Tag Archives: Charlotte


Below are additional reports and analysis on Light Rail projects in the United States

Sustainable Growth?

“Charlotte … perform(s) particularly bad. These systems do not have enough riders to produce the economies of scale that make transit provision by rail significantly less expensive than bus.” — UC Berkeley Urban Densities and Transit: A Multi-dimensional Perspective

While public transit is required to help accommodate the area’s population growth, the central question is what technology do we require to solve what problem? And when do you use one versus the other? So where rail transit might be economically sound by re-purposing along existing rail corridors surrounded by high-density populations, does it make sense to use rail transit all of the time? Is rail the only tool in the transit kit?

What really matters to transit-oriented development [TOD] outcomes?  According to the report, the #1 predictor is strong government support for redevelopment, while the #2 predictor is real estate market conditions.  The #3 predictor is the usefulness of the transit services — frequency, speed, and reliability as ensured by an exclusive right of way. Using rail vs bus technologies does not appear to matter much at all. — yes, great bus service can stimulate development!

There seems to be a continued LRT bias where advocates claim that LRT is the only way to support population growth using TOD (Transit Orient Developments) and that TOD has an inherent affinity for LRT over BRT. However, studies from the US GAO (BUS RAPID TRANSIT, Projects Improve Transit Service and Can Contribute to Economic Development) and a recent study of 21 North American transit corridors across 13 cities by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy suggests otherwise. The study concluded that strong government support for redevelopment and real estate market conditions were the primary drivers that drove successful TOD. The use of transit technologies (rail vs bus) did not matter at all.

Outside of the US, in cities like Curitiba, Brazil, and Guangzhou, China, there is copious evidence that BRT systems have successfully stimulated development. Curitiba’s early silver-standard BRT corridors, completed in the 1970s, were developed together with a master plan that concentrated development along them. The population growth along the corridor rate was 98% between 1980 and 1985, compared to an average citywide population growth rate of only 9.5%.

Many cities, therefore, consider investing in mass transit to stimulate the hoped-for development. Indeed, a good mass transit investment can be such a catalyst. Yet city planners and politicians, who do not always work closely with transportation professionals, commonly begin to view mass transit in and of itself as a silver-bullet solution for stimulating development. — ITDP study, More Development For Your Transit Dollar

The DOLRT study area projects 32% population growth. It is the lowest projection of the counties and regions in the study, suggesting that there are other population areas that are growing substantially FASTER than the DOLRT corridor.

Based on the Alternative Analysis, the corridor study area is projected by 2035 to have a population density of 4052 ppsm or people per square mile (231K / 57). Using 1/2 mile walk-up radius around each of the 17 proposed stations, approximately 68,000 people will be within walking distance of a station. The national average for public transportation utilization is 5% (Durham 3%). This suggests walk access will be approximately 6800 daily boardings (68K * 5% * 2) rather than the projected 12,180 by GoTriangle in 2040.


“It is broadly accepted that fairly dense urban development is an essential feature for a successful public transit system. Our analysis suggests that light-rail systems need around 30 people per gross acre … (for) cost-effective investments in the US … urban densities are the most critical factor in determining whether investments in guideway transit systems are cost effective” — UC Berkeley Urban Densities and Transit: A Multi-dimensional Perspective

So how much population density do we need to make light rail cost-effective?


Let’s do the math, there are 640 acres in one square mile. So that means we would require a density of 19,200 people per square mile. So with our current 3071 ppsm (175K / 57) along the DOLRT study corridor, that is 16% of the recommended population density. Or stated differently, we would have to reach a population of over 1 million people by 2040 (or today’s entire Wake county population) just within the 57 square mile study corridor.

Environmentally Friendly?

While many environmentalists quickly point out the adverse impact of the automobile — they quickly gloss over the environmental impact of near-empty light rail trains. The environmental impact of light rail, as a system, is considerably worse. The automobile takes passengers directly point-to-point (from origin to destination), but light rail requires supplemental trips to/from the station, whether via park-and-ride, kiss-and-ride, or bus.

