In April 2019, the Charlotte Area Transit System processed 1.8 million passenger trips.
A year later, in the first full month of North Carolina’s stay-at-home order as the coronavirus raged across the state, the number of users fell to just under 594,000 .
In April 2021, ridership started to increase again, to 721,500 trips. That’s a 21% increase from a year ago, but still a 60% drop from 2019.
“What we are seeing is that ridership is growing slowly,” said Paul Skoutelas, CEO of the American Public Transportation Association.
He said it might take two years for ridership to rebound, but he’s optimistic that will happen.
Labor Day, he said, will be the real start of the recovery. That’s when companies with a strong presence in downtown US cities, including Charlotte, said they would start bringing workers back to their offices.
“We are social beings, we have to get out,” Skoutelas said. “It’s already happening. People go out to restaurants and retail stores. People can’t wait to get out. “
In Charlotte, the stakes are high as to the full return of the runners, if they ever do so.
The city wants Mecklenburg County voters to approve a 1 cent sales tax increase to help fund an $ 8 billion to $ 12 billion transportation plan known as the Charlotte MOVE. Most of the money would go to a new light rail line between Matthews and the airport and possibly into Gaston County, a commuter train line to Lake Norman, and expanded bus service.
The big question: will working from home stay?
If office workers are only in the office three days a week, that doesn’t just mean they don’t take public transportation two days a week, said Steve Polzin, who was a senior advisor at the US Department of Transportation. the Trump administration.
“If the roads are less congested then you are more likely to drive,” Polzin said. “If there is less competition for parking spaces, it will definitely encourage people to drive. “
“There is even speculation that these changes will cause people to move further away and be prepared to commute longer because they are only doing it a few days a week,” Polzin said. “Which could mean that (people) are moving beyond traditional market areas for transit to areas of lower density. There is certainly some evidence that this is also happening. “
Ron Tober was the first CEO of CATS. He’s one of Charlotte’s biggest public transport advocates, but even he’s concerned about the impact of people working from home.
“You know, a lot of places are talking about going back to the office this fall,” Tober said. “Is a year long enough to see how this ride pattern sets in, how much red do you see on the highway in the afternoon rush hour?” I do not know.”
When Tober was interviewed in May, Duke Energy had recently announced that it was reducing the total footprint of its Charlotteby office by 60%, in part because some employees would have hybrid work schedules.
Tober said delaying the Charlotte MOVES plan was “not (his) preference.”
But, he added: “Frankly, I would be hard pressed to argue against that.”
The 86-page Charlotte MOVES pPlan was published in December, nine months after the start of the pandemic. The trend of working from home is mentioned once in the report, but without any projection or reflection on whether people could do more in the future.
Earlier this year, when the Charlotte MOVES plan took center stage, little was said about what post-pandemic displacement would look like. Because Charlotte is growing up so fast, many city council members, like Malcolm Graham, feel that public transit is necessary no matter what is happening with the people working from home.
“No matter where we are today in terms of data, the data also suggests that more people are moving to our community and we will need to provide a viable option other than cars for people to move,” Graham said.
Michael Smith of Center City Partners said the city should move quickly to implement Charlotte MOVES.
“We shouldn’t dwell for a second on our aspirations for the 2030 transit plan,” Smith said. “I can tell you that when we encounter economic development prospects, it is a key differentiator like our airport. It’s the same type of trump card.
If you look at the transit ridership in Charlotte, there really were two crises.
The first took place from 2014 to 2019.
That’s when ridership fell nearly 20%, despite CATS opening the $ 1.1 billion LYNX Blue Line extension in 2018. During this period , the bus system has seen the biggest declines in traffic, possibly due to people turning to carpooling services or buying their cars.
Then came COVID-19.
In Charlotte, regional express bus ridership for commuters was almost completely wiped out, down 90%.
Ridership on the light rail, which is also dependent on commuters, is down nearly 70%. The local bus service, which serves essential workers, is only down by half.
Polzin says the pandemic could cause transit systems to focus less on preferred passengers who can now work from home a few days a week.
“We have driven out the users of choice (with the tram) and in the meantime we have reduced the bus service and have not helped the market segments that really need public transport,” he said. declared.
Charlotte was hoping to put the transit tax on the November ballot, but a delay with demographics from the US Census Bureau means the vote can only take place in 2022.