Charlotte’s transit among nation’s worst

Charlotte ranked 26th of 32 big cities on transit quality. Beefing up the bus system would help.
Charlotte ranked 26th of 32 big cities on transit quality. Beefing up the bus system would help. File photo

News that the state legislature is considering repealing its $500,000 cap on light-rail projects is a boon for North Carolina’s cities.

Its removal, however, should be a first step rather than an end goal. North Carolina’s boomtowns severely need transportation options that complement – rather than work against – the rapid urbanization they are seeing.

Consider Charlotte. According to AllTransit, a new online tool developed by the Center for Neighborhood Technology with support from TransitCenter, public transportation in North Carolina’s largest city is still anemic by national standards despite some successful recent investments.

On AllTransit’s scale of 0 to 10, Charlotte scores a 4.33 for its transit quality. That’s 26th out of the 32 U.S. cities with more than 500,000 people and behind other sprawling places like Dallas, Houston, and Phoenix. Overall, 58 percent of Charlotteans live in areas with scores below 5. Just 1.6 percent live in neighborhoods scoring 9 or above.

In sum, most of Charlotte lacks the high-quality transit Americans increasingly demand. And even where it does exist there are barriers to using it, since few people live, work, and play in areas all well-served by buses or the Blue Line.

These numbers partly reflect the schism between a city that wants to create vibrant urban places and a state Department of Transportation that continues to build highways like it’s 1956.

But Charlotte also has work to do to ensure its transit investments are successful. In TransitCenter’s soon-to-be-released nationwide survey of transit users, we found that regular transit riders overwhelmingly live in places where they can walk to buses or trains. Such development near high-quality transit is precisely what Charlotte needs.

There are two ways to achieve this. First, Charlotte should reform its parking requirements to encourage development near the city’s best transit lines. Currently, most buildings in Charlotte must provide space for cars far beyond what people need. Apartments must have at least one and a half parking spaces per unit. For churches, it’s one space for every four seats. Want to build a tennis center? Charlotte requires two spaces per court; three if the court is indoors.

These parking minimums are a major barrier to transit. They encourage car reliance, make it needlessly difficult for developers to build in the most transit-accessible areas, and create dead space in what could be vibrant pedestrian areas.

Second, where development is already fairly dense, CATS should make targeted improvements. Though two-thirds of Charlotte residents live within half a mile of a transit stop, according to AllTransit, just 8 percent are near buses and trains that run frequently.

The Blue Line extension is a great example of building transit where people are likely to use it. But improving Charlotte’s buses, which carry three times more people, might be the best way to expand transit access. The typical Charlotte resident lives within walking distance of five bus lines, but each runs less than once an hour on average, making them virtually impossible to rely on.

It’s a common problem with a proven solution. Houston’s transit agency redesigned its antiquated bus network last year to create a web of fast, reliable routes at barely any additional taxpayer cost.

As in Houston, statewide population trends are on Charlotte’s side. But Charlotte can’t wait for the state to act if it is to have the quality transit that a growing city needs.

Anbinder manages communications for TransitCenter, a New York-based foundation dedicated to improving urban mobility.