It’s going to be a while — about another seven years — before passengers step aboard Charleston’s first true mass transit system. That’s just the frustrating nature of building a major new infrastructure project in the current federal regulatory environment.
But it would be a huge mistake to wait until 2025 to start maximizing the potential benefits of a bus rapid transit (BRT) line connecting Summerville with downtown Charleston.
Fortunately, the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments, the agency overseeing the project, is working to get the private sector involved in promoting and planning a game-changing piece of Charleston area infrastructure.
That smart effort seeks to explain the value of transit-oriented development, push public-private partnerships and demonstrate the economic benefits the new bus system will bring. All will be essential to the success of BRT in Charleston.
Development in particular is key. The BRT line will stretch more than 20 miles when completed, most of which is surrounded by property ripe for infill development and urban revitalization.
And BRT isn’t just an extension of a regular old bus system. It works like light rail on wheels, with a dedicated lane, traffic signal priority, pre-boarding ticketing and raised station platforms to let passengers board and exit quickly.
In other words, it’s a real mass transit system, and mass transit has been proven in other cities to boost economic development in the surrounding area. That’s an opportunity here too, and one that officials and private partners should be planning for now rather than later.
In North Charleston, for example, the BRT route runs along the Rivers Avenue corridor, offering a chance to breathe new life into struggling strip malls and underdeveloped properties. The city needs to update its zoning code to ensure that new development in the area will be mixed-use so more people can live and work near mass transit, reducing the need for cars.
Sidewalks and bike connectivity can also help boost mass transit and reduce traffic congestion. North Charleston, Summerville and Charleston should look at improving pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure in the areas surrounding the planned BRT route.
Of course, sidewalks, bike lanes and zoning don’t matter if the private sector isn’t interested in building the types of development that support mass transit. Education is vital in that regard. And that’s where COG’s outreach efforts are so important.
For one thing, there aren’t a lot of good examples of true bus rapid transit in the United States — all of the largest and busiest systems are abroad, mostly in Latin America. It’s a relatively new innovation that’s somewhat less familiar than alternatives like commuter rail or a subway.
But BRT works well in cities where it is being used in limited service, such as Cleveland and Los Angeles. In Colombia, Brazil and China, BRT systems move millions of passengers per day.
Once businesses and developers in Charleston understand the scale and potential of BRT, they can start planning and working on projects that will take advantage of it.
That’s what ought to be happening now. Bus rapid transit is coming. It’s going to move a lot of passengers, change lifestyles, revolutionize transportation, spur economic development and change the way the Charleston area sees itself.
There’s no need to wait until the first bus hits the road to start preparing for that future.