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Getting off the bus: How Charlotte Transit lost 75% of its passengers in less than a decade

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Steve Harrison
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WFAE
The main bus station uptown. The Charlotte Area Transit System has seen bus ridership decline by 75% since 2014.

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 outlier.

But it represents a problem that has plagued CATS for the last eight years: Collapsing bus ridership.

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Steve Harrison
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WFAE
CATS bus route 290 has plenty of room.

WFAE analyzed ridership and service data on all CATS bus routes, as well as historical data from the federal government for CATS and other transit systems.

Here's what else we found:

  • In 2014, CATS buses carried 23.9 million passengers, according to annual reports from the Federal Transit Administration.
  • Though Mecklenburg County’s population grew and bus service increased modestly, ridership began falling each year, reaching 15.6 million trips in 2019, before COVID-19.
  • The pandemic pushed ridership even lower. CATS has now lost 75% of its bus passengers from 2014 to 2022 — to 5.9 million trips.
  • 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.
  • The steep drop in passengers has made the system much less efficient.

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.

For instance, crosstown route 28, which goes from the old Eastland Mall to South Park, cost $28.50 per trip. It had 764 scheduled departures in March and 1,958 total passengers.

The Federal Transit Administration has data on how many miles buses travel and how many miles passengers travel. That can be used to determine how full buses are.

In 2014, passengers traveled nearly 11 times as many miles as the buses. In March of this year, passengers only traveled 2.7 times as many miles as the buses.

That essentially means the average number of passengers on a bus was 2.7. Most buses have 39 seats.

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?”

It’s a critical question — and one that CATS hasn’t shown much interest in answering.

CATS Chief Executive John Lewis declined to be interviewed for this story.

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-19.

“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.

In December 2020, the Charlotte Moves task force, created by Mayor Vi Lyles, released an 86-page report calling for a penny sales tax increase to fund the transit plan.

Absent from the report is any mention of how ridership has declined. It also doesn’t consider that COVID-19 could change where we work. The word “pandemic” appears one time — in a reference to the task force holding virtual meetings.

“It seems as though we believe the two years or three years of the pandemic is a hiccup,” said Bill Coxe, a transit advocate and former planner who served on the task force.

He now said he isn’t sure if more money is the answer to the bus system’s problems.

“If your system is not performing even close to pre-pandemic levels, should you not be questioning whether or not this is a course in which we want to continue?” he said.

What happened to riders?

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.

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Steve Harrison
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WFAE
Sharon Fincher waits for the bus at the Charlotte Transportation Center uptown.

Sharon Fincher, who works in housekeeping at Novant, lives near Eastway Drive. 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 in case something goes wrong, I’m not late.”

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.

More people are now working in the Charlotte area than before the pandemic, although many are working from home.

In Charlotte, hospitality and tourism jobs are still down 5% from pre-pandemic levels, and many of those positions are filled by low-wage workers who depend on transit.

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.

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Steve Harrison
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WFAE
The parking lot at South Oak Crossing is full.

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 than one billion dollars 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 seeing 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-19 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.

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.