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The pandemic has long been over. How is transit faring?
Uptown workers are returning. Transit passengers are slowly coming back, too.
You’re reading Transit Time, a weekly newsletter for Charlotte people who leave the house. Cars, buses, light rail, bikes, scooters … if you use it to get around the city, we write about it. Transit Time is produced in partnership between The Charlotte Ledger and WFAE.
CATS is making gains in ridership. But the numbers are still down from before the pandemic.
by Steve Harrison
Uptown is coming back.
Using cell phone location data, researchers at the University of Toronto say the number of people in center city is back to 75% of what it was in the spring of 2019. That’s up from the winter, when it was 58%.
Has that translated to more people riding transit?
The numbers tell us that ridership is growing — slowly — but it hasn’t reached pre-pandemic levels or matched the percentage of people returning to uptown. And it’s far below the Charlotte Area Transit System’s ridership peak a decade ago.
For the three-month period in July, August and September, CATS carried just under 4 million passenger trips, according to the Federal Transit Administration. That includes all forms of transit, mostly buses, light rail and the streetcar.
During the same period in 2019, ridership was 6.3 million. That means ridership is a little more than 60% recovered from before the pandemic.
But in those same three months in 2013, CATS carried more than 7.5 million passengers.
That means ridership is only a little more than half of what it was a decade earlier. And that’s after Charlotte opened a $1.1 billion light-rail extension and a $250 million streetcar extension.
In other words, Charlotte spent significantly more over the last decade but got fewer riders. The good news for CATS is that ridership is still inching forward.
Here are the ridership numbers for the same three months going back to 2019, with the percentage change from one period to the next:
2013: 7.5 million
2019: 6.34 million
2020: 2.2 million, -65%
2021: 3.1 million, +41%
2022: 3.6 million, +16%
2023: 4 million, +11%
Here is a breakdown of the different types of services CATS offers and how each is doing:
A decade ago, the Lynx Blue Line carried 1.4 million passengers in July, August and September. At that point, the line ran only from uptown to I-485 in south Charlotte.
In 2018, the Lynx Blue Line extension opened to UNC Charlotte. That more than doubled the length of the line and added more passengers.
The train carried 2.4 million passengers in those three months in 2019.
This year it carried 1.6 million passengers in July, August and September.
CATS said earlier this year the train was on track to regain 70% of its pre-pandemic ridership by the end of the year. That hasn’t happened yet, but it’s possible as more people return to work uptown.
Of all of CATS’ modes of transit, the Blue Line has recovered the most, according to an examination of passenger data. (WFAE file photo)
Light rail ridership is the brightest spot for CATS, despite problems earlier this year stemming from a 2022 derailment.
Trains are often full during rush hour and during special events like concerts and games. If employers make more people return to the office, ridership will likely continue to grow.
Before the pandemic, Charlotte had only a 1.5-mile streetcar line from the Spectrum Center to Elizabeth. In the fall of 2021, CATS opened a 2.5-mile extension, bringing the line to Johnson C. Smith University to the west and Sunnyside Avenue to the east.
During the last three months, the Gold Line carried 146,000 passengers, or about 49,000 a month.
But over the last year, Gold Line ridership hasn’t grown, which is a troubling sign. That could be due to CATS downgrading the service to trains every 30 minutes instead of every 20 minutes because it doesn’t have enough drivers.
(For some perspective, before the pandemic, CATS estimated the streetcar would carry 4,100 daily passengers on the average weekday. It carries about 1,900.)
It’s worth noting that CATS used to operate a free bus trolley service called the Gold Rush that ran along Trade and Tryon streets.
CATS phased out the Gold Rush entirely in 2017 to make way for the new Gold Line streetcar.
The Gold Rush buses were shut down to make way for the streetcar. (CATS photo)
But looking back, the Gold Rush buses were highly successful in moving people. They were also far cheaper than the streetcar, whose latest extension cost $250 million.
I dug up an old ridership report from last decade. It showed that the Gold Rush on Trade Street and Tryon Street carried more than 87,000 passengers in April 2011. That’s almost double the streetcar’s most recent monthly average.
If light rail is a bright spot for CATS, the bus system is its black eye.
CATS buses carried 6.1 million passengers from July to September 2013.
This year, in those same months, CATS buses carried just 2.3 million passengers.
Those ridership numbers are a combination of random samples and automatic passenger counts on some buses. CATS also tallies ridership by how many people pay or are counted with fare boxes. That method shows only 1.9 million riders during the same period this year.
In total, CATS has lost between 60% and nearly 70% of its bus passengers over the last decade.
Express buses that cater to commuters have been particularly hard hit. Ridership is down nearly 80%.
One problem with the bus system has been delays and cancellations. CATS said this week that it’s recommending the City Council hire a new management company to operate the bus system.
The current company, RATP-DEV, chose not to bid on a contract extension. Interim CATS chief executive Brent Cagle has recommended the City Council vote to approve National Express Transit replace them.
Steve Harrison is a reporter with WFAE, Charlotte’s NPR news source. Reach him at email@example.com.
New median enlisted in fight against Chick-fil-A traffic in Cotswold
EAT MOR CHIKIN, THEN TURN RIGHT: Workers this week extended a median on Randolph Road in Cotswold, a move aimed at preventing left turns into and out of the Chick-fil-A. Traffic often backs up on Randolph Road from drivers waiting to turn into the drive-thru. The Chick-fil-A and Bojangles next door are closed for renovations. Transit Time examined the Chick-fil-A traffic phenomenon in an article last year, “Let’s tackle Charlotte’s Chick-fil-A traffic problem.”
Parking fines hiked: The Charlotte City Council voted unanimously Monday to raise the fine from $25 to $100 for parking in bike lanes, blocking the streetcar and for trucks parking on the side of the road. (WSOC)
Bus fight video: WSOC obtained a video showing a fight on a CATS bus between an off-duty security guard and a passenger. (WSOC)
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