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BIG CITY: Get on the bus

By Kirk Ross

I’ve been downtown a lot this past week, doing some temp work on campus and spending my lunch hour exploring a bit and enjoying the bus system.

Chapel Hill Transit has almost 100 buses in its fleet – ranging from vintage clunkers that are miraculously still on the road after years of heavy use to the newer hybrid articulated giants that travel between the two major public park-and-ride lots on the north and south sides of the greater Chapel Hill-Carrboro metro area.

To ride each and every one of these buses you will have to pay a fare of exactly zero dollars. The decision to go fare-free in January 2002 was the best public-policy decision I ever covered as a beat reporter.

Driven by the success of the free U route through campus and the UNC student body’s willingness to pay higher student fees to see free happen all over town, the decision was not a slam dunk.

It was an expensive prospect, and each town, the university and those blessed young people had to pony up real money. It very likely would not have happened during these times of fiscal constraint.

There was concern at the time that the loss of revenue would mean the system could not expand and adequate funds for maintaining the fleet and building better stops would always be lacking as a result.

Not long prior to the decision, I interviewed every member of the Chapel Hill Town Council and can tell you that the votes were iffy and the council was persuadable to scrap the idea. Public-transit enthusiasts – and there are many of them in our community – were split on the idea. A lot of people, including those who had to make the decision, just had no idea what would happen. The estimate at the time was that ridership would increase by 15 to 20 percent, but really no one knew how it would go down.

I got quizzed myself while interviewing council members, and did something I rarely did back in the days when I was a reporter and not an opinion writer – I shared how I felt about a pending decision, repeating several times these three words on the subject: “People understand free.”

I was among the many folks who had a gut feeling that the estimates were wrong and that fare-free would become extremely popular. Having run a business in downtown Chapel Hill and lived on its outskirts long enough to know what a hassle it was to park, pay for parking and even just get to work in one’s own vehicle, I felt there were a lot of people who would get on the bus if it was a true alternative.

At the time of the fare-free decision, the university was planning a massive expansion of the main campus. Without better, more widely used public transit, the expansion would have exacerbated an already bad situation. Without the use of buses and a network of park-and-ride lots to cull the number of cars headed to town, the millions of square feet of renovation and new construction didn’t work. The traffic counts spelled disaster. College towns are unique; their transit systems don’t just need to get people to work in the morning and home at night, they have to function all day long and well into the evening. People have to get to class, the lab and so on at all different hours.

The system we have isn’t perfect. We need more stops with shelters, and the shelters we have could use some repair and sprucing up. But there’s no doubt that the decision to go to fare-free was the right call.

Within a short time, the ridership numbers blew past those estimates of a 15 to 20 percent increase. People didn’t just understand free, they loved it.

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