Ridership rebounds for Chapel Hill Transit

A Chapel Hill Transit Vehicle. Ridership is climbing back to pre pandemic levels after dropping significantly in 2020. Photo courtesy Chapel Hill Transit.


By Gregory DL Morris

CHAPEL HILL — Chapel Hill Transit, one of the largest fare-free bus systems in the country, is at an inflection point.

As ridership rebounds from the COVID-19 pandemic, the communities it serves are growing in geography and density. The organization is in the process of reviewing its routes, frequencies, and hours of operation in an effort to keep service relevant and reliable.

Earlier this year the Washington D.C. city council approved a measure to make that city’s buses fare free starting in July. Kansas City buses dropped their fares in 2019, and is currently the largest such system in the U.S. There is a trend around the country toward fare-free intra-city buses arising from forgoing fares during the pandemic.

Chapel Hill ridership was fairly steady from 2013 through 2019 at between 6.3 and 6.9 million rides per year. At the low point of the pandemic readership fell  to 1.6 million passengers, and has since rebounded to 3.4 million in 2022.

“We anticipate continued growth,” said Caroline Dwyer, transit planning manager for CHT. “And we want growth. In some ways growth is easier for us as compared to systems that are funded out of the fare box. The towns pay a dedicated tax, and the university pays a fee, so we have an understanding of how much we can spend. As the university grows, and as the town property tax bases grow, our funding grows.” 

There are a few routes that specifically serve UNC, for which the university pays the whole cost. It also pays a portion of the overall operating budget.

Growth, and density in particular, have been hotly debated lately in town meetings and among many residents. What can be overlooked amid the arguments is that developers have to assess the transportation impact of the projects they plan. That includes transit as well as traffic and parking. Most developers are willing to collaborate with CHT as they do other town departments during the planning process.

Dwyer noted that CHT usually asks developers for one-time payments to cover the costs of providing service to new housing and business developments. “I’ve found that most developers are willing, even eager to work with us,” she said, “especially those that are building along the route of our proposed North-South Bus Rapid Transit Line.

If developments are planned for areas along existing routes, then the enhancements may be simply shelters at new stops, or an increase in frequency to accommodate more riders. If the development is in an area with low or no service, then providing service may involve extending or modifying routes.

Planning bus routes is as much of an art as it is a science.

“There is always a trade-off,” Dwyer said. “We balance high-frequency service on main corridors and for major destinations, with the need to serve as many people as possible.”

Beyond zoning and development, another fraught topic recently has been the shortage of drivers. Particularly hard hit have been the school-bus route operated by Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools.

Dwyer said that she is not aware of any formal collaboration between the school system, but CHT does help get older students to school.

“I know all of the high schools have access to a bus route, and we do try to align frequency with arrival and departure times. I would think high-school students are totally capable of riding a public bus, and middle-school students could travel as a group or with a parent. Just like a carpool but without the car.”

CHT has also been stretched by the shortage of drivers, and is actively recruiting for those positions among others.

At present the changes planned to CHT bus routes and frequencies are mostly tweaks to existing service. Larger changes are expected to coordinate with the BRT line once that begins service. CHT also coordinates with the other local bus systems: GoDurham, GoRaleigh, and the regional GoTriangle.

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