Opinion

Great things are coming for Raleigh’s buses. But can’t we have some of them now?

One of GoRaleigh’s new compressed natural gas buses at the main bus station at Moore Square downtown. The buses look similar to the diesel buses they are replacing, except for the compartment on the roof where the CNG fuel tanks are kept.
One of GoRaleigh’s new compressed natural gas buses at the main bus station at Moore Square downtown. The buses look similar to the diesel buses they are replacing, except for the compartment on the roof where the CNG fuel tanks are kept. rstadling@newsobserver.com

There are big plans for transit in Wake County, and I’m excited to see the changes that will take place over the next decade.

But I also want to be able to get excited about the bus system we have today. The approval by Wake County voters of a half-cent sales tax increase in 2016 for public transportation, as well as the fact that younger Americans across the country are driving less, indicates that much of Raleigh feels the same way I do. We want to love the buses! We want to need the buses! But the numbers would point out that we only love the idea of the buses.

According to the most recent American Community Survey, only 1 percent of Raleigh workers older than 16 rode public transportation to work in 2016. And according to transit agency GoTriangle’s Annual Bus Performance Report, fiscal 2016 (the 12 months ending that June 30), saw fewer total bus riders than fiscal 2015, despite the Triangle’s growing population.

GoTriangle is planning on implementing big changes such as commuter rail and a bus rapid transit system in Raleigh to try to get people to leave their cars at home. Emphasizing buses, by building bus-only transit corridors and communicating more with potential riders, has helped cities such as Seattle increase ridership. Raleigh’s public transportation providers are trying to follow that lead. Perhaps rapid transit lines will revolutionize Raleigh’s relationship with public transportation, but that’s still years away.

New buses, both electric and compressed natural gas, and more routes will go a long way to helping the public appreciate the bus system, and some of these changes are coming relatively soon. But increasing public buy-in could start right now with a focus on reliability and accessibility.

As Jonathan English recently noted in an article for CityLab: when it comes to public transportation, “service drives demand.” English explains how transit authorities historically have slashed costs to try to stay afloat, as opposed to investing in services and improving them. They’ve often bowed out of competition with cars, instead of trying to entice drivers to become transit riders. So the drivers have stayed drivers, never making the decision to switch to public transportation, because why would they?

The coming developments are exciting. But there are steps we could take today to increase ridership that wouldn’t be nearly as dramatic as a new set of roads just for buses.

Raleigh bus stops are obscure and often still labeled with GoRaleigh’s old name, Capital Area Transit. And then there’s the problem that we often don’t know when to expect our buses. There is an app, but accuracy is an issue. A better app would be a worthwhile investment that could help make public transportation more accessible (especially to technology-savvy, transportation-hungry millennials) immediately.

But that still only helps people with smart phones. A more equitable investment would be to update existing bus stops. I’m not asking for every element of the solar powered, garden-style bus shelter palaces in Paris. I’d settle for a small, tidy bus shelter with a small but accurate screen with real time updates on the progress of my bus.

There was a competition to design new bus stops early last year, and I’m excited to see those. GoRaleigh is waiting on bids for the cost of those shelters.

Updating bus stops might not be the kind of big, sexy change that draws in grant money. But accurately letting people know when a bus will be at its stop will go a long way towards getting people to ride it.

Shelbi Polk is at spolk@newsobserver.com or 919.829.4557.
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