Many environmentalists support rail-based transit for environmental reasons, but to date only BRT projects have been certified as greenhouse gas-reduction projects by the Clean Development Mechanism defined in the Kyoto Protocol (see Bogotá and Mexico City).  Additionally, the volume of vehicle-specific emissions that LRT and electric trolley bus systems produce depends on how their electric power is generated. If the source is coal-fired power plants, then the system may actually produce more CO2 than normal diesel vehicles do, even though people are exposed to fewer emissions on the street. Buses are major producers of particulate emissions unless they use low-sulfur fuels, have particulate traps and clean engines, or run on some source of fuel that is an alternative to diesel.

Compared to rail systems, BRT systems also tend to be less intensive users of concrete and steel. Producing steel and concrete and building underground or elevated concrete structures generates a large amount of CO2. Many heavy-rail metro projects cannot reduce enough operations-related carbon emissions during their first twenty years to compensate for their construction-related CO2 emissions. Surface LRT generates less construction-related CO2 but still tends to generate more than a BRT project does. — ITDP study, More Development For Your Transit Dollar

Using the overly optimistic 27,000 daily boardings projection (revised with NCCU extension in 2040) running 150 train trips per day across the end-to-end 17.7 mile line will result in an average ‘load factor’ of 10 passengers per vehicle mile traveled; or utilize 2% of the 500 passenger capacity heralded by GoTriangle. So for every one train that travels at the cited 500 passenger capacity, there will be ~50 trains running empty. Low capacity utilization is not  environmentally or economically sound.

From an energy intensity perspective, this low utilization has a devastating impact on DOLRT energy efficiency. With an average of 10 passengers per mile results in 6327 BTU per DOLRT passenger mile (63265 BTU per vehicle mile / 10 passengers per mile) compared to 3144 BTU for car travel or 4071 BTU for bus transit. So per passenger mile, DOLRT uses over twice the amount of energy of an average car!

Transportation Energy Ed34 - table 2.14.png

SOURCE: US Department of Energy, Oak Ridge National Laboratory – Transportation Energy Data Book, Edition 34, page 2-19, Table 2.14

Due to the limited coverage of light rail stations, light rail requires altered bus routes to “feed the beast”. These feeders add cost, consume more energy, increase travel distance and increase travel times, while compounding the traffic congestion they are supposedly trying to alleviate. The light rail system is forced to provide an entire, high-capacity vehicle even when there are only a few riders.


The inconvenient truth is that not a single light rail in the US carries as many passengers as a single highway lane. The myriad of alternatives, like walking, bicycling, carpooling, van-pooling, congestion pricing, telecommuting, flexible working hours, parking reform, pricing strategies to improve bus utilization, etc — largely ignored while the money and attention is consumed by light rail.


The proposed Durham-Orange Light Rail train has NO new renewable energy requirement and electricity sourced from Duke Energy which has been repeatedly cited for environmental transgressions. Duke Energy generates electricity primarily with nuclear, gas (sourced from ‘fracking’) and coal power plants. The Political Economy Research Institute ranks Duke Energy 13th among corporations emitting airborne pollutants in the United States. The ranking is based on the quantity (80 million pounds in 2005) and toxicity of the emissions. When the high energy costs and carbon emissions during construction are counted, the light-rail line is far “browner” than autos and highways.

Forgetting greenhouse effects during construction?

Neglecting to take into account the emissions associated with constructing buildings like train stations and laying the tracks may make train travel appear far more environmentally friendly than it actually is, the authors found.

“Most current decision-making relies on analysis at the tailpipe, ignoring vehicle production, infrastructure provision, and fuel production required for support,” wrote the authors. “We find that total life-cycle energy inputs and greenhouse gas emissions contribute an additional 63 percent for on road, 155 percent for rail, and 31 percent for air systems,” relative to those vehicles’ tailpipe emissions. — How Green is Rail Travel?

