Transit ridership is falling in Charlotte. Could Lyft and Uber give it a boost?

The Parkwood light-rail station allows riders to take a discounted Lyft to a zone within nearby neighborhoods. Few people have used the pilot program so far, however.
The Parkwood light-rail station allows riders to take a discounted Lyft to a zone within nearby neighborhoods. Few people have used the pilot program so far, however.

Since the Charlotte Area Transit System and ride-hailing platform Lyft launched a pilot program in April offering discounted rides to and from light-rail stations, fewer than 100 riders have taken advantage of the deal.

But that’s OK, CATS officials say. The pilot program runs through December, and officials are studying how and whether to expand it after that as they gain insight into how riders might use services like Uber and Lyft to get to transit.

“We’ve seen progressive increases in usage,” said Olaf Kinard, assistant director of public transit for CATS. “That tells us there is a need out there and it’s benefiting people.”

Lyft riders starting or ending their trips at the Parkwood Station or JW Clay Boulevard/UNC Charlotte Station are eligible for $4 discounts, covering most of the cost of a ride within a specified area. From its launch in April through July, the program was used for 99 trips, CATS officials said.

It’s the latest example of how transit agencies, struggling against falling ridership, are seeking to partner with new, tech-driven companies that many advocates fear are siphoning riders away from buses and trains with the promise of greater convenience. In addition to ride-hailing companies that didn’t exist a few years ago, there are now thousands of dockless bikes and hundreds of electric scooters from companies such as Lime and Bird scattered around Charlotte light-rail stations and neighborhoods like South End.

A study published last month by transportation consultant Bruce Schaller found that ride-hailing companies compete mainly with transit, walking and biking in large cities and could add congestion to city streets.

“About 60 percent of TNC (ride-hailing) users in large, dense cities would have taken public transportation, walked, biked or not made the trip if TNCs had not been available for the trip,” Schaller wrote.

CATS, which opened the $1.2 billion Blue Line extension from uptown to UNC Charlotte in March, hasn’t endured the high-profile transit meltdown enveloping cities like New York and Washington, D.C. There, the subway and Metro system are suffering massive ridership losses and major service disruptions, largely as a result of putting off maintenance for years.

But CATS is facing declining bus ridership, which is the largest piece of its service. Through July, local bus ridership is down about 9 percent, CATS said in its latest report.

CATS also has an initiative underway called “Envision My Ride,” meant to redesign the bus route system with more frequency, better connections to the light rail, more crosstown routes and less reliance on riders coming all the way to uptown to change buses, which the agency believes will boost ridership.

CATS officials have pointed to gentrification, which is changing the makeup of neighborhoods that have long been regular bus users, as one factor behind the decline. Despite transit advocates’ warnings, Kinard said he doesn’t think Uber and Lyft are pulling away many riders, since a large majority of CATS riders are going to or from work and ride-hailing services tend to be more social trips.

But CATS is hoping ride-hailing companies might be one ingredient in boosting transit usage in Charlotte.

A sign explains the CATS-Lyft partnership at the Parkwood Station. Ely Portillo

The 20-mile Blue Line carries 24,747 passengers on an average weekday, according to the July ridership report from CATS. That’s below the projection of about 33,500 average weekday riders CATS expects in the first full year. Officials have attributed the lower number in large part to UNC Charlotte’s summer break. The school’s 29,000 students started fall classes this week, which could provide a big pool of potential riders — UNCC students receive an all-access transit pass as part of their mandatory student fees.

Here’s how the Charlotte program works.

Each station, Parkwood and JW Clay, has a “geofenced” area around it that covers several square miles. In the case of Parkwood, the area roughly covers the “North End,” neighborhoods like Double Oaks, Brightwalk and Druid Hills, while at the JW Clay station, it covers much of University Research Park and nearby neighborhoods.

Users with the Lyft app installed on their phones can see the geofenced area and summon a ride to or from the station. If the ride is within that area — say, from a business in University Research Park to the JW Clay Station — they’ll receive a $4 discount. That should cover most of the cost, Kinard said, possibly leaving a $1.50 or $2 charge.

Riders can use a discount code for two rides via the app, and those who have a monthly CATS pass through the transit agency’s app can get 40 discounted rides per month — enough for a full four weeks’ worth of commuting in the morning and afternoon.

Kinard said the Parkwood and JW Clay stations were selected because of a lack of bus connections to stations in the area. Partnering with Lyft to offer discounts for on-demand service is a cheaper alternative to starting a new bus circulator service or establishing a new local bus route that runs all day. That could cost $500,000 per year and might serve only several riders an hour, he said.

CATS has budgeted about $60,000 for the Lyft partnership.

A Lime electric scooter at the Parkwood station is another example of the rapidly changing technology transit agencies are dealing with. Ely Portillo

Across the nation, other cities have experimented with using ride-hailing companies to provide what’s called “First-mile/last-mile” service to transit stations. Suburban areas around Denver, Tampa and Austin have all tried similar programs to get people to their train lines or bus stations for a discount.

In Centennial, a city outside Denver, a 2016 pilot program offered free Lyft rides to passengers going to a train station. Out of $400,000 in funding, the city ultimately spent just under $130,000. The program provided 1,302 free rides to 127 users.

“We were hoping for a little bit higher ridership,” said Melanie Morgan, with the city of Centennial’s innovation team. She attributed the ridership numbers in part to the pilot’s short time period and said the concept still offers the promise of a cheaper way to connect people to transit than buses.

The Capital Metro transit agency in Austin, Texas, ended a one-year program this summer that provided free rides within a defined area, including transit stops, powered by the ride-sharing app Via.

“It was slow in the beginning,” said Chad Ballentine of Capital Metro. Usage increased from fewer than 500 riders a month the first month to 3,200 by the pilot’s end in June. They’re now looking to start a permanent version of the program.

An Uber/Lyft driver at LAX. Mark Boster TNS

“This is something that a lot of transit agencies across the U.S. are trying to solve,” said Ballentine. “It doesn’t make sense to drive a 35-foot bus through all those neighborhoods. ... They’re pretty expensive, and they’re huge.”

Shannon Binns, the executive director of Sustain Charlotte, which promotes bicycling and walking, said he would rather see CATS and the city focus on making stations more accessible for bikers and pedestrians, rather than subsidize Lyft trips in cars.

“We’ve really been concerned about that program,” he said. “I think it was well-intentioned ... that first mile, last mile should be bike or walk.”

Kinard said that’s not likely to be a viable solution for many riders, especially those who are older, carrying groceries or traveling on hot days.

“That’s not going to do it for the majority of our customers,” he said. “You’re talking sometimes several miles down the road.”

Waiting for a bus in the heat at the Parkwood station, 21-year-old Deondrea Taylor hadn’t heard about the Lyft discount.

“I’d use it all the time,” he said. But when he looked at the geofenced area the rides were available in, Taylor was disappointed. “That’s nowhere near where I’m trying to go.”

Portillo: 704-358-5041