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Bull City connected

There’s some buzz around a bus. It’s in the newspapers. On TV. Even has a new hit single from ages past:

The wheels on the bus go round and round,

round and round, round and round,

The wheels on the bus go round and round,

All the way downtown!

You think it sounds childish? Already been done? Alright, but before you skip to the next column, let me back up a minute.

There is a new bus, introduced just two weeks ago. It’s yellow, but also orange, and no, it’s not taking you to kindergarten.

Here are the facts: It’s called the Bull City Connector. It has a website: www.bullcityconnector.org. It runs every 15 minutes from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. and every 20 minutes from 6 p.m. till midnight during the week (on Saturdays, the bus runs on 20 minute intervals). The route starts at the Duke Hospital then moseys over to Main Street via Erwin Road before continuing all the way to Golden Belt, passing through town favorites like Brightleaf Square, American Tobacco District and City Center.

The best part: it’s free!

I got a sneak preview this summer, but I was still surprised at the level of excitement evident around campus.

At orientation events at the beginning of this week I spoke to employees tabling for Parking and Transportation Services: they gave nearly unanimous good feedback. I cornered people in front of the Sustainable Duke table: unanimous good feedback. Across campus and at the bus stop itself, only a few of the people I spoke with had ridden the bus, saying it was easy and convenient; a lot more had heard about it and wanted a test drive.

I counted myself among them, so I embarked on a field trip. I set out from my office Tuesday afternoon under a threateningly dark sky for a free ride around the city.

This was my first foray on a city bus. While Duke pledged matching monetary contributions up to $375,000 for the service (making Durham eligible for $3 million in federal stimulus dollars used to purchase hybrid diesel buses for the project), the Connector is operated and maintained by the city. It’s a partnership.

Think an economic downturn is a bad time to be committing funds to run buses around town? Think again. In a number of ways, the Connector’s inception was long overdue. With Duke’s significant investments in leased space downtown, coupled with annoyingly painful parking on campus, it was time. You might chalk it up to a strong commitment to sustainability that finally got this bus rolling, but don’t discount the fact that Durham’s star is obviously rising as evidenced by the popularity of major downtown attractions and renovations to living, entertainment and business areas. Whatever the reasons, it was definitely time.

As per usual with such projects, there are downsides. This is not a party bus, à la big city transportation. First, you have to find it. On West, it intersects campus near Flowers Drive, which is a short but confusing walk through the Duke Hospital or around the buildings from the main bus stop. On East Campus, you need to walk out to Main Street. This isn’t actually such a bad thing. With thousands of medical center employees stationed on Duke’s campus, this bus is for the hospital-minded folks as much as it is for students and academics holed up elsewhere who need some fresh air. The real kicker is the hours; undergrads, this is not your chariot home from Shooters on Thursday night, unless you’re Cinderella and you have a midnight curfew. Early shift employees starting before 7 a.m. at the hospital may be similarly out of luck for a commuting option.

As for my turn around the route, for a Tuesday afternoon, the ride was well attended. The bus was clean, new and shiny. The bus drivers wear yellow shirts and they’re pleasantly courteous. As I rode around, recorded announcements informed passengers that the bus was approaching Ninth Street and other destinations along the route.

And about the route: it’s great, it’s easy and the maps are color coded. The marketing department gets an A plus. This is how easy and straight forward navigating any public transportation system should be, especially for first-time riders. The bus stops are easy to locate, the route is easy to visualize and the information provided about the areas of the city the route serves makes what might seem like an impenetrable jungle more easily accessible.

I got my map from Sustainable Duke at the graduate student orientation activities fair, but there are more waiting for you on the bus, online or at Parking and Transportation Services.

Perhaps you prefer your bike to roll around town? When I got to Durham several years ago, I went in search of a bike map at a local bike shop to no avail. Now there are bike maps and bus maps and buses with bike racks, including the Bull City Connector! Oh, how far we’ve come. And the places we’ll go…

So I rode the bus round and round, and got back to the Duke Hospital stop in about 45 minutes (20 minutes to the end of the line at Golden Belt). Not bad. With most of the kinks in the schedule hopefully worked out by now, my bus driver reported an increase in ridership this week over last. Better yet, that’s only likely to increase as people stop talking and start riding the bus!

The Bull City awaits you. And seriously folks, if you don’t dig my nursery rhymes, there’s better entertainment to be found downtown.

Liz Bloomhardt is a fourth-year Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering. Her column will run every other Friday.

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