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LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: How to help Wilmington grow and create a safer community that serves everyone

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Mentioning Wilmington’s public transportation system at a party is the equivalent of bringing up the U.S. spy plane that China captured in 2001: Suddenly, everyone is an armchair expert on international law—though, they hadn’t really thought much about it until the day after the incident hit the news.

TAKE THE TROLLEY: The Free Downtown Trolley one way to get around downtown Wilmington without a car. Courtesy photo

TAKE THE TROLLEY: The Free Downtown Trolley one way to get around downtown Wilmington without a car. Courtesy photo

Public transit is similar around here; lots of opinions about what is wrong with it and what should be done. But when pressed, the majority of middle-class residents haven’t taken the bus in recent memory. Why would they? They have a car. Or it takes too long. Or it doesn’t go where they want. Or they don’t even know that it goes to a destination they desire.

Last week I got an email from Wilmington Downtown Inc. (WDI) notifying WAVE Transit has a new survey for improving bus service. WDI specifically cited the Downtown Trolley of interest to downtown stakeholders and included a note about the changing face of downtown:

“Please, be aware WAVE is currently building a new transit center at Campbell and 3rd streets (at the former U-Haul location). The new facility is expected to open in Spring 2018. Once finished, the transfers that occur on North 2nd Street between Princess and Market streets will move to the new transit center.” 

I know: It sounds very reminiscent of Stalin and the “Five-Year Plans.” But as a manageable block of time, five years is probably pretty realistic for trying to plan and implement changes in an area growing as quickly as Wilmington. Officially titled “Wave Transit 5-Year Short Range Transit Plan (SRTP),” the Wave website explains the plan:

“Every five years we are required by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to evaluate the efficiency and effectiveness of our entire system in order to improve service for our customers. A new plan is now due, and in March of 2017 we began the planning process, which will conclude in March of 2018. The final product is a document that will guide Wave Transit through 2022.”

The last SRTP was finished in 2012. It is available on Wave’s website. Actually, it makes for a very interesting read. Among many things requested by riders was improved access to the beaches. Clearly, they listened; in October 2014 I had a great adventure taking the bus from downtown Wilmington to Carolina Beach and back. That route currently runs Monday through Saturday, 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., and Sundays, 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.   

Among recurring comments from respondents surveyed was connection between walkability of our city and ability to utilize public transit. In other words: If it is not safe to cross the street, buses will be utilized less, or riders will ride around another section of the route, in order to disembark on a side of the street that does not require crossing at a dangerous point. Just take a moment and visualize trying to cross Market Street by Costco, with a baby in a stroller and holding the hand of a toddler simultaneously.

Similar challenges for pedestrians exist in numerous parts of Wilmington: College Road, Shipyard Boulevard, Independence Boulevard, 16th and 17th streets. Jane Jacobs (urban activist and author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”) would agree: The walkability of a city determines the livability of a city.

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”  – Jane Jacobs

In addition to safe pedestrian access, a lot of emphasis was put on better bus-stop amenities: signage, trash cans, benches, lights, shelters, etc. It all makes sense: Standing in the rain at 6:45 a.m., waiting to catch a bus to work would cause more than a few people to call in sick for the day. At the time of the last SRTP almost 60 percent of the respondents surveyed did not own a vehicle and relied on Wave. Teens who do not yet have a license or cannot afford a car, people who can’t drive because of physical or mental reasons (blindness, epilepsy, partial paralysis, etc.), the elderly and those who cannot afford insurance are but a few examples of reliance upon the bus system to get to work, school, health care facilities, and grocery stores.

On a related but not identical note, one of the ongoing issues in discussion in downtown Wilmington is parking and the perception of parking. Personally, I spend a lot of time preaching the good word about the Brunswick Connector to an assortment of new arrivals in Brunswick County. To me, it looks like a slam dunk: Drive to one of the big shopping centers in northern Brunswick County. Park. Take the bus across the bridge, and read a book while everyone else gets irritated in traffic. Disembark downtown for an afternoon of fun, food and friendship. Catch the bus back and avoid worrying about both parking and bridge traffic.

It seems with a little bit of marketing, the same arguments could be made for coming downtown from the outlining areas of town. The current Second Street hub sees at least six of the routes stop there. Simple advertising utilizing math could be very helpful: $2 to ride the bus (less for students and seniors) versus $1.25 an hour to park, cost of car ownership and operation, cost of gas to drive … you get the idea.

In addition to walkability, one of the ongoing conversations we have in this community is bicycle transportation and safety. Our buses are equipped with bike racks so commuters and recreators can take their bicycles to help with further transportation or recreation. However, not only is pedestrian safety in question, but so is cyclist safety. There have been numerous high-profile deaths of cyclists in recent years. Though my bicycle provided freedom as a teenager, I won’t ride in city limits now because, frankly, I am too scared. If we want to promote transportation alternatives and contribute to a cleaner, healthier community, we have to make walking, cycling and mass transit  safe and accessible. Here are two easy steps anyone can take to help make it a reality:

1. Ride the bus to work one day. It requires getting outside your comfort zone. See how long it takes to get there, who you meet on the bus, and what parts of our city you discover you haven’t seen before. I am willing to bet it is different than you expect.

2. Next, take the survey Wave Transit has posted online (www.wavetransit.com/short-range-transit-plan/) for the new five-year plan. It is a very good and thought-provoking survey, aimed at trying to create scales of need and desirability, such as longer service hours or more frequent stops.

In addition, there is a survey specifically for the free Downtown Trolley that runs the loop downtown. Even more fun and exciting, they have an interactive map to request new stops or points of service. It is very visual and makes the service area and components really clear.

Wilmington is growing and changing. We are not the same city now that we were five years ago, let alone 10 years ago. If anyone wants to be a part of making positive growth, please, make your voice heard. Together we can create a safer community that serves all of us.

Visit www.wavetransit.com/short-range-transit-plan to take the survey.

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