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‘We have to make it sexy’; Triangle looks to Richmond to learn about future bus system

Triangle visits Richmond, VA, to ride Pulse bus rapid transit system

A group of Triangle residents visited Richmond, Virginia, to ride the Pulse, the city’s new bus rapid transit line. Raleigh, Cary, Wake County and Chapel Hill plan to build similar BRT systems in coming years.
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A group of Triangle residents visited Richmond, Virginia, to ride the Pulse, the city’s new bus rapid transit line. Raleigh, Cary, Wake County and Chapel Hill plan to build similar BRT systems in coming years.

A group of Triangle residents stood on the platform of Main Street Station in downtown Richmond last week, prepaid tickets in hand, and glanced up at the electronic sign that said when the next bus would arrive.

This is why they had come to Virginia’s capital, to ride the Pulse, the city’s bus rapid transit line that opened to the public in late June. Wake County and Chapel Hill both plan to build similar systems in the coming years, and about 75 politicians, planners, engineers and others from the Triangle came to see how one works.

Bus rapid transit combines many of the qualities of a subway or light-rail system at much less cost. Buses stop at stations, with ticket kiosks and covered platforms that let riders get on without climbing steps. And while at times the buses are mixed in with traffic, they often drive in their own designated lanes, passing cars that inch along at rush hour.

“It’s bus service the way you always wanted it to be,” Chapel Hill Town Council member Michael Parker said after riding the Pulse. “It’s faster, it’s more efficient, and it’s more comfortable.”

Bus rapid transit or BRT is part of larger plans to give Triangle residents alternatives to driving. In Wake County, transit agencies are doing the early planning for four BRT lines that will radiate from downtown Raleigh by 2027, while Chapel Hill is working on a BRT line from Eubanks Road through downtown to Southern Village that’s expected to open in 2022.

The Greater Richmond Transit Company’s Pulse is a single 7.6-mile line from the far east side of the city through downtown and out to a large shopping center on the west side. Most of its route is on Broad Street, the city’s most prominent commercial thoroughfare, lined with stores, office buildings, museums, old manufacturing plants and the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University.

There are 14 stations along the way — about two per mile — and about 3 miles of “bus only” lanes down the middle of Broad Street. The system, including 10 new buses that run on compressed natural gas, cost about $65 million to build, using a combination of state, federal and local money.

Michael Banks says the Pulse is a big improvement over the city buses he has ridden for years in Richmond. Fewer stops and the dedicated lanes mean the BRT is faster; his weekly trips across town for doctors appointments that used to take 45 minutes on a traditional bus now take 25, Banks said. The prepaid tickets also speed things up, by making it faster for people to get on.

“There’s no fumbling for change,” said Banks, 47, as a Pulse bus pulled into the Main Street Station. Banks walks with a cane because of a spinal cord injury, so he appreciates not having to climb steps onto the bus.

The Triangle visitors seemed most impressed with the Pulse stations. Under the wood and steel canopy, there are places for people to sit or lean while they wait and a large system map with QR codes that let people use their smartphones to see what’s in the neighborhoods around each stop. When a bus arrives, the driver nestles the front tire against a plastic bumper, then pulls forward so that there’s only about an inch gap between the platform and the floor of the bus.

“There was a lot of thought made to how to get people on and off the bus quickly and easily and safely,” said Cary Town Council member Lori Bush. “The stations here are quite beautiful. … They’re kind of iconic.”

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Main Street Station for the Pulse, the new bus rapid transit system in Richmond, Va. The stations have raised, covered platforms and kiosks where passengers buy tickets before boarding the bus. Richard Stradling rstradling@newsobserver.com

The beauty of the stations is one way Richmond hopes to change public perceptions about the bus and lure riders who might not otherwise consider riding one, said Richmond’s mayor, Levar Stoney. The system’s speed and convenience make BRT more competitive with ride-sharing services such as Lyft and Uber, Stoney said.

“The general perception of a bus is that it’s for a certain type of person,” he said in an interview after speaking to the Triangle visitors. “What the BRT has shown is that folks from different income strata can enjoy the bus. I think it’s breaking down walls and putting people from different walks of life on a bus.”

Cool factor

Jennifer Robinson, a Cary Town Council member who heads the GoTriangle Board of Trustees, said the Triangle’s BRT system has to make riding the bus feel cool.

“We have to make it sexy,” Robinson said, adding that she thinks the Pulse does that.

“You don’t feel like you’re slumming it. I mean this is really nice,” she said, standing in the Willow Lawn Station. “The ease of use is fantastic. It’s not a diesel vehicle; if it doesn’t smell like a school bus you’ll be more apt to use it, right? So I think there’s a lot of elements here that kind of have that sexy factor.”

Robinson said she once worried that BRT wouldn’t lure developers to a transit corridor the way a light-rail or commuter rail system would. One key measure of mass transit’s success is whether developers build more homes, retail and workplaces around the stations to appeal to riders and in turn attract more of them. Robinson said seeing the Pulse stations allayed her concerns.

Mark Olinger, director of Richmond’s planning department, said the city is crafting policies and zoning to try to encourage redevelopment along the Pulse line, particularly for housing that people of modest means can afford. And the city has found there’s plenty of room for it; 35 percent of land along the BRT corridor is used for surface parking, Olinger said.

The field trip to Richmond was organized by the Regional Transportation Alliance, a program of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce that supports plans for BRT and other transit improvements in the Triangle. The goal was to see what’s working well with Richmond’s system and also what the Triangle might do better.

Patrick McDonough, the manager of planning and transit oriented development for GoTriangle, was impressed with the Pulse, but said he thinks the Wake County BRT lines in particular will need to spend less time mixed in with traffic. The Pulse travels on bus-only lanes on 42 percent of its route, but McDonough doesn’t think that will be enough in the Triangle, where traffic is worse.

McDonough said it’s also important that Triangle BRT buses be given priority at intersections along the way. Pulse buses may eventually get guaranteed green lights along the route, but that system isn’t working yet.

“We saw this heading westbound as the Pulse, with 30 to 40 or more people on board, waited for 2 to 4 cars with less than 10 people inside to turn left before the Pulse bus was allowed to proceed,” McDonough wrote in an email after returning to the Triangle. “A best practice in this case would be to program the traffic signals to give the bus the opportunity to move forward first, THEN to permit the left turns for cars.”

Wake County’s bus rapid transit system is part the Wake Transit Plan, which voters endorsed when they approved a half-cent sales tax increase to finance transit in the fall of 2016. The 10-year, $2.3 billion effort also calls for more frequent traditional bus service and development of a commuter rail line from Garner through Raleigh, Cary and Research Triangle Park to Durham.

The 20 miles of BRT in Wake are expected to cost about $347 million, according to a summary provided by the Regional Transportation Alliance. For more information, go to goforwardnc.org/wake.

Orange County voters approved a half-cent sales tax for transit in 2012 to help pay for projects that include a light-rail line from Chapel Hill to downtown Durham. The Chapel Hill BRT line would cover about 8.2 miles and cost about $125 million. For more information, go to ourtransitfuture.com/.

Richard Stradling: 919-829-4739, @RStradling
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