If you were to make a short list of what makes Chapel Hill distinctive from other North Carolina towns with about 60,000 people, like Apex, Burlington, or Huntersville, you’d probably start with the obvious—the fact that we have a major university in the center of town.

But our governments are more similar. All of these towns have emergency services departments and parks. They collect garbage and debate how to balance many priorities, from affordable housing to town infrastructure.

What makes Chapel Hill distinct is our transit system. We spend just over one of every five dollars of our budget on transit. Chapel Hill Transit has the second highest ridership of any transit system in the state, and last month it was one of just a handful of systems in the country to get funding for bus rapid transit.

But who rides the bus? In Fall 2023, a consultant hired by the Durham Chapel Hill Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization, which oversees transportation investments and planning in our region, conducted a survey on who actually rides the bus in our community. The results, based on 1,669 surveys with transit riders, were recently shared with the board of elected officials that oversees the MPO. (You can see the data here.)

Here are a few highlights:

Half of riders are going to UNC or to work.

People are using the bus to get from their homes to UNC and other places of work. (UNC pays for its share of routes, so that makes sense).

Most people walk, instead of bike or drive, to the bus stop.

Riders are students, employees, and employed students

While some might think that the only people who use the bus are students, two thirds of the riders are employed. While the survey didn’t note where people are employed, there are clearly a lot of people benefiting from the bus who don’t study at UNC.

A third of riders have used ride share services in the past 30 days

What struck us was that 16 percent of riders are using Uber or Lyft almost once a week. We wonder whether this is because the bus isn’t available, or if they’re going places the bus doesn’t serve.

Almost a third of riders live in households without a car, and more than half of riders do not have an alternative to taking the bus.

We often hear people say “it would be nice if people didn’t have to drive, but it’s just not possible here.” This survey suggests a third of bus riders are living in households without a car, and even those in households with cars often can’t use it to get to their destination.

Many riders are low-income, and not all of them have licenses.

If Chapel Hill is aspiring to serve people with low incomes, it’s hard to do better than provide bus services. A third of riders earn less than $25,000, and more than a fifth of riders don’t have drivers licenses, which means that they depend on transit to get around.

Bus riders are diverse

Chapel Hill is a community that prizes its diversity. And the riders of Chapel Hill Transit are more diverse than Chapel Hill on the whole.

Get on the bus!

We are so lucky to live in a community with a robust, friendly, and busy transit system. While you might prefer to travel in our community on foot, bike, or behind the wheel of a car, try the bus sometime. It’s a great way to experience all our community has to offer.

In the last municipal election cycle, we helped increase turnout by over 20 percent. We're all volunteers who care deeply about Chapel Hill and Carrboro, and we're working to make Chapel Hill and Carrboro more vibrant, accessible, fun, and sustainable.  Please consider a small donation to help us keep our digital lights on, host events, and hire students to do data deep-dives.

Martin Johnson lives in Chapel Hill. He teaches film studies courses at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is also a member of NEXT Chapel Hill-Carrboro and the Bicycle Alliance of Chapel...