October 1, 2010

In downtown Charlotte, a car-free option awaits travelers

By Bill Varian, Times Staff Writer

I have to admit I was skeptical of the idea: Charlotte, N.C., serving as Tampa's model for building light rail and expanding bus service.

Charlotte? Really?

So here was the challenge: Could I could get by without a car on a recent four-day trip to check out Charlotte's transit system? Would it be a practical alternative for someone visiting for a meeting or conference?

It was.

I arrived in town on a Tuesday night. After a three-minute wait outside baggage claim, I hopped a ride on the Charlotte Area Transit System's "Sprinter," an electric-hybrid bus that runs every 20 minutes to downtown.

Hailing a cab or limo for the 7-mile ride would have cost $25 to $30. For $1.50, I was dropped at my hotel about seven blocks from the main business district 24 minutes later.

It was still daylight, so I decided to check out downtown. I walked, arriving at the LYNX station in under 15 minutes, watching the post rush-hour crowd file onto the train for points south.

When Charlotte landed the NCAA men's basketball Final Four in 1994, downtown entertainment options were so sparse it had to build a fake nighttime strip. A row of bars was opened in vacant storefronts on one of the main drags, which became the "Street of Champions."

Things have changed. Now downtown is filled with buildings and attractions so new they look like their architectural renderings. People were everywhere. There were bars and restaurants for all tastes. There were even street performers - on a Tuesday!

The next day, after another walk downtown, I paid $5.25 for a daily transit pass and spent time riding back and forth, stopping occasionally to explore.

At one point, Times photojournalist Maurice Rivenbark read my mind when he said, "You know, if this place had water "

With the weather hot and interviews scheduled with transit officials the next day, I caught the "Gold Rush," a free trolley, to some appointments.

There were more interviews the next day, and more train rides. Then it was time to check out the Charlotte nightlife.

The first stop was the bar and nightclub complex EpiCentre - where St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster recently took a field trip looking for ideas to save BayWalk. Not for me.

So I used my train stub for a free round-trip transfer to the No. 9 bus to Midwood Plaza, a lower key, hipster hub I'd heard about on the east side. The Pabst tall boys were icy cold.

On Saturday, I was back on the Sprinter heading for Tampa.

Renting an economy car for four days in Charlotte would have cost $142, plus hotel parking at $12 a day.

My transportation bill: $17 - less than what it cost me to check a bag on the plane each way.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.


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