Riders will notice some changes to their CATS bus and rail service next month as city transportation officials make an effort to provide more consistent service.
Due to staffing struggles, temporary adjustments were approved Wednesday that included removing trips on some routes. On some routes, buses will run less frequently. The modified service will begin Aug. 15th.
The transit system has struggled with driver vacancies, absentees and scheduled vacations and days off.
Absenteeism has led to canceled or delayed buses for the past several months. CATS Director of Planning Jason Lawrence said the new route schedule aims to provide more consistent service with the limited manpower available.
About 80 drivers were absent every day since June 22, including scheduled days off, according to an Observer review of data reported through CATS’ social media. On weekdays, CATS needs 292 drivers to provide regular service and has 571 drivers total, according to the agency.
Lewis said 35 drivers have vacation scheduled on any given day.
This, combined with unexcused absences and operators’ weekly days off, have left CATS operating some days short of 40 to 50 drivers.
The modified schedules allow CATS to operate consistently with about 50 fewer drivers needed each weekday. Schedules will return to normal as more employees are hired and routes with more riders will be restored first, Lawrence said.
Under the new schedule, several routes will have buses arrive less frequently between 6 am and 7 pm During this time, the schedule will go from a bus arriving every 20 minutes to every 30 minutes. That includes Route 6 along Kings Drive; Route 8 along Tuckaseegee Road; Route 10 along West Boulevard; and Route 11 along North Tryon Street.
Other routes had trips added during peak ridership hours to prioritize areas with the most need. For example, Route 7 along Beatties Ford Road had its frequency changed from a bus every 15 minutes to every 20 minutes. However, service will still be available every 15 minutes between 1:30 pm-3:30 pm on the outbound route from Uptown.
Multiple express route trips have been consolidated, Lawrence said. Routes 48x, 63x and 77x were reduced from 17 to 14 daily trips. Peak periods from 6:30-8:30 am and 4 pm-5:30 pm will still have a bus every 20 minutes.
Some trips were eliminated altogether. On Route 4 along Belmont Avenue, the first outbound bus at 5:29 am was cut. For Route 60 on Tyvola Road, mid-day trips will now service the VA hospital instead of Jackson Park.
Light rail service will also be affected. Lawrence said light rail will run every 20 minutes daily instead of every 15 minutes
While a modified schedule can provide riders more consistency for now, CATS CEO John Lewis said the goal is to overcome the driver shortage as quickly as possible.
A major part of CATS’ plan is securing a substantial pay increase for drivers, but negotiations to finalize a new contract are still ongoing with SMART Union, the group that represents CATS’ bus operators and mechanics. Drivers currently make $18.77 an hour during their first year with CATS.
CATS held a job fair three days in June to attract employees for 74 current vacancies, Lewis said. Officials reported that 86 people attended the job fair.
Robert Smith, vice president of client relations for RATPDev — The third-party manager that oversees CATS’ bus operations — said Wednesday he recognizes hiring is about more than wages in the post-pandemic job market. Prospective employees have begun prioritizing work environment, safety and scheduling now more than ever.
In a survey of 1,500 operators who left one of RATPDev’s bus systems, over half left their jobs within the first year. Of those, 43% left in the first three months, Smith said.
Work environment factors, including safety, have contributed to the hiring difficulties, Smith said. RATPDev has recently implemented new deescalation training for its drivers to address safety concerns. The company is also working to update camera systems in its vehicles.
Charlotte doesn’t see a particularly high rate of violence against its drivers, Smith said, despite recent “high-profile” instances like the murder of CATS driver Ethan Rivera.
Smith said RATPDev set a goal on May 16 to hire 100 drivers in as many days. In the 72 days since then, he said 67 drivers have been hired.
Lewis also said CATS is currently in talks with rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft to potentially provide rides for CATS customers when needed. The partnership would see CATS subsidize a portion of the ride. The ride would be called through the CATS app, Lewis said, to keep the subsides’ use to CATS riders specifically.
More information on the potential partnership will be available at the transit commission’s August meeting, Lewis said.
Before the new routes and changes start Aug. 15, Lawrence said it will be a priority to communicate the changes to the public. Meetings and town halls are scheduled throughout the first week of August.
On Aug. 2, CATS officials will be in Cornelius and Davidson to answer questions about the new service schedule from 6 am-8 am On Aug. 3, they will be at the Charlotte Transportation Center from 4 pm-6 pm On Aug. 4, they will be available at the Northcross and Huntersville-Gateway Park and Ride locations from 6 am-8 am
Virtual meetings will also be held at 12 pm and 6 pm on Aug. 4.
Beyond these initial meetings, Lawrence said CATS will seek feedback from riders as the modified schedule is launched.
Krissy Oechslin, chair of the Transit Services Advisory Committee, said her group has heard positive feedback from riders on a recent change to the live bus tracking app. Previously, the app did not inform riders if a bus had been canceled. Now, riders are informed of cancellations and can see when the next bus will arrive.
Although no one is certain how long the modified service could last, Oechslin asked CATS officials to consider incremental updates through social media and the CATS website to inform riders when services begin to be restored. She also suggested the complete list of route changes be made available on the CATS website and in signage at bus stops, transit centers and inside vehicles.
Oechslin emphasized the advisory committee — which is made up of members who regularly use CATS transit — endorsed the need for a modified, consistent schedule in light of driver shortages.
“While no one who uses transit is happy about service reductions, the fact is we already have service reductions, they’re just inconsistent and unpredictable,” Oechslin said.