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The 15-minute campus

A mere two decades ago, a little-known railway system whisked riders across the sprawling Duke Hospital complex. A maze of tunnels, bridges and underpasses carried little railcars throughout the cavernous complex. This was the core of Duke’s futuristic Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) system — a new mode of mass transit that was poised to redefine the urban landscape. Built in the late 1970s, Duke’s PRT pioneered this flexible mode of transportation and helped elevate Duke Hospital to its world-class status. Despite the PRT’s success, the system was demolished in 2009 to make way for the construction of the Duke Cancer Center and Duke Medical Pavilion.

Today, the old PRT route is surrounded by asphalt for as far as the eye can see. Across campus, crowds of students, employees and guests wait impatiently for the next bus to arrive.

Reduced bus schedules. Bus crashes. Unreliable bus service. Overcrowding. Missing your exams due to the bus. These are ordinary obstacles that plague the commutes of Duke students. Moreover, these problems are made worse by reduced bus routes and operating hours. As recently as 2019, Duke Transit offered additional bus routes such as the C2, C3, C4, CCX, C1X and C1 weekend service, which most current Duke students have never even heard of. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the C1 ran as late as 4 a.m. Now, bus service ceases just after midnight. As a result, many students simply bypass Duke Transit. 

“I find biking is actually much faster than taking the C1 because I get to avoid stops and overcrowding,” says sophomore Tate Kahalas. This hassle, combined with overworked and under-compensated bus drivers, makes the current bus situation untenable.

Bringing back PRT would solve these issues. A PRT system that services all of campus, not just Duke Hospital, would make Duke a 15-minute campus. With a minimal visual and spatial footprint, elevated PRT eliminates the need for extensive areas set aside for transit while also preserving the scenic character of Duke’s campus. PRT is often ridiculed as a mode of transit that should be relegated to Disney World. But PRT systems are flourishing globally in places like Guadalajara, Mexico, Masdar City, UAE and London. Duke’s dispersed campus layout and dense concentration of residents make it an ideal site for PRT development. With PRT, Duke can turn its transportation nightmare into an industry-defining revolution.

One of Duke Transit’s greatest challenges is to handle the rush of students during peak demand. Given that Duke has condensed the period in between classes to a mere 25 minutes, the overburdened bus system must scramble to accommodate the hundreds of students who suddenly appear at the bus stop. In an attempt to handle the surge, Duke Transit added extra buses to the C1 route, but those buses proceed to sit idle (along with their drivers) once the 25-minute window is over. This is an incredible waste of both capital and labor. 

However, a PRT system composed of small driverless vehicles can anticipate peak demands and have vehicles waiting at high-volume stations. Furthermore, smaller, more flexible vehicles reduce the headways (time in between vehicle arrivals), meaning that a vehicle will almost always be arriving at high-demand stations. Enhanced station coverage would reduce long walks after one exits the transit system.

But what about tree loss? Won’t a network of elevated towers destroy Duke’s beautiful forest canopy? Because PRT vehicles are so small, the footprint of support towers would be no more than a lamp post. The system would operate below the canopy of Duke’s majestic trees, blending into the campus ambiance.

An additional environmental benefit of PRT is that there are no on-site emissions, improving air quality and reducing Duke’s carbon footprint. While Duke is working to electrify its bus fleet, the university projects it will be using diesel buses until at least 2027. Additionally, an electric bus (charger included) costs the school over a million dollars, a suboptimal investment given it will sit idle for most of its lifetime. Electric buses that have already been purchased can be used on routes that the PRT does not service, such as the Lancaster Shuttle.

With average speeds of 20 to 30 mph and the option to bypass intermediate stops, PRT systems maximize efficiency and flexibility. An 18-station system would unite the current pastiche of disjointed bus routes. The riders would be able to preset their destination via an app, allowing the system to meet demand. The hospital, East Campus and West Campus would now be mere minutes away. The network is designed so that any point on campus is no more than a four-minute walk away from a station and no two stations are separated by more than an eight-minute ride. Assuming a wait time of under three minutes, any trip on campus would be no longer than 15 minutes.

This seems too good to be true. How can a system simultaneously increase campus coverage while reducing travel times? To answer this question, let’s look at a campus that has been transformed by PRT: West Virginia University. Like Duke, West Virginia’s layout is disjointed and sprawling, with a two-mile gap between campuses. The university used buses to span the distance, but this resulted in extreme gridlock throughout Morgantown. As a result, the university had to schedule a two-hour gap in between class periods to allow students adequate time to commute. To remedy this problem, the school built America’s first PRT system, which opened in 1975.

The change was transformational. The commute time was reduced to a speedy 11.5 minutes. Innovative station designs allow vehicles to easily bypass intermediate stops. And the system can keep up with the massive surge of riders after Mountaineer football and basketball games, an impressive feat given Mountaineer Field has a capacity of 60,000 (20,000 more than Wallace Wade). By switching from country roads to country rapid transit, WVU has found a long-term solution to its connectivity quandary.

Can Duke do the same? One would think so, given that Duke has a history of PRT and an endowment 13 times larger than that of WVU.

It is clear that Duke’s bus system in its current form will continue to detract from the Duke experience. After Duke blocked the Durham-Orange Light Rail, the university can be on the right side of history by building PRT. A 15-minute campus is just one decision away.

Aaron Siegle is a Trinity sophomore. His column typically runs on alternate Fridays.


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