Raleigh’s Transit Could Use An Upgrade

I’m sure everyone will agree with that title. The good news is new buses are being purchased and put into the fleet thanks to some stimulus money. The baby steps are better then nothing or perhaps much better then the cuts in transit that other cities are making around the country. The cost to upgrade a transit system is expensive. If you follow the local and national transit scene like I do then you are quite familiar with seeing prices in the hundreds of millions and even in the billions of dollars to bring big time mass transit to a city and state.

We could go on and on about how the bus services in the triangle do not adequately provide an alternative to driving. But is it possible to take our current system and make it more efficient? Rather then add new routes to serve more customers at a higher cost, should the powers that be explore ways to fill our current routes for much less? Here is a list of suggestions that may motivate more people to leave the car at home and travel by bus around the triangle. Should Raleigh adopt any of these?

  1. Smart cards

    The use of transit smart cards in larger cities make it easier to manage paying for any kind of transit. I recently had a chance to experience the first ever such system that was implemented in 1997 in Hong Kong. The Octopus Card is used to pay for all transit and can even be used to make purchases in grocery stores and vending machines. You just swipe the RFID card across the receiver and money is deducted from your account. Money can be added at pay stations without ever replacing your card. It would be cheaper to get in on this system early and expand it over time with our transit network. Currently, the “Acorn Pass” could be used to pay for bus fares and parking meters.

  2. GPS Tracking

    Just like the Transloc System that the NCSU Wolfline already has, a real time GPS tracking system would help people plan their trips if they knew where the bus was at any moment in time. This is especially helpful for those routes that stop only once an hour and would prevent major headaches. The maps could be online and accessed by computer, phone, or monitors at major bus stops.

  3. Shelters and Benches

    This one is easy. More shelters and benches at stops would make it much more pleasant for people waiting for their ride. To take it one step further, the shelters could harvest solar power and use it to run lights to keep the area well lit at night. While controversial, I think advertisements on the shelters could be used to counter the cost.

  4. Subscribable Information

    Information goes a long way and we need to make it easy for people to get information about routes and changes to that route. Riders should be able to subscribe, by phone, e-mail, home address, anything, to information updates to any route that they choose. New subscribers should be mailed brochures with bus riding information, route maps, and schedules. They should even be given magnets for people to put up on their fridges so the information is easily accessible. Little things like this could make people more confident and comfortable with leaving their car at home for the day.

  5. Wifi

    Wifi on buses would be a huge incentive for the tech crowd in the area. A lot of work, and internet browsing, is done on laptops or smart phones so that added access is very valuable to those that can work on the go. I’m right here with this one and would love to start doing my work on my laptop when I sit down on the bus rather then when I arrive at work. It is a much more efficient use of my time.

Number 2 may be on the way, as the N&O post mentions that the stimulus money will be used for “a real-time bus arrival system”.

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  1. I think you left out one of the most obvious ones.

    A full route and schedule redesign. I’m no transportation engineer, but when I could conceivably jog the 8 miles from my place (Southwest Raleigh) to downtown faster than I could take the bus, there’s something terribly wrong.

    The fundamental problems with Raleigh’s bus routes aren’t going to be solved with free WiFi or spiffy web-accessible information or smart cards or any of that, they’re going to be solved by identifying and fixing the problems with the current route system, and increasing schedule frequency.

    Heck, even something as simple as adapting to downtown events (like other cities do), would help immensely. Having a more frequent schedule during Downtown Live, the World Beer Fest, Raleigh Wide Open, or First Night would reduce traffic and parking snarls as well as encourage people to make smarter choices and avoid drunk driving.

    I’d really like more shelters and benches, too.

  2. It seems that how ‘wired’ the R Line buses are would lend itself to making the “real-time tracking” of buses that much easier.

  3. Jason! has it right. You cannot improve the ridership until the whole system is improved. The hub and spoke system that we have is just terrible. There are only a few routes that do not go to Moore Square. I love downtown, but the bus system should handle the needs of the population. I live near downtown, but still the bus took about one hour to get to work the time I used it. I can drive it in ten or fifteen minutes, bike it in 25 minutes, and could probably walk it just over an hour. When I look at the bus schedule, almost every route starts with a trip to Moore Square (about ten minute ride) plus another 15 or 20 minute “lay over” until the bus I would want arrives.

