Tough Traffic And Small Towns: The Triangle’s Mass Transit
A couple weeks ago I was driving around downtown Raleigh. It was late in the day, so parking beside Moore Square was free. Buses stopped and picked up a handful of people just past Tir Na Nog, where three men were playing bagpipes for a couple of smokers. Just beyond the Big Acorn, the Farmer’s Market folded up tables and rolled up their signs for the day. I walked over the cobblestone of Blake Street and marveled at how nicely Raleigh had captured the elusive small-town feel as I stepped into a small coffee shop.
It was sitting in that coffee shop that I began to think about the buses. Over the last twenty-plus years I’ve lived in the Triangle, I had never once rode a Capitol Area Transit or Triangle Transit Authority bus. It was always there as an option, of course, but I saw it more as a last-ditch method of getting to where I needed to go. It was never my first choice.
I grew up in a family of travelers. Cars were not just the best option, they were the only option.
My father never had a commute less than 45 minutes, and he ran his cars hard. We must have gone through at least a half-dozen before I was fifteen. Between car payments, maintenance, and gas, it was a huge strain on the family’s finances. We didn’t have a choice, having a car was a need. It was like rent or food.
I never took mass transit seriously living in the Triangle. And for decades, a lot of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill citizens haven’t taken it seriously, either. Routes between the three points of the Triangle are long and not available by bus at certain times during the day, and take an hour and a half to travel what should take fifteen minutes by car.
Traffic haunts I-40, 440, and 70 like it’s trying to scare the Scooby Gang away from Curly’s gold. Crabtree is a nightmare, mixing a large volume of shoppers with commuters trying to merge onto two major highways. Any section of I-40 between Raleigh and Durham is threatened with stop-and-go traffic within a three-hour radius of the official “rush hour.”
There has to be a better way to get around the Triangle.
The Triangle could learn from other cities. Along my travels in the last ten years, I’ve used the Washington D.C. Metro, the New York City Subway, and the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit. Each had their ups and downs, but they all had two things in common: the people invested their time and money into it, and were rewarded with jobs, fast travel, and extra money in their pockets to spend in all the places they could visit.
How many more people from around the Triangle would visit the restaurants of downtown Raleigh, if they could pay just two dollars and avoid road traffic and tricky parking? How many students could use affordable travel to ease the financial strain? How many more people would spend time in cultural centers, like the art and science museums, state parks, or local shopping districts? Other cities have figured out that mass transit isn’t just a helpful tool for low-income commuters, it’s a gateway to a regional renaissance.
I left the coffee shop on Blake Street feeling slightly less charmed by the small-town feel Raleigh works so hard to project. Raleigh isn’t small. It’s big. It’s time to accept the responsibility of making the Triangle the commercial and cultural hub it deserves to be, even if it won’t start paying dividends for another ten or twenty years.
We’re already on our way with a National Transit Hub set to open in 2017, but even that connection may not be enough. The Raleigh hub is supposed to be a “major stop” between Washington, D.C. and Atlanta, which is pretty exciting. The downside is, the Triangle’s mass transit will still be plagued by the same problems.
We’ll get more people stopping in Blake Street coffee shops and visiting the Marbles Children’s Museum, but Raleigh needs to extend its reach beyond downtown to all the great places in and around the Triangle. The citizens need high-speed commuter rail, and they don’t need hopeful proposals shot down because no one wants to spend the time, money, and effort.
The Triangle’s next step is right here, so let’s take it and not look back.