Cement manufacturing releases CO2 in the atmosphere both directly when calcium carbonate is heated, producing lime and carbon dioxide, and also indirectly through the use of energy if its production involves the emission of CO2.The cement industry produces about 5% of global man-made CO2 emissions, of which 50% is from the chemical process, and 40% from burning fuel. The amount of CO2 emitted by the cement industry is nearly 900 kg of CO2 for every 1000 kg of cement produced. — Cement wiki


Articles from local newspapers in the Triangle area.

Articles on other related topics.

Charlotte success?

As Charlotte’s LYNX approaches a decade of service (started in Nov 2007), let’s look more closely at this heralded ‘success’. By reviewing the NTD federal filings(Charlotte LYNX ridership data is on tab UPT (Unlinked Passenger Trips), row 663, column CB).

  • 13,362 average daily ridership (workdays and weekend) during Oct 2016 (serving less than 6680 people daily, or less than 1% of Charlotte’s population of 827,000).
  • 13,332 average daily ridership over last 9 years with a flat trend line (despite 20% population growth between 2007 and 2015).

As they say, “a picture is worth a thousand words” …


During this same period Charlotte’s population grew 20% (691K in 2007 to 827K in 2015 per  US Census), with increasing traffic congestion (Study: Charlotte roads, traffic among worst in North Carolina).

It would appear that the only thing that hasn’t grown over the past decade is Charlotte’s LYNX daily ridership. In fact, relative to Charlotte’s ever growing population, LYNX relative riderships (as a percentage of population served) has declined over the past decade.

How did Charlotte get there?

Charlotte’s light-rail line was originally projected to cost an estimated $225 million in 2000. The final cost of the completed project in 2007 was $467 million. Even after adjusting for inflation (2000-2007), that’s a 75% cost overrun. FEIS / DEIS

Citizens attempted to repeal the sales transit tax, but were ultimately defeated after citizen’s campaign was outspent 50:1 by corporate vested interests (like Duke Energy, Wachovia now Wells Fargo, Bank of America, McDonald Transit Associates, Parsons Brinckerhoff, and Siemens). An additional twenty major businesses contributed, all of whom profit from CATS operations according to former city council member Don Reid.


The Charlotte Lynx daily ridership has stagnated 16,000 workday boardings over the last 7 years while the area’s population grew 17%, having no net effect on reducing traffic congestion. Even accounting for ‘choice riders’ those who would give up their cars in favor of Charlotte LYNX, the changes in gasoline prices has had no effect on daily ridership.


Despite the high costs and low ridership, CATS wants more rail — but doesn’t have any money to pay for it. So it has rolled out a campaign of declaring the light rail a great success, especially in the field of economic development. Of course, in most cases it was the subsidies, not the rail, that stimulated the development, and most likely the development would have taken place somewhere in the region anyway, though perhaps not in that corridor.

“Charlotte … perform(s) particularly bad. These systems do not have enough riders to produce the economies of scale that make transit provision by rail significantly less expensive than bus.”
SOURCE: UC Berkeley Urban Densities and Transit: A Multi-dimensional Perspective

“Future expansion includes plans for light rail, streetcars and bus rapid transit along the corridors in the 2030 Transit Corridor System Plan adopted in 2006 by Metropolitan Transit Commission (MTC). Although build-out of the entire system has been estimated for completion by 2034, by 2013, the Charlotte Area Transit System stated it would likely be unable to fund future transit projects apart from the Blue Line Extension, scheduled to begin construction in early 2014.

Charlotte ranked Worst Traffic In North Carolina according to recent 2015 Urban Mobility Scorecard. Charlotte’s transit also ranked among nation’s worst. New survey puts it at 26th out of 32 big cities for transit quality according to Charlotte Observer (May 14, 2016)

Can some of the Charlotte Area’s Transit System’s ridership woes be blamed on the growing popularity of ride-hailing services like Uber? That’s a question posed in a report from The Charlotte Observer, which notes that in South End — where the nearby light-rail line has been seen as a selling point to attract new residents — many people are choosing the app-based services over public transit.

For much of the past year, ridership on Charlotte Area Transit System buses and the Lynx Blue Line has declined. For the first nine months of the fiscal year, ridership on all CATS services, including buses and the light rail, was down 4.3 percent compared with the same period a year earlier.

