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Each Monday, Tommy Tomlinson delivers thoughtful commentary on an important topic in the news. Through these perspectives, he seeks to find common ground that leads to deeper understanding of complex issues and that helps people relate to what others are feeling, even if they don’t agree.

Charlotte's bus system needs to change before the wheels come off

The Charlotte Area Transit System, or CATS, has seen a drop of 75% in bus ridership over the past eight years. WFAE’s Tommy Tomlinson, in his On My Mind commentary, says the city has to come up with a new road map.

Maybe we should start by blaming the dummies who designed this city in the first place.

Charlotte wasn’t laid out so much as it fell together. Instead of a simple grid, our city looks like a wagon wheel — a series of spokes running out from the center. All these spokes change names several times along the way, and most of those names include the word Sharon.

This is not an easy city to plan a route.

But when it comes to Charlotte’s bus system, our layout is one of the smaller problems. In a two-part series last week, WFAE’s Steve Harrison laid out how and why ridership on Charlotte Area Transit System buses has fallen 75% since 2014. Steve found one route that averaged just two or three passengers a trip, and another that had just four riders for an entire month.

There are lots of possible reasons. Bus drivers often call out for the day, taking sick days that are part of their contract, which leaves CATS scrambling to fill the spots. Ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft are now available. So is Charlotte’s light rail. And two years ago COVID blew through our daily routines like a bowling ball, leaving many people to work at home.

The bottom line is that CATS wastes money and resources on a lot of routes, and isn’t reliable on others. The one thing a bus system has to be is reliable, because so many riders need it to get to work.

CATS CEO John Lewis says the solution is more buses running more routes more often. That, he says, would solve the problem of reliability — you wouldn’t even need a schedule because a bus would arrive every few minutes. And once people knew they could count on buses, they’d start riding.

It's a theory.

It’s also an expensive theory. Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles wants voters to eventually approve a one-cent sales tax increase that would pay for those buses, as well as a new light rail line, greenways, bike lanes and so forth. The whole package would cost $13.5 billion.

But the state legislature would have to approve the vote even making it to the ballot, and the Republican powers in Raleigh make that unlikely. Even so, it seems like a tough sell to voters—pay for more buses on top of the ones no one is riding.

It makes more sense to run a test. Pick a small section of the city and let CATS use that to try out the ideas they dream of. Then if the riders come along, expand the new ideas to the whole city.

It would be good for Charlotte if the riders did come along. A great mass transit system keeps cars off the road, helps the environment, and provides a vital service for the people who really need it.

But it only works if people use it. And for now, Charlotte is choosing to miss the bus.

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column runs Mondays on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.

Tommy Tomlinson has hosted the podcast SouthBound for WFAE since 2017. He also does a commentary, On My Mind, which airs every Monday.