The University is entering its tenth year as a participant in the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority’s UPass program. Since the program came to Brown in 2008, students, staff and faculty alike have had free use of RIPTA buses on any route in Rhode Island with a simple swipe of their University ID. The UPass program has provided over 37,000 individuals in the Brown community with almost 3.8 million rides over the course of the past decade.
The UPass program was created out of necessity to the University, according to Elizabeth Gentry, the assistant vice president for business and financial services. Before UPass, “the University used to subsidize RIPTA ride(s) for a (set) percentage” of the fare, Gentry said. At the time, the University had also recently reduced the number of on-campus student parking spots from around 400 or 500 to 50. “It was time that we provided other options for transportation,” she added.
The University’s agreement with RIPTA stipulates that RIPTA share data on the number of unique riders who use UPass and the total number of rides taken by members of the Brown community. “The numbers (of total riders) are still pretty high, but this past year was the lowest we’ve ever seen,” Gentry said. But the total number of rides taken has increased slightly in the past year from its lowest point in the fiscal year 2016-17.
Faculty and staff usage numbers also declined considerably in the fiscal year 2016-17; the number of unique riders dropped by over 100 in the past year. Overall, the number of unique riders has consistently declined since fiscal year 2013-14.
These RIPTA usage numbers can possibly be attributed to the rise of ride-share programs like Uber and Lyft, Gentry said, but she could not confirm if that was the sole reason behind the decline. In The Herald’s spring 2015 poll, 10.9 percent of students polled reported using Uber or Lyft multiple times a week; 20 percent reported using them once a week, while 30 percent reported using the ride-share apps once a month.
Despite the fall in rider numbers, the University does not foresee a time where they would cancel the UPass program. The old process was “archaic,” Gentry said.
Brown is not the only school in Rhode Island to take part in the UPass system. “We have UPass agreements with … most private colleges and universities in the state: Bryant, Johnson and Wales, (the Rhode Island School of Design), Roger Williams and Salve Regina,” wrote Director of Public Affairs for RIPTA Barbara Polichetti in an email to The Herald. State schools are currently in discussions with RIPTA for ride programs, and a pilot program opened at the University of Rhode Island in 2017.
The decline in ridership does not affect RIPTA on a financial level, Polichetti wrote. “RIPTA is a public, nonprofit agency, so all revenue is important. But revenue from ALL fares (not just colleges and universities but all fare revenue generated) represents less than 20 percent of our total revenue. So it’s important because it’s revenue, but fare revenue is less than a quarter of our total revenue stream.”
While RIPTA may not be financially reliant on students, student ridership is still important because it enables the agency to offer more route options and is “a great way to introduce young adults to public transit use,” she added.
Betsy Shimberg, director of student development at the Swearer Center for Public Service, said she believes RIPTA use is invaluable to a Brown education. “It a) gives you a perspective and lets you understand more about our city, and b) it gives you a chance to reflect on your privilege. You are taking this bus for free. Other people have paid,” she said.
Shimberg emphasized how important RIPTA is for students who engage in direct service within the Swearer Center. Approximately 500 students engage in Swearer Center Community Corps programs, such as Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere, Brown Elementary Afterschool Mentoring and Connect for Health. “They’re engaging in direct service all over the city,” she said. “The privilege … for Brown students to ride the bus for free … really eliminates barriers for people to participate.”
Former Swearer Center fellow and frequent user of the RIPTA Devra Levy ’19 said she plans on staying in Rhode Island post-graduation. “Losing access to free RIPTA won’t affect my frequency of use because it’s a necessity, but I will have to pay for it which is unfortunate,” she said. “You don’t realize how much of a privilege it is. We take it for granted.”