This article originally appeared at Building Bull City. Republished with permission.
I was excited for the light rail and when it died, it was frustrating. I would have loved to zip along that corridor, passing traffic and excited to see how to rest of the infrastructure was built out.
Now that the dream of the light rail is over, it is important not to give up on good transit in the area. There may be another way that might even be a better first step.
As much as downtown Durham is building infill development and adding density, Durham and the Triangle are still pretty sprawling. I’m not sure that is ever going to 100% change. We can work towards less sprawl, but never completely shed that attribute.
There are other cities that have had recent transit success, that are a little more like our region, a little more sprawling and interested in a context-specific solution. In his recent article, urban thinker Aaron Renn writes about the successes of cities like Indianapolis and Columbus.
He also wrote a companion article at City Lab with more detail on the Indy BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) and bus system improvements. He argues that a good bus line is the backbone of a strong transit system and the Indy BRT.
For those not familiar with BRT, it is not terribly “sexy”, but when you dig in, it can be pretty compelling. A BRT is typically a bus line that is much faster than a traditional bus line and often offers more capacity. It accomplishes this through initiatives like:
- Fewer bus stops
- Streamlined route (stops in areas with dense jobs, dense residential, and/or transit nodes with lots of transfers)
- Ticketing kiosks at the bus stop, so people buy tickets before getting on
- Dedicated bus lanes (this is a big one)
- Bus priority through intersections/traffic light coordination
- Platform-level boarding (the bus stop is raised so that boarding the bus does not require stairs, which means faster boarding for all, but especially wheelchair riders, and others with ADA needs).
Ok, as I write all those features, maybe it is kinda “sexy” if done right. Now, of course, there are ways to screw up BRT. The biggest is that PLENTY of BRT systems get whittled down to having no dedicated lanes or very short sections of the route with dedicated lanes. In order for a BRT to work well, there has to be the political will to prioritize busses, sometimes at the expense of cars – a very tall order in this area.
As mentioned in the article, implementation of the Indy BRT is relatively inexpensive. It will roll out in phases, but the ENTIRE project, 62 miles and 97 stations is projected to be $500 million, far less than the $2.5 billion light rail budget that would have just been one line between Durham and Chapel Hill. However, there are other cities where BRT expenses are getting away from them. The Low Country Rapid Transit BRT in Charleston, SC is estimated at $360 million, but will only be 26 miles and have 18 stations. It will only be one line and it suffers from not having dedicated bus lanes throughout. They will have coordination with the traffic light system, so it isn’t all bad and perhaps they are working incrementally towards a better system.
But back to Durham – public backing of a BRT might be especially difficult these days simply because of the damaged trust resulting from the failed light rail. We may have to wait a few years and have a few more examples of success in other cities for this to be viable.
A BRT in Durham would have to be built out in conjunction with major improvements in the normal bus system as well. One of the biggest hurdles of having a successful bus system is the negative brand that a bus has. People in this area (and in many other cities) who aren’t “city geeks” like I am view the bus as gross, dangerous, unreliable, and simply not a great option. A BRT would have to include new, clean busses, a completely transformed bus experience, and a decent amount of money dedicated to a marketing and branding campaign. Public money spent on marketing doesn’t always go over well, but in this case, it would be necessary.
In Renn’s article, he also talks about Kansas City, that went to a fare-free system across all of their busses. How is this possible? Well, when you look at what a small percentage of expenses that fare collection pays for, it seems reasonable. According to their 2017 Annual Report (PDF), GoTriangle got about 3% of its expenditures from fares! The rest comes from grants, vehicle taxes, and sales tax, among other sources.
The difference between having a low-cost fare and a FREE bus system would be a big deal in revamping the system and potentially adding a BRT. We also don’t have to look far for another example of a free bus system. Chapel Hill’s entire bus system is free and it feels like there is less stigma around riding the bus there (not to say that’s WHY there is less stigma, just to point out that it’s possible to have your cake and eat it too).
Meanwhile, Raleigh is planning for its own BRT line. There is a long way to go for a Durham BRT, but regardless of what your stance was on the light rail, solutions like BRT are worth examining now that the light rail is dead. Maybe someday I zipping along, passing cars along 15-501, but on a bus as opposed to light rail.
And as Durham continues to grow, a functioning BRT and complete bus system may someday justify and revive the light rail initiative.