CHARLOTTE, NC (Steve Harrison/The Charlotte Observer) - In three months, the Charlotte Area Transit System will open the light-rail extension to University City, a $1.1 billion project that will carry riders from one end of the city to the other.
But as CATS prepares to celebrate, it's struggling with a question that has befuddled cities nationwide: Where have all the bus riders gone?
In the last three years, ridership on local buses – the largest and most important part of the CATS system – has declined by more than 15 percent. In the four first months of this fiscal year the downward trend has accelerated, with ridership down 9.1 percent compared with the same period a year earlier.
CATS chief executive John Lewis started a program last year called "Envision my Ride," a redesign of the bus system that he hopes will bring riders back. Lewis wants more cross-town routes, so all buses don't funnel into the uptown main bus station.
CATS operates 67 bus lines, and 44 of them serve uptown.
"We want to reframe the system from a hub-and-spoke system to a grid," Lewis said.
CATS plans to release a draft report of Envision My Ride at the start of 2018. After getting public feedback, CATS plans to release a final plan a few months later.
For nearly 20 years, CATS has received a half-cent sales tax that's dedicated exclusively for mass transit on all purchases inside Mecklenburg. Lewis wants to build new rail lines to Lake Norman, Matthews and the airport, which could cost between $5 billion and $7 billion.
What's causing the drop?
Historically, transit ridership has had a close correlation to two things: Gas prices and the economy.
When gas prices are high, more people decide to take a bus or train to save money on gas.
For CATS, those factors have had an impact on ridership over the last decade. But in the last two or three years, it appears the relationship between gas and the economy isn't as connected as it once was.
For instance, between 2015 and the end of this year, gas prices have been low but also relatively stable. And the national and local economy has been healthy – and getting stronger.
But ridership has continued to fall.
Local bus service is the bedrock of the CATS system, catering to people who rely on the bus for mobility – not so-called "choice riders" who choose transit to save on parking or gas.
But while local bus ridership has fallen, the Lynx Blue Line has fared better.
The light-rail line was down 1 percent in 2015, down 4.4 percent in 2016 and down 1.2 percent in 2017. Lynx ridership was up 1.2 percent for the first four month of this fiscal year.
It's not clear why bus and train ridership have diverged.
Lewis, the CATS chief executive, believes gentrification is a big problem for the transit system.
As neighborhoods like Biddleville and Smallwood on the west side attract wealthier newcomers, low-income residents are pushed out farther from uptown. That makes it harder for CATS to serve them.
"What is happening is more of a demographic issue," Lewis said. "We have seen a re-birth of the city."
CATS has had other theories about declining ridership.
Two years ago, the transit system thought the fare boxes on buses were not counting some riders. The boxes were old, and CATS spent $8 million replacing them. But even with new boxes that are presumably counting passengers accurately, ridership has continued to fall.
David Hartgen, a retired transportation professor from UNC Charlotte, agrees somewhat with Lewis.
"I think bus ridership has declined because of wealth," he said. "As cities get wealthier, they ride-share or car-share or buy a car. We are seeing this everywhere. Seattle is one of the few cities in the country that's had a significant improvement in bus ridership."
He said people use transit "as a stepping stone."
"They use it when they need it, and then they move on," he said. "And that's OK."
Jon Orcutt of the New York City-based advocacy group Transit Center said CATS and others have been impacted by ride-share companies like Uber.
In New York City, he said a taxi used to be about five times as expensive as a transit fare.
"Uber made it 2 to 1," Orcutt said. "To me everything comes down to supply and demand. There is a lot of supply of Uber and cheap conditions for driving your own car."
What can Charlotte do?
Seattle and Houston are among the few cities that have been able to grow bus ridership.
In Seattle, the city has increased frequencies on a number of routes, making buses arrive so often that people don't need to look at a schedule.
"Seattle has added a ton of service," Orcutt said.
But Seattle added service after voters approved several tax increases for transit, most recently in 2016. CATS doesn't have money to flood certain routes with more bus service.
And CATS has already added some service in recent years. Since 2014, the number of hours that CATS buses operate is up 7 percent.
Lewis said the first phase of Envision My Ride is focusing on where bus routes should go, and not on the level of service.
Many of the local bus routes that don't go uptown are offshoots from Lynx Blue Line stations. Route 43, for instance, runs from the Sharon Road West station to Ballantyne. Route 55 runs from the Sharon Road West station to Charlotte Premium Outlets off Interstate 485.
CATS also has a bus station at SouthPark mall, which acts a small hub for a few routes.
Shannon Binns is the executive director of Sustain Charlotte, a nonprofit that advocates for alternatives to driving, including walking, biking and transit use.
Binns said he believes CATS will redesign the bus system to funnel passengers to the light-rail line, which will cover roughly 20 miles when the extension opens in March.
Binns said he also wants CATS to increase the frequencies on some bus routes.
CATS has three bus routes that operate every 10 minutes during rush hour: routes 7 (Beatties Ford Road), 9 (Central Avenue) and 11 (North Tryon Street). It has a handful of others that operate every 15 minutes during rush hour.
CATS has also announced it will increase the frequency of the Lynx Blue Line when the extension opens, from trains arriving every 10 minutes at rush hour to every 7.5 minutes.