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Early Charlotte Streetcar Ridership Is Low, Showing Challenges Of COVID Pandemic

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Steve Harrison/WFAE
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The Charlotte Area Transit System may start charging $2.20 for a one-way ticket on the Gold Line starting in 2022.

Charlotte’s Gold Line streetcar handled 2,566 passenger trips during its first two days of service, well below its pre-pandemic projections.

The average was 1,283 trips a day for Aug. 30 and 31.

Charlotte Area Transit System planned for the second phase of the Gold Line to carry 4,100 passengers each weekday. But CEO John Lewis has said it may take two years to reach that number of passengers because so many uptown employees are working from home.

The ridership numbers are included in the transit system’s August ridership report. CATS hasn’t released September ridership yet.

For now, the streetcar’s biggest challenge is that many uptown companies have not brought their employees back because of the delta variant of COVID-19.

But there are other potential challenges for the four-mile project, the latest segment of which cost $150 million to build.

The Gold Line is free for the rest of 2021, but CATS is likely to charge the standard bus and train one-way fare of $2.20 starting in January. It’s unclear how a paid fare will impact ridership.

The streetcar replaces the free Gold Rush shuttle bus that ran along much of the same route last decade. CATS ended the shuttle in 2017.

The other problem is the frequency of service.

CATS is operating the Gold Line on 20-minute headways. The streetcar stops at traffic lights and must slow down for congestion, so the four-mile one-way trip often takes 35-40 minutes. That means if riders miss their train at the east end of the line in Elizabeth, it may take them an hour to reach the end of the line by Johnson C. Smith University on the west side.

CATS has also struggled to maintain that service due to manpower shortages. The transit system has sometimes had to shift to 40-minute headways.

Overall transit ridership is still far below pre-pandemic levels.

In August, CATS carried 817,376 passengers — a 10% increase over the 740,730 passengers the transit system carried in August 2020. Most of the increase was due to more people riding the LYNX Blue Line light rail and express bus services.

But in August 2019, CATS carried just under 2 million passengers. That means ridership is still down nearly 60% compared with pre-pandemic levels.

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