To fix Raleigh’s public transportation system, understand how it’s broken

A Raleigh city bus painted in the new color scheme departs from Moore Square Transit Station in downtown Raleigh in 2015.
A Raleigh city bus painted in the new color scheme departs from Moore Square Transit Station in downtown Raleigh in 2015. cseward@newsobserver.com

I checked the schedule for the third time, made sure I had exact change, and walked a few blocks down the street. Two minutes early. The app on my phone said the bus should arrive in nine minutes, a bit late. I sat down on the bench to wait. A few minutes later, I looked down at my phone again: 31 minutes until the next bus. “I guess it came early today,” I thought to myself. I stood up and started walking to work, arriving there 30 minutes later, hot and sweaty.

I had come back to Raleigh two weeks earlier, after spending a year with my family in Sweden. We loved living in Sweden, but we were surprised by one of the things we loved best: the public transportation system. For one year, we lived without a car, occasionally renting one for weekend trips but mostly relying on trains, buses, and trams. We took an overnight train to the Arctic Circle, a public ferry to the islands in the western archipelago, and buses and trams to neighborhoods all over Gothenburg, the city where we lived. I could take a bus to shop at Ikea, drop my daughter off at school, or get to a meeting in another part of town.

When we returned home to Raleigh, relying less on our car seemed like an easy way to preserve some of our new habits. I decided to forgo my expensive employee parking pass and walk or take the bus to work. On paper, this looked fairly straightforward. We live in a walkable neighborhood, close to downtown. My office is 1.2 miles from my house. There is a nearby bus that goes almost straight to my office door.

What I realized over the next week was that Raleigh’s public transportation system is broken. The buses never seem to run on time. The app is dysfunctional. And good luck if you have to transfer or want to get somewhere outside of rush hour.

I should have known all this already, but I hadn’t ridden the bus in years. As it turns out, this is true of many people in Raleigh. Raleigh residents ride the bus an average of 7.2 times per year, compared to almost 100 times per year in comparable small cities like Athens, Georgia, or Champaign, Illinois. And I suspect it’s actually even worse, with a small sliver of people riding the bus daily and almost everyone else never stepping foot on the bus.

The people who ride the bus have no other options; either they don’t have a car or they can’t drive. And because the people with the power to make public transportation work don’t ride the bus, they don’t fully appreciate how much work the system needs.

Amid needed debates over where and how to house Raleigh’s growing population, we also need to consider how all of these people will get around. Bike lanes are important. And I’m intrigued by the new scooters and lime bikes I see all over Raleigh. But these innovations can’t replace the foundation of our transport infrastructure — the boring old bus.

Other cities have revamped their bus services and figured out how to increase ridership. As a start, we need shorter times between buses and more reliable connections. We need an app that’s accurate. And we need buses that don’t routinely come five minutes early or 10 minutes late.

There are lots of reasons to justify investing in public transportation. It eases traffic pressure, protects the environment, reduces driving under the influence, and allows people with no other option to get to school and work.

Fixing our broken public transportation system ought to be one of our top priorities. But I’m afraid it won’t be until the people with power experience it for themselves. So I challenge our City Council members, mayor, and county commissioners — as well as the rest of us — to spend one week relying on public transportation. Document how much time it takes to make the system work for you. Then imagine it’s your only option. I am convinced that if we all tried this, we would spend less time arguing over how many scooters can fit on a sidewalk and more time building a public transportation system that helps make Raleigh a livable, accessible place for all.

Sarah Bowen is an associate professor of Sociology at North Carolina State University.