NC: A sign that good times are back? The R-Line bus returns to downtown Raleigh

April 11, 2024
The free bus, which aims to make it easier for visitors, residents and workers to get around downtown, will start up again May 5 after a three-year hiatus.

The R-Line, a bus Raleigh introduced 15 years ago as downtown was beginning to awaken from a decades-long slumber, is coming back as the city center continues to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The free bus, which aims to make it easier for visitors, residents and workers to get around downtown, will start up again May 5 after a three-year hiatus.

The city suspended the R-Line in February 2021 because of low ridership, the result of remote work and a lack of downtown visitors during the pandemic. The Raleigh Transit Authority said it would decide when to bring the route back using a series of metrics that included downtown food and beverage sales and use of parking decks.

Those numbers supported restoring the service as early as August 2021, according to GoRaleigh spokeswoman Andrea Espstein.

But GoRaleigh was dealing with a shortage of drivers that forced it to cut back on other routes, so the R-Line’s comeback had to wait, Epstein said. Higher pay and other incentives have helped GoRaleigh hire enough drivers that it can now staff the R-Line, she said.

Bill King, who heads the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, the booster group that was instrumental in getting the bus started, hailed its revival.

“We are excited to see the R-Line return to downtown Raleigh this May, and applaud the City of Raleigh’s dedication to providing accessible and efficient transit options for residents and visitors,” King said in a written statement. “We hope this is just the beginning in elevating mobility and access within downtown.”

The R-Line makes an inverted U-shaped route that covers West, Peace, Salisbury and Wilmington streets. Among the destinations along the way are Raleigh’s train and bus stations; the Wake County Justice Center; the Raleigh Convention Center; the Publix grocery store at Smoky Hollow; the state history and science museums; the Legislative Building and state government complex; Shaw and Peace universities, and the Martin Marietta Center for the Performing Arts.

The bus is scheduled to pass each stop every 15 minutes from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Wednesday; 7 a.m. to 2:15 a.m. Thursday through Saturday and 1 to 8 p.m. on Sundays. The revived R-Line is expected to cost about $1.2 million a year to operate.

The city launched the R-Line in February 2009, about six months after the opening of the new convention center. It was meant to help visitors to Raleigh explore the city center as well as make it easier for people who live or work downtown to get around.

R-Line ridership peaked in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2012, at 296,652 passengers but had declined by more than half the last full year before the pandemic.

Competition from scooters and rideshares such as Uber and Lyft were partly to blame, as was the route itself, a loop that included the Glenwood South entertainment district. City officials determined that serving Glenwood Avenue had become a problem, as buses got bogged down in traffic there and would-be passengers found the wait between buses too long.

So in 2020, the city streamlined the route, to cut out Glenwood Avenue. GoRaleigh also began using its own branded buses, replacing the special green R-Line buses that had been used since the service was launched.

More frequent buses and a new park-and-ride lot

In addition to restoring the R-Line, GoRaleigh announced several other service changes starting May 5.

▪ Route 6, between downtown and Crabtree Valley Mall and the Pleasant Valley and Townridge shopping centers, will run every 15 minutes along Glenwood Avenue to Duraleigh Road on Mondays through Saturdays, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and every 30 minutes on Sundays.

▪ Route 70X, the Brier Creek Express between Pleasant Valley Shopping Center and Brier Creek Commons via Glenwood Avenue, will begin hourly all-day service Monday through Sunday. This route will no longer serve Crabtree Valley Mall.

▪ Route 19, the Apollo Heights bus along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Sunnybrook Road, will return to 15-minute frequency from 6 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and 30-minute frequency on Saturday and Sunday.

▪ Route 21, the Caraleigh loop south of downtown, will operate every 15 minutes from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday.

▪ Route 55X, the Poole Road Express, has begun stopping at a new park-and-ride lot at Poole Road and Bus Way, next to the GoRaleigh headquarters. The express bus, which operates limited hours in the mornings and late afternoons, will make a stop at the Social Security Administration building at Poole and Samuel Street.

The new park-and-ride lot has 235 parking spots and 12 electric vehicle charging stations and is the first city-owned lot of its kind, said David Walker, the city’s transportation manager.

Raleigh is planning another park-and-ride lot off New Bern Avenue at New Hope Road, at the end of the city’s first bus rapid transit or BRT line. The lots are a new direction for GoRaleigh, which has traditionally focused on moving people around the city rather than commuters from outside it.

“It’s what we need to be doing in the transit world to encourage folks to get out of their cars and get more people riding the bus,” Walker said.

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