The irony is not lost on me, or many people, that the heart of the Duke Medical Center district — a congested stretch of Erwin Road, between Fulton and Trent streets — is hazardous to public health.
Put aside for the moment, the imminent physical peril that threatens bicyclists on those thoroughfares or pedestrians attempting to cross the streets, even if the walk sign assures them it’s safe to do so. The longer-term damage stems from the thousands of cars that pass by, that stack up 10 deep at the stoplights, that circle the dizzying mazes inside parking garages in search of a free space, that idle at valet parking or patient drop-off.
Air pollution from those thousands of tailpipes contribute to some of the very diseases and disorders that Duke doctors, nurses and researchers are trying to cure: asthma, heart disease, cancer, reduced lung function and premature death. MIT researchers estimated that in 2005 air pollution-related mortality shortened the average victim’s lifespan by 12 years.
There is a partial solution to this air pollution problem, or there was. Go Triangle’s 18-mile light rail line connecting NC Central University to downtown Durham, Duke University, Duke Medical Center, Chapel Hill and UNC Hospitals was supposed to dislodge people from their polluting cars and move them en masse to major education and employment centers with a lighter carbon footprint.
Now, though, Duke University, which for years supported the light-rail project, has suddenly refused to sign a cooperative agreement with GoTriangle that would allow the line to be built. Duke had planned to donate land for the rail line — in fact, the project aligns with university’s own climate change goals — but now university president Vincent Price is backing out.
In a letter to GoTriangle, Price cites as reasons construction vibrations and traffic disruptions, electrical frequency interference and possible power outages. (This is some weak sauce. Hospitals in major cities, like Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, connect to rail lines and subways.)
Here’s another example of why this rationale is disingenuous. Duke University and its Medical Center operated a rail line for 30 years. The cars rode on a “cushion of air” and were “propelled forward with the help of magnets.”
From a 2017 article in Duke Today:
For almost three decades, Personal Rapid Transit whisked patients, staff and visitors between the expanding hospital’s facilities at Duke South, Duke North and Parking Garage No. 2. It was taken out of service in 2009 and most of it was demolished to make way for the Duke Cancer Center and Duke Medicine Pavilion.
Surely the rail line’s demolition, in tandem with the construction and expansion of the Medical Center caused vibrations. Did new utility lines have to be run? Why yes. And what of the magnets? Were MRI machines going haywire? Apparently not.
Mass transit is also key to offsetting the global damage from climate change. Transportation accounts for nearly a third of greenhouse gas emissions in North Carolina, according to the state’s recently published GHG inventory. Since the Trump administration is proposing to relax vehicle emissions standards, North Carolina’s decrease in tailpipe emissions — 12 percent from 2007 to 2015 — is in jeopardy.
Duke University’s own Climate Action Plan, published last November, advocates for enhanced public transit access, including “regional light rail, efficient bus routes, etc. that connect employees to Duke University.”
Nothing short of becoming its own city seems to align with Duke’s vision of civic duty. The university already strong-armed Durham into changing the route of the Bull City Connector, a free campus-to-downtown bus that ran every 15 to 20 minutes. The service was especially popular among low-income Durham residents — and moderate-income townies like myself.
But Duke argued that the timetable was insufficient for its employees and students. Thus, the university demanded that the BCC save time by bypassing the main transit center, the hub where people could transfer to the fare-free system. Durham caved to that demand, over much opposition from the Black community and its allies. Yet even that major route alteration didn’t satisfy Duke. The university withdrew funding for the route, and now it’s in jeopardy. And it still doesn’t stop at the main transit center.
Instead, Duke started a shuttle service — wait for it — with a stop next to the transit center that runs nearly the identical route as the BCC. But you must have a Duke ID to board the cocoon. Unencumbered by the hoi polloi, riders can be whisked to their destinations on a cushion of airs, propelled not forward, but backward — to a regressive, shortsighted, punitive transit policy. It’s bad not just for the patients, students and workers at Duke, but also the residents of Durham, and ultimately, the planet.