Thursday, October 8, 2009

Thoughts About Public Transit

A Tale of Three Cities

I want to start using the bus system in Raleigh (more generically, the Triangle Area). I don't have an unhealthy obsession with buses, I just hate driving. Thanks to a month-long trip to Russia in 1999, I know there's a better way. St. Petersburg's Metrolink system is the best way to travel. If you happen to be in St. Petersburg. The other city I'll put in the mix is Baltimore.

St. Petersburg is an incredibly beautiful city, and they have subway entrances nearly everywhere. It's been awhile, so I can't say if it's still good. However, when I was there, you could buy a Metro card pretty much wherever you were at. I can't say anything about their website. I'm sure they have one, but I haven't been there. It really wasn't necessary to use their website to find out anything. It was intuitive, and I know about as much Russian as you're likely to hear in a James Bond movie.

The Triangle Area is so suburban that it's not practical to have closely arranged stops. That said, the simplicity of using public transportation in St. Petersburg is so phenomenally greater than using it in Raleigh or Baltimore that it's unlikely the city layout is to blame for the disparity in ease of use.

I'm sure Baltimore is a great place. I didn't spend much time there. It's way too close to DC for my taste, but it could be worse. There were lots of bus stops, and a light rail. The one complaint I had with Baltimore over Raleigh was that I couldn't get tickets mailed to me in a reasonable time frame.

Why I'm Annoyed Enough to Write This

Both of Raleigh and Baltimore have incredibly unusable websites. I would have given up already if I wasn't such a glutton for punishment.

Raleigh's situation is complicated in that there are six bus systems for people to deal with, not one. A central website covers all of them (owned by the TTA) but a lot of information is only available on the individual sites.

Even with Google's magic assistance, I have a lot of questions. The first one is where the bus stop is heading west on Lynn and Bent Creek? I can plainly see the one heading east, but I doubt the every bus on that route makes two U-turns there every morning. There are no pictures of it online and I drove past it twice and didn't see it.

The second trouble is the park-and-rides. The online information is spotty. Do they charge? Do I need a placard? And, most importantly, where the hell are they? I've been to Millbrook Exchange and drove past Shelley Lake Sertoma Arts Center and didn't see a sign telling you where to park or that there even was a park-and-ride there. (My spies say that they could only see three parking spaces at the Park-and-Ride at Sertoma)

They need detailed information and should be clearly marked and visible from the main road they're attached to. Fortunately, NC Division of Air Quality has a marginally useful description of some locations.

The next point of contention is route planners. Baltimore's has some Google Maps integration, but because of the way it was integrated, it's difficult to find good routes. Maybe I was doing it wrong, but it shouldn't be that hard.

The TTA route planner has the opposite problem. It has no Google integration. Their route planner seems to be a clunky home-grown solution. With how spread out Raleigh is, it should give advice about bus stop options near you. When I plug in my address, it never tells me anything about park-and-ride locations near me. Taking the routes at face value is incredibly disheartening.

Last point: There's a bus stop that is too far away for me to walk to. I could bike to it but they only allow two bikes per bus. Foldable bikes are allowed on the bus, but with the caveat that they must fit in a carrying bag. I've never seen one that fits in a carrying bag, so cyclists roll the dice every time they take a bike to a bus stop. Totally unacceptable if you're commuting. I have to get to work on time every day, not just on the days my bus-riding compatriots didn't bring a bike.


They're trying to boost use of public transportation in the Triangle Area so they can justify a light rail. There are tons of reasons to use public transportation in the Triangle Area, but with the difficulties involved, can they seriously expect people to give up their cars?

Please, Raleigh, get your act together.

Addendum: Strengths

Each place has its strengths. I don't want it to seem like theres nothing good about Baltimore or Raleigh.

St. Petersburg's public transport is intuitive, places to purchase fares are everywhere and simple, and the routes are frequent and easy to understand.

Baltimore's strengths are that they have a light rail system, and lots of buses.

Raleigh's strength is that you can receive the tickets in the mail in 1-2 business days. In Raleigh, there are also lots of places to buy tickets.

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