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Getting off the bus: CATS has plans to bring riders back after massive drop. Will it work?

Bus ridership in Charlotte dropped 75 percent since 2014. Among the nation's 50 largest transit systems, none had a larger drop.
Steve Harrison/WFAE
Bus ridership in Charlotte dropped 75 percent since 2014. Among the nation's 50 largest transit systems, none had a larger drop.

Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles wants voters to one day approve a penny sales tax for a $13.5 billion transit plan. It would pay for a new light-rail line and more bus service, along with greenways and bike lanes.

She said Charlotte needs to become less car dependent.

“Today we know that that car is contributing to our environmental issues,” Lyles said. “So we now have a new paradigm for what we are trying to accomplish with mass transit. That paradigm is to get you out of your car and get you into mass transit.”

Charlotte first needs Republican lawmakers in Raleigh to OK placing the tax on the ballot.

And city leaders may need to answer: Why has Charlotte’s bus ridership dropped 75% since 2014? That’s the largest drop of any of the nation’s 50 biggest transit systems.

And: Will adding more buses bring people back, so they ditch their own vehicles?

WFAE spoke with Lyles at an early vote rally last week. When asked about the decline in ridership from 24 million bus trips in 2014, Lyles said, “I want you to check that data and make sure that’s accurate data. And figure out what changes have happened.”

We did check. According to the Federal Transit Administration, CATS had 23.9 million bus trips in 2014. There were 5.9 million in the last year.

Lyles said the pandemic makes it unfair to look back.

“I mean I walk or ride in my neighborhood and I saw buses and there were no people on them for the last two years,” she said. “I don’t know that we could actually compare what we have as our history and where we are going forward.”

Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles said the city needs to get people to leave their cars at home.
Steve Harrison
Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles said the city needs to get people to leave their cars at home.

Lyles lives in SouthPark. The buses in her neighborhood were empty during the height of the pandemic in 2020. But those same buses are still nearly empty today, long after all COVID-19 restrictions ended.

And Charlotte’s bus ridership started tumbling in 2015 — before the coronavirus.

Some of the city’s biggest proponents of transit, like City Council member Julie Eiselt, who chairs the transportation committee, have become frustrated.

“I believe in bus systems. I do. If it’s done right, but we don’t know what’s being done wrong,” Eiselt said.

Transit system has plans if it gets new money

CATS’ first priority is reaching a new contract with bus drivers, possibly with a double-digit pay raise to make it easier to hire and keep them. Due to driver absences, CATS has said it will reduce service on some routes this year.

Norman Walker said the bus driver shortage means he sometimes has a two-hour trip home.
Steve Harrison
Norman Walker said the bus driver shortage means he sometimes has a two-hour trip home.

Bus passengers, like Norman Walker, are upset.

“A ride that takes me 30 minutes sometimes takes me two hours to get home because they don’t have enough drivers, which I know,” said Walker, who was waiting for a bus last week at the Charlotte Transportation Center uptown. “You know a lot of drivers quit.”

But after becoming fully staffed, CATS has bigger plans, assuming a penny sales tax is approved.
It wants to equip buses on some of its busiest routes with “transit signal priority” technology. As a bus would approach a traffic light, it would tell the light to either change — or stay green longer so the bus could avoid stopping.

Kevin Balke with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute said the technology can save riders five or six minutes on a 20-minute trip.

And he said installing the technology at one intersection is affordable.

“It’s very inexpensive compared to buying a new bus or putting in a new lane or something like that,” he said.

CATS also wants to build “mobility hubs,” which are larger bus stops with bike parking and places for people to catch ride-share services like Uber.

And it’s considering small “micro-transit” areas, where it would replace some low-ridership bus routes with on-demand service that would either be city-run or farmed out to private companies like Lyft.

CATS today operates a community shuttle bus route in Davidson that had four passengers in March. The transit system said that route would likely be switched to on-demand service.

