This week, JLF’s Joseph Coletti published a research brief on Raleigh’s free bus route, the R-Line Circulator. Coletti writes:

Launched in 2008, R-Line ridership climbed to nearly 300,000 people in 2012 but was below 150,000 in 2017 after GoRaleigh decided not to add a third bus and expand service to Cameron Village. The following year, Raleigh and the Raleigh Transit Authority began to reconsider the R-Line. Ridership has climbed since then, in part due to City Council’s opposition to electric scooters.

Price is clearly not a factor in what a public meeting flyer describes as the “declining performance of the R-Line Route” despite a “growing downtown population” and “more downtown destinations to serve.” Spokesman Nathan Spencer told the Raleigh News and Observer that wait times between buses were as long as 30 minutes, twice as long as targeted. An unscientific online survey suggests it could take longer to ride the R-Line than to walk between stops.

This problem, however, is not unique to Raleigh. Coletti explains:

Circulators in HoustonColumbus, and Baltimore launched free services like Raleigh’s between 2010 and 2014…

Baltimore uses parking taxes, grant money, advertising and money from nonprofit organizations to contract with a private provider in competition with buses operated by the Maryland Transit Authority. A 2017 report found the system was “fiscally unsustainable” after it lost $11.6 million between its launch in 2010 and 2014, but the city entered a new three-year $26 million contract in June 2019.

Coletti prompts city officials to analyze the cost and benefits of the R-Line:

Raleigh City Council should take a more comprehensive look at the R-Line beyond questions of the route, and ask why the service exists. To date, it has been aimed at tourists and people attending events at the convention center, but with more housing downtown, GoRaleigh seems to think residents will use it more.

When I rode it in December, there were, on average, seven other people with me. They ranged from a couple of people who looked homeless, some high-income millennials, government workers, and even middle school students fresh from an after-school stop at the Morgan Street Food Hall.

Read the full brief here. Learn more about public transportation in North Carolina here.