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Wilmington Missed The “Year Of The Scooter." What About the Bus? Have We Missed That Too?

Since you don’t see scooters all over the region and notably, not even in the denser urban parts of the Wilmington Region, it’s obvious the scooter phase (or some would say craze) has not yet arrived.


We will comment briefly on the scooter phenomenon and then take a deeper dive into the reality of our present transportation system in a partly urban, suburban and rural region.


THE RACE TO MARKET HAS BEEN CHAOTIC, WASTEFUL, INSTRUCTIVE

There has been a world-wide race to take ownership of the scooter market. Manufacturers have “jumped on board” and some cities have been invaded by thousands of scooters from a half dozen or more companies. Many scooters have been vandalized, and a tug-of-war is playing out between docked and undocked (leave anywhere) scooter fans, critics and regulators. Wilmington has not been a dumping ground thus far. Undoubtedly we have had overtures to accept scooters on some basis, but silence prevails. Meanwhile, pioneer cities are learning from experience and developing regulations. We missed the former, will learn from the latter. Stay tuned.


Loose venture capital investments, competition for market share and dominance, have driven an Uber like market strategy. Get there first, price aggressively and own the market. But the devil is in the details...


WOULDN’T IT BE BETTER TO JUST UPGRADE THE BUS NETWORK?

Now let’s take that deeper dive. Our region, and mostly urban core is serviced by buses. In recent years, voters have clamored for more bike paths and sidewalks, but the primary use is recreational, and for walking to school or neighborhood events. This is great, but does not presently add much to getting to work or many other so called “activities of daily living”, like groceries, errands, and doctor visits. It may make getting to the bus stop easier, but very few of us do it now and protected parking is not generally provided if we bring our personal bikes or scooters.


TWO PARAGRAPHS OF STATISTICAL ANALYSIS TO READ OR SKIM:

There are huge statistical databases that tell us how we’re doing. Buses are not solving our job access needs. On a ten point scale, we score only 3.1, obviously meaning more than two out of every three urban areas do better with bus solutions. The score analysis concludes “Low combination of (bus) trips per week and number of jobs accessible enabling few people to take transit to work.” The reasons are complicated. Economics, history, geography, settlement and road building patterns, personal experiences and preferences and of course, politics enter into the reality of our present situation.


Wilmington has no “high frequency” transit, so none of our 77,400 job holders can travel to the bus stop, knowing if they miss one, the next will be along soon and can wait without anxiety about being late for work or appointments. Only 32,300 of those jobs are accessible in a 30 minute bus trip, to which travel time to the bus stop and time to get from the bus destination to the job must be added. Great software apps for our Smartphones help, and Wave Transit in Wilmington now has online bus tracking. Some cities have also adopted interactive screens in bus shelters to display exact time and route information. Needless to say, an expensive service.


85% OF JOB HOLDERS ARE NEAR OUR TRANSIT LINES

A surprisingly high 66,400, or over 85%, of our job holders live within one half mile of a transit line. But fear of missing that (infrequent) bus is natural. Providing high frequency bus service is very expensive, including buses, drivers, maintenance, depreciation, and facilities. And, multiple transfers to get to that job may be required, adding to time and complexity depending on where jobs are located.


Wilmington is one of very many cities that would love to have great bus service. But affording it is another matter. Asheville and Greensboro are converting to electric buses. Conventional or diesel buses typically cost $500,000. Forty passenger electric buses are costing $800,000, but will save more than the difference in maintenance/operating costs and of course are non-polluting and silent. Wave Transit in Wilmington is adding nine more CNG (natural gas) buses to modernize its fleet. While there are federal and state subsidies, converting to high frequency service to increase demand and service is prohibitively expensive and may require bond issues and higher taxes. Meanwhile, bus ridership nationally is declining, as it is locally.


SUMMARY: BUSES ARE TOO DEEPLY EMBEDDED IN OUR CULTURAL MIX TO GO

AWAY QUICKLY. BUT THEY ARE NOT A LONG TERM SOLUTION.

Buses are indispensable today, but too large, expensive and inflexible as broad scale planning solutions. They would be unaffordable absent federal and state cost sharing. Without subsidies, they would have little or no role in a holistic urban/suburban transportation infrastructure. They fit best in predictable, repetitive point to point transfer of large groups, such as city-to-city transfers.


SOLUTIONS IMPERATIVE—TRANSPORTATION COSTS US 22.4% OF INCOME

What about those scooters? Well, we will have to examine more complex questions—what about conventional bikes, scooters, or electric versions of both, and how about rethinking the entire system in favor of many more, smaller electric shuttles that reach out further into the neighborhoods? What about some shuttles providing pick up on demand? (We have this on a small scale for special needs.) Will autonomous vehicles soon be part of a better mix of transportation alternatives? How can alternate personal mobility vehicles traverse our urban core safely without unreasonable risk to the user or pedestrians? And, how do we integrate them into the streets, intersections and sidewalks, if at all?


A worker here fortunate enough to earn $40,000 a year spends nearly $9,000 on

transportation. Congestion is increasing commute times, costs and frustration. What a different quality of life—affordable housing, basics, and education would result if we can develop solutions that reduce transportation costs. We will share further thoughts on this subject in future blogs.


Bill Graham

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Renaissance Wilmington Foundation

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