Alternative Transport Fever Hits North Carolina

Miles Per Gallon

July, 29, 2008, by Jedidiah

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Gas prices this, gas prices that. The historically popular small-talk conversation about the weather—which was water in 2007—has now turned its focus towards gasoline, and is not letting up anytime soon. Many North Carolina residents are taking note and using other modes of transportation rather than the automobile.

With an estimated national budget deficit of $482 billion and the economy in a fragile condition, it is good to see that North Carolina drivers drove 3.9 percent less miles in May than in the same month last year. The drop was from 8.86 billion miles in 2007 to 8.51 billion in 2008. This means that North Carolinians drove approximately 350 million less miles in 2008 than they did in 2007.

Let’s put some calculations with these numbers. If there are approximately 8.8 million people in North Carolina—24% of which are under the age of 18—that means there are roughly 6.7 million drivers (give or take a few youngsters, oldsters, and outliers). 6.7 milllion drivers drove 350 million less miles this May than last. Each driver in North Carolina drove about 50 less miles. This is a great start, and while Raleigh will likely never have the bike population of Portland or the subway system of New York City, we can be better about using public transportation.

Noticeably, there are more small scooters on the road this year than last. A new scooter shop will open on Hillsborough Street beside the existing shop late summer or early fall. More and more bikes are on the road daily. Bus ridership is up and more residents seem to realize that they can get to work cheaper and in more environmentally friendly ways.

Maybe we could drop this number again by May of 2009. What are you doing to decrease the number of miles you drive on a daily basis? We can be a progressive 21st century city if we try. Forget what all these polls say about being #1 in this category and #3 in that one, let’s not only talk the talk, let’s walk the walk (or ride any other form of lower carbon transport that gets us there).








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  • Steve W
    07/29 06:30 PM

    That’s not much of a decrease in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) caused by higher gas prices.  It will take decades of mixed-use infill development before walking, bicycling, and transit increase appreciably. Changing demographics will do more than gas prices in the long run—the ratio of children to adults is decreasing rapidly, so 20-somethings and empty nesters want walkable neighborhoods.

  • Michael
    07/29 07:03 PM

    If the city invested in decent bus stops with aesthetically pleasing shelters and comfortable, modern seating, maybe even some flowers, people would probably view public transportation more favorably. How many times have you driven past a broken down bench with sketchy, sweaty people laying on it baking in the sun or doing their best to stay dry in the rain while waiting for the bus? As long as public transportation appears to be relegated to the unfortunate, those who are fortunate will avoid it.

  • Steve W
    07/29 07:07 PM

    Michael, I agree.  And when land use patterns support walkability, the fortunate will use transit. When the fortunate use transit, there will be flowers and comfortable seating.

  • Jedidiah
    07/29 08:12 PM

    Michael,

    There are a couple of “modern” benches that are on the way. They have been designed and are a test run for the city to possibly adopt some of them or more of them in the future across the board (maybe next time with more money).

    When they will be implemented, I’m not sure, but the construction documents for my team’s bench are pretty much close to being done.  We’ll see.

    More info here

  • Michael
    07/29 08:25 PM

    Thank you for directing me to that article. I’m glad to see that more people are concerned about all the challenges that need to be addressed to make public transportation more attractive and successful in the area.

  • absent.canadian
    07/29 10:35 PM

    Amen to the scooters.  I just picked up a used Honda Spree for a few hundred dollars, and am getting well over 80 MPG.  Sure makes for a cheap commute to work!

  • CAT lover
    07/30 01:30 AM

    Do newraleigh readers really need to wait for the City to plant pretty flowers around our bus stops?  Why wait for the Fortunate People to catch on?  Riding the bus is cool now.  It’s easy, it gets you where you need to go, and….it’s still revolutionary in this area. If you want to make a statement, arrive via bus. As a dedicated public transit aficionado, I confess to lounging on weathered bus stops, likely appearing as the sweaty character you describe (hey, it’s hot).  However, I certainly try to avoid looking sketchy, and I’ve never felt out of place boarding the bus in a suit.  Sure there are folks from all walks of life on the bus, but that’s what makes it more fun than driving home alone in your car.  If you want to understand your community, listen to the stories the sweaty sketchy guy tells on his way home.  In some ways I dread the day when my bus is filled with rich clean people listening to ipods.  So get on now, before it gets trendy, and don’t make excuses about the flowers and the “image.”

