Stacey Carless of the City of Raleigh says the birth of the R-Line had less to do with public safety, tourism or restaurants, and more to do with traffic control. It was brought to the table about a year and a half ago by the City of Raleigh, the Downtown Raleigh Alliance and the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors' Bureau.
"[They wanted] a way to connect people to the different areas of downtown Raleigh without having to constantly get in their car and move their car to a different area."
The three buses (two in service, one as backup) share the technology that also drives a Prius. They came from California at a cost of $565,000 per bus, funded 80 percent federally and 20 percent locally. Each bus costs about $80 per hour to run, Carless says.
Ridership for the first three months of R-Line service has been modest on weekdays (a daily average of about 400 riders, says Carless), but it spikes to about 600 per day on Friday and Saturday. The one-day ridership record was 952 on a Friday.
It would seem useful, I suggest, to attach some residential tangents onto the current route—perhaps one in Cameron Park, one in Five Points, one in Oakwood—to encourage people to leave their cars at home altogether.
"As of right now, there isn't any planning to expand it. Right now, what the bus does is connect all the parking facilities," explains Carless.
And, she points out, they wanted to keep the route tight: "We didn't want to make it more than 10 to 15 minutes. If you're waiting more than 15 minutes for a bus, most likely you're just going to get in your car and drive."
When asked if bus drivers have reported any abuse of the free system, Carless answers diplomatically: "A passenger is allowed to ride the full route one time. And then it's the driver's discretion: If it seems the passenger is disrupting the service or bothering folks, then they can request that the passenger leave after they've been around one full time. And if they have any problems, we do work with the Raleigh Police Department. To date, we haven't had any issues."
Despite general enthusiasm for the R-Line, some residents and merchants in adjoining parts of town aren't satisfied.
Nearly 89,000 residents live within a 3-mile radius of the center of Raleigh, which includes neighborhoods like Cameron Park, Mordecai, Oakwood and Five Points.
Chef John Toler, the longtime proprietor of Bloomsbury Bistro on Whitaker Mill Road, reports that a consortium of merchants in Five Points has met to voice concern that the city council's attention to Raleigh's new districted map is to the detriment of other historic areas. They request that similar attention—from signage and beautification to Wi-Fi and R-Line access—be paid to historic Five Points.
"As I see it, the city is forcing taxpayers into footing the bill to keep new businesses downtown (including restaurants) in business," Toler says. "Five Points has gotten the short end of the stick because we have had our head (North Hills) and our tails (downtown) cut off by development. The city drew a magic line with a northern boundary of Peace Street that defines what is downtown and what is not."
Five Points is a 1920s residential neighborhood located 2.2 miles north of the state capital building, with its epicenter at the intersection of Glenwood Avenue, Whitaker Mill Road and Fairview Road. For the privilege of living near downtown, historic homes in Five Points, even in hard times, generally sell for more than $225 per square foot.
To get to downtown, a resident of Five Points could drive 6 minutes, bike 15 minutes, walk 30 minutes or take the No. 6 CAT bus and pay $1 to go 1.5 miles, then connect to the free R-Line.
But there's a disconnect. Many CAT buses stop running at 8 p.m. or earlier, while the R-Line continues Monday through Wednesday until 11 p.m., and Thursday through Saturday until 2:15 a.m. The only current solution for a bus rider to get home is to call a cab, at a cost of about $13.
Mayor Meeker, taking a page out of the Michael Bloomberg common-man handbook, can also be seen now and then on the bus.
"I ride the R-Line," writes the mayor in an e-mail, "when I have a meeting/ errand in the Glenwood South area (such as a reception last Thursday).... [my wife,] Anne, and I have also ridden the line in the evening several times on our way downtown—there is a stop on Hargett Street that is convenient for us."