Charlotte Transit Agency Uses Infographic to Mislead on Transit’s Effectiveness

The infographic that the Charlotte Area Transportation System (CATS) created to help sell the public on plans to extend its light-rail line has so much spin, most folks will feel dizzy after reading it. As reported by Eric Jaffe in The Atlantic Cities, the agency created “Truth About Transit,” an infographic designed to promote the LYNX rail extension. While none of the claims is dead wrong, taken together they leave the impression that CATS rail is far more effective than it is in reality. What is missing is any background, context or objectivity. CATS came up with nine so-called myths; I will address the four most egregious.

Supposed Myth According to CATS: Light rail ridership projections are inflated.

CATS claim: Charlotte’s light rail ridership for the opening year was 53% over forecast.

Reality: Long-term light rail ridership projections for Charlotte are inflated.

How CATS spun this: CATS actually released three different ridership figures. When it submitted the proposal to the federal government, it submitted a ridership forecast of 25,700. Then, after it received federal funding, it revised its forecast downward to 18,100. Finally, before the line opened it revised its forecast downward again to 9,100. Since, CATS used the 25,700 number to get federal funding, that is the correct number to use in calculations. To be charitable we calculated the percentages for the 18,100 figure as well.

Light rail ridership for the opening year was 30% under the official forecast and 8% over the revised forecast. Light rail ridership today is 47% under the official forecast and 25% under the revised forecast.

According to calculations from the National Transit Database, at the end of its first full year LYNX ridership averaged 19,700 daily riders. However, the forecast the agency provided to the federal government for funding indicated 25,700 weekday riders. And the agency’s revised forecast of 18,100 is similar to LYNX’s best year.

How did LYNX get the 53% over figure? It used rail ridership forecasts for the opening year of 9,100 riders, which the agency deliberately low-balled to make ridership look high.

The more salient point is that ridership has declined significantly from 2008. Today ridership averages 13,500 people. Why? Despite the recession ridership in cities with effective transit systems such as New York City and Washington is increasing. It is likely that many early riders viewed the system as a tourist attraction. They would ride it several times to see how LRT worked. Others tried if for a year or two and realized they could commute more quickly by car.

Supposed myth according to CATS: Charlotte light rail carries fewer people than a lane of I-77.

CATS Claim: One lane of I-77 can move 2,200 people per hour, LYNX could transport 6,240 people per hour.

Reality: Charlotte light rail carries far fewer people than a lane of I-77. For every passenger the LRT line moves, I-77 moves 5.7.

How CATS spun this: Of all CATS’ claims this comes the closest to being an outright lie. According to transit consultant Tom Rubin, on a weekday CATS currently carries approximately 4,054 passengers per directional route mile while I-77 moves approximately 23,471. According to basic math 23,471 is a lot larger than 4,054.

CATS further assumes total occupancy of 236 to justify its claim. It also assumes that trains will expand to 3 cars. But the current 2-car trains are underutilized so why would it expand them to three? Accepting the 3 car trains, this would require squeezing passengers into cars like sardines, something that works in China but will never work in Charlotte. And the high number of passengers will decrease the number of trains per hour that operate since full trains take longer to load and unload. (I realize Charlotte does not have experience with really full trains but that’s how it works in New York City and Washington D.C. where they do.)

Supposed myth according to CATS: Transit is used in only 2-3% (home-work) trips made each day

CATS Claim: CATS attracts up to 17% of commute trips into major employment zones

Reality: Transit is used by 1.9% of (home-work) trips made each day

How CATS spun this: Yes, some corridors have higher transit service than others. This is as true in Casper, WY as in New York City. But the supposed myth that a very small percentage of Charlotte commuters use transit is a fact. No matter the spin 1.9% of commuters in the region, or 32,000 of 1,700,000 people, is a very small percentage. Worse, building and maintaining rail has caused the agency to cut back on bus service. So while the few people lucky enough to work at major downtown corporations can now use one rail line, the rest of the metro area is facing significant cutbacks in bus service. Many families who do not own a vehicle and cannot bike or walk to work now face longer transit commutes or no transit service at all. As a result, this type of new rail line can lead to fewer total people commuting by transit.

Supposed myth according to CATS: Transit doesn’t reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per capita

CATS claim: In regions with both rail and bus options, there are fewer vehicle miles traveled per capita than in bus only or limited transit cities

Reality: There is no proof that transit reduces VMT. It is possible; we just do not know.

How CATS spun this: While this claim is not as crazy as some of the others, there are no peer-reviewed studies that support it. Further the data CATS uses to back up its claim are laughable. First, VMT is influenced by a host of factors. Density is the most important but land-use, development patterns and politics also matter. The prevalence of transit is maybe the 25th most important factor.

Before we address this claim, let’s correct CATS’ transit vocabulary. There is no such thing as “Large Rail.” It is either heavy-rail or high-capacity-rail. And there is no such thing as “Small Rail.” It is either light-rail or low-capacity-rail. And Bus Only is a bad term as well. There are many types of bus service—local, limited-stop, express, BRT, premium. There terms are very creative but no transit officials labels light-rail as small rail.

Let’s examine CATS comparison cities: New York and Dallas. New York City has 18 times more people than Charlotte. New York, has lower VMT because it is extremely congested, located on water and built before World War II when cars were less prevalent on a pre-planned street grid. Even without its fantastic transit network it would still have a much lower VMT.

Dallas has seven times more people. And Dallas has a lower VMT because congestion is much more severe. Worsening congestion to lessen VMT is a perverse policy goal. Further, Dallas is the poster child for how not to build rail. Despite populations increases and the addition of a light-rail network, fewer people take transit in Dallas in 2013 then before the light-rail network was built. When a region spends billions to build transit and the total number of people commuting by transit declines, you have made some major mistakes.

Charlotte developed after World War II with no geographical boundaries when cars were more prevalent with one of the smallest population densities for any medium sized city in the world. As a result of these factors, not the quality of transit, Charlotte has a high VMT.

If we take CATS logic at face value, CATS wants to spend lots of money on new trains while cutting bus service. First, this will cause economic hardship for transit dependent riders. Second, because the city has no money to expand its highways, congestion will be so bad that people will drive fewer miles. And those added trains, similar to ones in Dallas, will be mostly empty. Is that really a goal worth achieving?

CATS has exaggerated its ridership, its trains’ real capacity, the importance of one train line and transit’s effect on VMT. This same agency wants taxpayers money to extend a light-rail line that is currently underused. The agency hopes that since facts are not compelling, a little spin will do the trick. Here’s hoping Charlotte taxpayers look at the facts.