Ride-hailing likely isn’t as appealing for areas farther from uptown because of the higher rates. It costs $20 to $25 to take an Uber from uptown to the southern edge of the light-rail line. [emphasis ours: of course, if Uber was 80% subsidized like LYNX, the Uber fare would drop to $4 to $5 fare]

Over the past seven years, ridership at the four Lynx stations in the South End has increased from 1,595 average weekday boardings in March 2009 to 2,057 boardings in March 2016. That’s a 30% increase in seven years. But during the same period, the number of residents has increased at a much faster rate, from 3,400 to 8,000 people (+135%).

Chris Walker, who lives at the Silos South End apartment complex, is one of thousands of people drawn to living within a stone’s throw of the Lynx Blue Line. Walker likes being close to the light-rail line, but he doesn’t actually use it all that much. “I have lived here a year and a half, and I have taken the train twice,” said Walker, whose apartment is less than a quarter-mile from the New Bern light-rail station at the southern-most part of South End. “We Uber instead. For $5, you can get uptown. It’s easy.”

Kaitlin Flanagan, who works in SouthPark, says she sometimes takes the train uptown, but she almost always uses Uber to get home. “I prefer Uber, especially if there is a big event going on,” she said.

Deanna Bencic, who works in south Charlotte, doesn’t take the train to work. And if she’s going out with friends, she doesn’t take the train – even when it’s an option. “If it’s four or five people, then we always use Uber,” she said.

SOURCE: Some Charlotte residents jump on Uber over train in South End

Charlotte facing additional tax revenue shortfalls


The Charlotte plan to address the current $22 million budget shortfall includes: Tax-rate increase & service cuts including:

  • closing 311 information service on weekends & holidays
  • resurface about 16.5 fewer miles of streets a year
  • budget cuts for Police and Fire
  • eliminate more than 100 city jobs

In addition, Carlee and his staff, along with the mayor and City Council, have been grappling with unanticipated shortfalls in tax revenue as well as a proposed change in sales-tax sharing that, according to state and city projections, could cost Charlotte an estimated $3 million to $30 million annually.

“On May 6, 2013, a 30-member transit funding task force released a draft report in which they estimated it would cost $3.3 billion to build the remaining transit corridors, and $1.7 billion to operate and maintain the lines through 2024. To fund the build-out by sales taxes alone would require a 0.78 cent increase in the sales tax, which would need to be approved by the state General Assembly. The committee recommended any sales tax increase be limited to 0.5 cent and other methods used to raise funds; In July 2015, CATS reported it lacked the funds to support any future transit projects apart from the already budgeted 2.5-mile long Phase 2 segment of the CityLYNX Gold Line.”

CityLYNX Gold Line facing City budget cuts!
The $75 million the Charlotte City Council approved in 2014 to fund
half the cost of constructing Phase 2 of the City LYNX Gold Line is being threatened.
Due to City budget shortfalls, some Members of City Council are suggesting the $75 million
they already approved for the Gold Line be cut from the budget.

However meritorious the DOLRT may be, we need to think seriously about where the money is going to come from to build and operate it, and we need to have a backup transit plan in the event the money for DOLRT doesn’t materialize.


Reduced Congestion?

Unfortunately, the often promised traffic congestion relief has not been experienced by communities that implement LRT. You can look at two local examples (Charlotte & Los Angeles) or even in aggregate across the nation.

  • Charlotte LYNX daily ridership has stagnated at 16,000 over last 7 years, while the population grew 20%. Despite all this investment in LYNX, Charlotte was rated as the having the worse traffic in NC.
  • “L.A. Expo Line hasn’t reduced congestion as promised, a study finds.” article

In North Carolina, Eric Lamb, Manager of the City of Raleigh Office of Transportation, is not so sure about the correlation between transit and congestion abatement. He cites South Boulevard in Charlotte which directly parallels that city’s Lynx Blue Line light rail system. Despite the light rail line … there has been no corresponding reduction in traffic volumes along South Boulevard.

