Here's how Raleigh's planned Bus Rapid Transit line will compare to Richmond, Virginia's service
Stakes are in the ground along New Bern Avenue in Raleigh to show where the city's first Bus Rapid Transit line will run.
Construction on Wake BRT is expected to start this fall on the 5.4-mile route between downtown’s GoRaleigh Station and New Hope Road. It’s the first of four BRT lines planned for Raleigh.
The transit promises more frequent and reliable service that can cut travel time by 10 minutes compared to today’s buses.
How BRTs work in Richmond, Virginia
Faith Walker leads the nonprofit RVA Rapid Transit in Richmond, Virginia.
“We advocate for frequent and far-reaching public transportation in the region,” Walker said.
Richmond’s BRT is called The Pulse, which is a 7.6-mile route that runs down Broad Street. It stops at 14 destination centers, including the Convention Center Eastbound Station.
“It cuts down people’s travel times tremendously, so people are able to connect to different points a lot faster,” Walker said.
The Pulse travels in its own lanes and triggers its own lights to get ahead of traffic.
“The Pulse has the largest amount of riders compared to the other routes in our system,” said Greater Richmond Transit Co. Chief Development Officer Adrienne Torres.
How Raleigh’s BRT compares to Richmond’s
Raleigh’s first BRT will look like Richmond’s as it travels between New Bern Avenue out of downtown toward WakeMed.
The BRT will run in each direction down the median.
“Our riders are primarily low-income and primarily using it to go to work,” Torres said of Richmond’s ridership.
Richmond leaders anticipated 3,500 riders per day when The Pulse opened in 2018.
“Pre-pandemic, we were up to almost 8,000 a day, so it really, really did exceed expectations,” Torres said.
However, BRT riders aren't getting back on-board as quickly as other routes--and ridership is down 11% from before the pandemic.
Torres said the BRT has worked for Richmond.
However, Lynetta Thompson disagrees. At the time the city of Richmond was debating the BRT, Thompson was the president of the Richmond NAACP. She fought against the city's plans for The Pulse.
“I feel like we lost,” Thompson said.
Thompson says bus rapid transit is driving gentrification along the route. She helped file a civil rights complaint to the U.S. Department of Transportation against the system.
“They’ve brought in a whole new group of businesses, another layer, another tier of a community and that’s not a problem if we all get to share in it, but we don’t,” Thompson said.
Raleigh rezoning hundreds of properties along first BRT line
Some neighbors along Raleigh’s New Bern Avenue share the same gentrification concerns as Thompson in Richmond. They worry developers will be attracted to build up along the BRT.
The city of Raleigh wants to rezone 744 properties totaling 726 acres along and near the New Bern Avenue BRT line.
The goal is to encourage denser development and taller buildings within walking distance of the BRT. The properties would fall under Transit Overlay District zoning along New Bern will allow for buildings up to five stories inside the beltline and between five to seven stories outside the beltline. It also offers incentives for developers to build affordable housing.
The homes of the Historic Oakwood neighborhood are still standing because neighbors stopped plans for a highway through it about 50 years ago.
“They were able to fight it, and the neighborhood is still there because they were successful,” said resident Dee Penven-Crew.
Penven-Crew leads preservation efforts in the neighborhood now.
“It’s a true community, not just a neighborhood,” Penven-Crew said.
Parts of Historic Oakwood are among the neighborhoods along the pathway of Raleigh’s first BRT route.
“The people who live there actually use the buses,” Historic Oakwood resident Matthew Brown said of people who live in affordable housing now. “They’re going to move them out and move people in to the new places who won’t actually ride the buses.”
Property owners can ask to be removed from the district or added in. It requires city council's approval.
“Look at them, see what’s there, and see what they’re destroying or potentially destroying – what they’re incentivizing the destruction of,” Brown said.
Penven-Crew hopes to stop the demolition of historic properties along the pathway.
“We have some properties that will be replaced, and then they’ll put a historical marker up that says, ‘this used to be here,’” Penven-Crew said.
Penven-Crew also wants to avoid losing existing affordable housing to new development.
“We are also going to bat for the neighborhoods that are to our east because they are going to have more significant impacts,” Penven-Crew said.
The hindsight of five years of BRT service in Richmond offers some perspective, according to Walker.
“This area actually was declining,” Walker said. “This was the heart of our city. “
Walker sees proof of a rebound along the route.
“Now, because the BRT has come, a lot of retailers, a lot of investors have put money back into this area,” Walker said.
Walker encourages Raleigh to involve the community in planning for bus rapid transit, and to make sure future development includes affordable housing.
“What we don’t want is transit-dependent people who depend on public transportation being pushed out,” Walker said.
GoRaleigh expects between 2,500 and 3,000 riders per day when the New Bern Avenue BRT opens, which is expected in the summer of 2025.
This year, the city of Raleigh received $86 million in federal funding to move forward with a southern route along Wilmington Street to connect downtown Raleigh to Garner.