Tardy buses and spotty service are the hallmarks of Charlotte’s transportation network. Ask anyone who has stood next to those mysterious roadside bus signs and they will tell you that waiting is unavoidable.
The Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) is responsible for citywide transportation. Serving 3,628 bus and rail stations scattered across the greater Charlotte area, the 69-route network boasts an average of 320,000 weekly riders, totaling more than 16.5 million riders annually.
CATS is a vital service for many Charlotte residents, myself included, that has recently been profoundly disrupted. I am a poor undergraduate student who cannot afford a car or recurrent Uber trips, so my only other option is to rely on the unreliable: buses. And with gas prices where they’ve been lately, more people may be finding themselves in my position.
The lack of reliability on bus scheduling is an institutional problem, and I’m tired of my phoned-in complaints being met with the same response. After three to five business days, a CATS supervisor usually calls me back to say the same meaningless phrase: “We have identified the operator and have assigned a supervisor to address the issue. We apologize that this inconvenience occurred.”
For those who drive to work or school every day, the problem of inadequate transit may seem unfamiliar or even irrelevant. However, clean and dependable buses affect traffic patterns too. The more people take transit, the lighter traffic congestion becomes.
So what’s the hold up?
Historically, mass transit in Charlotte was privatized until 1976 and limited to the Uptown area until the founding of CATS in 2000.
However, the modern bus network has become a shuttle for the city’s poor Black and brown residents, which might explain the reluctant response to its punctuality problem. According to CATS, 78% of bus riders are Black, 63% are commuting to work, and 47% earn less than $25,000 per year.
From personal experience, wait times for buses range from five to 35 minutes, with an average of around seven to 10 minutes. The longest I have waited for a bus was two hours. CATS claims that its buses run without delay 85% of the time, which was a claim made in 2018 that remains on their website four years later. The organization defines on-time performance as arriving “no more than five minutes past its scheduled time.”
One inescapable eyesore on the transit system is cleanliness, or lack thereof. Even before the pandemic necessitated Plexiglass as germ barriers, many buses have food and garbage littered atop seats coated in thick layers of dirt.
However, COVID-19 changed everything for CATS. The pandemic has hit public transport hard nationwide, causing a dip in ridership that will most likely last for the foreseeable future. In 2020, Axios reported that the pandemic dealt an $8 million loss to Charlotte’s mass transit system.
According to CATS data, ridership in April 2019 stood at 1.8 million but the pandemic slashed that number down by more than two thirds. Yet, CATS has been spiraling downward long before the pandemic. In July, WFAE reported that ridership has been decreasing since 2014, when the Federal Transit Administration reported 23.9 million bus trips from CATS compared to 5.9 million in 2021.
However, the end of COVID regulations has ushered in a gradual recovery. WCNC reported that the system has begun to see a rebound from rock bottom, with ridership in April 2021 up 22% from April 2020, when the uncertainty surrounding the then-novel coronavirus scared away most riders.
However, a return of some riders has not coincided with a stable supply of drivers. In early June, a CATS supervisor told me the network is experiencing a labor shortage of drivers to fill every shift, resulting in spotty service and the need for frequent adjustments. WBTV reported that CATS buses missed 8,873 trips from January through March 2022. Some riders call these route failures “ghost buses.”
The latest explanation from CATS CEO John Lewis has shifted blame from the pandemic to unionized workers purportedly abusing the sick-leave policy, which affords 40 paid sick days a year.
More than a third of drivers working weekday shifts and 20% of total drivers called in sick on June 22. Lewis claims the “attendance policy loopholes” for CATS employees could result in more service cuts, potentially shortening weekday service to Saturday levels for several months.
This could be related to repeated calls from drivers for policies that keep them safer and maintain cleaner conditions on their buses. If Lewis wants folks to show up to work, he should work to provide a better work environment for all his employees.
Bus drivers deserve better leadership that delivers higher wages rather than demonizing unions. Lewis is among the highest-paid public servants in Charlotte, making an annual salary of $238,761. Meanwhile, according to CATS, the average bus operator makes about $44,835 annually — just under $22 per hour.
Regardless of poor management, the Lynx Blue Line light rail is one of the redeeming qualities of the CATS network. Although the light-rail cars can be as filthy as the buses, the trains rarely run late. Additionally, track-side stations are well-lit and surveilled, providing an atmosphere of safety.
However, that does not mean the Blue Line is flawless. Trains occasionally break down on the tracks and have to be repaired on-site, which can cause long delays for riders in both directions. Still, more mobility exists with the light rail than the streetcar.
The CityLynx Gold Line streetcar that opened Uptown in 2015 has not become a promising addition to the city’s transportation fleet. Low ridership brought on by the pandemic and delays caused by traffic tie-ups have forced CATS to run fare-free service for the streetcar since Aug. 30, 2021.
Even before the pandemic, the CityLynx Gold Line moved a mere 1,748 daily riders based on data from CATS. Phase 2 opened in August 2021 to much acclaim, extending the existing track in Uptown east to Elizabeth and west to West Trade Street near Johnson C. Smith University. However, streetcar service is still plagued by delays and low ridership.
The streetcar has turned into a garnish on the urban landscape rather than a practical transport option for inner-city residents — just another specter of gentrification.
Despite this, Charlotte City Council in June approved $4.3 million in funding to design Phase 3 of the Gold Line after Lewis promised that new pre-construction design research would aim to make the streetcars operate more like the Blue Line rather than fending off traffic, which has been a main cause for delay on the existing track.
Lewis has been noticeably quiet about publicly addressing issues with CATS as drivers, city leaders and local media outlets have begun to shed light on them, but things appear to be coming to a head now. Just three days after a WBTV Investigation revealed a private contractor was running Charlotte’s bus system, Charlotte City Manager Marcus Jones announced that an evaluation of CATS “organizational structure and leadership team” was underway.
In the coming months, city leaders will lobby state lawmakers in Raleigh to approve a penny sales tax increase on the local ballot to fund a $13.5 billion transit plan to expand bus and light rail service, among other things.
However, before that happens, city elections — which were decided on July 26 — and county elections in November will determine the likelihood of this modest tax proposal becoming a reality.
Charlotte voters will decide whether CATS funding is a priority worth improving to achieve a more connected city.
Functional public transportation is at the heart of any modern metropolis. However, Charlotte’s tax dollars should not fund a substandard service if significant improvements continue to go unfulfilled.
After calling their customer service line many times, the CATS representative knows me by name. For anyone who needs to contact CATS for service information and estimated wait times, the number is 704-336-7433, or reach them via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.