Waiting for the Charlotte streetcar ... and waiting ... and waiting
A few weeks ago, we decided to have a little Saturday morning adventure and see Charlotte from the new Gold Line streetcar.
My wife, her mom and I met some friends at one end of the route over on Hawthorne Lane. It was a chilly morning. After about 15 minutes, a streetcar pulled up and let people out. Then the car went just past us to the end of the track, where it could switch sides and start back the other way.
The car sat there.
And sat there.
And sat there.
Another group of folks gave up and left.
Finally, after what felt like half an hour, the car picked us up. We had a nice trip through the city. And at the other end of the track, over by Johnson C. Smith University, the exact same thing happened. The car let us out and we shivered on the benches while the car sat idle at the end of the track for half an hour.
It turns out, according to reporting by WFAE’s Steve Harrison, that this frustrating system is routine.
The streetcar was created to run every 20 minutes, which is slow enough considering it’s just a 4-mile trip from end to end.
But in its first 100 days of service, the streetcar had delays on 55 of those days.
About a third of the time, it was because cars got in the way — either through accidents or through people who parked too close to the tracks. That can be easy to do: Several months ago, I parallel-parked in front of the old Earl’s Grocery on Elizabeth Avenue and left my side-view mirror in the path of the track. I happened to look out the window about 30 seconds before my car would have been towed.
But most of the time, the delays have been on purpose. The Charlotte Area Transit System, or CATS, has pushed back the route times to every 30 minutes, every 40 minutes, sometimes as long as once an hour.
CATS sent Harrison a statement saying the delays were due to “a varying workforce, limited equipment availability and a labor shortage.”
All of those might be legitimate problems. But here’s the problem for riders: The one thing public transit has to be is reliable.
Most people who use public transit aren’t on it for a joyride like we were. They need it to get to work, to get home to their families, to make it on time to events. If they can’t count on the train to get them there, they won’t take it.
The Gold Line is free through the end of the year, but even so, it’s averaging less than 1,300 passenger trips on the average weekday. CATS’ expectation was more like 4,100 trips per weekday.
The lingering pandemic is surely part of the problem: Some people are still not comfortable in any sort of crowd, even when everybody wears a mask.
But the reality is this: If the Gold Line doesn’t make itself more available and more reliable, there won’t be many riders to begin with.