How Charlotte lost 75% of its bus riders in less than a decade
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Charlotte leads the nation in declining bus ridership — a trend that started 5 years before Covid. Can CATS reverse the drop?
The Charlotte Area Transit System is struggling with a shortage of drivers — but also a shortage of passengers. Many elected leaders are unaware of the severity of the drop-off in bus ridership. (Photos by Steve Harrison/WFAE)
By Steve Harrison
One afternoon in June, a Charlotte Area Transit System bus driver for Route 290 in Davidson saw something unusual: a passenger.
“You will probably be the first person I have picked up — ever,” he said, laughing. “You will be the first person I have picked up, I’m not gonna lie.”
The driver was exaggerating — but only a little.
For the entire month of March, Route 290 in Davidson carried four people.
Not four a day, or four a week. Four for the month.
Route 290 costs taxpayers about $5,000 a month. That doesn’t include the indirect cost of carbon emissions from a 28-seat diesel bus that drives 54 hours a month almost entirely empty.
“A lot of (routes) are quiet, you know — this isn’t the only one,” driver David Caldwell said.
Route 290 is an extreme example.
But it represents a problem that has plagued CATS for the last eight years: collapsing bus ridership. It’s a problem made worse by the pandemic, but ridership was already plunging before Covid hit in 2020.
In 2014, CATS buses carried 23.9 million passengers, according to annual reports from the Federal Transit Administration. By 2019, that number had fallen to 15.6 million. In the last 12 months, Charlotte passengers took 5.9 million trips — a drop of 75% since 2014.
Worse than Detroit: Of the nation’s 50 largest transit systems, no one has lost a greater share of bus passengers than CATS. Detroit had the next largest decline, losing 71% of its bus passengers from 2014 to 2022, according to a WFAE analysis of federal data.
Transit systems calculate how much each trip costs by dividing their expenses by the number of passengers they carry.
In 2014, it cost CATS $3.10 for each bus passenger trip. That’s about $3.70 in today’s dollars.
In March of this year, with far fewer passengers, it cost CATS $11.70 for each bus trip. More than a quarter of bus routes cost CATS more than $20 per trip, meaning it would be cheaper to put many passengers in an Uber.
Ron Tober, who led CATS from 1997 to 2007, said he is stunned by how many passengers the bus system has lost.
“It’s a much less efficient and productive system as a result of what’s happened with ridership over time,” he said.
Unaware of steep drop
Many Charlotte City Council members are unaware of how much the bus system has collapsed, including District 2 member Malcolm Graham.
Graham supports the city’s plan to increase the sales tax by a penny to fund a $13.5 billion transportation plan. It would include money to build a new light-rail line — and also money for a massive expansion of the city’s bus system. CATS has said it needs roughly $35 million a year in new operating dollars to fully modernize the bus system, a program called “Envision My Ride.”
In an interview, Graham was told CATS buses carried 23.9 million passengers in 2014.
“Do you have any idea how many they will carry this year?” he was asked.
Graham began thinking about the impact of the pandemic and estimated 15 million passengers.
He had no idea that it was 5.9 million.
Graham then asked: “Where did all the people go?”
WFAE spoke with Mayor Vi 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.”
Lyles said the pandemic makes it unfair to look back.
“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.”
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.
What happened to riders?
CATS hasn’t shown much interest in figuring out why so many riders have disappeared.
CATS Chief Executive John Lewis declined to be interviewed for this article.
In an interview in May, Jason Lawrence, a senior project manager for CATS, said that he wasn’t aware of the transit system studying why ridership dropped by one-third even before Covid.
“I don’t have an answer for you on that right now,” he said.
He said CATS will conduct a ridership survey later this year.
So where did all the riders go?
In the last few months, CATS has struggled to fill driver vacancies. That’s led to numerous buses being canceled and possibly some riders quitting the bus system. Lewis, the CATS chief executive, told an advisory committee last week that he hopes to soon have a new contract in place with drivers that will provide double-digit raises.
Sharon Fincher, who works in housekeeping at Novant Health, lives near Eastway Drive in east Charlotte. She said that the buses are “on time when they have a driver.”
But Fincher said once or twice a week there isn’t one.
“That’s why I have to leave myself an out,” she said. “I’m like an hour [early] in case something goes wrong, I’m not late.”
Sharon Fincher waits for the bus at the Charlotte Transportation Center uptown.
But the ridership collapse started years before the driver shortage.
Experts have pointed to factors such as the rise of companies like Uber, more people owning their own cars and more people working from home.
And locally, the opening of the Lynx Blue Line extension in 2018 and the Gold Line streetcar in 2021 likely caused some bus passengers to switch to rail. Overall transit ridership in Charlotte has declined by 65% from 2014 to 2022. That’s less than the bus system’s 75% decline.
Non-gentrified areas also see large drops
City Council member Braxton Winston said he believes transit declines are due to low-income residents being pushed out, as wealthy residents displace them in neighborhoods near uptown.
“When you talk about the effect of gentrification and people not being able to live in places, a lot of those people who depended on certain bus lines aren’t there anymore,” he said.
