Transit Success in Sprawl City
Wired 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.