The secret to attracting more transit riders in Charlotte

The Charlotte Area Transit System is making several changes to its bus system to attract more transit riders.
The Charlotte Area Transit System is making several changes to its bus system to attract more transit riders.

In response to "Charlotte has been losing transit riders faster than any other large U.S. city" (May 1):

On May 1, the Observer reported a precipitous decline in CATS transit ridership over the past year.

Although Charlotte tops the list of U.S. cities losing riders, there’s an overall downward trend in ridership in 31 of the 35 largest metro areas. But the few cities bucking the trend - Seattle, Phoenix, Houston - have one thing in common: They’re strategically improving their transit networks with a focus on providing fast, reliable, frequent, and walkable bus service.

The current CATS transit network simply isn’t working very well for many of the 75 percent of its riders who use the bus. The average one-way travel time for a CATS passenger who has to transfer between routes is 90 minutes. Charlotte’s Leading on Opportunity Task Force Report identified the lack of efficient public transportation as a barrier to economic mobility.

CATS CEO John Lewis understands the current network isn’t meeting the needs of its riders. He’s taking action to change that by not only updating the 2030 Transit Plan (which even in a best-case scenario will take more than 10 years to fund, plan, and build three new rail lines), but also by completely redesigning the bus network. The goal of CATS’ Envision My Ride initiative is to create more crosstown routes with transfer points outside of Uptown, suburb-to-suburb services, direct services, and additional service hours. CATS just completed a public comment period on the proposed map and schedule of bus routes.

A redesigned bus network will not only better serve current riders, but also attract new ones. TransitCenter, a New York-based foundation dedicated to transit reform, identifies growth in the number of people who ride transit often and for multiple purposes as an important indicator of whether transit is serving its function of helping a city meet its “triple bottom line” of economic growth, environmental stability, and social equity. A redesigned bus network would quadruple the percentage of Mecklenburg residents living within a 10-minute walk of frequent bus service, and double the percentage of jobs within that distance.

To attract more all-purpose riders, CATS’ re-designed bus network needs to be:

Fast: The average travel time of a CATS bus from the beginning to the end of a local route is around 12 miles per hour. By improving the linearity of routes and improving spacing of stops, CATS can get riders to their destinations more quickly.

Frequent: When a bus comes by every 15 minutes or less, you barely need to check the timetable before deciding to go to your stop. CATS currently only offers six frequent routes with vehicles running every 15 minutes or less. The new “frequent network” would more than triple that number.

Walkable: 80 percent of all-purpose riders walk to and from their bus stops. Signalized crossings on many of our busiest roads are a half-mile or more apart. Many stops don’t even have sidewalks.

Our rapidly growing region urgently needs transit that works for everyone. Mass transit is the most cost-effective, efficient and environmentally friendly way to move large numbers of people around urban areas. Mecklenburg County needs to get this right the first time around when the new bus network recommended by staff goes before the Metropolitan Transit Commission (the governing body of CATS) for its approval this fall. We can’t afford to wait for the traffic to get worse.