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CATS Long Term Transit Plan - Silver, Red Lines


monsoon

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A damning article about another issue with how CATS is currently being managed.  Operators and mechanics are saying CATS doesn't have enough working buses to fully meet the schedules so the issue isn't just driver absences.  

Quote

“You [CATS] don’t have enough equipment for us to drive,” an operator told WBTV.

Charlotte’s broken buses: CATS mechanic says “I wouldn’t put my family on one of the buses.” (wbtv.com)

That said, CATS disputes the employees claims saying they have enough buses to run all routes currently.  They also mention supply chain issues have made maintenance and repairs take longer. 

Edited by TGIBridays
Added a note from CATS that's at the end of the article.
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37 minutes ago, tozmervo said:

You can email your city council person, you can also contact representatives of TSAC or MTC. I have had some deep frustrations with declining service (and quality of the service that's left) that I have passed along. These options will get complaints into the public record.

TSAC (charlottenc.gov)

MTC Committee Members (charlottenc.gov)

I followed your link and saw the TSAC had John Lewis and a few others into their last meeting to explain what is going on. It is the most I've seen him or anybody else from CATS comment and most of it is captured in the meeting notes:

TSAC_Agenda_August_2022.pdf

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45 minutes ago, JHart said:

I followed your link and saw the TSAC had John Lewis and a few others into their last meeting to explain what is going on. It is the most I've seen him or anybody else from CATS comment and most of it is captured in the meeting notes:

Talking to/with actual CATS staff can be tremendously beneficial, and frankly CATS by itself is not capable of solving a labor crisis that is hitting virtually every transit agency.

Having said that, they are badly fumbling in other ways that are totally within their control. Communication on the route cuts, pushing useful data and information to the CATS-Pass app, fleet maintenance, and avoiding things like their humiliating special events service this past weekend. Like, OK, I'm empathetic about route cuts we can excuse that for a while, but at least improve quality on the remaining service. 

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1 hour ago, tozmervo said:

Talking to/with actual CATS staff can be tremendously beneficial, and frankly CATS by itself is not capable of solving a labor crisis that is hitting virtually every transit agency.

I do understand that the current labor market is very difficult, but to what extent is the current hiring crises beyond CATS's control? Other public agencies are able to maintain sufficient staff to maintain basic service levels. It sounds like there are enough CMPD officers. Waste Management (a private contractor, but...) still manages to pick up trash and recycling on schedule. Charlotte water still has crews out repairing leaks. Hospitals (also private but...) still appear to be well staffed. CMS, while struggling to hire teachers, has not had to say "we are cutting school days from 5 to 3 per week". 

I am genuinely curious, what makes it harder for transit agencies to hire than other public agencies? Or are staff shortages just more visible in transit?

(Honestly if a CATS staffer approached me on a train one day and asked "you want to drive this thing?" I would probably say yes)

Edited by kermit
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CATS should hit up the retired community. I'd bet there are more than a few retired persons who could and would drive busses and trains or staff various facilities, perform customer service, etc. They'd probably show up every day also, and be on time. Just don't ask them to fix the App issues.

Or people transitioning from the military. Many of those fine people may have experience driving various vehicles.

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1 hour ago, kermit said:

I do understand that the current labor market is very difficult, but to what extent is the current hiring crises beyond CATS's control? Other public agencies are able to maintain sufficient staff to maintain basic service levels. It sounds like there are enough CMPD officers. Waste Management (a private contractor, but...) still manages to pick up trash and recycling on schedule. Charlotte water still has crews out repairing leaks. Hospitals (also private but...) still appear to be well staffed. CMS, while struggling to hire teachers, has not had to say "we are cutting school days from 5 to 3 per week". 

I am genuinely curious, what makes it harder for transit agencies to hire than other public agencies? Or are staff shortages just more visible in transit?

(Honestly if a CATS staffer approached me on a train one day and asked "you want to drive this thing?" I would probably say yes)

I don't think it's true at all that other agencies haven't been affected. CMS just stretches teachers thinner and thinner. Lots of CMS buses are having to run twice and resulting in late kids. Police forces are way understaffed vs budget, patrols are just spread out and service takes longer. Leaks may still be getting repaired, but you may not be seeing all the projects that are getting deferred or cancelled. Even at state agencies we are experiencing their real struggles to deliver service on time, and it's coming at the expense of quality. 

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4 hours ago, kermit said:

When the council and the city manager finally recognize that there is a problem. Something makes me think that few of them ever ride CATS.

That's probably true.... when you look at most of the city council members representing the districts that contain the Blue Line.... none of them are near it or bus routes. 

