Once again, public transportation takes it on the chin. CATS' announcement last week of service cuts confirms the long-held Charlotte view of mass transit as a non-essential expense, a "frill" that can be cut when times get bad. The city needs a whole new way of looking at transit, one that will serve more people and solve some of our traffic and environmental problems at the same time.
If Charlotte leaders are serious about the city becoming "world-class," there's a basic fact of modern urban life they need to finally latch onto: In any world-class city, efficient, widespread public transportation is not an "extra," it's a necessity. Most successful urban planners would add, "The more public transportation, the better."
That's why last week's CATS cutbacks and the futile arguing between Mayor McCrory and state Sen. Dan Clodfelter over money for mass transit, are so discouraging. Instead of cutting services and then fighting over whether new dollars should be spent on public transportation or more roads, local and state leaders need to turn their thinking upside down. Namely, they need to focus on ways to entice more people to use mass transit.
As things stand now, it's not exactly a secret that Charlotte's transit system is pretty lame. Yes, the Lynx light rail line is convenient and works well, but it only serves a small section of the city. Ask anyone who uses local public transportation regularly and you'll hear about long waits, weird connections, the shortage of rain shelters, routes that don't make sense, and prices that keep rising. Better yet, ask for an opinion of CATS from people who moved here from a city that enjoys a widely used, convenient transit system, and what you'll get are shaking heads and looks of disbelief.
Anyone who's paying attention knows there's a problem, yet Charlotte mass transit's mediocrity never seems to come up when city leaders talk about transit and the money needed to run it. It's a situation that won't get better until Charlotte's political culture feels that nothing less than "world-class" public transportation is acceptable.
Instead, what we get is the same old rigmarole: Revenue is down, so they increase fares. Result? Fewer riders. So they cut services. Result? Lower revenue. And around and around they go. Thus we now find ourselves in the second stage of the game, i.e., the $4 million worth of cutbacks made last week when CATS eliminated seven bus routes and lengthened the time riders will wait for the Lynx. You can't really blame transit CEO Keith Parker; he's simply heir to the old view of mass transit as something "extra." Something cuttable.
During bad economic times, local government still provides police protection and garbage pickup, and it still purifies and delivers water. And so it should be with public transportation. No transit system anywhere pays for itself, nor should it be expected to. Public transportation isn't a business venture that's obliged to turn a profit; it's an essential service, one of those things, like the fire department, that falls into the category of communal responsibilities, something we owe and provide each other as fellow citizens. Simply put, cutting bus service because sales tax revenue is down is like Duke Energy cutting off power an hour per day because its stock value has dropped.
What the city desperately needs are leaders with vision. Big-picture leaders who see problems as opportunities, and act on them. Something like this -- Problem 1: Our roads are clogged with traffic and as soon as we build more roads, those become clogged, too. Problem 2: Because of the large number of vehicles on the region's roads, our air quality stinks, and we're still not doing enough to lower the area's output of greenhouse gases. Problem 3: Our mass transit system is under-funded and scattershot. Solution to all three problems: fare-free mass transit.
That's right, free mass transit. It's not a far-fetched idea anymore; a number of cities in the United States and other nations are having success with fare-free public transit as a way to really entice commuters to leave their cars at home. Clemson and Chapel Hill, in fact, offer fare-free rides for all standard routes; needless to say, ridership has increased dramatically. Other places offering standard fare-free transit include cities in Colorado, New York, California, Utah, Washington and several European countries. The figures are in, and the good news is that if it's done right, fare-free transit works. What's more, there's plenty of information available on how to make it work.
To start with, here are two articles by Dave Olsen, a public transit consultant in Vancouver who has been pushing the idea of fare-free transit for years: thetyee.ca/Views/2007/07/05/NoFares1/ and www.planetizen.com/node/37530.
Charlotte could ease into the fare-free concept by imitating Merced County, Calif., which now offers fare-free transit during the summer "pollution season." Again, what it will take are local leaders with vision and imagination. They would have to re-jigger the city budget, and collect more money (I suggest a gas guzzler tax instead of raising sales tax again). Mostly, though, they would have to change their view of mass transit from the old Charlotte paradigm of buses as something the maid rides to and from her job, and see it in a new light: as the public necessity it has increasingly become.
For even more Boomer With Attitude, check out regular commentary from John Grooms on our news blog The CLog.