The coronavirus is starting to reshape transit in Charlotte

People standing at a light rail station in Charlotte, NC.

In the sixth month of the U.S. coronavirus pandemic, few sectors of the economy or local government services have been hit as hard as transportation and transit.

The viral outbreak and ensuing lockdowns caused transit ridership numbers to plummet nationwide as millions of people stayed home or avoided trains and buses if they had to go somewhere. The Centers for Disease Control even recommended people drive solo as they return to work, shunning densely packed transit lines in favor of their own automobile bubble.

Charlotte was no different: The Charlotte Area Transit System’s (CATS) ridership fell almost 65% in May (compared to the year before) at the height of the lockdown.

“The health crisis has since given us an opportunity to reexamine how we provide service,” CATS chief executive John Lewis told Charlotte City Council on Monday. “What will the world look like post COVID-19?”

[Related: Is Charlotte ready to ditch its cars?]

Some answers CATS is considering: More bus rapid transit, less of a focus on peak-time service, and maybe a different future for the next phases of the Gold Line Streetcar.

“Flat” service instead of peak times

Before the pandemic, some 80,000 people a day rode CATS vehicles, the majority of them on buses. The biggest peaks were 5 to 9 am and 3 to 7 pm, when CATS fielded about 250 vehicles to ferry commuters to and from work.

“Once the health pandemic hit, we no longer needed that number of vehicles on the street to meet demand,” Lewis said. CATS shifted vehicles that were no longer full of morning commuters to lines that were still busy, increasing frequency of service in areas where lots of people use the bus to get to services like grocery stores and medical centers.

Now, one of the biggest questions, Lewis said, is how long those changes to commuting patterns will persist.

“People are working, more often, remotely...Will that continue, and at what level once the pandemic has concluded?” he said. “What are the resulting changes in commuting patterns, and what will that do to our system as we potentially move from peak period service to more of a flat service?”

“As the work environment changes and people’s schedules change, it may be that those peaks go away and we end up with a more constant level of service throughout the day,” said Lewis.

CATS was already wrestling with falling ridership and changes to its bus structure; the transportation-oriented planning initiative, the Envision My Ride project, has sought to transition from a hub-and-spoke system to a route network with more frequency on heavily-used routes and more cross-town connections. The pandemic presents an opportunity to potentially change bus service, the backbone of the CATS system, even more rapidly.

Bus-only lanes and bus rapid transit

Although trains get most of the attention, buses have the potential to move people far more cheaply. But one of the keys, Lewis said, is getting buses out of the congestion cars face — otherwise, more frequent service would still be unreliable and delay-prone.

A potential solution is bus rapid transit, or lanes that only buses can use, letting them skip the gridlock. The city opened a short bus-only lane uptown in Fourth Street, to speed buses near the transit center.

Now, Lewis said, plans are underway for a larger pilot program, potentially converting more of a major road into a bus-only line. Other measures could include giving buses priority to go through traffic signals and jump lines of waiting cars at red lights.

“It seems like it will work during this downturn in commuting,” said Lewis. But he’s also wary of doing something that commuters will object to once they pour back onto the roads post-pandemic. “Once the new normal happens, we wouldn’t want to implement something that works today and cripples CDOT’s [Charlotte Department of Transportation] endeavors to provide their (road) service.”

CATS and CDOT are working together on a study, though Lewis said the timing and location of a bigger bus-only lane haven’t been finalized. City Council members were enthusiastic about the idea. Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt said she hoped 2020 might still be the “year of the bus.”

Mayor Vi Lyles was also receptive to the idea.

“You’re making a big case for bus rapid transit,” she told Lewis.

The streetcar’s future?

A map of the Gold Line streetcar route.

Phase 2 of the Gold Line streetcar — running east-west from Johnson C. Smith, through uptown and to Plaza Midwood — has been beset by delays. The latest: Defects discovered, again, in a bridge over Independence Boulevard.

Council members were clearly frustrated, and not just with the bridge delays. Some questioned whether the next phase of the streetcar, running six miles along Beatties Ford Road to the west and to the old Eastland Mall site in the east, still makes sense.

“I think sooner, rather than later, we need to start having a conversation about phase 3 of the Gold Line,” said Councilman Larken Egleston. “Is that something that we want to continue to move towards?”

The next phase of the streetcar would require a new local funding source, and council members might not be willing to risk years more of delays and disruptive construction for a project that’s faced strong opposition before. Egleston said that while he’s in favor of transit and the idea of the whole, 10-mile streetcar line, “We don’t have a magic wand.”

“More and more, I’m having trouble wrapping my head around this project and where we draw the line, whether it’s with the contractor on Phase 2 or where we deploy our dollars with Phase 3,” he said. Other alternatives for the next phase could include bus rapid transit instead of a further streetcar.

City Manager Marcus Jones said the Phase 3 design study will look at a wide array of options.

“In terms of Phase 3, you do raise the right questions,” said Jones. “All of those options will be a part of it.”

Lyles appeared to echo Egleston’s concerns. Business owners along the line have complained that construction delays and disruptions have hurt their sales substantially.

“Your observations are on point and the questions we have to ask about our communities and neighborhoods are really very important,” said Lyles.

A new east-west Rail Trail

The Rail Trail that runs along the first line of the Blue Line in South End is one of the transit line’s most popular features, drawing big crowds of walkers and bikers. But extending the Rail Trail and filling in gaps — especially between South End and uptown — has been slow.

Lewis said incorporating a trail along the 26-mile Silver Line will be a priority.

“This is the largest single project in our region,” Lewis said of the new train line, which is expected to cost billions of dollars and run from Union County through uptown and west past the airport into Gaston County. The project is still in its early stages.

“We want to make sure we take advantage of the opportunity as we go about building this corridor to include a Rail Trail along as much of the corridor as possible,” said Lewis.