Atlantic Cities

Charlotte Fights Its Anti-Transit Foes ... With Infographics

Charlotte, North Carolina, hasn't forgotten its last big fight over light rail. In 2007, before the LYNX blue line opened, a small but strong anti-transit group (rallying cry: "Stop the Train") tried to repeal the half-cent sales tax that helped pay for the line. That effort was crushed in a referendum vote, but with construction on the blue line's extension beginning this summer, the city's transit agency has prepared for another assault just in case.

"We anticipate that as we start constructing our next line … we could again have some anti-transit or people who like to put out misinformation," says Olaf Kinard, a spokesman for the Charlotte Area Transit System.

The result of that concern is "Truth About Transit" — a series of crisp and approachable infographics designed to dispel popular distortions about the impact of public transportation.

Heard that only bus riders switch over to light rail? You might be surprised to find that 72 percent of LYNX riders used to commute by driving alone. Told that public transit accounts for only 2 or 3 percent of daily trips in the metro Charlotte area? You might like to know that city transit actually attracts up to 17 percent of commuters in certain major job corridors. Think light rail ridership projections are overblown? You might be happy to discover that Charlotte's initial weekday figures beat estimates by 53 percent.

"We said, it's hard for people to digest this stuff, so let's look at a different way of putting it so people can easily grab the myth and grab the rebuttal to that myth," says Kinard. "Infographics were the perfect way to do that."

Kinard says the two most popular graphics address common complaints posed by people who would prefer to see Charlotte spend money on cars or highways. One infographic contests the rumor that the city could buy a new car for every county resident with the $7 billion it dedicates to public transit. In fact, given that cars must be replaced every decade or so, such an idea would cost closer to $24 billion — to say nothing of the pollution or road congestion it would cause.

The other top infographic opposes the belief that LYNX carries fewer people than a single lane of Interstate 77. One lane of I-77 through Charlotte moves, on average, about 2,200 travelers in a single hour. In contrast, LYNX can carry anywhere from 3,120 to 6,240 people an hour, depending on headways and number of cars to a train.

Right now Charlotte showcases the infographics online and includes them in flyers at public events, but they might soon get broader exposure. Kinard says the transit agency has considered placing the messages on the exterior ad space of its buses to reach more of the public. Other cities have also called up expressing interest in adopting the grassroots initiative for their own metro areas.

The ultimate goal of the "Truth About Transit" campaign is not to give the impression that Charlotte's system is perfect, says Kinard. ("Transit doesn't claim to compete for every trip or every commute trip in a region," reads the caption accompanying one infographic.) Rather, officials hope to spark an honest dialogue about transit's pros and cons — one untainted by misinformation.

"We want to constantly keep the message out there that we do provide value to the community in a lot of different ways," says Kinard. "It's not about roads versus transit, it's about a balanced transportation system."

Images courtesy of the Charlotte Area Transit System.

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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