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Charlotte came last among major cities in a 2014 report measuring economic mobility. That served as a rallying cry for Charlotte leaders to try to figure out how to improve opportunities for the city’s poorest residents. We look at where Charlotte is eight years later.

To help low-income workers, some push for cars over public transportation

Jose Leon waits for a bus uptown. He's trying to save $1,000 for a used car.
Steve Harrison
Jose Leon waits for a bus uptown. He's trying to save $1,000 for a used car.

Charlotte leaders say the city’s economic mobility challenges are due, in part, to almost everyone needing a car to get around here. And if you are poor and don’t have one, you’re trapped.

The city’s former planning director, Taiwo Jaiyeoba, said a $13.5 billion transportation plan would go a long way toward fixing that.

“If we invest in greenways, if we invest in bikeways, if we invest in good sidewalks, if we invest in bus transit with reliable frequencies and rail system that’s expanded past what we have today we might actually be able to get more of our low-income earners to work,” Jaiyeoba said last year during a UNC Charlotte panel on mobility and transportation.

But there are others who say that’s wishful thinking.

In a city like Charlotte — or almost any other low-density American city — buses and greenways can’t compete with the empowerment that comes from having your own car, they say.

They propose something arguably radical: Helping low-income residents get their own cars or access to one.

“Charlotte was designed around the automobile, so making a bus system work is like fitting a square peg in a round hole,” said UNC Charlotte associate professor Elizabeth Delmelle, who studies urban transportation.

She said having more people driving has downsides, like possibly making climate change worse.

“But we also have to recognize the reality that we’re living in right now right,” Delmelle said. “Which is that we built this city around a car and we can’t say no one else can have a car. Now you are living in a neighborhood designed for a car, and if we take (a car away) now you are at a disadvantage.”

The city of Charlotte last year passed the 2040 Comprehensive Plan, a roadmap for a more dense, walkable city. That would make it so people can access jobs and services without having a car.

Delmelle said that’s a good idea. But she said low-income residents can’t wait decades for that to happen.

In the Charlotte area, 12% of households don’t have a car, according to the census. Among people in the bottom quartile of income, it’s 29%.

“We need to be creative in thinking about what public transportation looks like in a city like Charlotte,” she said.

Delmelle said that could mean providing subsidies so people can buy their own used cars. Or giving people vouchers to use on ride-share services like Uber and Lyft. Or starting a car-share program in certain neighborhoods.

Nationwide transit ridership had fallen significantly in the five years before the pandemic. Charlotte Area Transit System local bus ridership was 23.2 million passenger trips in 2013. By 2019 it had fallen to 14.5 million.

Evelyn Blumenberg, an urban planning professor at UCLA, said her research shows that’s due in part to more people buying their own cars.

According to Blumenberg, low-income people with cars are able to move to better neighborhoods and are more likely to find and keep a job. It was particularly true for women.

“A car gives you a lot of flexibility and a lot of choices,” Blumenberg said. “It gives you a lot of choice on the residential side. On the employment side, which is the area where I have done most of my work, it’s really hard even to find out or even to apply for jobs that are located in places that are distant from your home if you don’t have an automobile.”

She said there is a group called BlueLA, which has a subsidized electric vehicle sharing program for people who don’t have much money in Los Angeles. She said encouraging the use of EVs could make it politically palatable to increase car access.

In Charlotte, the group Leading on Opportunity is working to lift the city’s poorest residents. It has not recommended increasing car ownership or car access to improve economic mobility. And city leaders are focusing on a traditional plan of more light rail and buses as part of the $13.5 billion transportation plan.

What riders want

The hub of Charlotte’s bus system is the transit center uptown, across from the Spectrum Center. That’s where Crystal Stallings was waiting for a bus Sunday afternoon.

Stallings is 40 and lives near Northlake Mall. She has never had her own car — though she said she would be happy to have one. She takes the bus uptown and then rides the Gold Line streetcar to her job at Central Piedmont Community College.

“The bus system has become really unreliable,” she said. “It has increased the anxiety of trying to get somewhere on time, whether it’s to a job or to an interview or something like that, because (the transit system) is so understaffed.”

The Charlotte Area Transit System has acknowledged that it’s having reliability issues, which it says are due, in part, to a shortage of bus drivers. That’s one reason it wants voters to approve the new transportation plan.

But Jose Leon, who lives at the Villa Court apartments off Randolph Road, said even a punctual bus system is no match for a personal vehicle. He’s looking for work and trying to find $1,000 to buy a used car.

“Not having a car — everything takes longer,” he said. “You wait. You can’t just get up and go to the store, you know, three blocks away. It’s much easier having a car you know, it’s a different world when you have a car.”

He said a lot of job applications ask about transportation.

“Basically, if you tell them you have a car it’s a little better for the job application,” Leon said. “A bus is just sometimes you are late for everything. Traffic is a big hassle with the bus.”

Selling donated cars to people

Few cities are trying to put more cars on the road. They are doing what Charlotte is doing: investing heavily in transit.

In Baltimore, however, there is a non-profit, Vehicles for Change, that’s trying to help low-income residents get their own cars.

“You can’t access the opportunities without an automobile in most parts of the country,” said Martin Schwartz with Vehicles for Change. “One of our points of contention is when we talk about social injustice and systemic racism. We have created these huge neighborhoods of poverty that are mostly inhabited by minorities. And one of the ways we have trapped those minorities in poverty is by a lack of transportation.”

His business model is simple. He said they accept donated cars and repair them.

“Then we identify families that need a car to get to and from employment to escape poverty,” he said.

The sale price: $950.

His group will fix those cars for 10 years. But he said a challenge is making sure new owners have enough money for insurance.

Schwartz said he’s heard the arguments against increasing car ownership, like congestion and greenhouse gases. He said critics are being hypocritical.

“And yet they are the same people out there in their car driving to work every day and driving to the grocery store and taking their kids to practice and all of those things,” he said. “But they hate cars and no one else should have them. Except for them.”

CATS plans

In Charlotte, CATS wants to add more “crosstown” routes so people don’t always have to take a trip uptown and then change to another bus. Civic leaders have said that will help low-income workers get to work faster.

But a WFAE analysis of bus routesshows that many of those existing crosstown routes hardly have any riders.

One route, like a bus that goes on Pineville-Matthews Road in south Charlotte, averages less than two passengers for an entire 30-minute journey.

City Council member Ed Driggs says he doesn’t think adding more bus service on the Pineville-Matthews route will help.

“That’s not a question of investing not enough money,” he said. “It’s a question of whether or not it’s economic. And it’s not economic. You cannot engage bus service that gets close to every location frequently enough to be a really good alternative to a car.”

Driggs says the city should think about ways to help people get around, even if it’s helping them get their own vehicle.

But that idea is a non-starter for most of the City Council. They want fewer cars on the road — not more.

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.