Transit Time: New wheels for Charlotte's urban core
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.
GEST Carts lacks the size and reliability to make a dent in Charlotte’s traffic. But it shows the spirit of transportation innovation is strong.
GEST Carts, which offers free electric-vehicle rides supported by advertising, expanded to Charlotte in December. It offers rides in uptown and South End. (Photo courtesy of GEST Carts)
by Tony Mecia
The flash of inspiration for Patrick Dye came to him, of all places, at a bachelor party in Nashville.
He was there with some buddies. One of them had only one leg, so the group chartered golf carts to get around Music City. It worked out fine, and it gave Dye an idea: “I saw this and I’m like, ‘I can do this better.’”
So he did. He returned home to Cincinnati and, with his wife, started a company called GEST Carts, which stands for Green Easy Safe Transportation. It’s a unique business model: Rides are free, and GEST Carts makes its money by selling advertising on the electric vehicles — like a mobile billboard that happens to carry passengers. It started service in Charlotte last month, in South End and uptown, part of a multi-city expansion.
Dye’s business sits at the intersection of marketing and transportation. As a passenger shuttle, it’s unlikely to grow into a huge player in Charlotte’s transportation landscape. As an ad vehicle, Dye says GEST is already profitable in Cincinnati, where it has been operating since 2018, and has signed on advertisers there including Procter & Gamble, Kroger, Hard Rock Cafe, Red Bull and Anheuser-Busch.
Though it’s small, with just a handful of drivers operating in a fraction of Charlotte’s urban core, GEST Carts represents something larger: continued innovation in moving people around. In the areas surrounding uptown, especially, residents now have many choices — far more than they had a decade ago, through a mix of government planning and private-sector innovation. GEST Carts joins a mix that now includes electric scooters, hoverboards, Uber and Lyft, the Gold Line streetcar and the Blue Line light rail extension, alongside the traditional private cars, walking and biking.
How it works: Like Uber and Lyft, you download an app on your phone, create an account and request a ride.
I tested it out one night this week. I live in south Charlotte, outside of GEST Carts’ range, so I hopped in my car at about 8 p.m. and drove to South End. To simulate the South End experience, I figured I’d try to snag a free ride between a couple young-person hotspots that I had read about in Axios Charlotte or CharlotteFive.
That’s the targeted market, from what it sounds like: “We can drop people off at their house, going from bar to bar, going to the games, going to restaurants, shows, things of that nature,” Dye says. “We don’t stop and do multiple stops. We take you and your group from Point A to Point B.”
I saw a spot on Tremont Avenue, did some masterful dad parallel parking, and stood on the sidewalk in front of PARA, a restaurant that I have read opens this week and has a “globally influenced menu” with “innovative dishes” as well as a “creative cocktail program.” My destination: Midnight Diner, on the outskirts of uptown.
I put in the information, hit “request ride” and was then met with “Looking for available drivers” — for about 2 minutes, which seemed like an eternity. Then this:
Well, that’s no good. I walked down a half block, to the corner of Hawkins Street, within nose-shot of the Krispy Kreme around the corner. I tried again. Same result — “no driver available.” I gave it a couple more chances before giving up 20 minutes later. I returned to my car and drove home.
As a transportation option, reliability seems to be the biggest issue. With a small number of carts, GEST Carts has no way to ramp up supply to meet higher demand. Say what you want about Uber and Lyft, but those companies can ensure you have a ride by increasing the incentive (money) for their independent contractors to show up. GEST Carts’ vehicles are company-owned, with employee drivers. They’re electric vehicles with a maximum speed of 35 mph. Dye hopes to have four to six of them in Charlotte by April, and eight to 10 by the end of this year.
Asked about GEST Carts’ inability to meet the demand for rides, Dye said people don’t mind.
“People love the fact that it’s free,” he says. “Mentally, when you hear the word ‘free’ versus paying $15-20 plus surcharges, people will wait for it. Or if you download the app and it says we’re unavailable, they’re not mad, because it’s free. It’s another option.”
In this sense, it’s like Charlotte’s new streetcar, which is struggling with offering reliable service and arrives as infrequently as every 60 minutes: If it happens to be there when you need it, great. If not, you’ll need an alternative. (The streetcar is also, at least for now, free.)
As a business, GEST Carts’ advertisers might not care whether people ride the carts or not. They likely just want exposure, and people who live in South End tell us they’ve seen the vehicles around.
Dye says he’s pleased with the new franchise here: “Charlotte has been doing really well. My team is super happy with everything.”
He says GEST offers what he calls a “last mile” solution, a term often used by transit planners to denote the challenge of getting people exactly where they want to go from, say, a bus or rail stop. By that he means the trips are short — a mile or two at the most, probably — as opposed to longer rides available from ride-sharing services.
The carts are also available for hire at private events.
A handful of electric carts with ads isn’t going to improve Charlotte’s traffic. They’re going to be unavailable to the vast majority of residents here. But, however small it is, add GEST Carts to the list of transportation options in the fast-growing part of our center city.
My big night out in South End this week didn’t end with a GEST Carts ride. But it was nice to get out and see people walking and scootering around. (Photo at the corner of Tremont Avenue and Hawkins Street)
Drive-thrus approved: The City Council approved two drive-thrus near light rail stops, which some transit advocates say sets a bad precedent as the city tries to move away from dependence on the automobile. (UNC Charlotte Urban Institute)
No transit vote this year? City planning director Taiwo Jaiyeoba, who takes a new job as city manager of Greensboro this month, said in an interview with Axios Charlotte that the vote for a sales tax to fund transit might not happen this year. “He acknowledged that the sales tax he helped push for to fund transportation investments may or may not be on the ballot this year,” the publication reported. (Axios Charlotte)
New DMV chief: Wayne Goodwin, who served as the state’s insurance commissioner from 2009-2017, was named the new commissioner of the Division of Motor Vehicles. (NCDOT)
Transit art? There’s an app for that: The Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) now has a mobile app that “allows you to discover the art around you, while you are using CATS’ services.” It’s called the CATS Art in Transit app, available at Apple’s App Store and on Google Play. (CATS)
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