Cuts to the CATS bus schedule are targeting the busiest routes. Lowridership routes are spared. | WFAE 90.7

At Charlotte’s main downtown bus station this week, two Charlotte Area Transit System employees handed out flyers, trying to spread the word: Big schedule changes are coming to the bus system.

They met with passengers and told them that a bus that used to arrive every 15 minutes could now appear every 20 or 30 minutes.

The reason for the changes is that CATS does not have enough bus drivers – and that the transport system wants to adjust its schedule.

Chief Executive John Lewis said the staffing shortage dates back to the early days of the pandemic and the system is often down dozens of drivers each day. He said it was a national issue.

“I’ve never had a challenge hiring bus companies,” said Lewis, who has worked in mass transit for 25 years. “If an operator left an organization for any reason, we would typically have 10 or 12 other operators on a list ready to take their place. So that’s certainly a different phenomenon than I’ve ever seen in my career.”

From August 15, CATS will cease service on 11 routes along with the Lynx Blue Line. Three other express bus routes are also served to a limited extent. CATS has said the cuts are temporary but hasn’t said how long they will last.

The idea is that it’s better to have less frequent and more consistent connections – rather than more frequent connections with buses that sometimes don’t show up because there’s no driver. CATS said it needed to reduce the number of drivers it needed each day by 45 to 50.

Charlotte City Council member Braxton Winston agrees with the plan and says consistency is key.

“They want people to know when that bus is coming so they can plan their lives around that schedule,” he said.

CATS bus drivers describe their frustration with the service.

WFAE sent reporters to the bus routes on Beatties Ford Road, Central Avenue and North Tryon Street. Here are some comments from passengers on the cuts and the quality of bus service they are receiving.

To reduce service, CATS examined the bus routes with the most journeys. That’s partly because they have the most frequencies to cut.

But these routes also have the most passengers.

There are 65 bus routes in the CATS system.

It reduces service to 11 routes running from Uptown to places like Central Avenue, Beatties Ford Road and South Tryon Street. These 11 lines transport more than half of all bus passengers.

Many of these bus routes run from a 15-minute to a 20- or 30-minute cycle.

CATS has decided not to cut service on the least-used routes, where buses are already arriving less frequently. And the decision was made not to eliminate any routes at all, even those that hardly have any drivers.

CATS declined to be questioned about the details of its decision.

Winston said CATS made the right decision not to cut routes.

He said if a route is cancelled, “people won’t be able to come home and they won’t be able to get to work from where they live”.

He added, “This is extremely problematic.”

Route 290 in Davidson is a community shuttle that carried four riders throughout March and cost more than $5,000 a month to operate. This emerges from a WFAE analysis of the CATS driver data.

There are another six bus routes that carried an average of fewer than two passengers per scheduled departure in March. Service on these routes will also be reduced.

Route 60, which runs from the Tyvola light rail station to the VA hospital and airport, averaged fewer than 2.5 passengers per trip in March.

There will still be 78 inbound and outbound weekday trips. That’s the same number of trips the 21 bus will have on Statesville Avenue when the service cuts go into effect. However, bus 21 carries four times as many passengers.
Tony Jackson often takes the bus from Statesville Avenue to his place of work at Ramadan Heating and Air near North Graham Street. He said he doesn’t think it should have fewer frequencies.

“(Lines) 11 and 21 I don’t think they should change those because there are enough people to prove that both buses run every 20 minutes,” he said. “Now there are some other buses that go with fewer than five people. Maybe they should increase this to every 30 minutes. Eleven and 21 have to stay.”

CATS plans to offer ridesharing through its mobile app for people impacted by the less frequent service. She will announce details at her next meeting of the Metropolitan Transit Commission in three weeks.

Juana Gómez, right, with her daughter Ana Alvarez.
Juana Gómez, right, with her daughter Ana Alvarez on the way to the dentist.

Other passengers aren’t as concerned about less frequent connections.

Juana Gomez, who rides the #9 bus on Central Avenue, is more frustrated that buses don’t show up.

“Sometimes it’s difficult because the bus may or may not be late and that makes you late for work,” she said. “And now even more so with what is happening that there are no drivers. That means in the evenings because I get out late, sometimes arriving at 11pm. It’s really hard and tiring because sometimes it takes me two to two and a half hours to get to work in the morning and then in the evening.”

She just wants a reliable schedule.

“If they just tell us that’s the schedule, then you know and you can communicate it to your work. But if you don’t know, it’s very difficult,” Gomez said.

Since 2014, Charlotte’s buses have lost 75% of their passengers — due to societal changes like ride-sharing services like Uber, more people owning their own cars, and more people working from home.

And in the short term, the personnel problems have also led to the fact that the number of passengers has fallen even further. In June, the number of bus drivers fell by almost 20% compared to the same month last year.

CATS hopes a reliable timeline will change that.

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