R-Line successful after first year on the road

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After a full year of service, Raleigh transit officials say the free downtown circulator known as the R-Line has slightly exceeded their expectations.

The service celebrated its anniversary Feb. 13, and through the end of January, about 178,000 people have boarded the hybrid-electric buses at an average clip of 521 per day.

“The route was certainly performing at pretty much system-wide average for our entire CAT system, which is somewhere around 20 passengers an hour,” said David Eatman, transit administrator for Capital Area Transit.

Cost per rider for the R-Line is also comparable to other bus services in the Triangle — each passenger costs the city about $2.86. Cost for CAT riders overall is a little higher at $3.33 each.

But to downtown residents like Leo Suarez, there are other aspects of the R-Line that justify its $544,400 operating budget. Suarez, who chronicles downtown life on the blog The Raleigh Connoisseur, says the R-Line represents a good public-private partnership that can promote downtown business.

“There are some business owners that take the risk and come downtown,” Suarez said. “It’s good to see the city make the investment too.”

Eatman said the return on that investment is reflected in the ridership figures, which peak toward the nighttime hours and on the weekend, when the bus runs until 2:15 a.m.

That late-night schedule was one of the major draws for Suarez, who uses the service often.

“It was like, ‘Finally, they’re pushing something useful,’” he said.

Although he said the R-Line doesn’t do much to attract those who travel from other parts of Raleigh to spend time downtown, he’s noted it’s often “slammed” during big events like First Friday.

“They only value add for that is that you only have to park once,” Suarez said.

Looking forward, Eatman said there won’t be any major changes to the service. He said that’s because the R-Line avoided a typical pitfall of new routes like these.

“One of the challenges of this type of service is that many people want to try to put a very limited service out to see how it will perform,” Eatman said. “The problem is that many times, that very limited service doesn’t have enough frequency or isn’t nice enough to draw ridership.”

Instead, transit began the R-Line with high-quality service and an “aggressive schedule.”

“That’s a major commitment, but the public has responded by using the service,” Eatman said.

But he pointed out CAT is looking at planning bus shelters for the R-Line, as well as new signage featuring the recently implemented real-time GPS tracking.

Eatman also said he doesn’t think ridership has peaked yet on the year-old route, especially as winter retreats.

“We’ve got a very bright spring and summer ahead of us,” he said.

By spring 2011, however, he said the R-Line will be more established and well known in the community, a fact that may stabilize its numbers and slow gains in ridership.

“That’s when you’re really probably going to test yourself of, can you keep the momentum going, can you continue to grow the ridership,” Eatman said. “Personally I think we can, and at a minimum, we can sustain it.”

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