  • Mark
    07/30 01:49 AM

    Best kept secret for commuting from Raleigh to Durham:
    The 7 AM train (the Piedmont) leaves ***on time*** every morning from Raleigh and arrives at Brightleaf in Durham at 7:30. Spacious, comfortable, and free coffee. A great commute, but a little pricey- about $4.30 one way. But with the current price of gas, may be break even depending on your car.

    For the return, it’s more difficult. The TTA express buses are great to have, but they take an hour to go back to Raleigh and if there are problems on the highway, the you’re still part of it. Still, you can get work done, read, etc.

    If you like working long days, you can wait for the 8 PM return train, but it is often as much as an hour late, particularly during the summer (due to expansion of rails I am told that limits speeds and messes up schedules). Help may be on the way with the new mid-day train leaving from Charlotte that, if timed properly, might be feasible for a return commute at a more reasonable hour.

  • sketchy sweaty person
    07/30 02:01 AM

    Michael, Steve,

    Have either of you actually ridden a bus?

    Or, have you just remarked how “broken down” the bus stop bench appeared from the window of your SUV between sips of your $4.50 Starbucks frappuccino on your commute from your satellite fauxmmunity to your planned lifestyle destination (http://blogs.newsobserver.com/orangechat/when-is-a-shopping-center-not-a-shopping-center)?

    Your comments smack of racism. Your outmoded preconceptions about public transportation being “relegated to the unfortunate” betray your inherent yokelism.

    Why don’t you go stand at a bus stop? You sound like a bunch of pansies (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pansy).

  • rnb
    07/30 03:31 AM

    the raleigh-durham-chapel hill area has greatly missed the boat in the arena of public transportation. it takes years for a real system to be decided upon and put in place. charlotte did the right thing a long time ago in deciding it was the best thing to do and they are now on track to get there (however, that is pretty much the only positive thing i can say about that city)

    the bus system here can work. i have been to larger cities that rely only on bus systems that run incredibly smoothly, with or without fancy bus stops. although the least they could do in raleigh is post a schedule/map at each stop. and i have never been on a mode of real public transportation without a great diverse group of people- that is one of the best parts of it. but people just have to try it… step out of their comfort zone of not having your car outside your office. it’s not easy, but having been forced to do it once in a foreign country with no option of a car, it was very liberating!

  • Steve W
    07/30 08:18 AM

    Sketchy sweaty person, I rarely use transit because I purposely moved to a location where I am not dependent on any kind of motorized transport. Most days I ride my bike and put my suit on after I arrive. My point was that transit will only reach the mainstream after decades of land use changes. But I agree with CAT lover that if you want to make a statement, arrive by bus. (Who really wants to be mainstream?) At the same time, don’t refuse a ride back with someone just to prove a point because for me at least, it’s all about people coming back together… and back to “place.” As a fierce individualist, it took me a while to figure out that relying on other from time to time is part of what makes relationships stronger.

  • Michael
    07/30 03:31 PM

    I think I’ve been misunderstood. I was not expressing my own opinion about the riders waiting for the bus. I was pointing out that this perception is most likely part of the reason why more people do not take advantage of public transportation. And by the way, I live close enough to work and downtown that I rarely need to drive (my compact car) or take the bus and I have never had a frappuccino in my life. It’s snide, presumptuous, self-righteous, preachy comments like that which turn off the very people you supposedly are trying to convince of your argument.

    And regardless of all this wonderful diversity and rich urban melting pot nonsense that people keep spouting, I highly doubt any of those sweaty, sketchy-looking people sweltering in the sun are particularly appreciative of the non-speaking roles they are playing in your idea of hip, urban living. They, more than anyone, are the ones I’m thinking of when I call for shelters and decent benches.

  • OCOG
    07/30 03:32 PM

    “Or, have you just remarked how “broken down” the bus stop bench appeared from the window of your SUV between sips of your $4.50 Starbucks frappuccino on your commute from your satellite fauxmmunity to your planned lifestyle destination”

    Jealous much?

  • Michael
    07/30 04:13 PM

    And one more thing. My comments do not “smack of racism.” That comment was purposely incendiary. If anything, in retrospect, my wording could be misinterpreted as slightly classist. I’ve often noticed that assumptions, especially judgmental ones, tend to reveal far more about the one doing the judging than the judged. That being said, I will not make any assumptions about what latent feelings prompted that response. My final word will have to be that I simply meant that more often than not, the people waiting for the bus seem miserable and depressed. And in our ridiculously consumption-based culture that usually stems from economic disadvantage.

