Thanks to Jon Darling for asking this week’s question — “Could you do a story on the availability and planning for expanding rural and small urban mobility and transportation solutions for residents in Chatham County? And how Uber, Lyft, Go Go Grandparent. etc. might fit into such plans?”
Most people consider Research Triangle Park one of the most innovative locations in the state—arguably in the nation. Duke, NC State and UNC-Chapel Hill contribute to the area’s advancements in education, technology and medicine.
However, one of RTP’s counties lacks access to one resource considered by many to be essential to progress: transportation.
Chatham County only has one main transportation system, Chatham Transit, and ridesharing apps such as Uber and Lyft do not service any of the major cities in the county. Chatham Transit runs Monday through Friday, which leaves residents without vehicles few options for transportation on the weekends.
According to the 2016 American Community Survey, 4 percent of households in rural communities do not have access do a vehicle. In 2017, the U.S. Census Bureau reported Chatham County’s population as a little more than 68,000. This means that approximately 2,900 residents do not have vehicles.
The closest cities serviced by Uber and Lyft are Chapel Hill and Greensboro. These ridesharing apps will drive into areas not listed on the coverage map as long as the ride request originates from a covered area and is within a 100-mile radius. Chatham Transit offers on-demand services and one fixed route, but typically there aren’t more than two buses on the route at a time, resulting in large gaps between stops.
“That’s a problem that is tough to solve until there’s enough people using a transit system,” said Fearrington Village resident Carol Kurtz. “People don’t want to want to wait a couple of hours before they can catch the bus. In order to have buses that run more frequently, you have to have more passengers. And we’re not at that stage yet.”
Fearrington Village, located between Pittsboro and Chapel Hill, has a volunteer-run transportation service organized by Fearrington Cares. Residents of the two-mile area provide rides for other community members with certain restrictions. Like Chatham Transit, rides must be requested at least 48 hours in advance. There are also other limitations, for example, rides must be within a 25-mile radius and can only be requested for specific reasons, such as medical appointments, grocery pickup, bank deposits, among others.
Anna Testerman, executive director of Chatham Transit, said that the scheduling rule ensures that there are enough drivers and vehicles on the roads. Most people use the fixed route, which travels from the Siler City Walmart to the UNC Student Union. The transit service only gets one or two last-minute calls per day for on-demand requests. Testerman said the nonprofit’s next initiative is adding more fixed routes, but it lacks community voice.
“I don’t receive as much feedback from the public as I would like,” Testerman said. “That’s what makes it hard for me. Right now, we’re looking at possibly extending our hours—working later in the day and adding some Saturdays. It’d be nice to hear from people to know, ‘yes, we would like that and here’s where we need that.’”
The fixed route stops at the Walmart in Siler City six times per day, with the last stop at 6:40 p.m. GoTriangle’s 800 route, which travels through Chapel Hill and Durham, stops at Southpoint Mall 40 times per day, with the last stop at 10 p.m.
“There’s never enough transportation for all the demand that just about any county has,” said Matt Alexander, chair of the county’s Transportation Advisory Committee. “You can always have more and better transportation, it’s just a matter of funding.”
Transit services such as Chatham Transit receive financial support from multiple sources, ranging from the county to federal levels. When funding comes from state and federal levels, the Triangle Area Rural Planning Organization (TARPO) gets involved to help with the distribution of the money, said TARPO Principal Planner Matt Day.
TARPO’s Planning Work Program for the 2019 fiscal year proposed $20,000 to fund regional and statewide transportation planning.
The Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality project provides economic support to areas that have air quality issues. Some areas in Chatham County are eligible for this assistance, so TARPO has used the most recent funds to purchase more vehicles for Chatham Transit. These vehicles will be ready in 2021.
Want to learn more about how transit in Chatham can improve? Do you have an idea for a follow-up story? We base our journalism on reader questions, so send them our way if you would like to inspire further reporting!