How I got hooked on riding the bus even though I have a car

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Courtesy of CATS

The last time I rode a CATS bus was when I was a college student at UNC Charlotte. I didn’t have a car and needed to get my hair cut. I rode the bus out of necessity, not by choice. 

When I moved to Charlotte permanently, I had a car and never considered using public transportation. Then I met Melissa Oyler, a neighbor and fellow writer, and a car owner who prefers to bike most places. Last September, she strongly suggested we take the bus home from an Uptown event. We took the #3 bus from the Charlotte Transportation Center (CTC) at 303 E. Trade St. to a bus stop on 36th Street near North Alexander Street in NoDa. It cost $2.20, was ridiculously easy and I was hooked.

In December and January, I took the bus on the days I was in Uptown. Once I understood the route and bus protocol – my comfort level increased, and I chose to take the bus with two of my kids to see the Nutcracker performance at the Belk Theater. 

This month, Melissa and I decided to try something different. We took half of a day to run errands on the bus. We dropped off notecards at UMAR on S. Tryon Street and took a photo of a building near SouthPark mall for freelance work. And it was easy.

Now, I’m hooked.

Melissa Oyler and Vanessa Infanzon

Now that I’m comfortable getting Uptown on the bus, it takes me less time than driving to Uptown, finding parking and getting to my destination. Going to the CTC from my neighborhood takes about the same amount of time as driving.

Riding the bus does require a little planning. If I need to transfer to get to my final destination like SouthPark, the bus ride may be 15-20 minutes longer than driving a car. Running errands to various locations would be time-consuming on the bus unless you grouped them together based on the location of businesses. Grocery shopping for a week’s worth of groceries would be more difficult – probably requiring a roll-cart or shopping in small quantities.

Our mindset and habits have changed as a result of this experiment. Melissa is choosing public transportation for her everyday activities such as yoga, meetings and events. For me, it’s become another option to consider before planning my day. I even took the Sprinter from the CTC to the airport this past week – $2.20 fare.

Learn from our rookie mistakes

Bus drivers do not give change. Melissa only had a $20 bill for one of her first bus rides and that’s what she paid for a $2.20 fare. Use the CATS Pass app to purchase tickets with your debit or credit card. Be sure to activate the pass right before you get on the bus.

Ask the bus driver for a transfer. Transfers are necessary if your final destination means taking more than one bus route – there are no freebies. For example, in the current system, if you are going to S. Tryon from neighborhoods such as NoDa, Plaza Midwood or Villa Heights, you will first travel to the transportation center, then catch another bus to your final destination. You don’t have to pay another $2.20 to get on the second bus. Transfers are only good for 90 minutes. You may not use a transfer for a return trip. 

Pull the Stop Request Cord about a half of a mile before your stop. You’ll hear a ding and the stop will be announced on the intercom. The driver does not automatically stop at each stop. Pull too early or too late and you walk a bit farther than you intended. 

Plan ahead. According to CATS staff, buses are about 85 percent reliable for on-time performance. We got worried when the bus was 2-4 minutes late, but it always showed. Leave extra time to get to your destination if it’s your first time taking the route.

Why choose the bus? Is it worth it?

Bus fares are $2.20 for an adult one-way ticket or $88 for an unlimited monthly pass – good for bus and LYNX. All-day passes are $6.60 and senior citizen and children’s passes are $1.10 one-way. Environmental factors, savings on wear and tear on the car and parking hassles and costs make it a viable transportation solution for some. Average car costs per year for a NC resident are $2,700 to $8,000.

The reaction we received the most to telling someone we were taking the bus was, “Aren’t you scared?”

Scared of getting lost – sure; scared of the people on the bus – no, they are regular people trying to go somewhere, just like me.

Bus system changes to come

Right now, the bus system operates on a hub and spoke system. The CTC is the hub and surrounding neighborhoods are just one ride away. On March 19, 2018, CATS is enhancing the bus routes to make it easier to go crosstown with a program called “Envision My Ride.” Several bus numbers and routes are changing in an effort to make it easier to get around. Look for more information here.

Finding your route

There are several ways to find your route, but the easiest is using the Google Maps app. Plug in the address of your final destination and be sure to choose the icon for public transportation. It will show you what’s available right then. You can also choose options for future travel. 

Plus, the CATS website has all the routes with maps outlined and stops labeled. The homepage features a Google Maps Transit Trip Planner.

Tips and tools

  1. The CATS website has all the information you need, but if you want to speak to a real person, call Customer Service at (704) 336-RIDE (7433) about bus routes and fares.
  2. Employers who purchase monthly transit tickets in bulk get a discount. Contact customer service for information.
  3. There’s no WiFi on the bus.
  4. Buses operate from 5 a.m. to 2 a.m. Check the schedule for schedule and note differences for weekdays and weekends.
  5. If a bus stop is not well-lit, let customer service know.
  6. The RideCATS app operates in real-time and shows nearby bus stops, what buses run in the area and what times they will be driving by.
  7. Ask the bus driver if that bus takes you to the place you are heading. We found them to be helpful and didn’t even laugh when we were on the wrong bus.

The best way to learn is through trial and error – pick a destination, plug in the address and get on the bus. Take a friend.

Photos: Courtesy of CATS

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