Of course, not really. But let me explain.
That phrase — scrawled into a cement sidewalk along Rozelles Ferry Rd. long ago when it was first poured — immediately jumped out at me when I saw it. I wasn’t having the best of days. It was a Sunday, more than a week after I had started biking and bussing to work, to appointments, to hang out with friends, all mostly in Plaza Midwood — quite literally on the other side of town from where I live.
My car had unexpectedly died on me two Fridays before. The alternator just quit working. A friend, Dianna Ward (executive director of Charlotte B-Cycle and owner of Charlotte NC Tours), had long been offering me a bike, eager to see me jump back into the only physical fitness activity I’d ever enjoyed as a kid and young adult after I had a chance to ride with her on one of her B-Cycles for an earlier story on summer biking trips in the city. Her generosity couldn’t have come at a better time — right when I needed alternate transportation in this sprawling 298-square-mile city.
My week of biking and bussing thus far had been smooth. I was lucky to catch busses on time and when I didn’t the distance between work and the Uptown transit center was a fun, easily bike-able route.
But this Sunday was bad. I hadn’t gotten out of the house early enough, and it was already well past mid-morning. Time was ticking. I got to the bus stop — a mile and a half from my house — five minutes before the bus was supposed to arrive. It never came, either arriving earlier than I did or running far behind schedule.
On Sundays in Charlotte, this particular route — running along portions of Trade St., Fifth St. and Rozelles Ferry Rd. all the way to out to Callabridge Commons Shopping Center on Mt. Holly-Huntersville Rd. — comes by only once every hour. On weekdays, it’s more bearable, coming every 20 minutes or so during rush hours.
I stood at the stop for nearly 30 minutes. Sun beating down. Hot and sweaty already. The church across the street began letting people out of service. As they started up their cars and rode down the street — AC on full blast, I’m certain — I just couldn’t handle it anymore.
“I’ll just bike it to Uptown,” I told myself. “It’s about five miles. No big deal.”
And, so, I went. It was smooth riding. Breeze in my face. Flat road. And I kept up a pretty good speed and found myself lucky so few cars were out and about on a Sunday afternoon.
And then I reached Stewart’s Creek. After Rozelles Ferry joins up with Trade St. near Brookshire Blvd., it makes a hard right turn, heading down a long half-mile hill toward the creek. Biking — or running, or any human-powered mode of transit outside of a car — is a lot like the opposite of gravity. What goes down, must always go back up. Sure, that ride down the hill was brilliant, but biking back up the equally steep and long hill? Not so much.
I hopped off the bike, reminded again of my bad morning and kicking myself for not having yet built up the endurance to ride up this half-mile slope. I slowly walked the bike up the hill as I took sips from my bottle of water and wiped sweat from my brow.
And then I saw it: “CHARLOTTE SUCKS.”
But far from being a physical manifestation and reminder of my bad mood, the sidewalk graffiti brought a smile to my face. Someone else had stood in this very spot some day in the past with a similarly bad mood and a bad day. It was enough that they had felt the need to literally vent their frustration out in writing on wet concrete. I laughed. “Welp, glad someone else feels the same way,” I told myself.
I hopped back on my bike once I got to the top of the hill, the graffiti still stuck in my mind. I was determined to turn that bad day around, taking my frustration out on the pedals of my bike. Despite further upward slopes standing in my way toward Uptown, I stayed on the bike and reached the transit center minutes before Route 9 would depart from its bay to take me down the final leg toward Central Ave. and Plaza Midwood. The five or so miles from that West Charlotte bus stop to Uptown took about 35 minutes. Not bad.
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
By far, that morning was the worst experience I ever had in my ten days without a car in Charlotte. For the most part, I had positive experiences and learned a lot about my personality, my body and health, other people and exactly what it means to be a carless commuter in a city the size of Charlotte.
Here’s some of what I learned…
I’d once biked (and bussed, at times) everywhere. As a teen and first-year college student, I biked to work, to the mall, to the bookstore, to friends and everywhere else in between, including weekend trips to bike trails around the hometown. Because of it, I dropped from 240lbs. in eighth grade to as low as 145lbs. at one point in high school — all spurred on by a cycling merit badge course I’d taken in Boy Scouts. But I hadn’t had this much physical activity until I hopped on that bike after temporarily losing the car.
- It took me a while to “learn again” how to cycle. Changing the gears at the right time, braking efficiently and learning again how to multitask, whether that be driving in a straight line while looking over my left shoulder or driving and taking a sip out of my water bottle. But once you’ve learned it, you never really forget; you just have to have time to let your mind and body remind itself.
- My endurance sucked those first few days. I worked up a sweat like I hadn’t in a very long time. My legs ached. My arms ached. My whole body ached. But it didn’t take long for the pain to subside, replaced eventually with a more healthy-feeling “burn” of the muscle.
- My endurance quickly ticked upward. I first noticed it around day five. Short distances seemed shorter. Longer distances didn’t seem quite as daunting.
- Biking became fun again. Those first few days were met with dread. “Urgh, I have to do this again today?” I’d ask myself in the mornings. But my forced kickstart back into a healthy habit and fitness routine was, in hindsight, a positive. Even though I’ve got my car running again, I still look forward to hopping on the bike. One day, after a particularly long and stressful afternoon, I came home eagerly anticipating hopping on the bike for an evening ride around the neighborhood. Much less a chore, biking is enjoyable again.
