March 2022 is arguably when Charlotte and the country turned the corner on the pandemic.
With Omicron waning, Charlotte’s major banks brought back their employees, at least on a hybrid schedule. Bank of America returned vaccinated workers on March 1. Wells Fargo came back two weeks later.
March is a good baseline for what a post-pandemic transit system may look like, in a time when people are back in the office — but only two or three days a week.
How did ridership fare?
The overall picture is mixed.
On the Lynx Blue Line and express buses, ridership is growing — while regular bus passenger totals are grim.
Overall transit ridership is 52% of what it was in March 2019. A month earlier, in February, ridership was 44% of what it was three years earlier. And in December, it was 45% of ridership three years earlier.
Vehicles back to normal: Meanwhile, the number of automobile trips in Charlotte fully recovered to pre-pandemic levels consistently beginning about August 2021, according to traffic data provider INRIX, which tracks vehicle trips using cell phone data:
While transit ridership remains far below pre-pandemic levels, the number of vehicle trips in Charlotte fully recovered consistently beginning in August 2021.
There are questions as to whether the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) will ever return to its ridership peak in 2013, much less the number of passengers it carried in 2019 before Covid. CATS is on pace this fiscal year to carry about 11 million passengers. By comparison, CATS carried 28.5 million passengers at its peak in 2013 and 24.3 million passengers in 2019. (March also had the most expensive gas since 2008 — a factor that usually boosts transit ridership.)
Let’s look at the different modes of transportation.
Buses: big boost for express, while local barely adds riders
If you add local bus routes, express bus routes and community circulators, CATS carried 521,601 passengers in March. That’s just a 2.8% increase from March 2021.
And it’s half of the 1.04 million bus passengers in March 2019.
The good news is that express bus routes showed a pulse after essentially carrying zero passengers during the first two years of the pandemic.
For instance, ridership on the Rock Hill express jumped more than 250% over the last year; the North Mecklenburg Express increased by nearly 1,500%.
Both are still roughly two-thirds below their pre-pandemic levels (though it’s possible CATS is offering less service than in 2019).
The biggest concern is “local bus” routes. These are the backbone of the transit system, running in corridors like Central Avenue, Beatties Ford Road and Park Road. After all that’s changed over the last year — with the county completely open and many people back in the office — local bus ridership increased by only 0.7% over 2021.
CATS has a route that runs from Pineville to Matthews on N.C. 51. It averaged less than two riders for each 40-minute trip.
The Lynx Blue Line: ridership nearly doubles in a year; still less than half of 2019 levels
This is another area for optimism.
Ridership was nearly 13,000 trips per weekday in March 2022 — up 86% from March 2021.
But it’s important to remember that light-rail ridership fell faster than overall bus ridership during the pandemic.
The Lynx Blue Line carried just under 30,000 weekday trips in March 2019.
There has been a big increase — but still a long way to go.
Streetcar: below goals
The Gold Line carried 1,400 passengers on the average weekday. Because of the pandemic, CATS chief executive John Lewis has said it will take two years to reach the projected ridership of 4,100.
With people coming back to work uptown, it’s unclear how quickly streetcar ridership might increase, too.
What does this mean for the $13.5 billion transportation plan?
Steve Polzin, a research professor at Arizona State’s School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, worked in the U.S. Department of Transportation in the Trump administration. He believes transit ridership nationwide will keep growing gradually over the next year, but he doesn’t think it will exceed 60% of pre-pandemic levels.
He thinks the hybrid work schedule is here to stay. He says employees will refuse to return to the office five days a week.
With fewer people working in downtowns, Polzin said transit systems could try to serve new markets, like centers of higher education.
“But I’m not sure if that will work,” he said. “Because to make mass transit work, you do need a mass of people.”
The Charlotte Area Transit System briefs its oversight board, the Metropolitan Transit Commission, on monthly ridership numbers. But CATS does not regularly provide ridership updates to the City Council, who are critical in determining whether a $13.5 billion transit expansion moves forward.
Council member Julie Eiselt, who chairs the transportation committee, said she thinks riders have left because CATS isn’t providing reliable service. She believes that if buses came more frequently and on time, people would ride them.
The multi-billion-dollar plan could help fix that, she said.
But it’s not clear whether the problem lies with CATS needing more bus service — or whether people have found other ways of getting around.
An example is Route 9 on Central Avenue, the system’s busiest route. For most of the day, buses arrive every 10 minutes — a level of service that means you never need to check the schedule before riding. CATS wants to bring that level of service to other bus routes.
As of October 2021, Route 9 was carrying only 55% of its pre-pandemic passengers. That suggests the problem is more than just bus reliability and that something more significant has happened:
- Are former passengers using ride-share?
- Did they use pandemic stimulus checks to buy their own vehicles?
- Or are they working from home and don’t need to go anywhere?
Eiselt said the city should conduct a study to find out.
There are no plans to do so, however.
This story originally appeared in Transit Time, a joint newsletter produced by the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, WFAE and The Charlotte Ledger. Steve Harrison is a reporter with WFAE, Charlotte’s NPR news source. Reach him at email@example.com.