A Rookie's guide
Don't let fear of the unknown keep you from taking advantage of Charlotte's simple bus system. Here's everything you need to know
Plan your trip online: Log onto the CATS website (ridetransit.org) and use the magical Trip Planner. Type in your starting point (a landmark, address, or intersection), where you need to go, when you need to get there (or leave), and voilà! You'll get a detailed schedule with the closest stop, departure time, wait time for a transfer, and arrival time. Good ol' Google Transit will also do the trick.
There's an app: If you have a smartphone, download the new, free Ride CATS app. It provides all the same information as the website's Trip Planner, but you can use it on the go.
Bring the kids: CATS buses are stroller friendly, but there's no easy way to load them on or keep them from rolling down the aisle. Save yourself and the other passengers time by folding up the stroller at your stop while you wait and keeping your child on your lap.
Be ready for the bike rack: If your stop isn't walkable, ride your bike. You can't bring your bike onto the bus, but CATS buses have a bicycle rack on the front, between the headlights. After you give the driver a heads up that you'll be out of sight in front of the bus, pull the lever to unfold the rack, then set your bike's wheels into the metal holds. Secure another lever over the front tire. It'll feel shaky, but don't worry — the racks are as sturdy as they come. There are, however, only two bike spaces per bus, so this might not be the best option during rush hour.
Carry quarters: No debit cards. No PayPal. Just cash. The fare is $1.75, and, no, you won't get change for $2. The $1.75 fee covers one transfer (made within ninety minutes), but not a return trip. If you're up for investing in a ten-ride, weekly, or monthly pass, get one online, or pick them up at a Food Lion or Harris Teeter.
Pull the string: The bus driver can't read your mind. Before the bus gets to your stop, pull one of the strings that run along the top of either side of the bus. That will let the driver know that your time together is nearing an end.
Total miles driven by CATS buses in 2010
Stay focused in the Transportation Center: Once you arrive at the Uptown Charlotte Transportation Center (right next to the EpiCentre and Time Warner Cable Arena), the more than twenty bay areas and shuffling buses will look intimidating. Take a deep breath. If you need to make a transfer, CATS's Trip Planner will tell you what bay you're looking for; the letters are clearly labeled overhead. In doubt? Check the monitor in the middle of the station, which shows every route, what bay it's going to arrive at, and when. Got a few minutes? Grab a snack. There's a Burger King and a (cash only) convenience store.
Think about your return trip: Buses stop less frequently after 6 p.m., and don't plan on catching one after a 2 a.m. last call. Plus, especially in far south and north Charlotte, there are stops where there aren't sidewalks, so a long walk after getting off the bus might not be wise. Make sure you check the return schedule before you depart so you don't get stranded.
The trolley is your friend: For midday jaunts in uptown for lunch, forget the parking garages. Take advantage of the (free!) Gold Rush rubber- tire trolley. It runs once every twelve minutes, has stops up and down Tryon and Trade streets, and just added a route between CPCC and Johnson & Wales.
Lonny Earnhardt (a distant cousin of Dale Sr.) has been a bus operator with CATS for thirty-three years
I drove to Charlotte one time and saw all the people getting on and off the buses, and said, "I want to be part of that."
In 1978, I didn't have a mirror on the right side of my bus. We still ran the school bus service. I would go over to Myers Park and pick the kids up, and they would be so rowdy.
I have a convicted felon that rides with me. He killed a guy over his girlfriend in 1978 or 1979. He'd get on the bus with his mother, grandmother, and sisters, and I got to know the whole family, like I do with a lot. He was incarcerated, and when he got out, I was one of the first people he saw.
You have to focus. I have to keep my health and get plenty of rest. The real challenge is other drivers—on their phones, cutting in on my lane, but I know I'm the professional. I have to approach the streets in a manner that will keep me and everyone else safe.
I have four first-place finishes at the CATS Roadeo, and four more from the state Roadeo. It's a seven-minute course, and includes balls, cones, judgment stops, passenger stops. I'm sixty-four, and there's a lot of guys in their thirties and forties competing with me. Experience pays off. — As told to Samantha Bare
Bus to the Future
Where CATS is headed
The good news is that while CATS doesn't have plans to add bus service lines, it won't cut any, either, at least through this fall. But blueprints for the future are still being drafted. Toward 2030, CATS wants to invest in a Silver Line to Matthews. Originally the plan was to have light rail extending from center city, down Independence, and ending in Matthews, but a recent study suggested it make the Silver Line a bus rapid-transit line.
OK, let's make this simple. We chose six sample bus routes and mapped them out for you
From groceries at the Arboretum to dinner in NoDa:
Get to: The intersection of Pineville-Matthews and Providence roads, where you'll catch Route 14, headed inbound. It runs every 30 to 45 minutes on weekdays and every half hour on Saturdays until 6 p.m. It takes: About 30 minutes to get to the Charlotte Transportation Center. Transfer to: Route 3 at Bay U, or Route 23 at Bay R. Both will take you to North Davidson and 36th Street. On Saturdays and weekdays, both run every 30 minutes until after 6 p.m., then every hour. That takes: Just under 15 minutes.
From the uptown office to a check-up at CMC:
Get to: The Charlotte Transportation Center, next to Time Warner Cable Arena on Trade and walkable from almost anywhere uptown. Catch: Route 18 from Bay D, or Route 6 from Bay U. Those take: About 20 minutes to land right outside a hospital entrance.
From SouthPark shopping to a night out at EpiCentre:
Get to: The SouthPark Transit Center in the lower parking near Dillard's, where you can catch Route 19 every hour. If you don't want to wait for that one, head to the other side of Sharon Road (across from Crate & Barrel) to catch Route 20, which stops every 30 to 45 minutes.
It takes: About a half hour to get to the Charlotte Transportation Center, where you can easily walk to the EpiCentre.
From the Dowd YMCA to happy hour specials at Sir Edmond Halley's:
Get to: Route 19, which stops every half hour after 6 p.m. at Caldwell and Morehead streets. It takes: About 15 minutes to get to the Park Road Shopping Center. You know the way from there.
From dinner on Montford Drive to a show at NC Music Factory:
Get to: The stop for Route 19 at Park and Woodlawn. It shows every half hour after 7 p.m. It takes: Twenty minutes to get to the Transportation Center. Transfer to: Preferably Route 26 from Bay T, which goes straight to the Factory. Unfortunately that only runs every hour after 6 p.m. (every 45 minutes weekend nights), so another option is to catch the 21, which stops every 40 minutes after 6 p.m. and will take you to Ninth and Graham. Those take: About five minutes, plus a short walk.
From your doorstep to the airport:
Get to: The Sprinter route, or Route 5, which runs every 20 to 30 minutes during weekdays, and every 30 minutes on weekends until 8 p.m. It runs between the Charlotte Transit Center Uptown, along Wilkinson Boulevard straight to the departure terminals at Charlotte Douglas airport. You may have to take another bus or a cab to get to the route, but it's a straight shot from there. It takes: Around a half hour from the Transportation Center (Bay V, by the way).