Charlotte has a big plan to lure bus riders back. Will it work?

Charlotte has a big plan to lure bus riders back. Will it work?
The uptown transit center in Charlotte.

The Charlotte Area Transit System has a $1.1 billion new light rail line to boast of and a streetcar extension under construction, but transportation officials are trying to fix a more prosaic part of the system: the bus.

This month, CATS kicked off the next phase of “Envision My Ride,” an initiative that’s meant to shorten bus trips, rearrange routes to serve more passengers and reconfigure CATS’ bus system from a hub-and-spoke model to something more like a spiderweb, with new crosstown routes.

“We’re developing bus routes that are more direct,” said Larry Kopf, CATS’ chief operations planning officer. “(Before), if they want to get across town, they have to take a bus all the way into uptown, and then all the way back out, which takes a lot of time.”

CATS is contending with the same nationwide decline in ridership that’s hit transit systems from the New York City subway and the Washington Metro to the San Francisco bus and train systems. Officials have cited low gas prices, falling unemployment, gentrification that displaces riders and the rise of Uber and Lyft as possible factors, but also admit there’s no single cause they can identify.

Through August, federal ridership numbers show the number of bus trips on CATS regular service fell 18 percent from 2017.

Despite the flash and publicity that come with new trains, like the Blue Line extension, buses account for the majority of transit passengers in Charlotte. For example, in August, there were more than 1.2 million trips on CATS express and regular buses, according to federal statistics, vs. 722,000 Blue Line light rail trips.

Many of those who ride buses don’t have the option to choose a different means of transportation. They might be disabled, or not able to afford a car, placing them in the category of people who use public transit out of necessity and not by choice. And they often need the flexibility to go more places than the 19-mile Blue Line route covers.

Some of those riders have been watching CATS’ changes with trepidation, not anticipation. Although the system’s aim is to shorten rides and make the routes more efficient, Kopf acknowledges that not everyone will benefit.

“We’re asking people to walk out to the major thoroughfares in many cases,” said Kopf. Over 600 stops have been changed or dropped. “There are trade-offs.”

By shifting more routes off neighborhood streets and onto main thoroughfares like Tryon Street or Park Road, buses can run more frequently and quickly. But that means riders might have to walk longer to get to their stop, if their former neighborhood stop is no longer served.

For example, Route 16 now runs along Tryon Street for its whole length, down to Steele Creek, eliminating side trips into neighborhoods. That makes it faster, but has also eliminated bus stops in Whitehall Commons, a shopping center, and Southside Homes, a Charlotte Housing Authority development.

One rider impacted by CATS’ changes is Alberta Alexander, who works nights at a restaurant. Her bus stop on a residential street near Tuckaseege Road has been eliminated by the changes.

“It’s my only transportation,” she said. “If I do not drive, and they’re changing these buses and changing these routes, I have no other option.”

Commuter Alberta Alexander, waiting to board a CATS bus.
Commuter Alberta Alexander, waiting to board a CATS bus. (Lorena Rios Trevino | The Charlotte Observer)

Now, if she gets off work late, she’ll have to walk from Tuckaseegee to her house at night, instead of getting off much closer on State or Sumter streets.

“Before the changes, I had a bus stop in a 2 1/2 block radius,” she said. “I wasn’t afraid to walk home.”

Advocates say potential difficulties will be balanced out by the benefits of shorter rides and increased transfer opportunities. Fewer people will need to come all the way into uptown, change buses at the transit center and go all the way back out on another bus.

“They will have more opportunities to transfer to additional bus lines that can get them to more destinations more quickly, and they’ll have an opportunity for faster service times,” said Meg Fencil, program director for Sustain Charlotte, an environmental, transit and pedestrian advocacy group, which supports the changes.

Jarvis Richberg, who uses a wheelchair and commutes via CATS bus.
Jarvis Richberg, who uses a wheelchair and commutes via CATS bus. (Lorena Rios Trevino | The Charlotte Observer)

The goal should be to help the biggest number of riders, she said. In the first phase of Envision my Ride, bus routes north of uptown were realigned to connect to the Blue Line extension stations so more people can connect to the light rail.

“We need to look at how the system can be changed to help as many people as possible while not leaving people behind who may not have the same level of service that they had before, whether that means a longer walk or that the bus stop is no longer in their neighborhood,” said Fencil.

Kopf said that while some riders might have a longer walk or lose a stop nearby, the majority are benefiting. A woman contacted him last week, he said, who needed to get from near Arrowood and South Tryon streets to Wilkinson Boulevard. In the old hub-and-spoke system, her trip could have taken two hours.

“I was able to figure out how to get them there in about 35 minutes” by using the new crosstown routes, said Kopf.

But a shorter, more efficient commute is not the only change that the bus system needs. Most people who rely on transit are walking to and from their stop, said Fencil. But, she said, less than half of the streets in Mecklenburg County have a sidewalk on at least one side.

The uptown transit center in Charlotte.
The uptown transit center in Charlotte. (Lorena Rios Trevino | The Charlotte Observer)

“We can better serve transit riders by improving walkability,” she said. The city has launched “Vision Zero,” an initiative for safer streets in collaboration with Sustain Charlotte, CATS, and other organizations, and Kopf said CATS is working to identify roads leading to bus stops that need sidewalks.

Last year, 27 pedestrians in Charlotte were killed in wrecks — a record high.

Jarvis Richberg, who uses a wheelchair, moved to Charlotte from Orangeburg, S.C. three years ago.

“I love it here,” he said as he waited for his bus at the bus transit center in uptown. “We are a thriving city and we just need to make certain key changes to make it even better.”

Richberg, who lives near the Walmart on Wilkinson Boulevard, manages to get around town thanks to buses. He takes the bus to school five days a week and the bus to church on the weekends, and rides the bus to his frequent doctors’ appointments and supermarkets besides the Walmart around the corner from his house.

The CATS route changes, he says, make his commute “much harder” now that Route 20 no longer takes him straight to uptown.

“I have to travel further to get to the bus,” he says. Richberg must either take a longer commute by transferring to the light rail, which is free with a bus ticket, or risk crossing busy Wilkinson Avenue to catch another bus.

While Richberg supports the positive aspects of the changes — like shorter rides for many people — he said that it’s also important to remember people like him who are reliant on buses, even if they live on low-ridership routes.

“It may be a thing where the attendance in that area isn’t good, but the bus is still needed,” said Jarvis. “The bus is still needed for hard-working people every day to get home.”