Charlotte expands bus rapid transit to a new corridor

Wednesday, September 9, 2020
A bus in Charlotte

Charlotte City Council voted Tuesday to expand a pilot program for bus-only lanes onto a second, longer stretch of local roadway, in what could be a model for a more extensive reworking of the city’s bus system. 

Crews will soon begin work to restripe and reconfigure about 2.5 miles of Central Avenue from Eastway Drive to the former Eastland Mall site, converting one general-purpose lane each direction into a bus-only lane. Charlotte Area Transit System CEO John Lewis said they plan to finish the work by late October. 

The move follows the city’s first bus-only lane, created in December on a short stretch of Fourth Street connecting to the Transit Center. Lewis said buses have been traveling about 30% faster on the road, with no major impacts to general traffic. Ultimately, CATS plans to link the Fourth Street bus-only lane to the Eastland Mall with a bus-only lane along the intervening stretch of Central Avenue. But the middle piece will be more complicated, Lewis said, because the street is narrower, there’s a major freight railway crossing, lack of a median and turn lanes, more business driveway access points and more activity.

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One reason CATS is moving forward with bus-only lanes: The COVID-19 pandemic, which has drivers used to seeing nothing but green on their Google Maps, even at rush hour.

“Over the last few months, several cities have taken advantage of reduced traffic volumes,” Lewis said. Traffic is down 20% to 50% on Charlotte roads compared to a year ago, and though it’s slowly coming back, officials say they expect new remote work patterns to persist for many. 

If the Central Avenue bus-only lanes are a hit — and if drivers don’t show up with pitchforks at City Council meetings — Lewis said other congested corridors like Providence Road or West Boulevard would be candidates for bus rapid transit. 

Council members voted unanimously for the change, though some expressed concerns about the particular location. 

“I’m concerned this pilot might not demonstrate a lot of change in how quickly the bus can get through that corridor,” said Larken Egleston. Lewis acknowledged that the more congested section of Central Avenue is closer to uptown, and said CATS plans to bring in a consultant to figure out how to implement a bus-only lane there. The pilot will still offer valuable information for planning future bus-only lanes as well.

“This corridor just gives us a lot of really unique characteristics we can test,” said Liz Babson, director of the Charlotte Department of Transportation. 

Council member Matt Newton said he doesn’t want bus-only lanes on Central to preclude a future phase of the Gold Line streetcar to Eastland.

“This is no way, shape or form would prevent or limit the ability for Gold Line to be built out to Albemarle Road?” Newton asked. 

Lewis said it would not, and added that if a bus-only lane works, it could help CATS build a streetcar-only lane. One of the biggest complaints about the streetcar project is that since it runs in traffic, it’s not faster than driving or taking a regular bus. 

“If we're able to implement a bus-only lane in the short term on Central and the world doesn't end...perhaps it (the next Gold Line phase) should be in its own lane,” said Lewis. 

“We’ll all be dead by then anyway,” Egleston quipped, referring to the project’s delays in Phase 2. 

Even as it works to build a new, multibillion-dollar, east-west light rail line, CATS is trying to improve its bus network, which carries a majority of transit riders.

The system has implemented a new network structure with more cross-town routes and less reliance on hub-and-spoke connections, as well as increasing frequency on popular routes to 15 minutes. Previously, more than half of all routes had wait times of 30 minutes or more, many up to an hour. 

Hammered by the coronavirus, however, transit ridership has plummeted. In June, CATS said local bus ridership was down 57% while Blue Line light rail ridership plunged 72%. Similar trends have struck transit systems nationwide. 

If and when commuters return to offices, a reliable bus system whose vehicles don’t sit in traffic could help lure skittish riders back — and prevent the return of daily traffic jams.

Said Mayor Vi Lyles: “We’ve got to figure out a way to help people move around this city.”