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CATS cuts bus service on busiest routes

Passenger Tony Jackson speaks with a CATS employee about upcoming schedule changes to CATS buses.
Steve Harrison
Passenger Tony Jackson speaks with a CATS employee about upcoming schedule changes to CATS buses.

At Charlotte’s main bus station uptown this week, two Charlotte Area Transit System employees were passing out flyers, trying to get the word out: Big schedule changes are coming to the bus system.

They met with passengers, telling them that a bus that once arrived every 15 minutes may now show up every 20 or 30 minutes.

The reason for the changes is that CATS doesn’t have enough bus drivers — and that the transit system wants to right-size its schedule.

Chief Executive John Lewis said the staffing shortage traces back to the early days of the pandemic, and that the system is often down dozens of drivers each day. He said it's national problem.

“I’ve never had a challenge hiring bus operators,” said Lewis, who has worked in transit for 25 years. “If one operator left an organization for whatever reason we normally had 10 or 12 other operators who were on a list ready to take their place. So this is certainly a different phenomenon than I have ever seen in my career.”

Starting August 15, CATS is cutting service on 11 routes along with the Lynx Blue Line. Three other express bus routes are also having service reduced. CATS has said the cuts are temporary but hasn’t said how long they may last.

The idea is that it’s better to have less frequent service and more consistency — instead of more frequent service with buses sometimes not showing up because there isn’t a driver. CATS said it needs to reduce the number of drivers it needs daily by between 45 and 50.

Charlotte City Council member Braxton Winston agrees with the plan, saying consistency is critical.

“You want people to know when that bus is going to come so they can plan their lives around this schedule,” he said.

CATS bus riders describe their frustrations with service.
WFAE sent reporters out to Beatties Ford Road, Central Avenue and North Tryon Street, some of the busiest bus lines that will be affected by a reduction in service. Here are some comments from passengers on the cutbacks and the quality of bus service they receive.

To reduce service, CATS looked at the bus routes that have the most trips. That’s in part because they have the most frequencies to cut.

But those routes also have the most passengers.

There are 65 bus routes in the CATS system.

It’s reducing service on 11 routes that run from uptown to places like Central Avenue, Beatties Ford Road and South Tryon Street. Those 11 routes carry more than half of all bus passengers.

Many of those bus routes are going from having service every 15 minutes to service every 20 or 30 minutes.

CATS decided not to trim service on its least-used routes, where buses already arrive less frequently. And it decided not to eliminate any routes at all, even on some that have hardly any riders.

CATS declined to be interviewed about the specifics of how it made its decision.

Winston said CATS made the right decision to not cut any routes.

He said if a route was cut then “people can’t get home and can’t get to work from where they live.”

He added: “That is extremely problematic.”

Route 290 in Davidson is a community shuttle that carried four riders for the entire month of March, at a cost of more than $5,000 a month to operate. That’s according to a WFAE analysis of CATS ridership data.

There are another six bus routes that averaged less than two passengers in March for each scheduled departure. Service on those routes is also being reduced.

Route 60, which runs from the Tyvola light-rail station to the VA Hospital and the airport, averaged less than 2.5 passengers for each trip in March.

It will still have 78 inbound and outbound weekday trips. That’s the same number of trips that the 21 bus on Statesville Avenue will have when the service cuts go into effect. The 21 bus, however, carries four times as many passengers.
Tony Jackson often takes that Statesville Avenue bus to his job at Ramadan Heating and Air off North Graham Street. He said he doesn’t think it should have fewer frequencies.

“(Routes) 11 and 21 I don’t think they should change those because there is enough people to substantiate both buses running every 20 minutes,” he said. “Now there are some other buses that run with less than five people on them. Maybe they should bump those up to every 30 minutes. Eleven and 21 need to stay.”

CATS says it plans to offer ride-share services through its cell phone app for people impacted by the less frequent service. It will give details at its next Metropolitan Transit Commission meeting in three weeks.

Juana Gómez, right, with her daughter Ana Alvarez on their way to the dentist.
Kayla Young
Juana Gómez, right, with her daughter Ana Alvarez on their way to the dentist.

Other passengers aren’t as concerned about having less frequent service.

Juana Gomez, who rides the number 9 bus on Central Avenue, is more frustrated by buses not showing up.

“It’s difficult sometimes because there might be a bus delay or there isn’t one and it makes you late to work,” she said. “And now even more so with what’s happening that there aren’t drivers. That means in the evening, because I get out late, arriving sometimes at 11 p.m. It’s really hard and tiring because I take two to two and a half hours sometimes to arrive to work every day in the morning and then at night.”

She just wants a reliable schedule.

“If they just tell us, this is the schedule, then you know and you can let your work know. But when you don’t know, it’s very difficult,” Gomez said.

Since 2014, Charlotte’s buses have lost 75% of their passengers — due to societal changes like ride-share companies like Uber, more people owning their own cars and more people working from home.

And in the short term, the staffing problems have also caused ridership to drop even more. In June, bus ridership was down nearly 20% compared to the same month a year earlier.

CATS hopes a reliable schedule will turn that around.

Route Changes

Current Frequency (minutes)Modified Frequency (minutes)Notes
5 – Sprinter Airport153020-minute service from 1:30 p.m. – 3:00 p.m.
6 – Kings Drive2030 
7 – Beatties Ford152015-minutes outbound from Uptown: 1:30 p.m. – 3:30 p.m.
8 – Tuckaseegee2030 
9 – Central101510-minute service outbound from Uptown: 3:30 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.; 1 early morning trip
10 – West Boulevard2030 
11 – North Tryon2030 
16 – South Tryon1530 
21 – Statesville Avenue203020-minute service outbound from Uptown: 3:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.
27 – Monroe153020-minute service outbound from Uptown: 3:30 p.m. – 6:00 p.m.
34 – Freedom Drive2030 
LYNX Blue Line152020-minutes from 5:00 a.m. – 8:30 p.m., then 30-minutes until 2:00 a.m.

In addition, the following routes will see modifications to certain trips:

Route 1 – Mount Holley: Will eliminate the 11:41 p.m. and 12:41 a.m. inbound trips and 12:00 a.m. and 1:00 a.m. outbound trips.

Route 4 – Belmont: Will eliminate the first morning outbound trip at 5:29 a.m.

Route 11 – North Tryon: Will eliminate the 11:31 p.m. and 12:29 a.m. inbound trips and the 11:55 p.m. and 1:00 a.m. outbound trips.

Route 12 – South Boulevard: Will eliminate the 6:14 a.m. inbound trip and the late night short turn trips between Scaleybark and Pressley Road area at 1:06 a.m. (outbound) and 2:03 a.m. (inbound.)

Route 34 – Freedom Drive: Will eliminate the 11:31 p.m. inbound trip only.

Route 60 – Tyvola: Will convert midday trips serving Jackson Park to serve the V.A. Hospital.

Routes 48x – Northcross Express, 63x – Huntersville Express, and 77x – North Mecklenburg Express: Will be reduced by three trips each day. Trip times will be shifted up to account for the adjustment.

Reporters Kayla Young, Elvis Menayese and Sarah Delia contributed to this report.

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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.