Most people might not make it a point when on Memorial Day vacation to check out the local bus rapid transit system. I did, and I dragged my friends along too. In fact, I’d recommend it if you’re going to be in Richmond, Va., anytime soon.
Virginia’s capital city opened a roughly 7-mile bus rapid transit through its downtown a little less than a year ago. It cost about $65 million and took about a decade to move from planning to completion.
As of January, the bus rapid transit route, dubbed Pulse, was the regional public transportation system’s busiest line. It carried an average of 6,100 riders per day, which was just shy of double the planning expectations.
All of this is of note here in Charleston because we’re planning a bus rapid transit route as well, albeit one far more ambitious and costly than Richmond’s.
Mostly, that’s a good thing. The proposed 23-mile or longer route connecting Summerville and downtown Charleston via 18 stops with dedicated bus lanes and short wait times can and should be a seismic shift for mass transit in the area.
In fact, Charleston’s bus rapid transit system will probably be the longest single line in the country — and one of the longest in the world.
Richmond doesn’t have all of that. Buses run mostly in the same lanes as the rest of traffic, and they aren’t much bigger than the standard buses that serve the rest of the city.
So the main things that set Pulse apart from a standard bus are fancier stations, preboarding ticket purchases and buses that run at platform level rather than relying on hydraulic lifts to kneel down and make it easier for passengers to climb aboard.
And yet those simple things are more than enough to make it accessible and attractive for a tourist who had little to no knowledge of Richmond or how its broader public transportation system functions.
There’s no need to look at a schedule since buses run every 15 minutes — even on a holiday weekend. There’s no need to find exact change since $1.50 tickets can be bought at the station with cash, card or a phone app. There’s no need to wonder which route to use since it’s pretty much just a straight line.
It’s easy. It’s attractive. And it works.
In other words, it doesn’t take that many bells and whistles to persuade people to use mass transit when it’s cheap, simple and convenient. That’s a big, important lesson for transit systems everywhere, including here.
None of this is to suggest that Charleston should lower its expectations for our own Lowcountry Rapid Transit. Far from it.
But given the timeline still ahead of us before the first passengers hop aboard — the expected completion date is in 2025 — we should consider doing all that we can at the moment to pave the way.
Why not go ahead and start putting some branded Lowcountry Rapid Transit stops or signs along the planned route, for instance?
Add a limited-stop bus that would serve the target audience. Go ahead and start testing a pre-boarding payment system with non-cash options at those new or upgraded stops. Put traffic signal priority systems in a few existing buses to see how much time it really saves on average.
Planned and implemented smartly, these or similar efforts could be seamlessly integrated into the final Lowcountry Rapid Transit system, which could eventually absorb their costs. The lessons learned could save money and improve effectiveness as well.
And a visible transition toward bus rapid transit could help boost public awareness and prompt the kinds of investment and community revitalization that will be necessary to make the system work.
There’s some precedent for this kind of effort. Boston tested out components of its planned bus rapid transit system in three pilot efforts last year. It built momentum and public support.
Charleston’s ambition and vision for its bus rapid transit system are commendable. Frankly, a serious investment like Lowcountry Rapid Transit is long overdue. But it’s also crucial to get things right, since so much of the region’s transit future hinges on the success of a single project.
We have time to test parts of it out. Why not try it?
Ed Buckley is an editorial writer with The Post and Courier.