While still a car-centric city with some of the worst traffic in the Southeast, Charlotte offers a variety of affordable and convenient public transportation options. The Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) is comprised of over 70 routes incorporating both buses and light rail. Service includes all of Mecklenburg County—including to and from Charlotte-Douglas International Airport—as well as neighboring cities of Cabarrus, Gaston, Union, North Carolina as well as York, Sout Carolina. Navigating the system is fairly easy and a great way to see the Queen City and popular attractions like museums in Uptown, breweries in South End, and art galleries in NoDa.
How to Ride the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS)
From the Sprinter bus to and from the airport and the city center to the LYNX Blue Line light rail which operates nearly 10 miles of track between I-485 South and the UNC-Charlotte main campus to more than 70 local bus routes, Charlotte has a variety of options for traveling through the city.
- Fares: One-way fares, which includes the Sprinter bus between downtown and the airport as well as LYNX light rail, are $2.20 for adults and $1.10 for seniors (over 62) as well as children, students in K-12 grades with valid ID, and those with disabilities. Round trip fares are $4.40 and $2,20, respectively, with one-day unlimited rides costing $6.60, weekly unlimited rides $30.80, and unlimited monthly rides costing $88. Consider purchasing an unlimited day pass if visiting several locations along the light rail or bus system in a single day. Note that round-trip tickets must begin and end at the same station and are only valid for 90 minutes.
- How to Pay: Passes can be purchased online in advance via the CATS Pass app using a credit or debit card. You can also purchase a pass while boarding the bus or light rail, but you'll need exact change. Passes are also sold at several area grocery stores. For a full list of places to purchase passes, consult the CATS website.
- Routes and Hours (Buses): The Sprinter bus (Route 5) runs to and from Charlotte-Douglas International Airport every 20 minutes on Monday through Friday from 5:05 a.m. to 12:59 a.m. and every half hour from Saturday to Sunday from 5:05 a.m. to 12:55 a.m. The Route 591 (Airport Connector) bus runs between the airport and the Archdale, Tyvola, and Woodlawn LYNX Blue Line Stations daily between 5 a.m. and midnight every 20 to 30 minutes. The city's 70 additional local bus routes, including the North Meck Village Rider and Route 7Q, operate Monday through Friday between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. On New Year's Day, Memorial Day, the 4th of July, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, CATS operates on a Sunday schedule. On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and the day after Thanksgiving, the system operates on a Saturday schedule.
- Routes and Hours (Light Rail): The LYNX Blue Line light rail is 18.9 miles long and runs from I-485 at South Boulevard to UNC-Charlotte's main campus. The system includes 26 stations (11 with park and ride options) and operates seven days a week, with weekday service between 5:26 a.m. to 1:26 a.m. every 7.5 minutes during rush hours and every 15 minutes during non-peak times. Weekend service is every 20 minutes during the day and every half hour in late evenings. Holiday hours are the same as bus hours listed above.
- Service Alerts: Area construction as well as certain special events can disrupt normal service, so check the CATS website or CATS Pass app for the latest schedule information.
- Transfers: Transfers are free for standard bus rides and must be requested in advance and used within 90 minutes.There is an upcharge starting at $0.80 for express route and other higher-fare transfers.
- Accessibility: In addition to half-fare discounts for those with disabilities, all CATS buses and shuttles offer accessibility features like ramps, secure areas for wheelchairs, and priority seating. For more information on options for passengers with disabilities, visit CATS website.
Taxis and Ride-Hailing Apps
While taxis aren't as readily available in Charlotte as in major cities, several companies like Crown Cab and Yellow Taxi Co. operate in the city and can be found at the airport and other busier parts of town. Note the flat rate between the airport and downtown is $25. Other fares start at $2.50 with $0.50 for each 1/5 mile beyond that. There is an upcharge for more than two passengers.
Popular ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft are also available throughout the city and the suburbs and are the best way of getting around if not walking, using public transportation, or renting a car.
Renting a Car
Renting a car can be a cheaper option if traveling with a group or if you're planning to venture outside the city to local destinations like Lake Norman (a 40-minute drive from downtown) and Carowinds (15-minute drive from downtown). It's also great option if extending your trip to other destinations in North Carolina, like Asheville (two hours away), Raleigh (two hours, 30 minutes away), or its several pristine beaches.
Major rental car companies like Alamo, Enterprise, and Hertz have outposts at the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport as well as in Uptown, South Park, and Collingwood. Keep in mind that parking downtown can be expensive, but there are several city-operated and private lots for those who choose to do so and plan to drive in from other parts of town. For those staying further out from downtown, note that eleven of the light rail stations like East/West Boulevard and Sugar Creek offer park and ride options, which can save you hefty parking fees at popular attractions.
Tips for Getting Around Charlotte
- Be mindful of rush hour traffic. Charlotte has some of the worst traffic in the Southeast, so be prepared for traffic jams during rush hour (7:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. weekdays) and delays on major roads like I-485 and I-77 as well as in the downtown area. Note that south central Charlotte from South Central Boulevard to the west and Monroe Road to the east contains more than half of the cities most congested streets. Traffic is also heavier during spring break and summer vacation. Use NCdot.gov for the latest in traffic updates and delays.
- Beware of special events, rain, and road construction. From Carolina Panthers games to summer crowds at Carowinds, the NASCAR Hall of Fame, and other attractions, any number of special events or circumstances like spring showers or winter storms could result in road closures or delays. Check the city's website for the latest traffic alerts.
- Be aware of cell phone driving laws. Note that while local laws allow for cell phone use while driving, it is permitted only for voice calls, so refrain from texting, e-mailing, or other activities on your phone while driving. Cell phone use is completely prohibited for drivers under 18 years of age.
- Rent a bicycle. Charlotte B-Cycle has several rental stations located throughout the city, including in Uptown, Belmont, and South End. For $8, bikes can be used for unlimited two hour rentals and returned to any B-station. They are a great way to explore the city's parks and greenways or travel to and from a number of neighborhood breweries, restaurants, boutiques, galleries, and music venues.
- When in doubt, walk or opt for CATS. At least in Uptown and other nearby neighborhoods, walking or taking CATS light rail is usually faster than driving and navigating parking.