“There’s things that have to be figured out (like) the right fleet mix,” said Jason Lawrence, a senior project manager at CATS. “How do you work that into technology through an app, so people can call for a trip?”

CATS wants new service and more frequent service

But if the penny sales tax is approved some day, the plan mostly calls for more routes, and more frequent buses. The idea is that buses would be frequent enough that people won’t need to check a schedule.

CATS wants to expand the number of routes with buses arriving every 15 minutes from five to 21.

Crosstown routes — which have some of the lowest ridership — would have a bus arrive at least every 30 minutes.

CATS wants the bus lines in blue to have service every 15 minutes.
CATS/city of Charlotte
CATS wants the bus lines in blue to have service every 15 minutes.

Meg Fencil with the pro-transit group Sustain Charlotte said CATS needs to build a system where people don’t have to spend more than 20 minutes or so at a bus stop.

“If the network is not functioning as a network it’s difficult to call some routes a failure,” she said. “If those crosstown routes are so infrequent that they’re not reliably getting people to the hub and spoke buses then it’s not going to be an attractive system overall.”

She also said the city hasn’t spent enough on the bus system.

“Frankly (there has been) a lack of investment in the transit system,” Fencil said. “As Charlotte was investing in rail service we did not make a concurrent investment in the bus system to meet the needs of a growing population.”

The opening of the $1.1 billion Lynx Blue Line extension in 2018 did mean that light rail began taking up a greater share of the CATS budget.

From 2014 to 2019 the amount of bus service increased slightly, while ridership fell by one-third.

“That’s unusual to see it go down that much. And that should send some warning signals in terms of product, market, future demand,” said Steve Polzin, a transit researcher with Arizona State University who worked in the U.S. Department of Transportation in the Trump administration.

During COVID-19, bus service did go down — by about 10%. And ridership fell by nearly two-thirds.

Polzin said adding new routes and more frequent service may not create much new demand.

There’s this mindset that if we only had good service then everything would be better. And while there is some logic in that argument that just isn’t born out empirically.

Most of the routes that CATS wants to have 15-minute service are traditional “hub and spoke” routes that go uptown. But there are some crosstown routes that would have buses arriving every 15 minutes, like route 29, which goes from UNC Charlotte to the Walmart on Independence Boulevard.

Today, buses on route 29 arrive every 30 minutes. In March, the bus carried five passengers for each hour it was in service, according to a WFAE analysis of ridership and service data.

If you divide the cost for running the service by the number of passengers, each trip cost taxpayers $23.

Will more service bring more riders?

Adding more service is meant to get people out of their cars to reduce carbon emissions. But Polzin said operating buses with an average of only 2 or 3 passengers — like route 29 — isn’t helping the environment.

“Right now they are just way upside down,” he said. “It’s just not environmentally efficient.”

CATS hopes to transfer to an all-electric fleet, but the vast majority of its buses today are all diesel.

It also wants to have more people leave their cars at home and take transit. But some people are already doing that, working virtually two or three or five days a week.

One Friday afternoon, City Council member Ed Driggs joined a reporter for a ride on the 51 bus, which goes from Carolina Place Mall in Pineville to Matthews. There was one other passenger aboard. He took the bus to go see a movie.

Route 51 costs about $50,000 a month to operate. If you divide that by the number of passengers, you get $40 for each trip.

“I don’t believe in a 'Field of Dreams' approach where you build it and expect they will come,” Driggs said. “So I think we need to take a more fundamental look at what drives the trends behind ridership and position ourselves accordingly.”

If CATS expanded this route to service every 30 minutes, that would cost an additional $50,000 for the month. The entire route would cost $1.2 million a year to operate.

That money could subsidize the construction of 60 low-income apartments. It could build sidewalks and bike lanes. It could cover the cost of buying and planting 2,400 trees.

Ten minutes later, at the Arboretum shopping center, all three passengers got off.

Then the bus drove another four miles to Matthews. The driver was the only other person on board.

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.