Charlotte Is on Its Way to Becoming a Modern Transit Hub

The North Carolina city knows that as it grows, its residents will need (and want) to get out of their cars and catch the nearest bus, train, or streetcar.

The Lynx light rail in downtown Charlotte

Credit: David Wilson via Flickr

When Jim McCarthy commutes to Uptown Charlotte, he catches the #43 bus on Park Road, rides it to the light rail station on Sharon Road West, and then hops on the train, which brings him close to his office in the city’s central business district. When he times it just right, it takes all of 45 minutes—but it doesn’t always work out that way.

“If the bus doesn’t come on time, which happens, I miss the train to work. Then, when going home, the trains are often full by the time they reach my stop. Last week I had to wait for five completely full trains to pass before I could get on,” he says. “I’m a big advocate of public transportation, but Charlotte is having some growing pains.”

When the city’s Lynx Blue Line started running in 2007, the light rail route stretched a mere 10 miles. Ridership was strong for the first several months but plummeted during the recession and the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) struggled to lure riders back to its tracks. Meanwhile,between 2017 and 2018, the number of people hopping on the city’s 2.5-mile streetcar line nosedived too, by more than half.

Clearly Charlotte—home to about 875,000 people—has a public transit problem. And when residents can’t get where they want to go using public transportation, they get in their cars, which leads to all sorts of other problems for the city, such as traffic jams, inadequate parking, heavier pollution, and greater contributions to climate change.

“Most people want more transit choices,” says Taiwo Jaiyeoba, an assistant city manager. “As their travel time increases, they want more opportunities to leave their vehicles at home.” The city wants this too. Cutting transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions is a pillar of Charlotte’s Strategic Energy Action Plan to become a low-carbon city. Its goals include transitioning 100 percent of its municipal fleet and facilities to zero-carbon fuel sources by 2030 and shrinking the individual carbon footprints of its residents.

“The best thing we can do for the environment is to get people out of their single-occupant vehicles, and transit does that,” says CATS CEO John Lewis.

Charlotte is the fifth-fastest-growing city in the nation, and its officials are wisely focusing their attention on smart-growth solutions, such as expanding transportation infrastructure and creating more green spaces and bike trails. And in a city where more than one in seven residents live below the poverty line, more and better options for commuting and housing would help low-income communities cope. “We want a Charlotte that is livable and well connected, in terms of not just light rail but also buses and other means of mobility,” says Jaiyeoba.

The city’s big plans are part of the reason Charlotte was chosen as one of the 25 cities to participate in the Bloomberg American Cities Climate Challenge, a partnership among Bloomberg Philanthropies, NRDC, Delivery Associates, and several other organizations to reduce emissions in the urban buildings, energy, and transportation sectors.

“The city’s ambitious vision for transit made it compelling to bring Climate Challenge support to Charlotte,” says Irene Nielson, an NRDC city strategist for the partnership. “This is a rallying cry for the region to shape its future.”

On the Right Track

When Charlotte extended its Blue Line in 2018, the additional 9.3 miles of light rail tracks created a north–south corridor ending at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. And people responded. CATS officials had thought the train would average 9,100 trips per week, but ridership numbers came in 50 percent higher, exceeding their wildest projections. One headline even declared the $1.1 billion project “one of Charlotte’s biggest success stories.” CATS has since boosted investments in light rail, including earmarking $50 million to plan a new Silver Line. That route would run from the town of Matthews to the Charlotte Douglas International Airport—where current options for regular public transportation are limited to a few popular Sprinter bus lines—and then extend west to the suburb of Belmont.

Construction on the Lynx Blue Line Extension near the University of North Carolina campus in Charlotte
Credit: Logan Cyrus/Washington Post via Getty Images

For Charlotte leaders, it is not a question of whether the city needs to continue investing in transit but rather how to make it happen. “In the four years that I’ve been with CATS, I don't think I can remember a conversation about whether we should be expanding light rail,” says Lewis. “The overwhelming majority of discussions I've had have been [about] what is next and how long will it take to get done.”