Victoria Washington, District 3 (West CLT, Steele Creek, South End) lives 8 miles away from the closest Blue Line station to her. There are no sidewalks to make the 17 minute walk to the nearest bus stop in her West Charlotte neighborhood. Most likely drives everywhere.

Malcolm Graham, District 2 (North CLT, half of Uptown, et.) lives in suburban neighborhood off W.T. Harris (which is basically a highway with no sidewalks) nearly 4 miles from the University light rail. He's 25 minute walk on a portion of W.T. Harris with no sidewalks to a bus stop. 

Renee Johnson, District 4 (Northeast CLT, University) lives 8 miles from a light rail station.

Tariq Bokhari, District 6 (South Park area) lives 4 miles from the Blue Line. 18 minute walk to nearest bus station. He's been pretty open on sharing his view of thinking CATS is a mess.... doubt he rides it.

Larken Engleston (Dilworth to Uptown to Noda) lives 2 miles from the Blue Line. 5 minutes from the #9 bus.... there is a chance he could use public transit to get around based on central location. 

11 minutes ago, tozmervo said:

I don't think it's true at all that other agencies haven't been affected. CMS just stretches teachers thinner and thinner. Lots of CMS buses are having to run twice and resulting in late kids. Police forces are way understaffed vs budget, patrols are just spread out and service takes longer. Leaks may still be getting repaired, but you may not be seeing all the projects that are getting deferred or cancelled. Even at state agencies we are experiencing their real struggles to deliver service on time, and it's coming at the expense of quality. 

CMS buses are definitely a mess right now. A significant amount of bus routes haven't even been assigned due to a lack of drivers, hence traffic is so bad right now as many parents are driving their kids to school.  They usually resolve it within a month though. 

Edited by CLT2014
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1 hour ago, carolinaboy said:

CATS should hit up the retired community. I'd bet there are more than a few retired persons who could and would drive busses and trains or staff various facilities, perform customer service, etc. They'd probably show up every day also, and be on time. Just don't ask them to fix the App issues.

Or people transitioning from the military. Many of those fine people may have experience driving various vehicles.

I think CATS has reliability issues versus staffing shortages. Other agencies may be dealing with staffing shortages that results in less frequent services but it's *reliable*. They may have staffing shortages but it's *reliable* staff. CATS has unreliable service and the drivers from what I understand are calling out left and right. 

 

And again. CATS is just performing SO poorly in ridership compared to nearly every other American transit agency by large margins. And that's looking at the lowest common denominators and ignoring agencies such as Richmond (who has much higher ridership) who have exceed pre-pandemic and generally range from 70% - 100%+ ridership.  CATS hasn't hit above 30% ridership since April. Every other transit agency has been above 50% for the most part. Charlotte has been hovering around 25% for quite a few months now. The only Transit Agency performing at Charlotte's Ridership is VRE which is a commuter train for the Virginia Suburbs of DC.

The problem with CATS if this is just a case of an industry-wide cause, how come the ridership is so weak? I think it has to do with operational issues outside of industry-wide shortages. That's not even getting into what I think CATS lacks in planning and investments in the bus system. But that's not the current *crisis* of CATS. The current crisis is it's ridership percentage is 1/2 the national average on top of having weak raw numbers in general (less than Durham, more than 3x less than Austin, etc.). You can't look at Austin TX with 3x the ridership in raw numbers over Charlotte and double Charlotte's ridership versus pre-pandemic and grab a google article over Austin's staffing shortage and say "see, it's everywhere." 

 

image.thumb.png.4ac7e9367df2b72851bed07c6792293c.png

 

But maybe it is out of CAT's control and it is an industry wide problem and Charlotteans just really, really  don't put up mass transit disruptions versus anywhere else in the US? Maybe Charlotteans just stay home all day? I dunno. But there is a reason for the sustained ridership slump.  I'm going with operational/management issues. I haven't seen other agencies have these public disputes or heard of major issues of calling out like CATS, etc. The operators are publicly denying it, though.

image.png.d39a4cac9bf3c3eae70e8c20ae1763fd.png

 

"...... At the Wednesday meeting, CATS CEO John Lewis said there is a glaring issue with current CATS bus drivers' contracts. Each driver is allowed 10 unexcused absences per quarter. In one year, that's 40 additional days off. Lewis said right now on a normal week, they have more than negative-30 drivers available.

"That's less than zero," Lewis said. "We need to close that loophole."

A driver told WCNC Charlotte they believe Lewis is unfairly representing this number. 

