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Going back to its routes: Oklahoma City revitalizes public transportation with new bus line

OKC Ward 2 Councilman James Cooper speaks at a ribbon cutting ceremony for RAPID.
Hannah France
OKC Ward 2 Councilman James Cooper speaks at a ribbon cutting ceremony for RAPID.

Reliable public transportation is a key feature of many major American cities. As Oklahoma City continues to grow, its public transit is working to keep pace.

Oklahoma City’s new bus rapid transit system, simply called RAPID, is now open to riders following its launch on December 3.

What is RAPID?

RAPID includes a fleet of nine compressed natural gas buses and 32 platform stops along a nine and a half mile-long route that connects Meridian to Northwest Expressway to Classen Boulevard to Downtown OKC.

EMBARK Administrator Jason Ferbrache said RAPID is a new mode of transportation for the community.

“During our peak times we will have a bus arrive at a platform every 12 minutes. Our whole goal is particularly with the frequency and the trip time to keep that bus, if you will, competitive,” Ferbrache said. “You know, not going to maybe beat the automobile, but we want to keep it competitive with the automobile so that a person has a choice.”

RAPID runs seven days a week, from as early as 5 a.m. on weekdays to as late as 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

To give riders a chance to try the new service, RAPID is operating fare-free through December.Afterwards, one-way trips will cost $1.75 and 24-hour passes will cost $4.

Benefits for all riders

While attracting new riders is a goal, Ferbrache said he also expects RAPID will enhance the experience of existing riders.

Oklahoma City resident and wheelchair user Jeremy Moses frequently uses public transportation to get to doctor’s appointments and to just get around town. He said he’s excited about RAPID’s level boarding platforms.

“I don't have to worry about the ramps not coming out, not functioning. You don't have to worry about, you know, are you going to be able to get on the bus with the wheelchair, which is a problem with the fixed route currently,” Moses said.

He’s also looking forward to increased connection to the city as RAPID expands with two more lines over the coming years using MAPS 4 funds.

“You can get practically anywhere in the city now. And I love that and I'm excited for that. And I can't wait for South and Northeast when those come up with MAPS 4,” Moses said.

Sharing the road

51% of the new route is marked with bus lanes on the pavement in the far right hand lane along Classen and parts of Northwest Expressway. Ferbrache said this shouldn’t slow traffic, but motorists will need to get used to the new lanes.

“We’re asking motorists to reserve that lane for buses or for automobiles that are making a right hand turn or into a business. That helps us keep the bus moving,” Ferbrache said.

Traffic signal priority technology is another new element motorists should be prepared to see. There are now specialized traffic signals for the RAPID buses at some intersections, so they may appear to run a red light.

"They have a different set of lights that they're looking at as opposed to the automobile," Ferbrache said. "Just be patient, it's all designed."

Public transportation in OKC

Ferbrache said reliable and predictable public transportation is a service people expect to find in large metropolitan areas - and with Oklahoma City’s population on the rise, it’s a service that needed to be upgraded.

“We are a growing metro area. You know, we're now the 20th largest city,” Ferbrache said. “And so I think this type of transit just goes hand in hand with growing and becoming a larger city. We should probably deliver a higher level of service.”

While Ferbrache sees this public transportation expansion as taking Oklahoma City into the future, Oklahoma City Councilman James Cooper took time out of a ribbon cutting ceremony for the new bus line to acknowledge the city’s past.

"Once upon a time, Northwest 18th Street was as far as the city of Oklahoma City went. Everything north of these roads here was country. It was farmland,” Cooper said.

From the early 1900s to the 1940s, a mass-transit system of railway passenger cars created by land developers Anton Classen and John Shartelconnected the urban core of Oklahoma City to the suburbs. The Oklahoma Historical Society says these passenger cars, called interurbans, fell out of popularity after World War II, when more Oklahomans had the money to purchase personal vehicles.

“It was right here where this BRT today travels. This median was the old streetcar that took you back to downtown,” Cooper said. “And it is the honor of my life to make sure that the bus rapid transit honors that route. And now it will go even further all the way up to Northwest Expressway and Meridian.”

Oklahoma City’s population has grown from around 10,000 to nearly 700,000 since the days of the interurbans, and the RAPID line expansion reflects that growth. With 40,000 residents living along the new line, Ferbrache hopes people will use the service to connect with the city in a new way.

“If someone doesn't have an automobile or they're in a one automobile household or maybe they just want to choose to travel about the city differently and they're within proximity to that route, whether they work there or they live there, we feel like we're giving them choices,” Ferbrache said.

For more information about the new bus rapid transit line, go to embarkok.com.

Hannah France is a reporter and producer for KGOU.
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