Transit Success in Sprawl City

LYNX Stonewall Station by James WillamorWired Magazine just had an article about the relatively new light rail line in Charlotte, NC. The single-line, 9 mile-long track runs along a light industrial corridor from fast-growing suburban areas to Uptown (that’s just what we call downtown in Charlotte). Despite how small Charlotte’s light rail system is with only 15 stops, Lynx experienced an 800 percent increase in ridership last year.

To explain the significance of Charlotte transit’s success, Charlotte public transit saw the biggest ridership increase in the country, climbing 46 percent between 2006 and 2008. Charlotte is sprawl central. The Charlotte region is classified as an EPA non-attainment zone, not surprising since the city is built for cars. So, the success of public transit is no small feat.

At first, the light rail project ran into opposition, with critics fearing that it would only be used by “poor people”, ridership would remain low, and that Lynx would amount to an expensive welfare program (just read some of the comments to this article!). As Charlotte residents experienced the Lynx, seeing that it reduces commutes into Uptown from the suburbs, saves in parking costs (the park and ride lots are free), and facilitates getting to Panthers and Bobcats games, Lynx gained acceptance. City Council managed to pass a 1/2 cent sales tax to fund expansions to Lynx, though no doubt a result of the recession, revenues have been lower than expected.

Lynx isn’t problem-free. With incredibly irritating and slow ticket-dispensing machines, the light rail literally suffers from the free-rider problem. The park and ride system with free parking also perpetuates the need to drive, even if it does reduce driving by up to 9 miles.

That said, Lynx is helping change people’s minds about the stigma of using public transit. In other words, people who would not ride Charlotte’s buses will ride the light rail. Hopefully the positive press that Lynx is receiving will help encourage Charlotte to quickly build proposed light rail corridors to UNC Charlotte, the airport, center city, and surrounding towns.

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4 Responses to “Transit Success in Sprawl City”

  1. fred said:

    Dec 15, 09 at 9:18 am

    You left out an important point in the Wired article. “[Lynx] saw an 800-odd percent increase in ridership last year. Of course, it opened in November of 2007, so there was nowhere to go but up.”

  2. justin said:

    Dec 15, 09 at 5:47 pm

    this article is a little bias towards Charlotte. is it a sprawling area? yes. however, what people don’t seem to notice or write about is the numerous buildings being built in Uptown Charlotte. They are almost all residential condos, showing a dramatic shift in the past 10 years from areas like surrounding counties, to the Uptown area. This area 10 years ago was dead after 5pm, now it supports a theater, bowling ally, grocery stores, and other vital needs close to home. NONE of these things were available uptown until about 10 years ago. Charlotte is far from “Sprawl City”. It’s growing outwards, but isn’t every growing city? Charlotte isn’t as bad as you think. By the way, the “sprawl” that you speak of, has/is happening in outlying counties, NOT Mecklenburg. These areas 5 years ago were cow pastures, now they are McMansions and cookie-cutter homes, but none of it can be controlled by Charlotte or Mecklenburg County. They are areas that need the tax base, not the Queen City.

  3. Matt Miller said:

    Jan 07, 10 at 2:15 pm

    It continues to surprise me how surprised everyone is by good transit. Rail gets additional plaudits for a smoother ride and less noise, both of which are nice, but they aren’t the key. Replace the loser cruisers (empty buses) with something that can achieve ‘Frequency, velocity, reliability’ and anyone will ride it.

  4. Daniella said:

    Jan 17, 10 at 10:18 pm

    @Fred – you’re totally right about Lynx having nowhere to go but up! Thanks for pointing that out!

    @Justin – Charlotte’s uptown development is pretty amazing. I moved to Charlotte in 1995, and the I-485 hadn’t even been built yet. When it was under construction, I’d ride my bike along the flattened clay for miles!

    You’re absolutely right, Uptown Charlotte was totally DEAD outside of office hours, and the new residential and retail development is certainly helpful. I’d say that none of those amenities you pointed out were available uptown until 5 years ago, not 10. I can’t remember when the Harris Teeter and the CVS were built, but it hasn’t been that long.

    I’m going to disagree with you and assert that Charlotte-Mecklenburg is still totally sprawl city. Honestly, I haven’t spent much time in Cabarrus Co, Gaston Co, or the other neighboring counties, so I can only speak about CLT-Meck. Think about the cool, walkable streets in town. I can think of 2: North Davidson and Central Ave (all of Charlotte’s great neighborhoods are old street car neighborhoods). Both of these are like 2-4 blocks long in their most vibrant areas. Even East Blvd isn’t really that walkable – could you imagine walking from the Paper Skyscraper to 131 Main on Scott Ave and East? It’s less than a mile, but it feels like an eternity.

    Could you even imagine not having a car in Charlotte? Most of Charlotte’s retail centers are car-centric, big-box heaven and not meant for walking at all.

    But it’s easy for me to hate on Charlotte, since I live in Vancouver for half the year… All I’m trying to say is that Charlotte has a really low-density urban form that can’t change quickly enough! I think that Uptown’s transformation in recent years is great, and that we’ll probably be seeing a more compact urban form at first along the Lynx line to South Charlotte and also along the new trolley line to Central. But, it will eventually influence other parts of town, too.