Looking back, looking ahead: Transit Time turns 1
You’re reading Transit Time, a weekly newsletter for Charlotte people who leave the house. Cars, buses, light rail, bikes, scooters … if you use it to get around the city, we write about it. Transit Time is produced in partnership among The Charlotte Ledger, WFAE and the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute.
In the last year, our humble weekly newsletter has delved into traffic, trains, buses, toll roads, scooters … and there’s more to come!
A note to Transit Time readers from Charlotte Ledger editor Tony Mecia:
OK, be honest: When we announced in May 2021 that we were starting a weekly newsletter on transit and transportation, what was your reaction?
Was it: “Oh, yay! I love transit and transportation!” Or was it: “Hmm, well, let’s see how this goes.”
It’s OK if you were skeptical. In a vacuum, it’s not a topic that makes the pulse quicken. The Charlotte Ledger, WFAE and UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute started Transit Time because we sensed a void in the coverage of this important issue in the Charlotte area. At the time, city leaders were envisioning a sales-tax referendum in November 2021 to pay for a new light rail line and other improvements. Ely Portillo of the Urban Institute, Steve Harrison of WFAE and I thought a weekly newsletter would be an appropriate vehicle to shine a light on that debate and to examine other local issues related to getting around Charlotte.
As we know now, there was no November referendum. And that transit plan seems no closer to happening than it did a year ago.
As we pass Transit Time’s one year mark, though, we have shown that there are plenty of interesting and important transportation topics to tell you about. We cover them the way experienced journalists do — by thinking big, asking probing questions, seeking data and talking to experts. In this weekly newsletter format, we’re able to go deeper, beyond the headlines, on this vital issue for Charlotte and for our region. Our only agenda is to give you information you don’t know — to make you smarter and better-informed.
Some of our favorite pieces from the last year include:
Biking uptown. Ely previewed the new uptown dedicated bike lanes, a few months before they officially opened, and enjoyed a smooth, easy ride.
Transit plan. We have exhaustively covered the debate on the transit plan, including examinations of why the Silver Line route won’t go to the airport and in-depth looks at new studies, projections and the regional view. And we were early in pointing out (in September 2021) that the timetable for adopting it was getting pushed back and noted a month later that leaders were still tinkering with it. In January, Steve examined other, less ambitious possibilities that might be doable more quickly.
The streetcar race. Reprising an idea from CharlotteFive from the streetcar’s debut in 2015, we hired a long-distance runner to race the new Gold Line on the four-mile route between Elizabeth and the Historic West End. We didn’t know who would win — it was a chance to have some fun and revisit the age-old battle of (wo)man vs. machine. (Good work, Emily.)
Chick-fil-A traffic. Last week’s in-depth article on traffic woes at Chick-fil-A restaurants drew a range of reader reactions, from suck-it-up-and-deal-with-it indifference to creative solutions we’ll share at a later date.
NCDOT shortfall. In November, Ely and I shared the news that the state Transportation Department’s funding shortfall was much bigger than expected — $12 billion in the hole — and explained what that means for Charlotte-area roads. I followed up a few months later with a look at one road project in Matthews that had its costs increase by a factor of 10.
Bus line revelations. Steve regularly examines publicly available but little-seen transit data that shows trends. He disclosed in February that some CATS bus routes carried few passengers — like one route on Pineville-Matthews road that averaged two passengers per bus. He has also kept up with ridership data and explains those trends.
Thomas the Tank Engine. This one was a passion project for Ely, who examined transportation in the TV show “Thomas the Tank Engine” and concluded: “Thomas the cheeky blue train and the rest of the Sodor crew have things to teach us.”
➡️ If you’d like to hear Ely Portillo, Steve Harrison and me discuss the transit plan and several other pressing Charlotte-area transportation issues, check out this episode of the Urban Institute’s “Future Charlotte” podcast that we recorded this week:
🏆 Oh, and Transit Time won a national award last year: “Collaboration of the Year” from Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers, a trade group The Ledger belongs to. The judges said: “I really love seeing how these three organizations came together to consolidate important coverage for their local community.”
So what’s next for Transit Time? Ely assembled some of the storylines we’ll be watching in Year 2:
Transit tax, ever? When we started this newsletter, a big part of our idea was that we’d be focusing on the 1-cent transit sales tax referendum. Well, that didn’t happen. The sales tax — which would fund the $13.5 billion Charlotte Moves plan — is in limbo, with no timeline for moving forward in the legislature or onto Mecklenburg County ballots. Will anyone jump-start the tax push, and what happens if it stays moribund?
A new City Council. The Charlotte City Council is getting some new members this year. At-large member Julie Eiselt, a longtime transit advocate and chair of the Transportation, Planning and Environment committee, will no longer be on the council. Neither will vice-chair Larken Egleston. Will a new council bring new direction to the city’s transit and transportation efforts?
Fuel prices, remote work and transit ridership. Traditionally, transit ridership falls when gas prices drop and rises when filling up the car gets more expensive. Now, with gas prices at record highs, we might expect more people on buses and trains. But transit ridership is still in the tank post-Covid, and with many people still working from home at least part of the time, riders might not return in big numbers no matter how much gas costs.
Can CATS fix what ails the bus system? Covid crushed transit ridership, of course, but CATS’ bus numbers were falling well before the pandemic. Trying to find some solution, local transit planners are talking about everything from sprucing up bus stops to adding bus-only lanes, from eliminating low-ridership routes in favor of some sort of on-demand transit to increasing frequency for all bus routes to 15 minutes. Will any of it work?
And we’ll be sure to keep paying attention to those backed-up Chick-fil-A drive-thrus, and will look for more lessons in children’s TV shows and more fun.
➡️ What do you want to see Transit Time write about in our second year? Drop us a line and let us know. Or leave a comment:
Thanks for reading.
Did somebody forward you this newsletter and you need to sign up? You can do that here:
Other affiliated Charlotte newsletters and podcasts that might interest you:
The Inside Politics newsletter, available from WFAE.