CAT busses

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 Transportation System (CATS) is responsible for citywide transportation. Serving 3,628 stations scattered across the Charlotte metropolitan area, this 69-route bus and rail network boasts an average of 320,000 weekly riders and 16,640,000 annually.

Historically, mass transit in Charlotte was privatized until 1976 and local to the uptown area until the founding of CATS in 2000. However, the modern bus network has become how the city shuttles its poor, black and brown residents to work, which might explain Charlotte’s reluctance to address the punctuality problem.

According to the Charlotte Metropolitan Commission, the share of minority riders was 41.5% in 2017, down from 48.1% in 2014. From personal experience, wait times for buses range from five to 35 minutes, with an average of around seven to ten minutes. The longest I have waited for a bus was two hours. CATS claims that their buses run on-time 85% of the time, defining on-time performance as arriving “no more than five minutes past its scheduled time.”

Another inescapable eyesore on the transit system is cleanliness, or the lack thereof. Even before the pandemic necessitated Plexiglass as germ barriers, many buses have had food and trash littered wherever, with 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 for the foreseeable future. In 2020, Axios reported that the pandemic dealt an $8 million loss to Charlotte’s mass transit system. Low ridership could mean higher fares and reduced quality for the remaining riders.

According to data from CATS, ridership in April 2019 was 1,801,004. WCNC reports that the system has begun to see a rebound from rock bottom in April 2020 at 593,940, with ridership in April 2021 at 721,541.

Though, the return for riders cannot be said for drivers. A CATS supervisor told me that the network is experiencing a labor shortage as there aren’t enough drivers to fill every shift, which has caused frequent adjustments and mediocre service.

At the #29 stop at East Deck, for example, bus drivers have passed me at the sign or have skipped the stop entirely. One time, I was on that same route going the opposite direction on University City Boulevard when the driver stopped the bus to buy Lipton tea at Circle K.

This is an institutional problem. I’m tired of phoning in my complaints and getting the same response. After three to five business days, a CATS supervisor 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.”

The Lynx Blue Line light rail is one of the redeeming parts of the CATS network. Although they can be as dirty and trash-covered as the buses, the trains are rarely late. Additionally, the trackside 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.

The CityLynx Gold Line streetcar that opened uptown in 2015 has not become a promising addition to the city’s transportation fleet. According to Fox 46, low ridership brought on by the pandemic has forced CATS to run fare-free service for the streetcar as it has since Aug. 30, 2021.

However, even before the pandemic, the CityLynx Gold Line moved a mere 1,748 daily riders based on data from CATS. This streetcar has undoubtedly turned into a garnish on the urban landscape for rich people rather than practical transport for inner-city residents, making it another specter of gentrification.

For those who drive a car to work or school every day, the problem of inadequate transit may seem unfamiliar or even irrelevant. However, clean and reliable buses affect traffic patterns too. The more people that take the bus, the lighter traffic congestion becomes.

Functioning public transportation is at the heart of any modern city. 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 telltransit@charlottenc.gov.

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