Charlotte just took a big step towards improving its public transit system and the equitable use of city streets! At their September 8 strategy session, Charlotte City Council unanimously approved CATS's plans to pilot a bus lane while preserving the existing bike lane on Central Avenue between the former Eastland Mall site and Eastway Drive. The plan was presented by CATS CEO John Lewis and Charlotte DOT Director Liz Babson.
For the past few years, we've been advocating for Charlotte's leaders to make the bold decisions necessary to get people where they need to go faster and more efficiently on buses. We're excited to see such broad support for this project and we can hardly wait to see it come to life this October!
Central Avenue (current image shown) will soon be transformed! (image: Google maps)
Elected officials spoke up for bus prioritization!
Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles believes transit is critical to Charlotte's growth and economic vibrancy. During the meeting, she shared a heartbreaking story of a woman who contacted her because there was no bus service within walking distance that would allow the woman to get to work on time and back home in time to take care of her family. Lyles said, "We have to help people find a way to get around the city without the expense of owning a car."
Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt pushed the City to work on bus prioritization on additional routes like Providence Rd. "It's going to be a hard change because people don't want to get out of their cars."
We're grateful to the leadership of our City as they make policy decisions that meet the needs of ALL people to get where they need to go each day!
Why start with Central Avenue?
Central Avenue is one of the most vibrant and diverse corridors in Charlotte. It's also a very popular route with CATS bus riders.
This pilot project is the most recent phase of CATS's Envision My Ride initiative.
Envision My Ride aims to provide better transit service by redesigning the bus network. It's happening in these three phases. Before we focus on the Central Avenue pilot project, here's the quick version of what's already happened in the first two phases:
- Phase 1: Structure
You can think of this as the phase that's easily visible as lines on a map showing where bus routes go. When the LYNX Blue Line light rail extension opened in March 2018, CATS also adjusted 22 bus routes and added 9 new routes including 4 cross-town routes.
In October 2018, CATS adjusted 24 additional routes. This was a major structural change! Many routes were "straightened out" to provide more direct service and shorter travel times.
- Phase 2: Frequency
In February 2020, CATS increased frequency on 4 key routes so that the buses come every 15 minutes. This is also when the new MetroRapid bus service began running on the I-77 express lanes, dramatically reducing travel times between Charlotte and North Mecklenburg.
It's exciting that buses are already running more frequently on key routes, although additional frequency is needed across the rest of the network. 15-minute intervals between buses should be the minimum standard to aim for in the short term. Popular bus routes will need to have even more frequent service to really help people get where they need to go efficiently, especially when transfers between routes are required.
- Phase 3: Reliability
This is the phase we're in now!
Adding more buses to the road and straightening out meandering routes will only get us so far. You likely aren't surprised to hear that CATS buses are getting slowed down by traffic congestion.
City Council just approved a contract for work to begin on CATS's Bus Corridors Study, which will define ways to improve reliability of buses throughout the CATS network.
At the end of 2019, CATS successfully piloted a shared bus/bike lane on 4th Street in Uptown between McDowell St and the Charlotte Transportation Center. It's now being made permanent! Read our previous blog post about it.
CATS ultimately wants to create a seamless dedicated bus lane along the length of Central Avenue all the way into Uptown. The next phase, which will be built this fall, is to convert the right lanes of Central between the former Eastland Mall site and Eastway Dr. to a bus-only lane. The existing bike lane (separated by a painted buffer space) will be maintained during the pilot.
Here's a map of the portion of Central Avenue that will be transformed by the pilot project this fall. Bus stops are shown.
(image: Google map edited by City of Charlotte)
What are CATS and the Charlotte DOT hoping to accomplish with this pilot?
Beyond the obvious benefit of providing dedicated space for bus riders and people on bikes, this pilot will help the City to:
- Test a bus prioritization treatment during a time of lower than usual traffic. Traffic volumes across Charlotte have fallen to 20 to 50 percent below pre-pandemic levels, but are slowly rising again. With more people working remotely and CMS students currently learning remotely, there's much less rush hour traffic on Central Ave. This is an ideal time to rest bus and bike lanes and make necessary modifications to accommodate additional traffic in the future. Mr. Lewis emphasized that the greatest time savings for buses will likely happen not during this phase, but during the future Phase 3 when bus lanes are extended through the innermost portion of Central through the Plaza Midwood area and then into Uptown to connect with the existing 4th St. bus/bike lane.
- Evaluate effects of the pilot project on transit service reliability and traffic congestion to better inform the concurrent work being done by the consultant on the system-wide Bus Corridors Study. In other words, what happens during the pilot on Central Avenue will improve the City's approach to other key bus corridors!
- Plan for Phase 3 of the CityLYNX Gold Line streetcar project. Analyzing what happens during the pilot project will help the City to plan the best approach for the future streetcar extension to the former Eastland Mall site. It's currently slated to run in shared traffic with cars, as the existing streetcar does. But it's possible that the pilot results will indicate that it would be more optimal for the streetcar and buses to run in a dedicated lane. We sure hope so!
Why will this pilot end at Eastway Dr. instead of extending through Plaza Midwood?
We'd like to see the full conversion of Central Avenue into a truly multi-modal corridor happen faster, too!
Mr. Lewis explained that the Eastland to Eastway section of Central Avenue is very access-controlled, which means it has turn lanes, a median, existing bike lanes, and wider sidewalks. It's going to be more technically challenging to create a safe and effective dedicated route for bikes and buses in the Plaza Midwood section. If you're familiar with that area, you know it has 2 vehicle lanes in either direction without turn lanes, no bike lanes, narrow sidewalks, and buildings close to the roadway.
The City is planning and implementing the pilot project with their own staff. But to complete the Plaza Midwood to Uptown section in the next phase, they'll need to bring in outside expertise. We know it can be done, and we hope it happens as soon as possible!
How YOU can support space on our streets for buses and bikes:
- Register for our Grow Smart CLT: Transforming Central Avenue (And Beyond!) with Bus and Bike Lanes free virtual event on Wednesday, October 7. CATS planners Bruce Jones and Jason Lawrence will share more details about the pilot project on Central Ave and plans for improving reliability for bus riders the system-wide network!
- Voice your support for better bus service to the Charlotte MOVES Task Force by phone, email, or commenting on the City's YouTube and Facebook Live coverage of the meetings. Details here. Take (and share!) the task force's public survey.
- Keep an eye on your email and our social media for a survey from CATS about perceptions of the pilot project by bus riders, people on bikes, and drivers.
- Keep an open mind and remember that the streets belong to all of us! Any change can be hard, and this will be a learning process for the City and all people who use the streets. Properly implemented bus lanes have met with great success across the U.S. and the world.
- Let your district and at-large City Council members know that you support prioritizing buses and sustainable, equitable modes of transportation! Don't know who represents you or how to contact them? Find out here.
You can watch the full presentation by CATS CEO John Lewis and Charlotte DOT Director Liz Babson during last Tuesday's Council meeting. Start watching at 3 minutes and 15 seconds.