    There are also just major gaps in service. The bus does not run late on Sundays. I used to have to give my neighbor a ride to work when she had to work Sundays, because she had no other way to get there. The bus also does not service the RBC Center, which is the stupidest thing of the whole system.

    There could also be a joining of the WolfLine with CAT. I think it would be good to have a more complete system instead of routes that run close to each other. Students could get free rides on certain routes, or the whole system could just be free to students. Public school students should also be able to use the buses for free. Then the county may not have to bus as many students as currently are being done, especially for some magnet schools.

  4. I agree with Jason! He said it right… Personally, I couldn’t care less about WiFi access. I would settle for decent [basic] routes and shelters/benches.

  5. Smart cards, wifi, etc. are all the ideas of people who don’t ride the bus, and aren’t going to – unless it’s to carry their drunk butt around to the bars on the weekend.

    My opinion is to stop expanding the routes further out into the suburbs – especially when they’re connector routes. Focus on improving coverage of the city core.

    Most of these discussions seem to be about making people feel better about driving their cars – as if they didn’t have a choice.

  6. It would help if people here would stop thinking that the bus is going to or should conform their schedule and realize that they are going to have to work their schedule around the bus’s timing and routes.

  7. Bzzt. Wrong answer. Public transportation isn’t just for people who have no cars; public transportation competes with cars. There’s no question that there’s going to be some sacrifice of convenience when you take the bus (it’s not going to magically appear outside of my house when I’m ready to walk out the door), but that sacrifice has to be reasonable (it doesn’t take me two hours to go eight miles).

  8. Well, Jason..sounds like you admire the sound/read of your own voice/text. But, you’re only a jogger from SW Raleigh, so you shouldn’t pretend to know anything about the buses and their scheduled routes. And while we’re on the subject, let’s address a few things..

    1. Smart cards.. We already have the day-pass, weekly-pass, monthly-pass, regional-pass…all available from Moore Square, Harris Teeter, Mechanic/Farmer Bank, and a few other places. So, “technically”, we have this under wraps, and riders who have these passes use these accordingly. Having said the aforementioned, it’s futile to have a multi-use card. Riders use these cards to “ride”.

    2. GPS tracking.. This could be useful, although, if one rreferences GoTriangle.org trip-planner, one could find out sn estimate of when the bus will be at this location. Although, not everyone has net access these days, so this could [indeed] prove useful.

    3. Shelter/Benches.. I definitely vote for this one. I would say that the major stops on major roadways SHOULD have a shelter/bench available to the riders. The only exception would be where the stop is at a utility pole in one’s front yard (which, btw, happens a lot). There’re a LOT of new waiting areas along the #1-Capital Blvd route, and they’re a nice touch, as well as a welcome addition for riders.

    4. Subscribable Info.. This is fine. Anyone with net access can access GoTriangle.org which is useful info. GoTriangle.org also offers up-to-date information on bus detours and construction updates. But, if you want magnets for riders, go for it!

    5. WiFi.. This has to be the dumbest idea ever! Riders take the bus to get from here to there, and NOT to check on Lady BlahBlah’s latest series of concerts, email, et al. Plus, let’s also take into account that the ride [on the bus] isn’t the most smooth. If you’re surfing, the bus hits a pothole, your laptop goes flying off your lap and is damaged..are we to think CAT/TTA is going to cover this?! Hell no! It’s not their problem, nor should it be!

    6. Route/Schedule Redesign and Overhaul.. Whilst I admist, that some routes could be reworked, the current routes DO, in fact, serve their purpose. Most riders are confident with their service or they wouldn’t ride the bus. And while you complain about some route taking awhile to get (from Poole Rd to Moore Square, for example), you’re not considering how many stops DO get serviced. You also need to think about the bulk of people getting on/off from stop to stop. The elderly and handicapped do take a bit longer to embark/disembark. So, while you’re constantly jogging from here to there, the driver is boarding countless passengers and warranting their safety whilst onboard. That may not be anything to you, but I (as a CAT/TTA rider) vouch for the extra time in between. Let’s slso take notice of road that were NOT intended for bus traffic, but ARE USED for routes (#18-Worthdale & #19-Apollo Heights come to mind)..these will tack on extra time.

    7. Hell, while we’re on the subject, why not go ahead and spend some extra money (stimulus perhaps?) on the multi-modal transit station? If anyone has been to Greensboro (and soon-coming to Charlotte), Amtrak, Greyhound, Area & Collegiate Transit all run through one hub. TTA has already bought the warehouses from Dillon Supplies. Why not go ahead and make something of it..as the money has already been spent?!

