Triangle Transit

I didn’t realize that Yonah Freemark was a fellow native of the Triangle (from Durham; the transit blogosphere now has two corners of the Triangle locked down). He’s put up a nice primer on the possibility of transit in the Triangle region, at the end of which he sounds a somewhat skeptical note:

Or — hard as it is to admit for this native of Durham — perhaps the Triangle is simply not ready for rail rapid transit. How will trains in any of the corridors mentioned here ever attract adequate use when the biggest core, Raleigh’s downtown, only has 40,000 jobs and just a few thousand residents? When will the trains ever get the kind of traffic that necessitates their higher capacity compared to buses? By comparison, Charlotte’s center city has more than 10,000 inhabitants and 80,000 jobs — and it’s relatively small from the perspective of transit-encouraging cores.

If implemented with rapid lanes on the freeways and dedicated rights-of-way in the downtowns, the region could probably get a whole lot more for its money with an upscale bus rapid transit service. Lines could run directly between Raleigh and Chapel Hill or between Durham and North Raleigh without the inconvenient and time-consuming detours that will limit potential traffic.

But I could be wrong. The region is clearly interested in spending its own funds on these transit projects. The cities do need some kind of structural device to organize and encourage dense development; bus rapid transit wouldn’t do that nearly as well as would light rail. These cities have been sprawling so much that only a radical investment may help them reverse course. Perhaps it’s time to take a chance.

Without question, the Triangle area is one of the most challenging large metropolitan areas for transit supporters. It’s polycentric, sprawling, and low density. As Yonah notes, the closest thing the area has to a central business district, downtown Raleigh, has just 40,000 jobs and a few thousand residents. Wake County, the most populous in the metropolitan area, has a lower population density than Prince William County, on the exurban fringe of the Washington metropolitan area. The region’s central cities aren’t big and dense enough to support transit on their own, and connecting walkable suburban nodes (as has been done in the Washington area) is difficult because the nodes themselves are much smaller and quite far apart.

I very much agree with Yonah that any Triangle transit plan has to include a significant bus element. But I think it would be a big mistake not to invest in rail options.

For one thing, the area is among the fastest growing in the country. The Raleigh-Cary metro area grew by 35% between 2000 and 2008 — faster than Las Vegas, Phoenix, Austin, Houston, and all the other big growth cities. Rapid and chaotic growth has led to large increases in area congestion. That congestion will reduce quality of life if alternatives aren’t provided. It will also create demand for living and commuting options that don’t involve long drives.

And central city, walkable living has been increasingly in vogue in the area. Downtown Raleigh and Durham have experienced growth spurts, including new investments and increased employment and residential population. There are thousands of young professionals in the area, and while many of them are happy with the suburban life, others would like to have the option of a more walkable, “urban” experience.

It’s also worth pointing out that the heart of the region is its universities. There are major universities at all three nodes of the Triangle, and students have been among the biggest users of Triangle Transit buses between Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill.

The difficulty is in knowing which places to connect and how. The temptation is to try to accomplish too much with one or two systems — to try and use the same equipment to link the central cities of the Triangle and to encourage denser growth within each city. That would be a mistake. Instead, I’d pursue four different mode types.

First, I would develop plans to encourage walkable growth within the center cities. In Durham and Chapel Hill, this would mean circulator buses, but Raleigh should build a small streetcar network to serve those living inside the Beltline. I would think an east-west line (along Hillsborough Street through downtown and along New Bern Avenue), and an intersecting north-south line through downtown would be a good start.

Second, there should be light rail lines extending from the central cities into the suburbs. I think Yonah’s trunk line is a good place to begin, and I would consider other spurs, as well. The goal would be to catalyze land-use changes and the development of denser, walkable nodes around stations. As things stand, Crabtree Valley and North Hills are turning into denser (and somewhat more walkable) places anyway, but because of car dependency this transition is halting (and leads to a lot of local traffic, which will sour residents on further densification).

Third, I would develop commuter rail services with more or less direct service between central cities, but perhaps also with stops at the airport and Research Triangle Park. This service should be broadened over time to include stops in the central places of nearby cities and towns, all the way out to Greensboro, Rocky Mount, and Fayetteville.

Finally, I would make a push to make the region’s bus service much more comprehensive and attractive. Much of the metro area has been built in such a way that rail transit will never be an option, and neither will significant land-use shifts. But improved bus service, combined with creation of express bus lanes along larger thoroughfares in each city, could slow the growth in congestion and facilitate a slow in-fill process that would make life easier for suburban residents who’d like the option to occasionally get to the store without getting in a car.

