Fixing Charlotte’s buses is key in addressing upward mobility. But the system is underfunded by millions.

Fixing Charlotte’s buses is key in addressing upward mobility. But the system is underfunded by millions.
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Every morning, 17-year-old Ceyonna Morris takes the No. 21 bus near her home in Davis Lake, a neighborhood in north Charlotte. She rides down to a stop near Albemarle Road, then transfers to the No. 9 bus, which drops her off at Commonwealth High School, a charter school on Central Avenue.

The journey from doorstep to classroom takes Morris about 90 minutes — more if the bus is running late, or if she misses it and has to wait for the next one. It doesn’t come as often as she’d like, either.

“I need to be at school by a certain time. If I’m just waiting for the bus for 30 minutes, I might be late,” says Morris, a bright-eyed teenager sporting fashionably ripped jeans and a black parka on a recent cool morning at the transit center Uptown.

In Charlotte these days, conversations about economic mobility tend to focus squarely on affordable housing. Discussions about — and funds for — transportation are weighted heavily toward the light rail. At the intersection of equity and transportation, however, you’ll find the city’s ongoing efforts to improve its bus system.

To be sure, housing is the biggest expense for Charlotte households. The nonprofit Center for Neighborhood Technology says Charlotte residents spend 29 percent of their income on housing. But transportation is a close second, at 22 percent.

“Yes, we need to care about affordable housing, but we also have to care about affordable transportation,” says Sustain Charlotte CEO Shannon Binns.

Fixing Charlotte’s bus system is something Vi Lyles has quietly been prioritizing for her second term as mayor.

On Charlotte Talks earlier this month, Lyles went over a long list of the city’s transit projects. Some include improving streets and signaling, as well as planning the next light-rail line.

Charlotte Blue Line stop view from North End

But, she told host Mike Collins, “I think our bus system improvements are at the top of the list.”

Last year, the city kicked off a multi-year effort called “Envision My Ride,” an ambitious plan to overhaul the bus system. Future projects will include new buses, dedicated bus lanes, shorter wait times, and new bus stop shelters, officials say.

Improving the system comes at a time when bus ridership has been declining, and when city leaders are pushing for fewer cars on the road. It’s a way to cut down on emissions and alleviate traffic.

It’s also to ensure that people have a reliable way to get to work on time and to drop off their kids at daycare and to run errands if they don’t own a car. Those tasks are increasingly difficult as development booms in Charlotte’s city center and surrounding neighborhoods, pushing up the cost of living and driving out longtime residents to seek cheaper housing alternatives farther away.

“The most important thing about transportation is that it has to be reliable and convenient,” Lyles tells the Agenda.

But to meet its public transportation goals, the city needs millions in funding.

Earlier this month, city council approved a plan to spend $50 million to design a new light rail, an east-west route that will connect Gaston County to Matthews. The design portion will help determine the line’s final price tag, which could be up to $6 billion.

By comparison, the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) needs to have $36 million added to its annual operating budget to fix the bus system. On top of that, it’ll cost another $40-$50 million in capital expenses to acquire another 100 or so buses, says CATS CEO John Lewis.

Those capital expenditure funds come from the federal government. Last week, Lyles was in Washington seeking funding to support Charlotte’s transit and sustainability goals.

“We have to have a bus system that works and a rail system that works; otherwise we’re just going to have cars clogging roads,” Lyles told a congressional subcommittee.

At 8:24 on a recent 30-degree Thursday morning, Itaejah Lucas held a sleeping baby bundled up in her carrier at a bus stop on The Plaza.

Lucas shivered in a gray fleece and headband. Her bus is five minutes late.

Lucas takes the bus each day to work across town to a call center called Conduent, out near the airport. First, though, she rides the bus to drop off her eight-month-old daughter at daycare.

“Having a baby, having to stand out here … it’s a lot, for it not to be on time,” Lucas says of the No. 4 bus.

Bus stop in NoDa at The Plaza

Bus stop in NoDa where Itaejah Lucas picks up the No. 4 bus each morning.

Half of the bus routes in Charlotte have average headways — or intervals between buses — of more than 45 minutes.

“That is still a material weakness in our system,” Lewis says.