    8. Light rail.. sigh.. Prolly not going to happen..

    9. Free Student Admissions.. CAT is currently free to all student and employees for NCSU. Even some alumni (with NCSU ID’s) board free of charge. Whilst, I think college students (Wake Tech, UNC, NCSU) should get free admission, I do NOT think it would be right to give this same benefit to high school students, much less magnet school students. And for whoever mentioned it, there are locations where CAT and Wolfline (inc. Werewolf/WolfProwl) can connect.

    Pardon the rant, but Arthur is right! People complain a LOT about what should be done, but these are people who DO NOT use the system. If you can walk from wherever to downtown in a faster time, that’s totally up to you. However, but for those who “ride the bus”, we make it work. We also realize that we must work with the bus schedule.

  9. For someone complaining about my verbosity, you sure wrote a whole lot. I don’t jog. It does take two hours to get downtown from SW Raleigh (depending on how lucky you are at Mission Valley), and I rode the bus several times a week to get to my downtown job (I’ve since switched to Brier Creek, no good bus way there from where I live)

    It was just the Triangle Transit 301. Only good during business hours, that.

    You make several good points (remarkably, you seem to miss that you and I agree on quite a few of them) and I’ve ridden the CAT effectively and happily (And I’ve no quibble with the riders and drivers. at all. Period. Why did you even say that?), but to me the largest problems are that 1) More frequent service. 2) There needs to be a reworking of routes (not all, mind you).

  10. Wifi may be impractical for shorter trips. If it takes you 5-10 minutes to get to your destination, I’ll agree that it does not make sense.

    For a trip that has you sitting for 30+ minutes, it may start to be useful. The TTA trips that use the highways are usually long and being able to get work done, not stalk your exes on Myspace, is an incentive to ride for some. You can sit back and let someone else deal with traffic and mobile workers are logged in “at the office”.

  11. Be sure to email your state senator and tell them to approve the transit bill…then we can start having the means to improve the system!

  12. Before we email our senators, we’d better make sure our city leaders put in place good urban guidelines for development and encourage density in areas we can easily connect with buses (short term) as well as light rail (long term). Then it will be easier to convince state politicians and other powerful entities to go along with our vision ;)

  13. The buses need to be half the size. I saw a full size bus hold up traffic for 5 minutes doing a seven point turn on a side street off F Street. Come on City Coucil and DRA, get your heads out of your dark side. Buses this large are not required!

  14. Ernest: the bill would give locals the option to raise a 1/2 sales tax, not authorize plans already in place. This is the first step in a very long process. While you’re correct that the having a plan in place will be easy to convince state lawmakers, there are several lawmakers already on board and behind the bill…Republican and Democrat.

  15. hell, while we’re tacking on ammenities, why not have full-service restrooms on-board?!

    and why don’t we eliminate a lot of the unnecessary stops in the black neighborhoods?! (I can foresee the feedback, but IDC! It’s due to be said). They can walk to the end of a street just as others [have to] do.

  16. Zeke, while your comment “why don’t we eliminate a lot of the unnecessary stops in the black neighborhoods?!” was a bit over the top, there is something to be said for reducing the number of stops that a bus makes, in general, as a method for shortening transit times throughout a city. If the city were to actually create fully featured bus stops (shelters, benches, and signage as a minimum, with perhaps GPS updates, and transit ticket purchasing kiosks as upscale additions) then it would be MUCH MORE justified in laying out a policy of ONLY stopping at DESIGNATED bus stops. The CAT system could then establish a set distance for those stops to be placed to minimize travel time.

    Also, by creating those fully featured shelters with payment kiosks you could further shorten transit times by several minutes per route by forcing people to pay at the kiosk rather than fumbling for change/bills at the front of the bus. I’ve seen tons of times where bus drivers would sit and wait for a minute while the passenger took their sweet time paying their fare.

    Transit engineers who have spent time studying these things have figured out tons of little methods for improving transit efficiency and effectiveness. If anyone is bored and wants to school themselves on the optimal ways to plan and run a mass transit system, I HIGHLY recommend reading Jarrett Walker’s Human Transit Blog at http://www.humantransit.org/ .

