RIPTA free ride program a big hit so far

By
Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Brown students know a deal when they see one – and they have recognized the bargain of free RIPTA rides in record numbers.

Students, faculty and staff have taken advantage of the U-PASS program, which lets them ride on RIPTA buses for free, in huge numbers, according to Director of Business and Financial Services Elizabeth Gentry.

“I think it’s been wildly successful,” Gentry said. “It’s been really popular with the students.”

When Brown’s participation in the U-PASS program was altered this semester to make RIPTA completely free, student use increased by 227 percent, while faculty use increased by about 2 percent, Gentry said.

In the month of October, RIPTA recorded 26,671 rides made by 2,975 unique Brown community members, compared with 22,797 rides by 2,983 riders in September.

Prior to this semester, Brown sold half-price RIPTA fares to faculty, students and staff. In September 2006, just 825 discounted tickets were purchased, and in October 2006, 678 were purchased.

RIPTA is able to track Brown riders using its new electronic fareboxes, through which Brown ID holders swipe their ID cards to pay their fares. RIPTA then bills Brown each month based on the number of riders. Brown also updates RIPTA each month with a list of valid ID cards, which stops lost or expired cards from being used.

Based on these early numbers, Brown is on track to pay RIPTA between $150,000 and $200,000 annually, which matches the original cost estimate, Gentry said. Brown pays RIPTA per ride on a sliding scale that decreases the cost per ride as ridership increases.

Brown receives a monthly report from RIPTA on U-PASS usage. That report breaks the usage down into categories – student, faculty, staff or other – and provides some basic statistics, such as the highest number of rides in a month on a single ID card. That number stands at 138, although Gentry warned that the figure includes each leg of trips that involved transfers between routes.

Brown was the first school in the U-PASS program to integrate its ID card with the new electronic fareboxes, according to Gentry. It has since been joined by the Rhode Island School of Design, Gibbs College and Roger Williams University, said RIPTA planning manager Tim McCormick.

Brown has also worked with RIPTA to run special buses directly from the Thayer Street stop to Barrington, where about 240 faculty and staff reside, according to McCormick. There is one trip each morning and evening, which eliminates the need to transfer at Kennedy Plaza to reach campus. Gentry said the transfer was “one of the biggest detriments” to RIPTA use.

About 12 Brown employees currently use the special Barrington bus, McCormick said. A second dedicated bus will be added in January to facilitate the switch to Brown employees’ summer schedule, he added. Gentry said the University is considering adding even more dedicated buses in future, though the University has waited for more data to analyze which other routes are the most popular among Brown affiliates.

RIPTA also modified the Thayer Street entrance to the College Hill bus tunnel to facilitate increased Brown traffic by moving walls on either side of the portal back by 14 feet to allow buses to pick up passengers without stopping in the middle of Thayer Street, according to McCormick. The location had previously been one of the worst in the state for RIPTA accidents, he said.

Gentry and McCormick indicated that it is still too early to see any definite trends. “We really haven’t had a full year to be able to tell,” Gentry said. “More and more people are probably still giving (riding the bus) a second thought,” she added, citing rising gas prices and the parking crunch on College Hill as motivating factors.

Gentry also said the U-PASS program is just “one piece of the puzzle” of trying to reduce parking congestion on College Hill and that it is not possible to measure the distinct impact of the program. “It’s really hard to get people to give up their cars,” she said.

“We’re kind of experimenting with this,” McCormick said. “Two to three months is a really short time to assess the value of a relationship like this. It really takes a little bit of time to understand the movement of people.” He also said it might take time before people stop driving to campus and take the bus instead. “People don’t just throw their keys into the gutter and take the bus,” he added.

McCormick said Brown’s ridership statistics are “a little bit stronger than we expected,” but that it is difficult to compare Brown’s numbers to the other participants in the U-PASS program, which include RISD, Providence College and Johnson and Wales University. “We really haven’t sat down and coughed that data hairball yet,” said McCormick, adding that Brown’s ridership statistics are exceeding his expectations.

However, “Brown and RISD are always going to be the best” for ridership simply because they are the most urban and therefore the best served, he said.

Continued funding for the U-PASS program is in the proposed budget for the 2008-2009 academic year, which has been presented to the University Resources Committee, Gentry said.

“My hope and expectation would be that this would be approved,” especially given that the program advances the University’s stated aim of reducing congestion on College Hill, she said.

McCormick added that RIPTA is looking at other ways to advertise the dedicated bus service to Brown faculty and staff and might try sending e-mails specifically targeted at employees who live in Barrington.

“It really takes one-on-one communication” to persuade people to take the bus instead of driving, he said.

Students use the free RIPTA service for both pleasure and work-related purposes. Gene Goldstein-Plesser ’11 travels on the No. 11 bus every week to the Rhode Island Free Clinic on the south side of Providence, where he volunteers.

“The place is like a 45-minute walk, which would have been uncomfortable,” he said. “(Free bus service) definitely made it a lot easier to make this kind of commitment.”

Goldstein-Plesser has also used the No. 66 bus to go to the beach in Narragansett and the No. 14 bus to go to T.F. Green Airport.

“It’s gratifying,” he said of the U-PASS program. “You get places for free.”

Margeaux Berroth ’11 concurred that RIPTA service makes getting around much easier. “I wouldn’t be able to get off the hill (without U-PASS),” she said.

Britta Han ’10 also uses RIPTA for community service. She travels to the William D’Abate Elementary School in the Olneyville neighborhood of Providence once a week to help with an after-school creative writing program. Though the Swearer Center used to pay for her tickets, now the center doesn’t have to pay, Han said.

Other students, like Lauren Presant ’10, find little use for the U-PASS program. “For me, it’s easier to walk to the mall than it is to take RIPTA if I don’t know the bus schedule,” Presant said.

Anthony Rego, a RIPTA trolley driver, said Brown ridership has risen noticeably. “The trips have been starting to get more heavy with Brown students because they’re starting to take advantage of UPASS, which is a good thing,” he said, adding that many faculty and staff have been riding as well.