'Good for people and good for business': Public transit gets moving in Raleigh-Durham | Crain's Raleigh Durham

'Good for people and good for business': Public transit gets moving in Raleigh-Durham

Construction on the Raleigh Union Station is expected to be complete in January 2018. | Photo courtesy of the city of Raleigh

Increased frequency, convenience and diversity in transit options, designed to service both day time commuters and nightlife revelers, are picking up steam across Raleigh, Durham and Research Triangle Park.

Last fall, Wake County voters approved a one-half percent sales tax increase to fund public transportation in the area. Fifty-three percent of voters approved the increase, which would fund a robust 10-year, $2.3 billion plan that includes a plethora of projects in Wake and surrounding counties.

Eric Lamb, transportation planning manager for the city of Raleigh’s Transportation Department, said the referendum’s approval was illustrative of the role transportation plays in everyone’s lives, and it shows that transportation can serve as an economic catalyst for the region.

“I think you’re seeing a strong commitment to it as a region in a way that hasn’t happened before,” Lamb said. “Transportation touches every facet of every resident’s life. It is inherently important to everyone who lives here. Not everybody drives, but everybody is a pedestrian.”

It's a quality of life issue, Lamb said.

“The quality of a city’s transportation facilities reflects on your quality of life, as well as the condition of traffic you drive in. If your roads are heavily congested and your daily commutes are painful, that could negatively impact your life,” he said. “And employers pay attention to this, too. Take Amazon, for example, and this discussion of where to locate their second headquarters, that’s really taken things to the next level, especially when it comes to the different elements.

“They specifically want to look at multimodal transportation and they want to know that there’s a robust transportation infrastructure wherever they locate. It’s tremendously important.”

Doug Kaufman is the CEO of Durham-based TransLoc, which aims to deliver seamless mobility for all through a transportation technology platform. The firm has partnered with more than 300 providers – from Amtrak to Uber – over the past decade.

“There’s a lot of supporting evidence that shows access to robust public transportation is good for people and good for business,” Kaufman said. “A vibrant transportation system broadens the worker pool for businesses, as well as increases access to jobs for low-wage workers.”

Citing American Public Transportation Association statistics, Kaufman said that every $1 invested in public transportation generates approximately $4 in economic returns. For every $1 billion invested in public transportation, that supports and creates more than 50,000 jobs, and for every $10 million in capital investment in public transportation, there’s a $30 million yield in increased business sales, Kaufman said. Home values are also affected by access to robust public transportation, Kaufman said, citing a 42 percent home value increase for homes near public transportation with high-frequency service.

“And the best transportation networks, like the best financial portfolios, are diversified, with a range of public and private options for the community depending on the purpose of the trip, length of trip, the weather and community interests,” Kaufman said. “What is particularly attractive about public transit as a key component of that transportation network is the cost-effective and equitable movement of everyone in dense urban environments, which is critical for an area’s economy.”

First steps in the transit plan

“There’s a lot of activity for developing our new transit plan,” Lamb said of the voter-approved referendum. “The first changes we intended to make was to expand the duration and the offerings of our current transit service.”

Part of the early plan is to bring weekend service more in line with weekday service.

“This would make it more convenient, for example, for those who work in the service industry – those folks who need transit access when the bars and restaurants are closing,” Lamb said. “Next, you’ll see certain corridors attain higher frequencies, meaning there will be more frequent stops so that you’re not waiting at a bus stop for up to an hour waiting on a bus.

“We’ve developed a concept for 15-minute frequencies. We currently have 13 miles of 15-minute service and our goal is to get that up to over 80 miles of 15-minute service,” he said.

After that, the next tier of the plan is bus rapid transit with dedicated bus lanes and high-quality bus amenities, including shelters and level boarding platforms.

“And the big tier and the most robust part of the plan would be a commuter rail system that would link Garner and Durham and run through Research Triangle Park (RTP). That, we intend to have up and running by year 10 of the plan,” Lamb said. “The stations are between two and five miles apart and it would run frequently during commuter hours. It will be true commuter rail service.”

In downtown Raleigh’s warehouse district, construction is underway on the Raleigh Union Station, a big piece of the transit plan’s puzzle.

“Our first big foray into the plan is the Raleigh Union Station. It’s set to open in January 2018 to replace our current train station,” Lamb said. “It will serve the future commuter line, as well as replace our existing passenger services, which is an embarrassingly small and inadequate train station to handle the volume of people we have.”

Transit and technology

Kaufman described the Triangle – Wake, Durham and Orange counties, and of course, RTP – as a very interconnected region where many people live in one area, but commute to work or school in another.

“Our area was the first to bring together municipal and university transit information into one comprehensive regional real-time passenger information system,” Kaufman said. “TransLoc’s RealTime software and Rider app allows for the residents of Durham, Orange and Wake counties to take advantage of our regional public transportation through real-time tracking of vehicles.

“Additionally, Wake, Orange and Durham County voters have committed to investing billions of dollars in increased bus access as well as light rail (Orange and Durham), commuter rail (Wake), and Bus Rapid Transit (Wake) infrastructure and operations.”

But even with the passing of the bond referendum and increased facilities, there are still many people in the area for whom public transportation simply isn’t a viable option, Kaufman said.

“For some, traditional fixed route might serve their area but the distance to transit from their home or work might be too far to be considered convenient, as most people in the U.S. won’t walk further than a quarter-mile to and from a transit stop. For others, traditional fixed-route services might not serve their area at all. One way that TransLoc can help is by empowering public transit agencies to provide new demand-driven transportation modes, like microtransit, in areas that aren’t served optimally by public transportation.

“The brilliance of microtransit lies in its mutability. For transit agencies, it can solve a multitude of challenges, like first mile/last mile and underperforming routes, without adding significant operational burden. Microtransit gives public transit users the freedom and flexibility to move through their day according to their schedule, with on-demand convenience. In essence, public transit users can request a ride through their transit agency at the touch of a button, that transports them to their nearest transit stop or to another destination.”

September 13, 2017 - 11:14am