The goal is to add enough buses to trim wait times down to 15 minutes or less for every route throughout the system. The reason commuters are flocking to rail is because it’s a reliable trip each time, Lewis says, and you don’t have to worry about traffic.

“That’s why rail ridership is growing,” he says. “We have to mirror those characteristics on the bus.”

Last month, more than 2 million people took public transit in Charlotte, up from just under 1.9 million in October of 2018, according to a recent CATS ridership report. The increase was driven by a surge in light-rail ridership, which was up nearly 50 percent year over year. Last month, more than 822,000 people took the light rail, according to the report.

But bus ridership slumped, down 9.3 percent to roughly 1.02 million commuters for the month.

Bus ridership has been falling for years, actually. The number of people taking local bus routes plummeted nearly 22 percent from 2016 to August 2019, according to CATS data.

Ridership fell for a number of reasons, including a rise in telecommuting and low gas prices. That’s according to a recent analysis by Ron Tober, the first CATS CEO from 1999 to 2007. He remains involved in the city’s transit improvements.

Another reason was service quality and reliability. Those, he wrote, were caused by increasing traffic and construction projects, as well as “bus operator shortages causing missed trips particularly during peak periods.”

“The reason people drive is because we made our city easy to drive in. Buses are still very inconvenient,” says Binns, the Sustain Charlotte CEO.

Dedicated bus lanes are another way Charlotte plans to make bus travel faster and more efficient.

In the next few months, the city will pilot a bus-only lane on 4th Street between McDowell and the transit center Uptown.

The thinking is, it’ll introduce people to the idea of dedicated bus lanes, which Charlotte doesn’t have yet. Then, similar lanes will be expanded to high ridership corridors such as Central Avenue, Providence Road, and South, West, and Wilkinson boulevards, Lewis says.

“To give people viable options to sitting in traffic in their single-occupant car, we’ve got to find a way to move that bus faster and more reliably,” Lewis says. “Bus-only lanes have been proven throughout the country to be able to do that.”

Charlotte’s longtime bus system was designed as a hub-and-spoke model, which means bus routes throughout the city connected at a central transit hub in the city center.

That model worked in the 1970s and 1980s, when people needed transportation from the suburbs to the city center. But now, Lewis says, there’s as much economic activity in Ballantyne, University City, South End, and the airport as there is in Uptown.

“When you are requiring a large number of our riders to come into Uptown at the transit center and get off one bus and onto another bus and go right back out of town, it became an ineffective bus system,” Lewis says.

Last year, Charlotte transit officials began scrapping the hub-and-spoke system and are redesigning the routes into a grid system, making them shorter and more direct.

In his analysis, Tober wrote that results from the city’s bus changes so far are mixed, with some bus routes seeing increased ridership and some seeing no growth.

I took the No. 11 bus from North Tryon recently into Uptown.

Admittedly, without knowing the schedule, I waited only 10 minutes for the bus to arrive. The journey — from the time I left my house, walked to the bus stop, waited for the bus, took the ride into Uptown, and arrived at the transit center — took 34 minutes. Normally, it’d take me about 15 minutes at most to drive that route.

Charlotte bus stop

The No. 11 bus stop on North Tryon, where I got my ride into Uptown. This stop, like many others throughout the city, doesn’t have a shelter to protect from bad weather.

Taking the bus in Charlotte has other pain points, aside from the typical grievances like wait times.

For one, bus drivers don’t give change, so if you pay for the $2.20 ride with a $5, it becomes a $5 ride. It’s also tough to know when the next bus is coming. In large cities like Chicago, public transit systems offer easy-to-use mobile apps that tell you when to expect your ride. That’s helpful when it’s really cold out, or rainy.

Riding the bus in inclement weather in Charlotte is also made tougher by the fact that many bus stops don’t have shelters. That’s something CATS wants to eventually fix. But it’ll prioritize stops that have high ridership, officials say.

Lewis, the CATS CEO, says that improving the bus system extends into issues related to well-being. Access to transit is the difference between a child with a cold getting to the clinic or the doctor — or not seeking care, and seeing that cold turn into pneumonia, Lewis says.

“A lot of time that decision is based on mobility options.”

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