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Diary of a CATS rider

The true tale of a commuter who ditched her car to ride public transportation for five days — and lived to talk about it



Leaving the gas station one windy March evening, I was mad as hell. It took $50 to fill up my Ford Mustang, and by all accounts, the price of gas is only going to get higher. Once upon a time, I had disposable income. Now, all my extra money goes straight to the oil companies. Those rich bastards!

As I pulled out of the station and watched the city bus pass me by, a question popped into my mind: "Can I save money by ditching my beloved car and riding the Charlotte Area Transportation System (aka CATS)?"

"I should try it," I thought. For at least one work week (five days), I'm going to only take public transportation; I'm not driving at all. To get from point A to point B, I'm going exclusively by bus or the light rail.

The transit system in Charlotte must work. People who don't have cars or other means to get around the city ride CATS every day. It has to be a money saver and convenient -- right?

I purchased a $13 seven-day pass and even picked up some bus schedules so I could figure out how to navigate my way around the city on public transportation. "This is going to be an adventure," is what I kept telling myself. Now all I had to do was get up early enough to catch the right bus to work.

March 17

OK, today I cheated. My alarm clock went off at 5:30 a.m., but my body wasn't trying to get out of bed. So, I decided to drive to work. But I parked my car and took the bus everywhere else I had to go. Since I didn't have a particular route to take today, I thought it would be fun to just ride the bus around town. At 10 a.m., I left my office and walked about a half a mile to the bus stop at the corner of Graham and 10th streets. But for me, taking the bus isn't that convenient because there isn't a close stop to anywhere I need to go -- not even to my home. Wearing cute shoes this week ain't going to happen. Damn!

Now, as I wait for the No. 21 bus (Double Oaks), I realize that the schedules on the bus-stop poles are kind of crazy. They tell you what time the buses leave the previous stop, not what time they're supposed to arrive at your stop. That makes no sense to me. It's almost as if there's a secret code to riding the bus. Pulling out my cell phone, I call my friend Michelle, who often takes the bus.

"Girl, you aren't going to make it two days on the bus," she says after I tell her my plan.

"Why do you say that?" I ask.

"Because you're impatient and you can't be rude to the bus drivers. And," says Michelle, "you can't drink your coffee on the bus."

"Tell me about it. That's going to suck. But at least I can get some reading done."

"And miss your stop," she says with a laugh.

"Shut up. My bus is here. I'll call you back."

The 21 pulls up to the stop, and I hop on, sticking my pass in and saying hello to a surly driver who basically grunts in return. There are three people on the bus besides me. It's a quiet ride for the most part, until one of the women makes a phone call about her hospital stay. She needs a note for work, but it sounds as if she can't get one. The other two women put their two cents into the conversation.

"They can't do that," says the older lady. "If you need proof for your job, then they have to give you a note."

"The same thing happened to me, but I made sure I got the note before I left the hospital because I wasn't going to work the next day," replies the other lady.

The next stop is going to be the transit center in Uptown. I need a moment to figure out what I'm going to do. Should I hop on another bus or get on the light rail? After all, since I cheated today, I might as well see what transit is all about and figure out how I'm going to get around for the rest of the week.

The bus pulls into the transit center and we all get off. This center is buzzing like a beehive, and everybody, it seems, is smoking something; if it isn't a Newport, then it's a Black and Mild cigar. This is not the place for recovering nicotine addicts. The transit center has a few convenience stores and a Burger King. It's funny that you can buy food and drinks here, but it's forbidden to have food on the bus. The signs even say if you're caught eating on the bus, you will be asked to get off. So what happens if you have to wait on a fresh Whopper and your bus pulls up?

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