Raleigh wants to make more room for buses and bikes downtown. But how?

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.

One of the big challenges of building a bus rapid transit system in Raleigh is deciding where to put the bus-only lanes on the narrow, busy streets downtown.

Bus rapid transit, or BRT, is a key component of the Wake Transit Plan, which county voters endorsed when they approved a half-cent sales tax for transit projects in 2016. The city hopes to develop four BRT lines, radiating from downtown, where passengers can wait on covered platforms for buses that will drive in their own lanes to avoid getting stuck in traffic.

The city is now trying to determine how those buses will get in and out of downtown as part of a larger plan that will also change how drivers, cyclists and pedestrians move around. City planners have developed four scenarios and are seeking feedback from the public through an online survey until Nov. 16.

The scenarios, which along with the survey can be found at goraleigh.org/downtownplan, would all sacrifice some travel lanes or on-street parking for new dedicated bus and bike lanes. But they vary in where those bus and bike lanes would be, resulting in tradeoffs; the scenario that offers the best connections for bus commuters, for example, will eat up the most on-street parking. In contrast, the plan that preserves the most on-street parking would include dedicated bus lanes on Dawson and McDowell streets, the main routes through downtown.

“Which one you like depends on what’s important for you personally,” said Mila Vega, senior transportation planner for the city.

Vega said one of the biggest complications for planners is the width of downtown streets. Under the plan for the city drafted in 1792, most downtown streets are 66 feet wide, including the sidewalks, and all of that space is currently spoken for.

“Obviously, we’re not starting from scratch,” Vega said.

Vega and others from the city presented the four scenarios at an open house in the Raleigh Convention Center on Wednesday evening. People studied large diagrams showing each one and made their preferences known in writing.

Nicole Bennett, who lives in Brier Creek and works for a traffic engineering firm downtown, said she wanted to study them further online but that one thing jumped out at her: In only one of the scenarios did the BRT lines go to both the GoRaleigh bus station on the east side of downtown and the Raleigh Union train station on the west. The other scenarios include a separate connector bus running between the two stations.

“I think it’s important to provide direct connections there,” Bennett said. “I don’t know if having a connector route will be as attractive to users.”

The open house drew people with a particular interest in downtown planning, including cyclists and fans of transit. Friends Emily Forbes, Chase Nicholas and Patrick Nerz said they were pleased with all four scenarios.

“Whichever one happens, it’s still bringing BRT to downtown, which is exciting,” said Forbes, a 27-year-old Raleigh native who works in environmental consulting downtown and lives a mile east.

Nicholas, a planner who does historic preservation work for Empire Properties, often rides his bike to work and was happy with the planned bike lanes, which in many cases would be set off from traffic. He said the loss of some parking and travel lanes “seems like a small price to pay for expanded mass transit options.”

Roy Huntley, a retired environmental engineer for the EPA, said he, too, was pleased to see the city planning wider bike lanes apart from traffic. Huntley lives about a mile west of downtown and says he’s nervous about riding in the current bike lanes on Hillsborough Street that are separated from cars by a narrow white line.

“That doesn’t give me a lot of comfort,” he said.

Vega said in addition to feedback from the public, the city is consulting an advisory committee and a “stakeholders group” that include representatives from dozens of institutions and organizations in and around downtown. She said the city, in consultation with GoTriangle, the N.C. Department of Transportation and the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, will craft a single scenario to recommend to the City Council by next spring.

Richard Stradling: 919-829-4739, @RStradling

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