Transit Time: How to build a regional transit system

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Q&A: There’s a vision for better Charlotte-area transit — and it’s time to move it forward, says head of regional group

If a big transit plan for Charlotte is going to happen, it’s going to take a regional approach.

And Geraldine Gardner, executive director of the Centralina Regional Council, has been working on a regional approach to Charlotte-area transit since 2019.

Last year, the Centralina Regional Council and the Metropolitan Transit Commission released Connect Beyond, a regional mobility plan that offers a vision of for improving transit and transportation in the 12-county Charlotte region. It produced more than 150 recommendations that will serve as a blueprint for improving connectivity over the next couple decades. Connect Beyond is the less-talked-about regional relative of the Charlotte Moves plan, also known as the Transformational Mobility Network — the $13.5-billion plan advanced by the city that would focus heavily on light rail.

The Charlotte Ledger’s Tony Mecia talked with Gardner this week about the vision for a regional transit system — and how to get there. Remarks were edited for clarity and length.

You can listen to the full 25-minute discussion in the latest episode of The Charlotte Ledger Podcast. You can find it on major podcast platforms including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast and Google Podcasts.

On what Connect Beyond is and why it matters:

At the heart, Connect Beyond is a vision for how people in our region can move across the region to destinations to their place of work to healthcare to educational opportunities, by using different means of getting around — different modes of transportation: walking, biking, taking transit, using their vehicle, going in a carpool, just different choices.

So Connect Beyond is really about how can we expand the choices in our region so that people don’t solely have to rely on traveling with their car to get from Point A to Point B. And at the same time, we’re trying to build mobility-friendly communities, so that our small towns and cities and counties and basically all the places in our region are growing and developing, thinking about how people are going to move within those communities — and then how we’re connecting those communities across the region.

On how to accomplish that goal:

It all starts with a vision. Our peer metros or regions across the country have really relied on having a strong and compelling vision that people can rally behind and get behind. I think in our region, what makes the implementation of that vision so complex is that we have so many different stakeholders and structures for planning and operating these different systems. And Connect Beyond was really the first effort to bring all of these stakeholders together. …

The first way that we start to make progress in implementation is by taking the great collaboration that we had during the planning process and continuing to build on those relationships. For example, if we’ve got six different transit providers all providing service in the region, what does that mean for a rider who can’t understand how to get from Point A to Point B, because there’s no one system that will allow them to plan that trip? Or if they have to buy multiple tickets, because they cross multiple transit providers, that’s not going to make it convenient for them.

We have the opportunity through Connect Beyond implementation to bring those transit providers together and talk about, “Can we look at regional fare scheduling? Can we look at integrated ticketing?” These are all recommendations that are in Connect Beyond. And so it’s this combination of regional collaboration, and starting to build the infrastructure in place through that collaboration.

On what Mecklenburg’s surrounding counties want in a transit system:

The nature of our region is that it’s a hub-and-spoke model. People still travel into the center city — although that’s been changing in the pandemic. … When it comes to our counties, I think there’s a there’s an optimism and a recognition that people do need different choices.

But there are also a lot of other competing priorities in those counties that our leaders are juggling: schools, roads, transit. And so I think like all elected officials, they are trying to balance what they’re hearing from their constituents and the needs of their communities, while also trying to understand how we move a regional vision forward. And part of our job at the Centralina Regional Council is to be that platform for those elected officials to come together and have those tough conversations.

On whether surrounding counties will contribute financially to help build regional transit:

That’s going to be up to the voters to decide. I think our job is to make sure that we’re making the business case for why this is an important investment.

On how other cities are encouraging transit:

I lived and worked in Washington, D.C., before I moved to Charlotte about four years ago. And I take the example of the mom who has to commute to work, and she wants to have that vehicle because she’s the caregiver. If her child or her parents need her to go back and help them during the workday, she needs that peace of mind to be able to make that trip, and usually, that’s in a car.

In D.C., where I came from, there was a really robust commuter choices network, and if your employer participated in this program, if you ran into that issue, then you got a free Uber ride wherever you needed to go. And that made the choice easier for parents and caregivers to take transit. That’s just one example.

In other places, especially in Europe, you see city leaders and urban planners and transportation planners building transportation facilities that have a place for the bus to pull up, a place that has e-bikes, bike sharing, scooter sharing — these multimodal transit hubs that are really a key recommendation in our plan.

Where we’re seeing best practices in other places, they’re really putting the person at the center of the planning process. It’s not about just implementing lines on a map. It’s about thinking how the individual — what is going to reduce their barriers to taking transit? What is going to make that experience easy, convenient and safe?

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This story was originally published as part of the Transit Time newsletter, jointly produced in partnership between The Charlotte Ledger and WFAE.

Tony Mecia