On Thursday, the Durham City Council will hear about a proposed revamp of Durham's bus system that might not include a free bus service like the Bull City Connector.
GoDurham, the agency that operates Durham buses, is reviewing its entire system as part of a five-year plan. It will present a recommendation drafted after two rounds of public input. While the recommendation fits within the city's budget for the system, its major service changes require council approval.
GoDurham says the proposal offers more frequent, direct, and simplified service, adding 9.3 miles of fifteen-minute all-day service. But it doesn't include a fare-free route, and getting across downtown would require changing buses at Durham Station.
For any GoDurham route to be fare-free, the city council will have to find more money to support it. In the past, the city has covered about two-thirds of the $1.1 million annual bill for the BCC, with Duke University contributing the other third. However, this fiscal year, the university cut its funding in half, to $175,000, after finding it could better serve students and faculty by operating its own shuttles between campus and downtown. And beginning this summer, the university will no longer fund the BCC at all.
Preserving and improving the BCC has been a sticking point since 2015, when several stops were eliminated (notably Durham Station, which had been the busiest stop on the line but also made it hard to keep a frequent, on-time schedule) and others were added near Duke. The Durham Human Relations Commission and SpiritHouse have pushed for the BCC—or something like it—to not only be maintained as a free service but also expand to serve more of east Durham and N.C. Central.
In 2015, 52 percent of BCC riders earned less than $15,000 per year, and 57 percent were African American. Most used the service to get to work or school, as well as appointments at the VA and Duke Hospital.
But BCC ridership is relatively low (numbers declined after the 2015 changes), and public input indicates that what most people like about the service is that it's free—not the route itself, says transit planner Mary Kate Morookian. In 2016, the BCC's average weekday ridership was 1,299, compared with 3,291 on the popular route 3.
"If a lot of people aren't riding it even though it's fare-free, that should be a flag to a planner that something is wrong with the routing and something is wrong with the service," Morookian says.
Not stopping at Durham Station makes it harder for BCC riders to transfer to other routes, Morookian adds. The proposal tries to address this by keeping BCC stops while splitting the route at Durham Station.
Under the proposal, three buses would serve the current BCC stops, stopping every fifteen minutes as opposed to every seventeen minutes now. Route 2 would use BCC stops from Durham Station to Alston Avenue before continuing on to Brier Creek. Route 12 would be tweaked to use the same BCC stops downtown, rather than traveling on N.C. 147 as it does now. Route 11 would use BCC stops from Duke and the VA hospital to Durham Station.
In developing their recommendation, GoDurham staffers were instructed to stay within the constraints of current funding. But at the request of the city, the agency is looking at what it would take to make the entire bus system free or offer some other fare-free service.
"We had to consider the resources for each and every route, and that includes the Bull City Connector," Morookian says. "We do not take it lightly that the Bull City Connector is fare-free. We know that's going to be an issue to some folks. If that's going to go away, we want to make sure the changes are of high value."
The draft proposal increases frequency overall, particularly for stops at Southpoint, a popular park-and-ride spot, and Brier Creek, where riders can connect to Raleigh routes. There would also be more frequent stops at N.C. Central during weekdays and more service from east Durham to RTP and Southpoint.
Some routes in east Durham would also be amended. Route 2B would be eliminated, and route 3C would be restructured to stop at The Village shopping center and travel along Taylor and Driver streets to the intersection of Angier and Alston avenues. There, riders can connect to expanded Route 12 options connecting downtown, Hillside High School, Southpoint, and RTP.
The proposal also adds "on-demand zones," where—if additional resources are allocated—taxi, Uber, or Lyft fares would be subsidized. Morookian says agreements would have to be reached with providers to ensure there would be enough drivers in the on-demand zones.
The proposal places one such zone over part of Northeast Central Durham, from Wellons Village to Southern High School, south to Sherron Road. Another on-demand zone would be served by GoDurham shuttles. The area, near RTP, was previously served by shuttles, so the carpooling service could use existing stops. A ten-year plan proposes additional on-demand zones.
Morookian says the drafting process will continue after Thursday; with an almost entirely new city council, it's possible the agency will come before the body again to answer questions. GoDurham will take more public input and conduct a required "disparate impacts analysis" to evaluate the effects of the changes on minority and low-income populations once route changes are firmed up.
"A lot of the passengers are concerned when these changes will take place," Morookian says. "I want people to understand we are doing outreach now to see if this is even something people would be OK with. But before we do anything, we would go out for another round of outreach, letting people know what's coming."
You can view the proposed changes by route and take a survey at GoDurhamTransit.org.