CATS On The Ground: A Charlotte Public Transit Experiment
Our booming city needs reliable, affordable public transit more than ever. But our system has a shrinking fleet of poorly maintained buses, myriad operational issues, absent leadership—and no clear route to fix any of it.
The No. 9 CATS bus rattles along East Fourth Street toward uptown on a warm Tuesday afternoon in February. As it crosses South McDowell Street, the Mecklenburg County Courthouse looms on the left, and a young woman tugs the pullcord. “Stop requested,” an electronic voice announces.
The bus doesn’t even slow. It passes the next stop, and the next. The woman, confused, looks between her teenage companion and the driver. Finally, polite but emphatic, she shouts: “Can I get off, please?”
“Oh,” says the driver, a woman who appears to be in her 60s. She pulls the bus to the curb. The young woman and the boy rush through the front doors onto the sidewalk by the Federal Reserve Bank. She grumbles as they stalk toward the corner crosswalk. The boy has to double-step to keep up.
Chuckling, he asks, “Why you so mad?”
“Because she passed two stops where she was supposed to pull over!” she snaps, gesturing toward the stops. “Now we gonna be late.”
What we know now as Charlotte Area Transit System began operation in 1976. In the last two decades, CATS’ light rail line, with its modern bells and whistles, has attracted the most attention. But the foundation of public transit in Charlotte is the bus system, 319 vehicles that run on 67 routes throughout Mecklenburg County and beyond.
That system is in trouble. Ridership has declined 75% since 2014—a third of that before COVID. Leadership and other organizational problems, coupled with the threat of violent crime—in February 2022, driver Ethan Rivera was shot and killed on the job—has contributed to a driver shortage, which means buses that show up late or not at all. Many are broken down.
“I wouldn’t put my family on one of them buses,” former CATS mechanic Louis Rugieri told WBTV last August. The bus fleet is actually smaller, serving five fewer routes and 584 fewer stops than in 2013.
All this is happening as the Charlotte region, expected to grow to more than 4.6 million people by 2050, becomes ever more expensive. The unaffordability increasingly drives low-wage and service industry workers with jobs in or near the city center beyond where they can realistically depend on the bus to get around.
In 2015, the city hired John Lewis to run the transit system. “We need to make sure our bus system, which moves 80 percent of our passengers, meets the needs of those passengers,” Lewis told WFAE the following year. “But not just the ability to get from point A to point B, but to be able to make that trip in the most efficient way possible.” Seven years later, Lewis had to explain to City Council members—who approved the contract in 2019—that a private company, not CATS itself, runs the bus system.
In December, a consultant’s report on CATS operations, spurred by media revelations about the bus system issues, detailed a host of problems, including confusion about organization; unclear policies and procedures; lack of collaboration among staff and transparency from senior staff; insufficient training for midlevel staff; and a high job vacancy rate. By then, both Lewis and CFO Blanche Sherman had resigned. In March, COO Allen Smith was placed on administrative leave without pay, leaving CATS without a permanent CEO, CFO, or COO. As of press time, Assistant City Manager Brent Cagle was serving as CATS’ interim CEO, and it was unclear when the city would hire a full-time replacement.
The city has a plan—of sorts—to try to improve the transit system as a whole. A task force headed by former Mayor Harvey Gantt unveiled Charlotte MOVES in late 2020. It’s essentially a list of upgrades that would cost an estimated $13.5 billion, to be raised through a one-cent sales tax increase atop the half-cent sales tax that has paid for transit countywide since 1998. But raising the tax would require voters to approve it by referendum, and state lawmakers would have to agree to place it on the ballot. To date, they haven’t, and City Council member Ed Driggs tells me there’s little point in lobbying the General Assembly until the city comes up with a more detailed plan. To date, it hasn’t.
Transit users typically fall into one of two categories: people who use it because it’s a less expensive, less stressful, more convenient, or more economical alternative to driving, and people who use it because they have no other choice. I’m privileged to have a choice. But thousands of Charlotteans don’t—and the burden falls disproportionately on racial minorities. I wanted to see what it was like to depend on CATS buses to get around. So in February, I spent several days taking the bus to and from where I needed and wanted to go—work, the grocery store, a coffee shop, home.
If there’s a part of Charlotte where residents seldom take the bus, it’s the city’s southernmost area, on either side of Interstate 485. Driggs has represented this area, council District 7, which is affluent and mostly white, for a decade. He also chairs the council’s Transportation, Planning, and Development Committee. In February, I ask if he’s ever taken the bus to get somewhere, or to do what I did—use it as my only mode of transportation to experience what it’s like.
“I haven’t done that experiment,” he replies. “I have ridden two or three times just to sort of get the experience of riding on a bus, but not to perform the test that you describe.”
It’s common for people of all economic backgrounds to ride the bus in many cities, even those in the car-oriented West. Salt Lake City, for example, has found that widespread use of public transit lessens traffic congestion and strengthens community bonds, says Art Guzzetti, vice president of policy at the American Public Transportation Association in Washington, D.C.
