Monday, June 29, 2009

If I Had Another Billion Dollars

In a previous post I explained some ideas I have for improving the east side of Raleigh's downtown area, assuming an imaginary budget of $1 billion. Today, I turn my attention (and my fantasy budget of $1 billion) to another problem facing the future of Raleigh.

Raleigh's public transit system has a problem: white people don't ride Capital Area Transit (CAT) buses. There are several reasons why whites don't ride CAT buses, but mostly it comes down to inconvenience and discomfort. I was tempted to say racism, but as a white person who has relied on CAT buses in the past I think that would be an oversimplification since the discomfort angle really stems from several points which I hope to address in my plan to revamp the system.

First off, buses aren't sexy. They are loud, big, slow, and spew diesel fumes into the air. Even though they are a cleaner transportation option than having more cars on the road to accommodate all the riders, this "greener" aspect isn't enough of a selling point alone to supersede the other issues for most residents. Further, the stops are often poorly marked/placed, and the main hub downtown is filthy in appearance and smell. As to the slow and inconvenient point, it usually takes 1.5 hours to get anywhere in Raleigh by bus. However, by car, you can get anywhere in Raleigh in 15-30 minutes -- 30-45 if there's traffic. For public transportation to be an attractive option, transit times from start to finish need to be reduced to at least an hour... preferably 45 minutes.

To accomplish faster transit we need to stop forcing everyone to go downtown to transfer buses. Instead, regional circulators (like the R Line which runs downtown) would be faster, more frequent, and more efficient since Raleigh is divided into 5 main zones (downtown, north, east, south, and west). People in Raleigh typically travel within one or two of the main zones for most of their needs. Unfortunately, current bus routes take you all over the freaking city to get to the downtown Moore Square Station hub. It's idiotic, plain and simple. Don't get me wrong... As someone who would like to live downtown, and wants to encourage growth in the area, I'm not trying to steer people away from downtown. But going all the way downtown when my real destination is only five miles from my house, and NOT in the direction of downtown, is a TOTAL waste of my time!

Next, we should have small zone hubs for each circulator route which would allow transfers to connectors which would travel to the downtown central hub. By doing this, trips across town would involve two or three transfers instead of the standard one transfer now. However, total travel time would drop significantly to perhaps 15-45 minutes per trip because buses would be able to travel more frequently and wait times between buses would be reduced. (For more on the value of transferring buses read this article from Jarrett Walker's Human Transit blog.)

Additionally, these zone hubs should offer bike rental kiosks such as those offered by Bcycle. This would allow people to ride to more specific areas where the circulators wouldn't reach while getting some much needed exercise. Even better, the zone hubs could offer bicycle services like those offered by Bikestation, which allow you to store a bike, use showers and changing rooms, and request bicycle maintenance services.

To increase sexiness and efficiency we need to enforce stops ONLY at designated bus stop shelters. These shelters would be powered by rooftop solar panels which would allow the shelters to have GPS monitors displaying real-time bus location data and calculating arrival/departure times. The shelters would also have built-in kiosks for purchasing transit cards which can be recharged at any kiosk (or perhaps even online) and would encourage/facilitate repeated ridership. Enforcing stops only at designated bus stop shelters would increase speed of travel while addressing a major problem I've always had with the system, which is not knowing where stops are located most of the time. Sure, people see buses go down a street, but you can't clearly see where you need to go to catch the bus as the current system is designed (that is to say, it ISN'T designed with any consistency) without having to walk up and down the street looking for some cryptic, and not graphically appealing sign. And, going to the trouble to design great looking shelters and better signage gives people the impression that real thought and effort was put into the system, which provides a great first impression to new riders.

Of course, I haven't even come close to spending a billion dollars, yet. The rest of my money would be invested in a plan for regional light rail, such as this one that has been estimated at $2 billion. I think that plan eventually died due to lack to funding, since, for reasons that escape me, those bozos thought the system should extend from Clayton, through Garner and Raleigh, to places like Wake Forest and Burlington! BURLINGTON? Who the hell ever goes to Burlington? I'll let the state and federal lunatics figure out a way to pay for a train to Burlington. I'll use the rest of my billion to create a rail system for Raleigh which would potentially go to Durham and Chapel Hill, but would primarily focus on Raleigh and its main suburbs of Garner and Cary. Anyone who is crazy enough to commute to Raleigh from farther away than those areas isn't going to be encouraged to take light rail into the city because they are already too committed to travelling by car. We shouldn't waste money trying to cater to an already lost cause. Besides, the point of good quality public transportation should be to try and encourage dense urban population growth. Extending transit farther from the city center only provides capitulation to unsustainable sprawl.

I'm sure I could go on with a little greater detail than what I've laid out here, but I won't bore you anymore than I already have.

Have fun and keep living life... or some approximation thereof.

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