The alternative would be to continue spending enormous sums of money on exurban highways until the area is larger and more congested, at which point the Triangle, like Houston and Dallas and Phoenix, would feel compelled to start investing in transit anyway. Best to get the process started now. The Triangle grew by nearly 400,000 people over the last 8 years, and I’d be very surprised if it didn’t add nearly as much again in the next 8 years. It would be nice if even 10% or 20% of those new arrivals could make their homes in neighborhoods that didn’t require every trip to be made by car. Because at these growth rates, you simply can’t build enough road to keep up with the car trips suburban sprawl generates. Not without bankrupting yourself, at any rate.


  1. Cavan says:

    Rail is a planning tool. Even when it’s being build in a dense urban center, it’s still a planning tool. The Metro and the New York Subway decades before represented an explicit investment in urban-appropriate infrastructure.

    Just because the Triangle is currently dispersed and car-dependent doesn’t mean that it must be that way forever. A new rail line should connect existing walkable centers and have stations in between. Plan for a new human-scale streetgrid near the stations in between and the developers will see a profit-making opportunity to fill in the streetgrid.

    Many professionals made the exact same arguments about Washington in the early 1960′s before the highways were cancelled and the Metro embraced. After the Metro was a complete system, the development around the Metro (outside of Prince George’s and Fairfax, but that’s a planning issue) shifted towards a more urban format. Montgomery is looking to better utilize unretrofitted stations like White Flint while redeveloping existing walkable places like Wheaton.

    A similar process won’t happen in the Triangle on a comparable regional scale with a single rail line. It would need a complete system.

    Perhaps the Triangle needs to think about itself differently. Perhaps they should think about local, citywide light rail systems that are connected by long-distance rail lines to each historic urban core. The Triange needs to centralize around its historic urban cores. The trains would act as a planning tool for that long-term strategy.

  2. Steve Holmes says:

    I live in the Triangle, and I think one of the biggest obstacles to public transit is the lack of walkable neighborhoods. Outside of the older inside/near the beltline portions of raleigh (5-points, north hills, oakwood) and a few areas in durham (trinity park), and the universities most of the area is not walkable. There are large discontinuous sections of sidewalk, and a total lack of crosswalks across major roads.

    There is bus service up Capitol Blvd. (US1N), but there are very few signalled crosswalks across a road that is up to 8 lanes wide. People tend to jaywalk as traffic buzzes past because the middle of the block is safer than trying to cross at an intersection.

    Also with regard to Hillsborough street it would have been nice if they would have planned for a street car before the started the current construction effort to remove intersections and replace them with traffic circles. A street car system like they have in say San Jose, CA or Portland would have fit nicely.

  3. BeyondDC says:

    Why stop at the Triangle? You don’t have to go very far to get to the Triad, which has basically all the same issues.

    Without having much first-hand experience with NC, my suspicion is that light rail is the wrong technology for that part of the state. What you really need is a high-quality intercity line running between Raleigh, Durham, Burlington, Greensboro, and Winston-Salem. I’m not talking twice a day, Amtrak, but instead something more like the MARC Penn Line. More like hourly service, at least.

    With that in place, the big need becomes local circulation. Accomplish that with streetcars or Boulder-style buses emanating out from each rail station. Supplement with BRT to reach places like Chapel Hill, which is unfortunately off the main rail line.

    From my view 50,000 feet up, I think you could do more with that model than by trying to shoehorn the region into the light rail model that Charlotte is using.

  4. Karl Smith says:

    The Triad, where I grew up and the Triangle, where I currently live are completely different.

    I don’t see any serious transit strategy working in the Triad. In part because its even lower density but in part because there is no sense of pent up demand.

    I’ll be frank, there is a significant crowd in the Triangle that would use rail or other “prestigous” transit just for the joy of using transit. There is a progressive, urbanist community. A fair fraction the people who have bought into the downtown condo actually work in the Park or telecommute. So it wasn’t being close to work that attracted them, it was living something similar to an urbanist lifestyle.

    As more evidence, when there was a light rail plan, several condo developments went up right by the proposed rail stops. No funding for rail mind you, this was just a proposal. And the key selling point for those condos was their rail access.

    Once our rail project lost funding those condo are now seriously struggling. The whole support for these developments was the idea that “one day” you would be next to rail.