David Hartgen, emeritus professor of transportation studies at UNC Charlotte has authored a study concluding that the Triangle project would not reduce vehicle congestion or travel time, the very benefits supporters tout in seeking the outlay needed to fund the project.

“the presence of the rail line didn’t have a significant or consistent impact on the average speeds of motorists on the freeway and major, nearby surface streets.”L.A. Expo Line hasn’t reduced congestion as promised, a study finds

Generally, one-half or more of the light rail riders formerly rode bus services that were replaced by the rail service. The new ridership attracted to light rail from freeways is in fact quite small compared to the carrying capacity of a single freeway lane. The average freeway lane in US metropolitan areas that have built new light rail systems (since 1980) carries four times as many people per mile as light rail. Even signalized surface streets average twice as many people per mile as light rail. Breach of Faith: Light Rail and Smart Growth in Charlotte

Many advocates continue to claim that light rail reduces traffic congestion. However a closer look at the total national ridership statistics collected by APTA (1990 to 2014) reveals that total ridership over a 25 year period of massive investments in light rail development, the total ridership of local travel as represented by light rail and bus service has remained surprisingly flat at approximately 6 billion annual riders. Even with 28% US population growth, there is no evidence of increased ridership across these two modes of local public transportation. Evidence suggests that bus ridership has merely been shifted towards the more expensive light rail systems and has had no impact on reducing overall traffic congestion. Reference: Quarterly and Annual Totals by Mode – Collected by APTA


This passenger shift from bus transit to rail transit has also been experienced elsewhere. Researchers Shin Lee and Martyn Senior of Cardiff University (Do light rail services discourage car ownership and use? concluded thatGrowing rail shares in the light rail corridors have mainly come from buses and the evidence for light rail reducing car use is less clear. This latter finding is of particular significance, given that a major justification for investment in light rail rather than bus schemes is their presumed ability to bring about major modal shift by attracting substantial numbers of car users.

“There’s just the little problem of the evidence. With few exceptions, studies tend to find limited signs that transit has much of an impact on nearby road congestion. Some places see slight congestion gains or mileage declines in the short term, and well-designed service should lay the foundation for reduced car-reliance in the long run, but the direct transit-traffic link is tenuous at best.” Eric Jaffe, City Labs, Public Transit Does Not Have to Reduce Traffic Congestion to Succeed

So what happens if we don’t build the light rail project?

The mean travel time to work according to the 2014 US Census is 21.5 minutes (Durham County) and 22.0 minutes (Orange County). So what happens to travel times if we do not implement the DOLRT project? According to the DCHC MPO Alternatives Analysis, 2040 travel times using Existing+Committed is projected to be 27 minutes.

MPO_EC_travel_timesYet the proposed DOLRT will take 46 minutes (+10 minutes at terminus) . Now include the waiting time for the next train, the time to get to/from the station (via Park&Ride, Kiss&Ride, bicycle, walking, or bus transfer), it will even be LONGER. So how is this faster than the automobile that it is supposed to replace?

But it’s still more efficient than other alternatives?

The latest revised DOLRT optimistically projects 27,000 daily boardings (with NCCU extension in 2040) during 18.5 hours of daily operation across the 17.7-mile circuit (at a cost of $2.5 BILLION or $141 million per mile) to serve an average 730 passengers per hour (on each track). While advocates will argue that LRT has higher ‘capacity’, it will not necessarily mean that it has higher ‘usage.’ We should not confuse capacity with usage.

So how does that compare to the much hated highway? Well, not so well. A typical highways can accommodate 2,200 vehicles per lane per hour (human driven), utilizing about 5% of roadway capacity. And you can place 4 lanes within the same 50′ right-of-way required for DOLRT.


And as autonomous vehicles become pervasive, this capacity will increase significantly, as the vehicles will be able to drive in much closer proximity thereby dramatically increasing the capacity of our existing roadway infrastructure. By using BRT, we will be able to organically add to this capacity; whereas with LRT relying on a roadway of steel rails, we will not, as it will be dedicated solely for the train and we will not be able to share with other autonomous vehicles.