But bus routes that don’t go near gentrified areas have also seen huge ridership drops, like Route 56, which runs from the Arrowood light-rail station to the outlet mall on Interstate 485. Route 56 carries fewer than half as many passengers as it did pre-pandemic. It serves areas untouched by gentrification.
Thania Woodcock lives at the South Oak Crossing Apartment complex off Arrowood, which includes city-subsidized affordable housing.
She used to take transit in New York City, but she bought a car when she moved to Charlotte in 2005.
Woodcock sees bus ridership going down 75% as a sign of progress.
“Well that’s good, right?” Woodcock said. “I mean, they have their own vehicles, so I’m guessing that’s good.”
The City Council recently passed the Strategic Mobility Plan, whose goal is to get more people to ride the bus as a way to reduce congestion and greenhouse gasses.
But Woodcock sees it differently. If fewer people are taking the bus, she says, that’s a sign of upwards economic mobility.
“Coming where I come from, it wasn’t that bad, because everyone took public transportation,” she said. “But I’m 47 and (I got my first car in 2005). So I see it as a blessing — being able to get in your own vehicle whenever you want, go wherever you want. You don’t have to wait.”
Kimeko Foulks is an assistant community manager at the complex. When she came to Charlotte in 2017, she didn’t have a car for a year. But instead of riding the bus, she used ride-share services.
“So with children and things like that, I did choose to Uber back and forth until I was able to purchase a vehicle,” she said. “So I’m an example of that.”
Uber’s growth — from less $1 billion in revenue in 2014 to $14 billion in 2019 — coincided with transit’s decline in Charlotte and across the nation.
Jacob Wasserman with UCLA’s Institute of Urban Studies said research in California shows that ride-share companies and increased car ownership hurt transit ridership.
Low-income residents, he said “got cars, at least in California, at a much higher rate in the 2010s and the first decade of the 2000s than they did in the ’90s. And that pulled a lot of people off transit.”
Increases for the Lynx Blue Line, and express buses
In Charlotte, there are some signs of improvement.
Ridership on light rail is up nearly 50% year-over-year. Express buses for commuters are also carrying far more passengers, after having almost no riders during the pandemic. The North Mecklenburg Express has seen ridership increase ten-fold, and it now averages nearly seven passengers for each scheduled departure.
Both are still far short of pre-pandemic levels.
But local bus routes — which carry almost all of the bus passengers — aren’t seeing a rebound.
Steve Polzin, who worked in the U.S. Department of Transportation in the Trump administration, said transit systems like Charlotte need to accept that many of its riders, for now at least, don’t need them anymore.
“Now we’re to the point where it’s time for the industry to catch their breath and say, ‘What we are doing here?’” he said.
But even though bus riders vanished, the system is doing OK financially, thanks to Covid relief money and the growth in the half-cent sales tax for transit.
At the system’s ridership peak in 2014, CATS operating budget was $107 million, or $127 million in today’s dollars. The operating budget for the upcoming fiscal year will be $211 million.
CATS said it can bring riders back — if it gets a penny sales tax increase.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
One Friday afternoon, City Council member Ed Driggs joined a reporter for a ride on the Route 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.
“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.
I-77 toll proposal to be evaluated: Charlotte-area elected leaders agreed Wednesday that a proposal for privately managed toll lanes on I-77 between uptown and the South Carolina line deserves more study. The Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization will have transportation officials examine the possibility more closely. Opinions differed on the idea, which came from an unidentified company that many suspect is I-77 Mobility Partners, which runs the I-77 toll lanes north of uptown. Mecklenburg County commissioner Pat Cotham said: “I’m 100% opposed to this, and I’m kind of offended that we’re even talking about it.” Charlotte City Council member Julie Eiselt said: “Every day, it’s a parking lot, and so I don’t know what that looks in 30 to 40 years. … I don’t think it is a bad thing, because it is a problem.” (WSOC)
Bus driver absences: The number of bus driver absences that CATS has been reporting each day and has referred to as “unexcused” and “sick” absences actually includes planned and unplanned absences. “Unplanned absence categories include: bereavement, company business, court personal, employee incentive day, FMLA, inactive, jury duty, leave of absence, long term, modified duty, military, miss-out, non-paid day, sufficient manpower, suspension, union business, workers comp, workers comp (FMLA),” a CATS spokesman said in an email. (WBTV)
Mileage fee examined as gas tax alternative: A transportation group in Eastern North Carolina is studying alternatives to paying for roads with gas tax money. It is looking for volunteers to help evaluate a mileage-based user fee, which would charge motorists based on how much they drive instead of how much gas they buy. Transportation planners are looking for alternatives because the gas tax is viewed as an increasingly unreliable funding source as drivers move to electric vehicles. (WNCN)
Bigger role than known for CATS’ private contractor: The private contractor that runs Charlotte’s bus system, RATP Dev, has been only rarely mentioned at City Council meetings in the last few years, and some city leaders didn’t know the extent of its management of city bus operations. (WBTV)
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