Earlier this year, Durham’s DATA bus system began operating a new $18 million transportation center, replacing the cramped and ramshackle station on Morgan Street. Now, finding your bus is remarkably easy, say regular riders Glenn Permar and Joe Kreger, who are both blind.

Last year, DATA logged 5.1 million tripscompared to 7.5 million in Chapel Hill, where buses are free, and 4.6 million in Raleigh. (Durham and Raleigh bus fares are $1 a ride or $2 for a day pass; Raleigh’s new R-Line is free.) As people try to keep their fuel costs down and become more environmentally aware, they may choose to ride the bus, but most ride out of necessity.

Above the clatter of a diesel engine on the No. 10, Jabari McCleland says DATA “gets me where I need to be.” This is a common response from riders when asked how well the transit system is working for them, but the real question is: How hard are riders working for the system?

“I try and come one or two hours earlier, just in case a bus breaks down,” said McCleland, who was on his way home from a job at Food Lion. McCleland said that he has had the bus break down on him four times.

“I know people who’ve lost their job riding the bus,” said Temeka Wilkins, a mother of four who’s been riding the bus to work at KFC since her car broke down two months ago. “If a bus is running behind, you can miss a transfer and then you’ll really be late [to work].”

DATA has encountered problems with engines due to issues from the manufacturer, DATA spokesperson Ieshia Robertson said. “We have had some road failures in the last month. As with any vehicle, there can be unexpected mechanical problems.”

There is room for a wheelchair underneath a bus stop shelter along Hillsborough Road, but the posts are mounted flush with the curb. This prevents handicapped riders from wheeling underneath it, so Joseph Emory waits outside, as passing car lights shine off his red motorized wheelchair. He criticizes DATA for the lack of functioning handicap ramps on buses. “One time I waited for three different buses before they had one that worked.”

Robertson said older buses have lifts, which can accommodate only certain sizes and weights of wheelchairs. Newer buses have ramps, which are compatible with all wheelchairs.

Bus driver Christina Lucas has never seen anything like DATA “Look here,” she said, shaking the loosely mounted fare machine on the No. 10 bus. “I can tell this bus is way out of alignment and the equipment is really outdated,” said Lucas. Before moving to Durham, Lucas was a bus driver in Grand Rapids, Mich., where the buses were newer and thoroughly cleaned every night. Another driver complained that there is not enough money to fix persistent problems with the buses, which run 18 hours a day, Monday through Saturday, and 13 hours on Sundays.

With $3.2 million in stimulus funding, DATA plans to add benches, shelters and real-time passenger information and replace some paratransit vans.

In a May Council meeting, Durham City Councilman Mike Woodard said, “None of the elaborate plans for light rail and other mass transit will work until we enhance our bus service and make it transportation of choice, not just chance.”