  17. I’d like to share my experience, just to throw another perspective out there. I lived in the Triangle for 12 years, moved to San Francisco for a year, and have just moved back. Before moving, I took the bus a few times from the Crabtree area to downtown Raleigh, but would not consider myself a regular user.

    I expected San Francisco to be the mecca of all public transportation. I was very surprised to see how so many people were still dependent on their cars. If you worked in town, however, the bus was a great option. Many routes to choose from, frequent buses, etc.

    To me, it all comes down to time and money. Which do you have more of?

    To go from my home on the north side of town to downtown SF, my options were:
    – Bus – 30 minutes + waiting time – $2 – you may have to walk another 4-5 blocks to get to your destination.
    – Cab – 15 minutes – $15-$20, but it took you as close to the front door as you can get.
    – Car – 15 minutes – $30 to park in a deck, may have to walk a few blocks to your destination.
    – walk – at least an hour, never did it – free

    So, the bus took more than twice the amount of time when you add the time waiting (usually less than 5 minutes), but it was super cheap. There is a very simple tradeoff. Do you have more money than time? Take a cab or drive. Do you have more time than money, or no choice in the matter? Take the bus. Yes, the bus meant waiting a few minutes and a longer ride with lots of stops, but you were saving money.

    In Raleigh, driving will always be cheaper until parking becomes difficult or parking rates increase – for those who have the option of driving. As long as the bus takes more than twice the amount of time, most people are going to drive or take another method of transportation (bike, scooter, etc).

    Who cares if people have to drive? Well, I anticipate more demand for buses from people who want to reduce their driving in an effort to help with traffic, reduce their carbon footprint, etc. So the city just has to decide how to serve their existing customers while growing their customer base.

    A few other comments:
    – Wifi – Forget laptops, it’s all about the phone. Business people are usually behind on email and could easily use the 10 minute wait for the bus and the 15 minute ride on the bus to catch up on email or otherwise be productive. Wifi, in my mind, is only going to increase in demand everywhere in the coming years. It’s going to be a service that people expect. Hotels have it for free, some cities for free, restaurants, etc. The standard has been set.
    – GPS Tracking – This was a fabulous part of the SF Muni system. There were apps that you could download (for the iPhone anyway) to find the closest stop near you and when the next bus would be there. Not just the schedule, but the actual arrival time at your stop. It was off by a minute or so, but otherwise pretty reliable. So if you were at a restaurant and trying to determine how to get to the next place or home, you could check the schedule and make your decision. Have to wait 20 minutes? Then take a cab.
    Even with the SF muni system, people complained about routes and service. So I don’t think the city can ever expect to make everyone happy. Raleigh is one of the worst cities for sprawl, so I don’t envy the people who are in charge of figuring this out.

    One idea is for the city to partner with larger companies to establish routes – in SF, a few of the big companies in Silicon Valley had private shuttles for employees who lived in the city (Google, Apple, eBay). Real estate along the shuttle routes saw a huge increase in value. Now, I don’t think they partnered with the city at all, but I think Raleigh would have to do something with the IBM, Glaxo’s of the world and other companies to incent people to ride the shuttle. Even then, it would probably still have to be a park and ride system b/c so many people in Cary and other suburbs would have to go to a centralized area to load. And once you’re in the car…. why not just keep driving to work? The only incentive I can think is if parking were so difficult or expensive. That’s the only thing that would get people on a shuttle or bus of any kind and out of their car.

    Ugh… glad I’m not the one who has to solve this problem.

  18. Mickey, I understand what the bill is trying to accomplish, but I am afraid that the opposition will be much stronger if we don’t have all the bases covered. In other words, we need people to understand why we need better transportation and sell “the package” well to all parties involved. What will happen if taxes get raised – a very small increase, indeed – yet the population can’t see the reasons? That is what I meant.

    Of course, there are several ways to approach this issue and I am not suggesting that my way is the only way. It scares me, however, that local and regional leaders still fall short in promoting urbanity to the local residents. Maybe they are working silently, and few people can see them, but I am certainly not detecting any move to that direction.

  19. Hilary,

    Thank you for providing an excellent insight. IMO, you are right on the money!!! Having lived in NYC, I will say that the same holds true for any big city. It is all about trade-off’s, and quite frankly I still do not understand the resentment for the automobile. Sure, it is healthier to walk, and I love to have transportation options, but owning a car has a lot of advantages and even big city folks know that. No need to become anti-automobile, only to find ourselves packaged into buses like sardines. Public transit must be a good option for all people and I am all for it, so please don’t get me wrong.