    So while everyone is out BUYING hybrid cars and BUYING cfl bulbs and BUYING organic this and that, maybe they can BUY an umbrella for one of those sketchy people waiting in the rain for the bus. I will.

  • sketchy sweaty person
    07/30 05:21 PM

    Michael,

    “Snide,..., self-righteous, preachy?” I am guilty as charged. I apologize.

    “Presumptuous?” What I interpreted from your original post was that you possess the a “buses are for poor people” mentality.  I think you clearly implied that regular folks won’t use buses as long as that mentality pervades. Forgive me, but in my opinion that attitude belies the same old classist and/or racist perspectives I hoped would fade as people unite in relying on public transportation.  There is a danger in urban living being portrayed as (or simply being) the exclusive domain of the financially elite. Indeed, a fear of mine is that as urban communities like downtown Raleigh are “recolonized” there will be significant inflationary pressures that drive those who currently live there into the suburban ghettos (eg, an empty Wal-Mart) that have cropped up on the edge of every town in America.

  • stefanie
    07/30 05:51 PM

    some advice for potential bus riders who are turned off by inadequate bus stop amenities:  pack an umbrella, a newspaper and some bottled water and it’s amazing how comfortable you can be in either hot sun or rain at the bus stop.  really.  it’s not about waiting for the perfect system (bc it will never be perfect) but about taking _some_ responsibility for your own comfort.  Also, if you notice that the bench, litter container or shelter at your stop is broken, please call 890-3430 to report it and it will be fixed.  :-)

  • Diane
    07/30 06:22 PM

    I try to be patient and sanguine about life here in Raleigh without a car. Everywhere my husband and I go, we go by foot or by bus. And most of the time, it’s okay… but at times the TTA bus and its ridiculous lateness (by almost half an hour last night) really drives me crazy… what’s the point of having a bus schedule when you’re chronically really far off said schedule? I want to be able to continue supporting public transit, but it’s definitely difficult when you feel the system isn’t remotely supportive of its own ridership… and clearly isn’t looking to woo any new riders. Reliability is key!
    Sigh.

  • John
    07/30 07:32 PM

    Diane,
    I couldn’t agree more. I regularly ride the TTA and am also extremely frustrated by its lack of reliability. Not only is it rarely on time, the buses often break down, especially in the summertime when the temperatures are high. The 5-10 minutes that my particular bus is late almost every single day means I arrive late every single day. One’s only recourse is to take an earlier bus, but in most cases that is an hour beforehand which means one arrives at their destination 50 minutes early which is a real waste of time(I am talking about the express buses here).

    I simply don’t see how the TTA is going to woo more passengers, or keep the ones it has, if it can’t get people where they need to be on time.

  • go go girl
    07/30 11:39 PM

    Why does it take premium dollars to design adequate shelter and seating at a bus stop?

    Were there not decent benches and prefab shelters already available in the myriad of existing catalogues used by the design industry?

    And why are those mostly empty behemoth busses still plying the city streets? Wouldn’t smaller (think rental car) busses operating twice as often serve the community better?

    And if the route is actually crowded has the frequency been increased to a ten or fifteen minute turn around?

    And can the rush hour schedules been adjusted for higher frequency in the belief that “if you build it they will come”?

    And if UPS can save a bazillion dollars reducing the number of left turns could the bus routes be similarly adjusted?

    go-go

  • Bungalow
    07/31 11:14 AM

    So how does the Multi-Modal Transportation Center (MTC) proposed near the Boylan Wye fit into this discussion?  The City of Raleigh recently hired HDR Architecture, a consulting firm, to prepare a plan for this center.

  • Michael
    07/31 01:49 PM

    I agree with go go girl; just a simple, decent bench and shelter that suggests public transportation is something that merits a little attention. And wouldn’t smaller, shuttle-type buses that ran more often be better than the giant, half-empty, black smoke-spewing ones that wobble down our poorly designed streets?

  • Steve W
    07/31 01:54 PM

    Go go girl and Michael,

    The only issue with smaller buses is that the largest cost for transit agencies is labor. Once you’ve paid the driver, there is a tendency to buy a Texas-sized bus because you get economies of scale.