"If we call out 10 times, and it's on record 10 times, we have 10 unexcused absences," the driver said. "We can be discharged, fired, having 40."

They said drivers they know want to work and it wouldn't be sustainable to use all 10 absences a quarter in an attempt to get 40 days a year off. 

There is currently talk of pay raises for bus drivers."

https://www.wcnc.com/article/news/local/cats-bus-delays-charlotte-north-carolina-drivers-absent/275-634f637d-32f9-4ffc-8bdc-f9bcb3225b0e

 

 

 

 

Edited by AirNostrumMAD
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1 hour ago, go_vertical said:

I'm not sure if this says anything, but I have literally passed three different CATS buses broken down on the street with other CATS support vehicles nearby within the past week. I'm typically haunting the southern wedge area of town. 

Vision zero confidence in CATS competence

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17 hours ago, kermit said:

Transit expansion is completely stalled, with no signs of moving forward. The transit tax voters who are paying attention are angry. Planning is weird (11th st route) and flaky (sharing ROW w Blue Line)). Absolutely no efforts to get permission for the vote in Raleigh. A regional planning process that is nothing more than some emails and vague maps. All at a time when there is more federal money available for transit than any other time in the past half century.

I am having a tough time seeing how it could get worse.

Agree 100%,  and unfortunately, there is something that can get worse if they're not careful.  At the corner of Trade and Graham. 

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1 hour ago, Hushpuppy321 said:

How would a Regional Transit Authority (Sanctioned by NCGA/SCGA with Taxing Authority) make a difference if any from what we have now with CATS?

I'm not even sure it would need to be a regional transit authority or if that suits the needs of Mecklenburg (unless there were plans for a big buy-in on rail transit but I don't foresee that and really, CATS needs to focus on better bus service, bus infrastructure, etc. and at least be useful for inner-city Charlotte to move around before shooting for massive rail plans). Iredell, Gaston, Lincoln, etc. aren't the greatest partners for Mecklenburg on mass transit IMO beyond contributing some $$$ that specifically benefits their counties (a rail or express service) which can be accomplished without an authority.  I think there just needs to be management overhaul of CATS and more oversight from local officials.

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I'm not even sure it would need to be a regional transit authority or if that suits the needs of Mecklenburg (unless there were plans for a big buy-in on rail transit but I don't foresee that and really, CATS needs to focus on better bus service, bus infrastructure, etc. and at least be useful for inner-city Charlotte to move around before shooting for massive rail plans). Iredell, Gaston, Lincoln, etc. aren't the greatest partners for Mecklenburg on mass transit IMO beyond contributing some $$$ that specifically benefits their counties (a rail or express service) which can be accomplished without an authority.  I think there just needs to be management overhaul of CATS and more oversight from local officials.

I second that. CATS needs to reliably and effectively provide transit for Charlotte and to an extent all of Mecklenburg County before turning its focus outward.
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Would retired people want to show up to drive buses at 11PM in neighborhoods they don't feel comfortable in though? RATP outlined a couple of the nationwide themes causing 46% of newly hired bus drivers to quit within 3 months on the job when they presented to the MTC.  
  1. Schedules -> people want flexibility and new hires are saying having to work weekends, special events, and late hours doesn't mix with their lifestyle. 
    • They are working on trying to revamp the scheduling model, but it will likely require more drivers than needed to minimize the amount of rotations on a weekend or late hour.
  2. Safety -> some drivers are uncomfortable with their routes... either the neighborhoods they drive through or the lack of separation from the passengers on their route. Drivers are lasting 3 weeks doing a route and don't feel safe, so they quit. Most of us on this board live in fairly safe / trendy areas of Charlotte, but bus drivers may be assigned routes through areas with gangs, gun violence, homicides, drug dealing, et... Think of the amount of people on this board that want the Uptown Charlotte Transit Center to go away due to loitering... that's one of the main places a CATS driver has to spend their day when not behind the wheel...
    • This was a major factor employee surveys found people prefer to be a light rail operator versus a bus driver -> lack of public interaction + locked door
  3. Competition -> Big box stores have increased pay and they are seeing drivers take pay cuts to work at stores where the job is less demanding. They can text their friends while stocking shelves on a quiet aisle at Target versus being recorded on camera on a bus for professionalism. The store closes at 10PM, so no creepy 1AM bus routes with just you and a homeless man who seems unstable on the bus. Less arguments and conflicts about paying fares, fighting, et... 
  4. Satisfaction -> Bus drivers largely spend their entire day alone, with minimal interactions with others, except passengers who are not necessarily nice. This contrasts with competing jobs like Trader Joe's where the cashiers are chatting, friendly with each other, and there is an overall upbeat energy in the store. In addition, because they are "public facing," bus drivers have to be alone AND professional at all times. Amazon delivery drivers can listen to the music they want, drive fast, text on the job, get out of their vehicle more often, et... with less repercussions than a bus driver who has a group of passengers who could complain about your driving and music is banned. RATP is trying to make the job more "fun" and "appealing," but younger works are finding a big bus an unrewarding thing to drive all day while sitting. 
https://charlottenc.gov/cats/boards/MTC Agenda Package/Final _MTC_Agenda_Packet_Wednesday_August_24_2022.pdf
 
