speedy, safe, modern, convenient, and flexible, and even then, it may not be enough.”
Photo by Katie Nelson