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CATS CEO Blames Gentrification, Outdated Bus System For Lower Ridership

Fewer people are using public transit in Charlotte. The drop has been noticeable over several months. For example, in February, the Charlotte Area Transit System’s ridership fell 20 percent compared with February of 2017. Nearly all other major cities are also seeing drops, but not as steep as Charlotte’s, according to federal data analyzed by TransitCenter, an advocacy group.

CATS CEO John Lewis says a lot of the decline has to do with the outdated design of the city’s bus system and that people who depend on buses are getting priced out of neighborhoods. He spoke with WFAE's Marshall Terry.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for brevity.  (You can listen to the full interview above)

Q: What do you think is behind this drop in ridership?

A:  Number one, the loss in ridership has been specific to the bus side of the company. Our rail ridership…has been up a little bit, less than one percent over the last couple of years. I think that is really indicative of the changing demographics of this region. Charlotte is a rapidly growing city. It's cool to live in cities once again, and I think that is what is driving the incredible pace of development within this city. And what is happening is our transit-dependent riders are being priced out of being able to live in our urban areas.   That's why I think you see the rail ridership growing a little bit and bus ridership dropping.

Q: How exactly do changing demographics affect the ridership numbers?

A: Our current model for bus transportation is a hub and spoke.  We have lots of frequency and lots of alternatives in the urban core.  Our transit-dependent riders are having to move further and further away from the urban core.  Almost 40 percent of our passengers come into our downtown transit center each day to then get off one bus, cross the platform, get on another bus and head back out of town. Our most recent studies have shown if you have to take more than one bus to get from your origin to your destination, that trip is going to be an average of 90 minutes or more. From an effectiveness standpoint, we're clearly not meeting that mark.  We want to move from that hub and spoke system to a grid system with more direct connects – no longer forcing people to come into the uptown area to board another bus and go back out of town and limit our transfers.

Q: What about ride share programs like Uber and now dockless bikes?  What kind of impact does that have on CATS ridership?

A: I think what we're seeing is a recognition that quality of life is an important factor in people's decision making.  We embrace all of those forms of transportation…and we are working very closely with them to help provide first and last mile connections for our customers. While they may be a factor in the ridership decline, I don’t think they’re a large factor in that.  Overall, the vast majority of their rides happen in off-peak hours. They’re more social trips, nights and weekends.  That's where we start to lower our service offerings. There's no one and no other alternative that can beat the time factors and guarantee nature of rail. Traffic congestion doesn't impact our rail ridership. Weather doesn't impact that - the vagaries of congestion on a daily basis. You know what your trip is going to be each and every day when you get on the Blue Line.

Q: There are plans to add three more rail lines as part of the 2030 transit plan.  How do lower ridership numbers impact those plans?

A:  As we've shown the ridership on the Blue Line over the last 10 years has been very strong and very steady. Those other items that I mentioned that have impacted us from the bus side have not impacted our rail ridership.  We believe that rail ridership will continue to be strong.  The first month of ridership on the extension to the university has been very strong.  Already after less than a month we’re at 80 percent of our one-year ridership estimates.  The investment in rail is not just about how many people ride, but what that infrastructure investment does to a community. We'll continue to invest in the 2030 plan [and] build out the next three lines.  But even with that, the vast majority of our riders get from their origin or to their destination each day on board a bus.  Our bus system has to become modernized so that the attributes that drive people to rail, we have to be able to transition that to the bus side.

Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.