As a friend recently explained it to me, some things in life just give you that feeling of going through the airport by yourself for the very first time. Like financial plans.
Or riding the CATS bus.
A bus system has been in existence in Charlotte since the 1920s, according to Olaf Kinard, director of marketing and communications for Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS). I have been in existence in Charlotte since 1989, and I have never ridden a CATS bus. Well, until yesterday.
The Charlotte area has more than 70 bus routes, many of which cut across Charlotte without reaching the Charlotte Transportation Center (CTC) uptown. The CATS system takes 25 million customer trips each year and 83,000 weekday trips. The most popular routes based on ridership are Route 11 along Tryon Street, followed by Route 9 along Central Avenue, followed by Route 7 along Beatties Ford Road.
I hopped onto the Routes & Schedules tab on the CATS website and carefully selected Route 19 along Park Road. I picked a time: 3:45 p.m.
Then I walked from The Charlotte Observer to the CTC and looked around for some perspective.
A female coworker told me she rides the express bus (which doesn’t stop at every stop) every day from the Arboretum. She said it beats driving.
A woman sitting on a bench at the CTC rides the bus because, she said, “My car is broken down.” Another woman said she can’t pay for a car.
Kinard said a study conducted in 2011 revealed that 47 percent of paying bus riders in Charlotte are male, while 53 percent are female (the next study comes out in 2016). So I needed to get some male perspectives.
One man new to Charlotte said riding the bus is inexpensive (see fare list) compared to financing a car. “The best way for me to learn a city is to ride the bus,” he said.
Another man said, “I enjoy riding the bus. It’s on time, most of the time … It beats spending money on gas.”
A third man walked up to me and said my question sounded interesting, but that I needed to go deeper. “I’m looking for love,” he said.
I didn’t find love at the CTC, or on the CATS bus. But I did find exact change in my purse for a one-way trip ($2.20) and I did locate the appropriate bus via the digital signage under the rafters.
I inserted my dollar bills and change into the machine by the driver’s seat and took a seat. I examined the stop-signal system: a cord running along the windows.
I took note of my travel companions: 13 others; eight men and five women. Two of us were white.
According to the 2011 study that Kinard shared, 63 percent of CATS bus riders are African-American, 29 percent are white, 4 percent are Hispanic/Latino and the remainder are listed as “other.” The average age across all Charlotte public transit is 35.5. Fifty-six percent were employed full-time in 2011 (and in a shaky economy).
But when I was sitting there on the bright fabric seat, listening to the silence of my fellow passengers and the automated voice calling out street names over the speaker, neither gender, nor job, nor race nor reason for being there mattered.
It just felt nice to let someone else drive for a bit, to watch the world outside the windows and, when I stepped off the bus, to feel the rustle and crunch of leaves under my feet as I took my final steps home.
Photos: Katie Toussaint