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Thousands of “ghost buses” don’t show up for CATS riders

After WBTV requested the information, CATS revealed that from January through March there were 8,873 missed trips by CATS buses.
A WBTV Investigation shows Charlotte City buses have failed to show up thousands of times already this year.
Published: May. 24, 2022 at 6:01 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - A WBTV Investigation shows Charlotte City buses have failed to show up thousands of times already this year. Riders and transit aficionados have started calling them “ghost buses.” It’s the newest data WBTV found after reports on bus riders who say they can’t always count on the bus to show up.

The data shows between January 1st and March 31st, CATS buses missed nearly 98 trips per day. The consequences to riders can be significant but CATS isn’t the only transit organization struggling with providing the service it promised.

While CATS and CEO John Lewis have promised to address the problems, some of the solutions that would be most helpful to riders appear no closer to completion. While the problems persist, Charlotte leaders are calling for better results.

In February, WBTV tagged along with Brian Williams on his way to his job at Southpark Mall. Williams said between January and February, the CATS bus he takes to work failed to show up at all six separate times.

“When I have to take an Uber, I’m pissed off,” Williams said.

“I’m trying to save money and get myself out of this situation.”

Data obtained by WBTV shows Williams is far from alone in his frustration.

After WBTV requested the information, CATS revealed that from January through March there were 8,873 missed trips by CATS buses. Some riders are calling them “ghost buses”, meaning the scheduled bus didn’t show up at all.

CATS insists that no routes have been missed, meaning that a bus will eventually make it to a stop even if it’s anywhere from 15 minutes to several hours later.

CATS says it is unable to update its schedule to reflect the missing trips. That leaves riders waiting and wondering what’s going on.

For Williams, the inability of CATS to update riders via the app it’s pushing is part of the problem.

“It’s not the system, it’s the people that are running the system that are doing stuff wrong and until they fix those people, nothing is going to change,” Williams said.

WBTV also spoke with CATS CEO John Lewis in February. Lewis said the CATS driver shortage mostly responsible for the missed trips is not unique.

“(It’s) a labor-related issue that we will deal with and no different than every other industry. Not only here in Charlotte, but nationwide,” Lewis said.

WBTV compared CATS performance with several other similarly sized transit organizations.

Even with the nearly 9,000 ghost buses, CATS reported it still had buses for 97 percent of the total trips from January through March.

LYNX in Central Florida said it made 96 percent of its trips. Milwaukee County Transit System made more than 99 percent of its trips.

According to the data, CATS buses also perform very well when it comes to being on-time, called on-time performance (OTP). In Charlotte, a bus is considered on time if it’s less than five minutes late and no more than one minute early.

Most recently, CATS buses showed up on schedule 84 percent of the time. Detroit was at 69 percent, LYNX at 76 percent and Milwaukee County at 84 percent.

“CATS frequently reviews and adjusts its schedules to account for changing conditions, and supervisors regularly work with operators to improve on time performance,” a CATS spokesperson wrote in a statement about the OTP.

A lot of the OTP is determined by traffic and congestion but there’s one other big factor that is inflating CATS OTP.

CATS has not been counting the ghost buses against its OTP. If it did, the OTP would be closer to 80 percent.

WBTV asked CATS why it wasn’t counting missed trips as part of its OTP. A spokesperson wrote, “CATS includes trips we provide in our OTP calculation to refine our schedules and trips.”

WBTV also asked how CATS is addressing the ghost busses but the spokesperson did not provide specifics of the plan, writing “Like other transit agencies around the country, CATS is dealing with labor shortage issues. A lack of bus operators can impact routes and result in missed trips.”

Previously, CATS CEO John Lewis outlined a plan to hire more drivers, more mechanics and buy more buses. That included offering retention and recruitment bonuses.

In response to WBTV’s last report on ghost buses, CATS started targeting missed trips on routes that have a higher frequency. That way if a bus doesn’t show up riders would only have to wait 14-30 minutes for the next one instead of an hour on a less frequented route.

CATS also claimed every bus is equipped with GPS devices tracking the buses. In his previous interview with WBTV, Lewis said the CATS app does not support showing real time data on bus stop times more than 30 minutes out. But a review of the app shows even buses arriving within the next thirty minutes don’t show the real-time of the bus and instead only show the scheduled time.

In February, Lewis told WBTV that CATS was working with the contractor for the CATS app to “provide real-time data as far as an hour ahead of time.”

In response to questions from WBTV, a spokesperson for CATS wrote “at this time you cannot see a missed trip in the app but this is something we’re looking at for the future.”

Instead, they’re recommending riders call their customer service line at 704-336-RIDE (7433).

That is not good enough for many Charlotte council members who have been tracking the reliability issues and voicing their displeasure.

In recent interviews with WBTV, Charlotte leaders said they were demanding better from CATS.

“Our current transit system is not reliable,” at-large Council member Dimple Ajmera said.

“That’s when I look to our CATS leadership to address the reliability issues and efficiency issues before we go ask voters for more money,” Ajmera said.

Republican at-large candidate Kyle Luebke, who rides the bus to commute, has also highlighted the impact the reliability issues have had on him.

If your bus is consistently late or not showing up you can email us at investigates@wbtv.com

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