- I’m able to make a commitment. The biggest hurdle to me taking on any healthy fitness routine wasn’t the lack of time. It was never the lack of energy. It was lack of will and the ability to make and keep a commitment. Although the car’s break-down provided the kickstart, I found my forced biking pushed me further into other small commitments. “I’m doing all this physical work now, might as well not waste it,” I thought to myself one morning as I made a conscious choice to skip that Bojangles biscuit, wait a few more hours and grab something more healthy from the Harris Teeter salad bar. In the days since, even after getting the car back, I’ve cut out almost all the unhealthy junk food in my life (save the whiskey and an occasional trip for wings at Whiskey Warehouse). I feel better. I have more energy. My mood and outlook has become increasingly more positive.
About other people
- My friends are the best. Dianna met up with me to gift me the bike at the spur of the moment the morning I lost my car. Not a single one of my friends ever hesitated to offer a ride and many of them did so, particularly after hanging out for dinner or after evening meetings. They’re generosity, often taking them out of their way, saved me a few bike and bus trips back home after the sun went down. Others offered different kinds of support, be it words of encouragement or health tips. I’ve got to be one of the luckiest guys around — my friends and acquaintances are top notch.
- People using public transit — are just like you and me. If you’ve never used public transit, you might have some stereotypes about the kinds of people who travel in and across town in those big public busses you only ever notice when they just happen to stop at bus stops or railroad crossings right in front of your car. I saw a mix of everyone — folks who looked as though they were poor, others who looked well off, the elderly, the young, white, black, Latino, parents with their children, young and old workers clad in grocery store, mechanic or other work uniforms, men with briefcases, bros with shorts too short and far too tanned legs, party girls going out for a night on the town. The people on public transit are as diverse as you and me in every way, their lives and personalities more akin to ours than different, except in one big way…
- People on the bus are among some of the nicest people I’ve seen. Not a single time did I ever get on or off the bus without noticing that every single person said hello, goodbye, good morning, good night or thank you to the driver. Not once did the driver ever fail to respond. Not. Once. When people in need of seats — children, the elderly, folks with disabilities — got on, people moved. People offered help or advice or tips about routes and their destinations. People began the most mundane but genuinely interesting and nice conversations about the weather, the traffic, real estate development, their grandkids. Despite whatever their life had handed them — whatever circumstance had deprived them of personal transportation, something so idolized and admired in our culture — these people seemed happy. I don’t see strangers talk with each other or greet each other like this when they walk around in stores or on sidewalks or in restaurants. These are good people.
About Charlotte’s public transit system
- CATS does a pretty good job. This was the second time I’d had to take public transit in Charlotte, though the first with the helpful addition of a bike. It was also the first for an extended period of time and covering such a long distance from and to work and home. Previously, I’d lived right on a bus route in East Charlotte near Plaza Midwood. But this time was no different than the last — busses ran largely on time, they’re clean, the drivers are friendly and helpful. CATS gets a lot of negative press, always under scrutiny for something. But the people running the system day-to-day? The people who make it all work? They’re among some of the best workers in town and it shows.
- Plan, plan, plan. And leave early. The biggest hurdle without a car was simply trying to plan my day. When should I leave the house? What time will my first bus route get to its next connection? Are my bus times synced up so I don’t miss the transfer and sit waiting for the next one for a half hour or longer? Once you ride enough, the times and routes start sticking in your mind. But, at first, it can seem daunting trying to figure it out. Tip: Use CATS’ mobile app and Google Maps’ options for directions by bike or mass transit.
- The trips can be long. What might take you 15 minutes to drive to work, could take 40 minutes or longer on the bus. For me, my daily commute into work jumped from 20 minutes (in morning traffic) to about an hour. If you’re not going to jump into all that friendly conversation on the bus, bring a book or make sure your phone or tablet battery is charged. I used the time to catch up on news, scroll through my social feeds and check email. Surprisingly, I didn’t really feel as though I’d “lost” any time in my day. What would have usually been 30-40 minutes in the car, unable to do anything but drive and listen to the radio, turned into an hour or more each day in which I could check and respond to email or other online tasks.
- There’s still room for improvement, and Charlotte needs it as we grow. If you live in the center of city or any other close-in neighborhood, bus routes and service pick up dramatically. That’s not the case for folks who live further out. Uptown is only five or six miles from my house, but only one bus route comes even remotely near me, the nearest stop a half mile away. To walk there means a 30-minute chunk of time spent traipsing down a narrow two-lane road with no sidewalk only to eventually have to cross a dangerously busy Brookshire Blvd. This city was built for cars — as most American cities are — and it shows the moment who step out of your car and onto public transit. As Charlotte grows into the next decade or two, and especially as we see more infill housing in our sprawling acres of vacant land across the county, we’ll need to grapple with adding new sidewalks, new bike lines, new bus and light rail lines and other means for rapidly and safely moving people around the city.
I wouldn’t change a thing…
When my car first gave out, I was met with dread. But in hindsight — everything was fine. Things pulled together. Friends offered support. I got to work. I got to meetings. I still had time to hang out with friends and find downtime.
But, most importantly, I got a new kickstart on a path toward healthy activity and healthy eating. I haven’t exercised this much or eaten this healthily in a decade — and it shows. I’ve picked up 50 pounds since moving to Charlotte in 2007, and now’s been the time to start working back toward healthier choices and options. So far, I’ve lost ten pounds.
I wouldn’t change a thing about my experience. I learned a lot about myself and other people. I got a new glimpse of the city from a different, entirely unique perspective you just can’t see from riding on Charlotte’s highways and four-lane thoroughfares.
My advice — dump the car. For a day. For a week. For sporadic moments here and there. I think you’ll find as many lessons and as much wonder as I did.