As some of you are aware, I am currently on the other side of the continent, enjoying some relatively good weather (fingers crossed) in the Puget Sound area. One of the things I always try to do when traveling is to ride around on whatever public transportation is available. Part of the reason is so I can better envision what might work in North Carolina, but another reason is because you get to interact with locals on an equal basis. You're not just a tourist asking stupid questions, you're a fellow passenger, so you can be trusted with all sorts of local gossip. :)
I spent the afternoon yesterday with another BlueNCer (DQ), and one of my goals for the day was to get where she and her husband lived using nothing but public transportation and my two feet, which I succeeded in doing rather well. We're not talking about a metropolitan area folks: these are pretty much exclusively residential townships, separated by thinly developed areas of 5-10 miles or so. After walking two blocks from my sister's house, I changed buses four times before being deposited 1/8 of a mile from my destination. $1.25 a pop, and I sweettalked a few free transfers along the way, so it cost me less than a gallon of gas each way (monthly passes are considerably cheaper).
I've heard (and read) many naysayers who claim the ridership of these systems in N.C. will be thin, and wouldn't justify the huge expenditure. To this, I say: build it and they will come. It may take a couple of years, as people aren't always quick to embrace change. But they will come. And although areas like Chapel Hill have very decent bus routes already, the system only serves those with local needs well, and begins to come apart as you get farther away from the hub. Which is why we need at least robust regional systems, if not a statewide one.
We have a unique opportunity to build a bus/light rail system which would serve the needs of many, not just those living in high-density population centers. But it can't be a hodge-podge of local efforts that happen to occasionally overlap each other. The entire system needs to be designed so that (like here) you get off one bus, and five minutes later your connection pulls up to get you. It sounds complicated, but it's really not.
I also wanted to talk some more about biodiesel. I've been highly critical of this movement lately, but that's mainly because we are (in my opinion) moving in the wrong direction by using food crops as a feed stock. We've been looking at the easiest route to ethanol using current low-tech methods, when we need to focus energy and resources developing methods to refine/process cellulosic biomass from waste and turn it into fuel. But I have a feeling this is another case where the free market is following the most lucrative path, and doing the right thing just isn't economically enticing enough. Frankly, that's one of the reasons we have an elected government: to take steps when other entities won't or can't. North Carolina, with its University system and huge mindbank of researchers in the RTP should be at the forefront of developing this technology, instead of helping to drive up world food prices and feverishly digging more landfills.
I can see a future where most of us don't need to own a car (or SUV, hint hint), and the transit network we utilize helps us keep our wastes under control. And that future is not a fantasy scenario: it is infinitely achievable, we only need to want it enough to make it happen.