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North Hills wants you to ride its new shuttle bus for free. Just don’t call it a trolley.

It may look like a white trolley on wheels, but the people who run North Hills want you to think of their new shuttle as an extension of Raleigh’s transit system rather than some sort of amusement ride.

The North Hills Shuttle launches Tuesday, running a regular route through the three sections of the growing retail, residential and office complex. By offering a free ride to those who would rather not or can’t walk, North Hills hopes to make it easier to get around and keep people from getting into their cars.

“It’s faster. It’s cheaper. It’s better for the environment. It’s better for individuals,” said Bonner Gaylord, managing director of operations for Kane Realty, the company that developed and owns North Hills. “And it’s better for businesses, because it will allow people to stay here longer, do more things, without having to get back in their car.”

From the bones of a dying shopping mall, Kane Realty has built a 130-acre complex with more than 2,000 apartments, 45 eateries, 90 retailers, banks and salons, three hotels and three office towers with a fourth underway. Another 326 apartments are under construction, and work will soon begin on a 35-story apartment tower.

North Hills is designed to encourage walking, with an internal grid of streets that make it easier for residents and office workers to get to restaurants and stores on foot. By mimicking a downtown business district, the complex already helps reduce traffic, says Eric Lamb, the city’s transportation planning director.

“We know that denser, mixed-use development generates less car trips per square foot than conventional single-story development does,” Lamb said. “One reason traffic around North Hills isn’t worse than it is is that it’s using the same playbook as downtown Raleigh.”

But Six Forks Road cuts between the two main sections of North Hills like an eight-lane-wide trench full of rumbling cars and trucks . People do use the crosswalks, Gaylord said, but some people are no doubt put off by the crossing, particularly in bad weather.

“It was leading people to get in their cars more,” he said. “And that causes congestion, diminishes air quality, takes up parking spaces when people are bouncing between different spots, and is generally inefficient.”

For years, North Hills operated six-seat electric golf carts that people could summon to take them around North Hills for free. But not everyone knew about the service, and the public safety staff who drive the carts weren’t always available.

So North Hills decided to establish a shuttle bus that would run on a regular route. Gaylord said they had hoped to find an autonomous electric vehicle of some sort, but determined it may be several years before one can operate legally on public streets and at an affordable price.

RAL_20191010_nh-shuttle_CAT (3)
North Hills will soon provide a shuttle intended to safely transport pedestrians between apartments, offices and shopping in North Hills to reduce congestion, photographed on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019, in Raleigh, NC. Casey Toth ctoth@newsobserver.com

The bus, made by Hometown Trolley of Wisconsin, seats up to 24 people at a time and will take about 15 minutes to complete a full loop around North Hills. There will be five marked stops initially, and riders can see when the next bus will arrive using an app made by TransLoc, the Durham-based company whose tracking software is also used by public and university transit systems in the Triangle.

The North Hills Shuttle is not the first private transit system in the Triangle that’s available to the public — private Duke University operates a system of buses that serve its campuses and surrounding areas. But Erik Landfried, transit service planning supervisor for GoTriangle, says he thinks it’s the first of its kind in the region serving a private mixed-use development.

The shuttle will initially run seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., though the hours may change depending on demand. The route will expand as North Hills does, Gaylord said, and could eventually extend east to Wake Forest Road and Duke Raleigh Hospital.

And North Hills hasn’t given up on someday having a self-driving bus.

“We would certainly like for it to be electric and autonomous,” Gaylord said.

For information about the shuttle, go to visitnorthhills.com/shuttle/.

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.
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