I find myself in what must look like the saddest sprint of all time—breathing heavy, sneakers clunking against an unforgiving sidewalk, sweating my ass off. Had I known this was how my Monday was going to start, I would've worn some lighter clothes. Nevertheless, I am going to catch this goddamn bus.
It's late August, the first day of a week I'm spending using only Wake County's public transportation system to get around, to see what it's like to have to depend on a system that riders, bureaucrats, and elected officials all agree is unreliable, ineffective, and in desperate need of upgrades.
I get to my stop around 9:10 a.m., to take the 12 bus to downtown Raleigh so I can grab breakfast with some friends. A few minutes later, the bus makes a right onto Cameron Street, halts on the other side of Daniels Street from my stop, and picks up another passenger. The bus continues on—and then drives right past me, stopping at Woodburn Street, a block away. After a few minutes—maybe it's waiting for me, but I'm not sure if this is actually my bus—it pulls away from the Woodburn stop and heads toward downtown.
I'm confused. Is this my bus? I think I'm right, and my phone thinks I'm right, but now I'm doubting both of us.
I wait a long, anxious fifteen minutes for the 16 to come, at 9:30. When it does, it again pauses at the phantom stop, this time picking up no one. I learn my lesson, complete the aforementioned sprint, and take my seat, to the chuckles of passengers behind me.
Over the course of that week, I rode buses that had no air conditioning, were consistently late, and were generally a pain to use. Luckily, I had a car to return to the following week; for many riders—a quarter of GoRaleigh's ridership makes $15,000 a year or less—that isn't an option.
But it might not be that way for much longer. If a diverse coalition of pro-transit reformers—including all of the Wake County commissioners, municipal politicians, universities, social justice groups, community leaders, and chambers of commerce—gets its way, life as Wake County riders know it will change. Advocates for a $2.3 billion transit referendum promise that, if passed, it will not only quadruple bus service but also entirely revamp Wake's public transportation system within the next ten years, introducing bus rapid transit, commuter rail, local circulators for the municipalities, and express service in, out, and across the county.
For advocates like Wake County commissioner John Burns, this is the one chance to bring the county's transportation system up to speed with its growth.
"We are a modern, growing county that needs a modern and flexible transportation system," he says. "We have to have it. We are going to choke on our own success if we don't offer an alternative means of transportation."