To help low-income workers, some prefer cars to public transport | WFAE 90.7

To help low-income workers, some prefer cars to public transport |  WFAE 90.7

Charlotte leaders say the city’s economic mobility challenges are due, in part, to the fact that nearly everyone needs a car to get around here. And if you’re poor and you 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 to solving this problem.

“If we invest in greenways, if we invest in cycle paths, if we invest in good sidewalks, if we invest in public bus transport with reliable frequencies and a rail system that has extended beyond what we have today, we might actually be able to get more of our low-wage earners to work,” Jaiyeoba said last year during a UNC Charlotte panel on mobility and transportation.

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

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

They are proposing something radical: helping low-income residents get their own car or own one.

“Charlotte was designed around the automobile, so running a bus system is like inserting a square peg into a round hole,” said the UNC Charlotte associate professor. Elisabeth Delmellewho studies urban transport.

She said the fact that more people are driving has downsides, like possibly making climate change worse.

“But we also have to recognize the reality we live in right now,” Delmelle said. “That is to say, we built this city around a car and we can’t say that nobody else can have a car. Now you live in a neighborhood designed for a car, and if we take away (a car), you are now at a disadvantage.

Last year, the City of Charlotte adopted the Comprehensive Plan 2040, a roadmap for a denser, more walkable city. This would allow people to access jobs and services without having a car.

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

In the Charlotte area, 12% of households do not have a car, according to the census. Among those in the lowest income quartile, it’s 29%.

“We have to get creative 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 give people vouchers to use on ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft. Or start a carpooling program in certain neighborhoods.

National transit ridership had declined 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, professor of urban planning at UCLA, said she Studies show this is partly due to more people buying their own cars.

According to Blumenberg, low-income people with cars can move to better neighborhoods and are more likely to find and keep jobs. This was especially true for women.

“A car gives you a lot of flexibility and a lot of choice,” Blumenberg said. “It gives you a lot of choice on the residential side. On the employment side, which is where I’ve done most of my work, it’s even very difficult to find or even apply for jobs in places far from your home if you don’t have no automobile.”

She said there was a band 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 electric vehicles could make increasing access to cars politically acceptable.

In Charlotte, the group Lead on Opportunity works to help the poorest inhabitants of the city. He did not recommend increasing car ownership or access to cars 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 runners want

The hub of Charlotte’s bus system is the Downtown Transit Center, across from the Spectrum Center. This is where Crystal Stallings was waiting for a bus on Sunday afternoon.

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

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

The Charlotte area transit system has acknowledged it has reliability issues, which it says are due, in part, to a shortage of bus drivers. That’s one of the reasons he wants voters to approve the new transportation plan.

But Jose Leon, who lives in Villa Court apartments near Randolph Road, said even a one-off bus system was no match for a personal vehicle. He is 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 a lot easier to have a car, you know, it’s a different world when you have a car.

He said a lot of job applications were for transportation.

“Basically if you tell them you have a car, that’s a bit better for the application,” Leon said. “A bus is just that sometimes you’re late for everything. Traffic is a big problem with the bus.

Sell ​​donated cars to individuals

Few cities try to put more cars on the road. They do what Charlotte does: invest heavily in public transit.

In Baltimore, however, there is a non-profit organization, Change vehicleswhich tries to help low-income residents get their own car.

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

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

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

The selling price: $950.

His group will repair these cars for 10 years. But he said one challenge is making sure new owners have enough money for insurance.

Schwartz said he heard the arguments against increasing car ownership, such as congestion and greenhouse gases. He said the reviews were hypocritical.

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

CATS diets

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

But a WFAE analysis of bus routes shows that many of these existing cross-city routes have virtually no passengers.

A route, such as a bus that takes Pineville-Matthews Road in south Charlotte, averages fewer than two passengers for a full 30-minute trip.

City Councilman Ed Driggs says he doesn’t think adding bus service on the Pineville-Matthews road will help.

“It’s not about not investing enough money,” he said. “It’s a question of whether it’s economical or not. And it’s not economical. You cannot hire a bus service that approaches every location frequently enough to be a very good alternative to a car.

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

But that idea is a non-starter for most city council members. They want fewer cars on the road, not more.