    However, you make a good point.  A dispersed region like the Triangle needs a transit system that is as nimble as possible, and smaller buses are probably part of the solution to decreasing headways.

  • Jedidiah
    07/31 02:01 PM

    I couldn’t agree with Michael more about smaller buses that ran more often. This morning I missed the bus (which I’m sure had 3 people on it) by 1 minute (could see it fly by in the distance) and the next bus doesn’t come for 30 minutes. Sadly, when this happens, I walk back home and ride my bike or drive (2 miles) to work. Smaller, more frequent buses would alleviate this problem for many I’m sure.

    Just as we could send someone to study Portland or Rotterdam’s bike culture, it would do Raleigh some good to send a couple of planners to London for a couple of weeks to study the bus system.

    There was nothing like waking up at any point in the morning and knowing that I never missed the bus or knowing that I could return home at night whenever I desired, not only on the half hour.  Multiple buses stopped per minute at every stop. Oh how I miss that. Raleigh residents would use buses more and love it.

  • OCOG
    07/31 02:04 PM

    We may love riding buses more, but we might not love the accompanying tax increases:

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/25891664

  • Jedidiah
    07/31 02:10 PM

    It costs $1 to ride the bus as far as you want to. I will trade some tax money and hell, another dollar per ride, for a larger bus ridership any day. It currently costs $2 for a ride on the Metro in NYC.
    It beats putting our tax dollars to a toll road that many of us will never use.

  • John
    07/31 02:27 PM

    At the end of the day public transport in the Triangle is always going to be shaped and/or limited by money. The idea of smaller buses is a fine one, but as someone pointed out the labor and fuel costs would be prohibitively expensive. No, what we may see are improved buses that are as large or larger than the current ones long before we see small buses circulating.

    I agree that the London bus system is wonderful. That said, what London has that Raleigh doesn’t is an enormous tax base to pay for it with.

    I think our community’s ideas about the role of taxes will have to change substantially before we see big civic improvements. If I went out on the street today and asked an individual whether or not he would like a clean, efficient public transit system in the Triangle, I bet he would say “sure, that would be great!” If instead I asked him if he would be willing to pay an extra 2% in tax per year to pay for it, he would probably say “heck no.” Yet that same individual has probably given very little thought (at least until recently) as to where his $2.50/$3.50/$4.00 per gallon really goes - that is, towards building skyscrapers and 5-star resorts in places like Dubai. I would ask that person why he, as a resident of the Triangle, be so willing to support the breakneck development of Dubai but not Raleigh?

  • OCOG
    07/31 02:33 PM

    The problem with paying more to government agencies to help us build roads, infrastructure and the like is the abundant lack of internal oversight into how much these agencies spend, where they spend it, and to whom they give it. I liked the post that critqued the NC Turnpike Authority, as it highlights that agency’s incompetence. A recent audit of that group showed $1.7M in unrecorded liabilities. That type of waste is rampant at every level of the DOT. I’d rather not give them another dime until they prove they know how to spend it. It’s a great thing for people to ride the bus more, walk and ride bikes more and use other sorts of transportation, but the government should not punish us for doing so.

  • Steve W
    07/31 02:33 PM

    The fact that roads are falling apart isn’t because of transit. (In NC, only 3% of state transportation funds go to transit.) It’s because building roads to accommodate growth only works up until a certain point, and we reached that point a while back.

    But I agree with you OCOG—North Carolina needs to start maintaining its roads and bridges instead of building even more sprawl-inducing highways.

  • tarheel
    07/31 06:09 PM

    Michael & the Others…

    Benches?!?!?  You actually have benches? There are at least three “bus stops” on Litchford in North Raleigh that are merely bus stop signs stuck in the uncut weeds on the shoulder of the road.  What on earth?!?!  Every morning I see people standing in grass sometimes up to their knees waiting for a bus on the shoulder of the road littered with empty Burger King bags.  This city is ridiculous to expect more people to stand in that mess.  Every bus stop needs a bench, a shelter, and a trash can for pete’s sake.

  • BK
    07/31 06:47 PM

    Relatively cheap GPS technology now allows bus stops to show a real-time display of when the next bus will arrive.  If you miss your bus, or get to the stop way early, you’d know if you had time to duck into a store for coffee or a newspaper. 

