Now we have our first look at post-COVID recovery from transit use – and a sense of how far the Charlotte-area transit system needs to travel.
Here are the numbers:
In April 2019, CATS processed 1.8 million passenger trips. Lynx Blue handled just under 690,000. The bus system carried the rest.
Fast forward to April 2020 – the first full month of the county and state semi-foreclosure.
That month, CATS traffic fell to just under 594,000 trips. That’s a two-thirds drop.
CATS recently tabulated transit ridership for April 2021 – the first time we can compare what post-pandemic life might look like after the state and businesses began to really ease restrictions.
For that month, CATS claims to have processed 721,500 passenger trips. That’s a 21.5% increase from the previous year, but still only 40% in traffic from the month before the comparable pandemic, two years earlier.
(It should be noted that 2019 was not Charlotte’s transit peak. It was 2014, when CATS made 29.4 million trips. Ridership had already fallen 18% from 2014 to 2019, even with the opening of the $ 1.1 billion Lynx Blue Line extension.)
Is working from home here to stay?
April 2021 is undoubtedly a month of transition.
Vaccines were only just beginning to be widely available, although most businesses in upscale neighborhoods still allowed working from home. Bars and restaurants were quite full, but Governor Roy Cooper’s mask warrants were still in effect.
As the ridership for the summer grows in, it is likely that traffic will continue to increase as life returns to normal.
But how long before CATS hits 2019 passenger levels? And will it ever be?
A trip on the blue line
I rode the Lynx Blue Line Tuesday afternoon through the upscale neighborhoods. There were 15 people in my car and a handful of people waiting on the platforms of downtown stations. It wasn’t particularly busy, but passengers I spoke with said there were more people riding than during much of the pandemic.
Charles and Mary Phillips are retirees from South Charlotte. They love the train and rode it several times, even before the shots.
âThe biggest problem is what’s going on with working from home,â Charles Phillips said of the future. “This is going to be very important.”
The issue of working from home is indeed essential to the success of public transport.
Earlier this spring, Duke Energy announced it would consolidate its downtown workforce into a new skyscraper under construction on South Tryon Street. The move will reduce the company’s footprint by 60%.
Accounting firm Grant Thornton has said it is moving from upscale neighborhoods to the South End. It will also use less space – a sign that working from home will continue.
What about other modes of transport?
Driving across the country and in North Carolina is almost back to pre-pandemic levels.
During the lockdown, airlines were hit even more than transit.
In April 2019, Charlotte Douglas International Airport handled 2.07 million passenger boardings.
That figure fell to just under 170,000 in April 2020, the first full month of the pandemic.
But a year later, it’s almost back to normal, despite a sharp drop in international service. CLT handled 1.9 million shipments in April 2021.
This is the classic âU-curveâ of a rapid economic recovery.
CATS is enjoying a more gradual comeback – for now it looks more like a J.