City leaders say they want to revamp the R-Line, Raleigh’s free downtown bus service, sometime in the next year.
Raleigh launched the R-Line in 2009 as an economic development tool to connect the busy Glenwood South neighborhood to the Raleigh Convention Center.
Ridership peaked in 2012 but has slowly fallen since then. City Council members and staff attribute the drop to the increasing popularity of on-demand dispatch services like Uber, as well as more dining and shopping options throughout all of downtown.
“You don’t have to go to the other end of town for amenities,” said Eric Lamb, Raleigh’s transportation planning manager.
With online services Uber and Lyft, he said, “you’re paying a premium, but you’re getting there quicker.”
The Raleigh City Council recently held a work session to discuss the R-Line’s future. Council members said they are excited about the possibilities – perhaps expanding service into Cameron Village and Seaboard Station on Peace Street, or creating a new route between downtown and N.C. State University.
But they want to wait until after this fall to make decisions. Wake voters in November will be asked to fund the Wake Transit Plan, an expanded transportation system separate and unrelated to the R-Line, through a half-cent sales tax referendum.
Along with commuter rail from Garner to RTP, the Wake Transit Plan is expected to bring expanded bus service countywide – including rapid bus lines that run along Wilmington Street, New Bern Avenue and Western Boulevard. But the exact routes won’t be determined until later, so Raleigh leaders want to wait and see what develops before making major R-Line adjustments.
“It’s better to look at the (bus) system as a whole,” Mayor Nancy McFarlane said.
Raleigh last year paid $923,700 to operate the R-Line, which had 197,000 riders and averaged about 825 boardings a day. The line runs in a loop: north on Wilmington Street, west on Peace Street, south mostly on Glenwood Avenue and Dawson Street and circling back to Wilmington after passing the convention center and Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts.
One of the R-Line’s biggest drawbacks is its slow speed in a relatively confined space. In some cases, a person can walk to his or her destination within the R-Line’s 3.6-mile loop faster than a bus can get there. The R-Line has two buses that are scheduled to arrive at each stop every 15 minutes.
“I’d like to look at a linear route, determine where there are the greatest service needs and either change or adjust the routes,” Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin said.
The City Council may also consider charging for R-Line rides. While the free rides provide for low travel costs and quick boardings, the city is missing out on potential revenue.
However, a 2014 on-board survey found that 34 percent of riders wouldn’t be willing to pay a $1 fare. Under that scenario, the city estimates it would recoup just 16 percent of operating costs.
Raleigh could extend the service into Seaboard Station and Cameron Village without expanding the R-Line’s budget. But bus wait times would likely increase to 20 minutes, according to staff.
The city would need to add a third bus to the line if it wants to extend service to Cameron Village and keep wait times at 15 minutes or less, Lamb said.
The city would also have to add buses if it added an R-Line route between downtown Raleigh and N.C. State, which would extend the 3.6-mile loop to 5.7 miles. The university’s WolfLine offers free service for students, but only to the corner of Morgan and West streets at night between Thursday and Saturday.
The extra cost of the service expansion is unclear.