What’s next for the city is a 1.5-mile extension of the streetcar line, called the Gold Line. The $150 million endeavor is currently under construction; when completed in 2021, the line will connect to multiple transit hubs, making it easier to travel between some of Charlotte’s most popular (and densely populated) neighborhoods.

Cathy Hasty, the director of health ministry and pastoral education at Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center, hopes it will be an improvement over the Gold Line’s current service. She’s tried to take the streetcar several times between her hospital in Charlotte’s Elizabeth neighborhood and meetings Uptown, but with little luck. And using the CATS phone app to access schedules and map out her best route beforehand has proved frustrating at best. “Every time I pull up the website or the app to figure out the route and the schedule, I get lost,” she says. “Once you have a bad experience with public transportation, you tend to write it off.”

CATS CEO Lewis admits that service is currently not ideal. He wants to add more buses on busy routes to cut wait times down to as little as 15 minutes (currently on some routes, riders can be left waiting at stops for upwards of 40 minutes). The vision is there, and NRDC’s Nielson expects the city is ready to ramp up plans that can overcome the significant speed bumps when it comes to paying for it.

Lewis says he’ll need to get creative to cobble together the necessary funding to build the Silver Line. He hopes some city-controlled funds such as revenue from property taxes can provide it; public–private partnerships are another option, or even a sales tax. The investment, he believes, will fuel development along the light rail line, ease traffic to and from the airport, and importantly provide more opportunities for low-income residents to get to work and to find affordable places to live. As rents in the city center increase, many families have been forced to the outskirts of Charlotte, where few public transportation options currently exist.

Road to Somewhere

For those Charlotteans who don’t want to let go of their personal vehicles, the city is encouraging them to go electric. Charlotte’s Plug-In Electric Vehicle Readiness Plan aims to publicize the benefits of owning electric vehicles (EVs), increase access to charging stations across the city, and update local codes that would promote EV adoption by, for example, requiring charging stations in new buildings or at highway rest stops. To encourage development around transit stations, the city passed an ordinance in April that would grant builders extra parking spaces to accommodate EV charging stations.

As for Charlotte’s own vehicle fleet going electric, Sarah Hazel, interim manager in the office of sustainability, says, “We want to be action oriented, but we also want to take a data-driven approach so we can get the right information to make good decisions.” Along those lines, the city has been installing GPS-like units in its current municipal vehicles to collect data on driving habits and map out where to place EV charging stations.

The Climate Challenge is providing technical support to help the city evaluate the environmental impacts of alternative-fuel technologies such as clean diesel, natural gas, EV, and hydrogen fuel cell options, and decide whether to upgrade or update city vehicles, including those in the CATS fleet. “We don’t have that expertise, and the support has been very helpful,” Lewis says.

But a future Charlotte won’t be all EVs, light rail, and buses. Promoting alternatives is key to making transportation choices more equitable and sustainable—and these include bicycles and electric scooters. Shared scooters have been ubiquitous in multiple urban neighborhoods, including Uptown, since 2017. Between May and December 2018, these e-scooters logged more than 726,000 trips. “These kinds of transformational projects start to create excitement and curiosity,” says Hazel. “When you see people you start to think, ‘Maybe I can ride a scooter too.’”

The McAlpine Greenway in Charlotte
Credit: Barbara Mazz via Flickr

Charlotte is also part of an extensive network of paved trails (known as a greenway system), and construction on new protected bike lanes is underway to allow residents to bike to work more safely. McCarthy bikes to work every Friday, traveling along the Little Sugar Creek Greenway for part of the distance. He hopes the city will continue building more trails so he can eventually go the entire way on two wheels without sharing the road with cars. And one day, as commuting options proliferate, there may be fewer cars on those roads.

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