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CATS is banking on crosstown bus routes, but new data show they are mostly empty

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Steve Harrison
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Vice president Kamala Harris speaks earlier this year at an event touring the Biden administration's efforts to fund transit.

Five years ago, the Charlotte Area Transit System began revamping its bus system with a program called “Envision My Ride.”

A major part of the plan was to have more “crosstown” routes so riders don’t have to take a bus uptown and switch to another bus to reach their final destination.

“We want to reframe the system from a hub-and-spoke system to a grid,” CATS CEO John Lewis told the Charlotte Observer in 2017.

But as the coronavirus pandemic wanes, a WFAE analysis of local bus routes shows the traditional hub-and-spoke routes to uptown have retained the most riders. The crosstown routes designed to boost the transit system have suffered the biggest losses in passengers. They are often served by empty zombie buses, chugging along thoroughfares like Pineville-Matthews Road.

When CATS reports monthly ridership data, it doesn’t break down how many passengers each local bus route is carrying. So WFAE requested —and received — a detailed list from the transit system.

An analysis of 50 local bus routes, which include so-called community circulators and village riders, shows:

Of the 15 routes that have kept the largest percentage of riders since before the pandemic, 13 are traditional routes serving the transit center uptown.

Of the 15 routes that have lost the most riders since the pandemic, 12 are crosstown or feeder routes that tie into light-rail stations. The 10 worst-performing routes when compared to 2019 are all designed so people don’t have to go uptown.

(We will address the performance of express buses later in this story.)

The struggling crosstown routes include route 51 from Carolina Place Mall in Pineville to a park-and-ride lot in Matthews on Independence Boulevard. The CATS schedule online says it operates 14 inbound and 14 outbound departures during the weekdays and Saturdays.

That equals 728 total departures for the month of October 2021.

Total ridership that month for route 51 was 1,221 passengers, down from 4,040 two years earlier. That means the average bus on the 11-mile, 30-minute trip carried less than two people.

Former CATS CEO Ron Tober launched some crosstown routes when he led the transit system in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He supports the idea of a non-hub-and-spoke system but said it’s difficult financially.

“The basic problem has always been and forever will be that the Charlotte street network doesn’t lend itself to crosstown routes,” Tober said. “You can do a few things, like run a bus from up Sharon Amity between SouthPark and the University or you might be able to do something on Wendover. But we don’t have a lot of opportunities to do that, so that’s always been a problem.”

The struggle of crosstown and feeder routes is significant because they are a key part of the city’s proposed $13.5 billion transportation plan. CATS wants to continue to move away from a hub-and-spoke model if the plan is approved.

City Council members often talk about the unfairness of people having to take a 20-minute bus ride uptown and then wait for another bus to take them on a second 20- or 30-minute trip to their destination. And Charlotte’s Leading on Opportunity task force has touted the realignment of the bus system to improve economic mobility.

Sherri Chisholm, the executive director of Leading on Opportunity, wrote in the Charlotte Observer that the transit system has “moved the city’s bus system to a grid system, decreasing commute times across neighborhoods. Public transportation is foundational to providing accessibility to job opportunities, making economic mobility possible.”

But is that happening?

City Council member Julie Eiselt, who chairs the transportation committee, said she recently asked Lewis for detailed ridership information.

If some crosstown and feeder routes are struggling, she asked: “Should we move those buses to routes that are doing better?”

Council member Larken Egleston, the committee vice-chair, said the push for crosstown routes has been an understandable response to people who have to ride the bus 30 minutes from Matthews to uptown and then 30 minutes from uptown to Pineville.

“The question is how many people are doing that?” he said. “Is it 5,000? Is it 50? Is it 5?”

CATS declined to speak about the ridership in local bus routes.

Routes that are keeping most riders

The best-performing route is arguably a new shuttle that runs from uptown to the Amazon warehouse near Charlotte Douglas International Airport. It’s carrying 85%t of its pre-pandemic passengers.

But it’s one of the smallest routes in the system, with only three outbound and three inbound trips a day.

Before the pandemic, it carried 3,434 passengers in October 2019. That fell to 2,921 two years later.

But that’s still a success, with each departure averaging nearly 16 passengers.

There is another group of routes that are at around 60% of their pre-pandemic capacity.

They include route 21 (Statesville Avenue to uptown); route 11 (University City-North Tryon Street-uptown); route 23 (CPCC Cato Campus-Shamrock Drive-uptown); route 16 (Atrium Health Steele Creek-South Tyron Street-uptown); route 9 (Central Avenue to uptown).

Central Avenue is the busiest bus route, by far. It operates every 10 or 15 minutes on weekdays, which is a level of service CATS wants to expand to several other routes. It carried 103,192 passengers in October 2019. Ridership fell to 57,275 in October 2021.

A count of the transit system’s schedule shows route 9 had about 4,800 inbound and outbound trips in October 2021. That averages to about 11.5 passengers for each scheduled trip.

Although some of the scheduled routes were likely canceled for reasons like mechanical problems.

Where passengers haven’t returned

Ridership has cratered on some routes.

The worst performing is route 50, which runs from the University City Boulevard light-rail station to University Research Park and then the Mallard Creek park-and-ride lot.

It has just two inbound and two outbound trips each weekday. It carried nearly 1,600 passengers in October 2021. Ridership fell to just 127 people in October 2019.

That’s about 1.5 passengers for each trip.

Route 50 is likely heavily dependent on people who are still working remotely. Ridership could return when more people return to the office.

But there are other struggling routes that serve employment centers where people must work in person.

One example is route 58, which runs from the I-1485/South Boulevard light-rail station to Carolina Place Mall. It passes by Atrium’s hospital in Pineville, a large employment center.

Ridership in October was only 30% of what it was two years earlier, with 2,677 passenger trips in October.

The CATS schedule says there were just under 2,000 inbound and outbound trips on that route in October. That works out to a little more than one passenger for each trip.

One goal of Envision My Ride is to increase service on bus routes so people don’t have to check a schedule. They can just head to the bus stop, knowing they won’t wait longer than 15 minutes. Tober said he thinks that could boost ridership on some of the crosstown and feeder routes.

The problem, however, is money. It costs about $110 an hour to operate a bus, according to CATS. And if that bus is only carrying five or six people an hour, the money adds up quickly.

There are also environmental concerns with 40-foot diesel buses running mostly empty.

What about express buses?

CATS also operates express buses targeting suburbanites who work uptown.

Ridership on those lines almost completely vanished during the pandemic, though they are now attracting more riders as people return to work.

The Gastonia Express carried 855 passengers in October 2021 compared to 4,303 in October 2019. The CATS schedule says that route has 105 monthly departures, so each bus carried about eight people.

Presumably, ridership will continue to increase as uptown corporations bring more people back.

Transit Time is produced in partnership among WFAE, The Charlotte Ledger and the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute. Subscribe here. Other affiliated Charlotte newsletters and podcasts include: The Charlotte Ledger Business Newsletter and Ways of Life newsletter (obituaries), available from The Charlotte Ledger; WFAE's Inside Politics newsletter; and The UNC Charlotte Urban Institute newsletter and the Future Charlotte podcast from the Urban Institute.

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.