South End’s new residents have the choice of train or Uber, many prefer Uber

Published: Jun. 6, 2016 at 12:01 AM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, NC (Steve Harrison/The Charlotte Observer) - 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."

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.

CATS has speculated that broken fare-box machines on buses are under-counting riders. Low gas prices are probably making transit less attractive.

And CATS is also facing new competition from ride-hailing services such as Uber, which wasn't founded when the light-rail line opened in 2007. Uber started in Charlotte in a limited way with the Democratic National Convention in 2012.

It's unclear whether companies like Uber are going to chip away at transit ridership – or whether CATS can partner with ride-hailing companies to make bus and train trips easier and grow ridership.

Earlier this year, CATS chief executive John Lewis said ride-hailing companies were a "challenge" for the transit industry, especially for trips on nights and weekends.

But in a recent interview, Lewis was more optimistic. He said Uber can help CATS on what's known as "first mile/last mile" trips. The idea is that ride-hailing companies can bring people in remote locations to centralized bus or trains stations, and CATS can then handle the rest of the journey for less money.

The American Public Transportation Association said in a recent report that it believes ride hailing and transit can work together, making it easier for people to go without a car completely.

CATS said its plans to partner with ride-hailing providers are still "in the conceptual stage."

Raj Naik, general manager of Uber North Carolina, said the ride-hailing company has seen a significant increase in requests from South End, though he said it's no greater than other parts of the city.

He said the company has also seen an increase in people using Uber for so-called first mile/last mile trips. People use transit for most of their trip, but then use Uber to start and finish their journey.

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.

Lewis said one challenge CATS faces is that the transit system's traditional client base is composed of low-income workers who live near the center city. But as Charlotte and other cities gentrify, those workers are being pushed out to the suburban areas. It's more expensive for CATS to bring buses and trains to pick them up.

The transformation of South End because of the Lynx Blue Line illustrates Lewis' concern. What was an area of mostly empty, weed-strewn lots, now has thousands of new apartments that are marketed to millennials.

All of the new apartments built near train stations in South End are market-rate, meaning there aren't any units reserved for low-income people.

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 percent 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. Center City Partners expects South End's population to be 9,100 by the end of the year.

Developers use the rail line as a marketing tool. For instance, the Fountains South End apartments has a first-floor Lynx Lounge, where people can wait inside a climate-controlled room before walking about 30 yards to the station.

But with more than 4,000 new residents, many are choosing to get around in other ways besides the train. Some work elsewhere. Some walk. And many say they use Uber.

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.

The challenge may continue when the Blue Line Extension opens next summer. Developers are already building apartments near stations north of uptown, but those new residents will also have a choice between transit and Uber.