    On a more personal note. Having been a biker in my younger days, I still prefer a Harley over public transportation, although it may not be appropriate for all kinds of weather :LOL: Seriously, I really enjoy seeing many people resorting to scooters and motorcycles these days. The mileage in most of them is great, too!!!

  20. Earnest, public transit does NOT have to serve everyone. That’s the general attitude that often prevents us from having anything.

    Look at Charlotte. They started with a rail that benefits a minority of the county, but it was a start. Just because it doesn’t benefit people in the northern suburbs doesn’t mean it wasn’t a useful expenditure for the county. What’s more, once a permanent transit fixture is in place, anyone (residents and businesses) can move to take advantage of the infrastructure.

    Our desire to serve everyone assures that you will never have more than a mediocre system – especially as zoning boards allow towns to sprawl faster than transit can possibly keep up.

  21. I agree with the comments by Jason! and Ken…

    Recently, my car needed to go into the shop for a few days and I experimented with taking the bus for my 2 mile commute to work.

    I had to either walk to the central station at Moore Square (1 mile in itself) and then sit on a bus for twenty something minutes….OR…get connections to Moore Sq from outside my apartment complex. Option #1 left me sweaty and got me to work in just under an hour, and option #2 took over an hour. Ridiculous! I took a cab and got there in just over 5 minutes.

    P.S. There has been similar banter around other R-Line articles (see indyweek.com in particular), this is not a coincidence. There is a growing group of people who want improved public transit in Raleigh.

  22. JeffS, I agree with you, and I am not implying that it has to serve everyone, but I think that serving North Raleigh is crucial to the success of a new light rail. Not only it will connect the most populous section of our city with the core – and not only – but it will also win more hearts and minds in an area that appears to be less public-transit-friendly – the key word is “appears”. On the top, we have 3 major roads that could be used for light rail, assuming we want to discuss the latter as a good option: Capital Blvd, Wake Forest Rd/Falls of Neuse and Six Forks. We could also add Glenwood Ave into the mix, but I will stay away from it, for now, as it will present issues with the state government.

    Major destinations along the aforementioned roads include Triangle Town Center, Duke Hospital and North Hills, but the best part is the many opportunities for redevelopment along those roads. Especially Capital Blvd!!! Not only it is feasible to increase density and add destinations along those roads, but connecting them with downtown is also important, both in terms of employment and entertainment.

    Of course, we can go on and on about different options and solution, but we are in agreement, I think. All we need to do initially is show that we can serve a good amount of residents and our job will be easier in the future.

  23. Good sound bite response, JeffS.

    From your previous post, “Focus on improving coverage of the city core.” THAT is the point I am making.

    As a side note, riding the bike I don’t have and also getting sweaty are not options for the commute to my job.

  24. Just pointing out that there’s more than one solution.

    The biggest problem with transit is that people generally don’t want to use it. They want OTHER people to use it.

    I could personally walk a mile or ride two without sweating, but everyone’s different.

    Willingness to compromise is highly variable as well. For someone who owns a car (assuming no intentions of not owning the car), a two-mile drive incurs almost no additional cost. If you didn’t have a car though (and insurance, taxes, etc) and had been getting to work another way for, let’s say a year, the cost of purchasing a car to make that 2-mile drive would probably seem quite excessive.

    Honestly though, if someone had a desire to have access to a good public transit system, or live without a car, the likelihood that they would end up in Raleigh (or anywhere in the southeast) is highly unlikely. Rather than hope or even campaign for change, it is much easier to simply move.

  25. You are right on the money, and your second paragraph sums it up. Many of the advocates will not necessarily want to ride the bus, or even live in a very dense urban area, which would encourage public transit. There are people who would, however, and we need to do more in densifying our downtown and other “urban centers”. Hillsborough Street would also be a great candidate, if the city encourages more urban developments all the way to the borders with Cary.

  26. In reality it seems most of the posts on this thread are in agreement, except for a couple subsequent responses which do more to confuse me than anything else.

    Moving on, Ernest, you hit on my street! Extending the R-line five blocks down Hillsborough (to cover the hundreds of people who live in the W Morgan area) makes so much sense. The route redesign is obviously a bigger issue but it seems several people agree, it is clearly inefficient in its current state.

    Sent from the man who never takes the easy way.

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