Across the nation, most big cities are losing transit riders.
But nowhere is the decline more pronounced than Charlotte, which is shedding transit passengers faster than any of the other 50 largest cities, according to data from the Federal Transit Administration.
In February, the Charlotte Area Transit System’s ridership fell 20 percent compared with February 2017. In January, CATS ridership fell by 21.4 percent compared with the same month a year earlier.
For the last six months, ridership has dropped by 19 percent. That means nearly 1 in 5 transit riders has left the system — for now at least.
Charlotte’s losses have occurred on its buses, streetcar and “demand response,” a service for the elderly and disabled. Light-rail ridership has been stable.
The urban area with next largest drop was Cleveland, which was down 16 percent in February compared with the month a year earlier.
CATS CEO John M. Lewis is looking ahead to the next three lines in the system’s light rail lines. Lewis is wanting to build the next three lines at the same time, in hopes of keeping the schedule of 5 light rail lines by the year 2020 David T. Foster III
Experts aren’t sure why transit is struggling across the nation. Transit systems and experts have blamed low gas prices and ride-share companies, and some have said the strong economy has allowed more people to buy their own car.
But it’s even more of a mystery as to why CATS is doing so badly. CATS has not discussed its struggles with City Council, and elected officials were surprised that the transit system has lost so many passengers.
Julie Eiselt, the mayor pro tem, said she wasn’t aware of the large declines. But it isn’t enough for her to reconsider the city’s plans to spend as much as $7 billion on more rail lines and bus service.
“In Charlotte’s case, we are still pretty new to mass transit. We have had one segment (of rail). But until the system is built out, we don’t know what the ridership will be,” she said.
She said the city needs to find out why passengers are leaving.
Charlotte developer Ned Curran, the former chair of the N.C. Board of Transportation, said he believes ridership will bounce back.
“As congestion gets worse, people will come back to transit,” he said.
But Curran said CATS may need to rethink the 2030 transit plan, which was designed 20 years ago. CATS has said it wants to finish the plan.
In past interviews, CATS chief executive John Lewis has said he believes gentrification is a major factor in the declining ridership. As more affluent people move closer to uptown, low-income residents are pushed out to areas where transit service isn’t as robust, he said.
But other cities are also dealing with gentrification and haven’t lost riders as much as Charlotte has. Atlanta’s ridership is down, but at a much smaller rate than Charlotte. Atlanta ridership declined 6 percent in January and 1.5 percent in February. Raleigh was up 6.4 percent and 7.3 percent in January and February. Nashville was down 2.1 and 0.4 percent in the first two months of the year.
All three cities are growing rapidly and gentrifying.