“If we want people with a choice to make a good choice,” Guzzetti says, “then we need to give them a good choice.”
A northbound No. 21 bus bumps up Statesville Avenue on a Thursday afternoon. The bus is half full—which, these days, is as crowded as a CATS bus gets. A man boards and walks toward me. We make eye contact, and he extends his hand for a fist bump before he sits near me.
I tell the man, Khalid A. (he declined to share his last name), that I’m working on a story about CATS. Another man sitting in the back right corner overhears us, points to himself, and mouths, “Talk to me. Talk to me.”
A third man, in the far-left corner, chimes in, too—between bites of chips and guacamole from a Styrofoam takeout box. At times, the men—who don’t even know each other—are so anxious to tell me how inconvenient CATS is that they talk over each other.
“For the city to be doing what it’s doing in terms of growth, the transit is way behind,” says Shannon L. Lewis, the man who’d gestured to himself. “I’ve lived in California, Illinois, Atlanta, Memphis—I mean, everywhere is (messed) up, but the buses in those other places are at least on time. …
“One time, I was getting off a bus, and the next one was pulling off,” he says, referring to the bus he’d expected to transfer to. “You get me? Why would you pull off when you see another bus coming and know people need to transfer? So I got to sit and wait another 40 minutes. Your schedule is already (messed) up. You can’t wait another five minutes?”
We’re north of Interstate 85, the point where Statesville Avenue turns into Statesville Road. William Clipper, the guy with the takeout box, swallows a bite and adds, “It takes so long for buses to get to an area like this. If you go over to South Boulevard, buses come every 10 minutes. But not in neighborhoods like this. … It’s just in certain areas—areas of poverty.”
Khalid nods. “I’ve missed work because of these buses,” he says, his voice rising. “One night, I stood my Black ass out there from mother——- 9:45. The 9:45 (bus) didn’t come. Another one was supposed to come at 10:20, and it was late.”
Lewis shakes his head. “I lost a job here,” he says, “because the bus didn’t show up.” All three men disembark before Statesville Road becomes Old Statesville Road.
My home in Windsor Park is four miles as the crow flies from the Charlotte magazine office at Camp North End. It usually takes me 13 minutes or so by car. On this day, I’m taking a late-morning bus.
I leave my house at 10:51 a.m., and I use the route-planning tool in the CATS-Pass mobile app to map the trip. It starts with a 14-minute walk to the nearest stop, near the intersection of Kilborne and Eastway drives in front of the HillRock Estates apartment complex. The No. 39 bus arrives on time at 11:05.
As the bus makes its way north on Eastway, I flip back and forth on my iPhone between CATS-Pass and Google Maps, trying to ensure I get off at the right stop to transfer. But the apps show different routes, and in my confusion, I get off near The Plaza at Roses Discount Store. It’s 11:11. (I realize later: I should’ve stayed on the bus until it turns right on North Tryon Street, where I could’ve transferred to the 11, which would’ve taken me the rest of the way.)
I close and relaunch CATS-Pass—when in doubt, turn it off and back on—and reenter my destination. It tells me to catch the No. 3 bus on The Plaza, so I walk across the expansive Roses parking lot, dodge a small gaggle of Canada geese, and plop onto a bench at the stop. 11:16. Google Maps and the CATS-Pass PLAN tab says the bus will arrive at 11:30, but the CATS-Pass homepage says 11:41. Several minutes pass. I watch the geese attempt to cross The Plaza. A man stops to compliment my extraordinarily ordinary sunglasses. I look back at my phone. The PLAN tab app has updated to say the bus will arrive at 11:59, but the homepage still says 11:41. The bus arrives at 11:42.
The 3 bus heads west on The Plaza, then takes a right on East 36th and passes through NoDa. Left on North Tryon. Right on West 30th, which turns into Norris Avenue. I get off beside Unidos Tire Service at 12:07, walk to the corner, cross North Graham Street, and take a right. According to CATS-Pass and Google Maps, there should be a bus stop less than 300 feet from the intersection of Norris and North Graham, just before Charlotte Leadership Academy. There’s nothing there. I keep walking north, and finally, about six minutes later, I find a stop in the grass in front of Blythe Construction.
I don’t bother to check Google Maps or CATS-Pass as I stand in the sun to wait for the 22, which arrives at 12:38. I ride it south for a whopping three minutes. At last, on my right, I see Camp North End. It’s never looked so good. I get off at the stop in front of Wayne’s Super Market, and it’s about a six-minute walk to our office. It’s 12:44.
Total travel time: one hour, 53 minutes. The weather was nice that day—not too hot, not too cold, not raining. I didn’t have to search for or wait at bus stops before dawn or after dusk. I encountered no major unexpected delays—a wreck, say, that blocked traffic on Eastway or The Plaza. My livelihood or well-being didn’t depend on the buses arriving on time.
And still, it was an aggravating, exhausting, and inefficient way to move around the 15th-largest U.S. city. My takeaway: I could’ve walked faster.
TESS ALLEN is the associate editor.