    This would be really useful in conjunction with a continuous active streetscape, of course, which most of Raleigh doesn’t have.

    But I agree, not making folks stand in knee-deep grass in hot sun or pouring rain would be the first step.

  • go go girl
    07/31 07:56 PM

    I don’t recall anyone suggesting bench-free stops - they all need them. I was opposed to the cost of “designer” benches and shelters.

  • Jedidiah
    07/31 08:08 PM

    “I was opposed to the cost of designer benches and shelters”

    A: Why?

    B: there’s a difference between “designER” benches and designED benches.

    C: the benches mentioned above are all being designed and fabricated by volunteers, therefore no money will be used in this part of the construction. AIA is donating money for the material of these benches, a total of four, therefore guess what?  These won’t cost the city (and you as a taxpayer) any money except for pouring the concrete pad for them to sit on (which is pennies)....

    Considering the fact that the Triangle’s volunteering rate is bottom of the barrel, I’d say we need more of the public and designERs volunteering their time, efforts and possibly money to fix some of the transit problems around here.

  • Betsy
    07/31 09:43 PM

    Why shouldn’t bus stops be somewhat luxurious?  We certainly have a gold-plated highway system.

  • Betsy
    07/31 09:46 PM

    In fact, one of the reasons the rest of the public realm is so impoverished, is because we are continually blowing the public budget on asphaltic infrastructure.  We give the highway engineers everything they ask for, while building crappy town halls and crappy post offices, and letting sidewalks crumble into pieces.

    The public realm is, after all, the shared civic space where our our society conducts its public interactions, and if it looks like it was cobbled together on the thinnest possible budget, that is an indicator of how highly we regard the shared endeavor of our civilization.

  • Steve W
    07/31 09:51 PM

    Right Betsy, America is about individualism, and property rights are the foundation of our entire economy.  Sharing things—especially space—is woefully Un-American. :) That’s why we’re the most disconnected society in the industrialized world.

  • go go girl
    07/31 10:17 PM

    I’m was of the mind that the money and energy going towards these much needed benches and shelters could possibly be stretched even further - providing benches and shelters for even more stops.

    But maybe I’m wrong.

  • ChiefJoJo
    08/01 04:55 AM

    Definitely agree with Betsy and Steve.  Too much $ on highways & the wrong ones at that. Transit is left to fight an claw for what little it gets.  See the current clusterf**k that is the Bush proposal to divert billions in federal transit $ to highways at a time when gas is $4, transit systems are bursting at the seams and struggling to meet budgets… oh, and the money funds 80% of almost any highway project a person can dream up.  You can’t make this stuff up!

    Back to Raleigh… the Triangle is always going to have some issues with trying to serve over a a metro region spread across 30 miles.  Longer trip lengths take more time and use more fuel.  We need to change the paradigm such that instead of building whatever/wherever/however in our best willy nilly planning approach, we should strategically plan where things and places are built.  Want transit to work?  Take a strategic, results-driven approach to planning/development such that further development is transit focused, end of story.

    This is a good blog post that provides visual evidence of what I mean:
    http://theoverheadwire.blogspot.com/2008/05/kenworthy-speaks.html

    Q: Are Wake/Triangle resident willing to pitch in and pay for their 21st century transit system?  We shall see, likely next year.

  • ddjango
    08/20 05:42 PM

    Let me be blunt.

    The talk about rail in this area is ridiculous. I worked in public transportation development for seven years. Rail doesn’t work if the feeder system doesn’t work. In Raleigh, the feeder system doesn’t work. In fact, cat is a disgrace, a broken throwback to the 1950s.

    During the day, from 9 am to around 4:30 pm, 95% of all routes run once per hour. If a connection needs to be made and the first bus is late (which it all too often is), it can take an extra hour to reach a destination. It is ridiculous that schedules are such that no leeway is scheduled between arrival of one bus and departure of a connecting bus. I have had my connecting bus drive away as my bus was arriving at the connect point many times.

    cat is also plagued by social, cultural, and political issues that make it uninviting to potential riders. Infrastructurally, cat is at least 20 years behind and the intertia is deadening.

    This area and its so-called public transportation provides no incentive to bring people out their cars.

    How do I know all this? I rely on cat. I don’t drive. And I’m disgusted.

  • jeremy
    08/02 02:26 AM

    Fuck a bus. People smell.

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