Here are some interesting Glassdoor and Indeed CATS Bus Operator employee reviews.... major themes are bad management, angry customers / safety, stress. Pay is usually mentioned as decent / good, so that doesn't seem to be the core reason for high turnover.
"Overall it's a fine place to work if you approach it with the right attitude. If you are going to call out often, this isn't the job for you. If you have trouble dealing with the public, do something else. If you don't want to work at night or on the weekend, keep looking. Your experience can vary wildly depending on which routes you pick, but overall, if you come to work on time, don't argue with the customers, and don't hit anything with the bus, you have an easy, stress free job. You might be driving alone! People mostly fire themselves. You will need to educate yourself on the routes around the city and what they connect to, as well as landmarks, but that comes with time. You will need to be prepared to deal with angry customers on the weekend, since CATS is chronically understaffed then. If you are a chill sort of person who enjoys driving, you'll be fine. There are many who have been here for over 25 years. The top seniority person just retired with 47 years of service I believe. People wouldn't stay as long as that if it was a terrible job."
"Very good training. The pay is decent. Seniority is first priority. They have a union. Driving in inclement weather. Dangerous passengers. Drunks and crazy people sometimes."
"I just wish they had the drivers back. The managers I’ve encountered have been helpful. The starting pay does not match the stress and dangers that come with the position."

"As I get older, I have come to realize that having a good work/life balance involves finding value in the job you have chosen to do. Sometimes value isn't about the money. And while I appreciate the opportunity CATS gave me to work there, I do not believe I would ever reapply."

"I think that if you desperately need a job with great benefits especially a traditional pension and you are willing to deal with management that in some cases treat you like a number not a person, and if you are capable of dealing with some customers who are very rude, disrespectful and sometimes threatening this might be your cup of tea."

"This place is the worst from the passengers to management. You have no life at all with the routes that you have to bid for. The money is great but you just have to work long hours in one day. The rules and regulations the company have in place keep you in fear of your job, with that being said run for your life!"
"Unless you are focused on extended hours for monetary gain, this is not the company for you. No home/work balance. On an average a person will spend at least 12 hours dedicated to this job a day (4-5 hr break unless ur working 2nd shift 2 am)."

Noting many of the issues you listed are impossible to control and avoid (working long hours, weekends, etc.) the one thing that stuck out to me that I hadn’t thought about before is having a secure operator space (like the light rail trains).

Maybe creating a driver enclosure on city buses and having the entrance be further back so the passengers can’t interact with the operator could possibly make it a better environment? There is a multitude of issues that make this job not appealing for many, but starting by changing one variable (albeit a massive change for the fleet) could possibly help incentivize and attract more drivers?
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5 hours ago, DJ8hep said:

Maybe creating a driver enclosure on city buses and having the entrance be further back so the passengers can’t interact with the operator could possibly make it a better environment? 

Some cities have a plexiglass barrier that separates the driver's seats from the rest of the bus.

WMATA installed them a few years ago after repeated high-profile incidents of drivers getting assaulted on the job. Their installation was coupled with a massive PR campaign asking riders to treat drivers with respect. Granted, I doubt the PR campaign did anything, but I do think the plexiglass barriers have helped. I don't hear as many reports about drivers getting assaulted as I used to.  

I have posted this before on here, but it really pays off to be friendly to the bus driver. Unless I am on an articulated bus, I always yell "Thank You" to the driver when exiting the rear door. Roughly ~60% of my fellow riders do the same. It's a lonely, isolated, thankless job, and I can tell they appreciate it because I usually get a hearty "You're Welcome!" back. 

Drivers I have gotten to know have picked me up in the rain on parts of the street that weren't my stop, and have dropped me off at areas that weren't stops but were simply closer to my destination. 

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Some cities have a plexiglass barrier that separates the driver's seats from the rest of the bus.
WMATA installed them a few years ago after repeated high-profile incidents of drivers getting assaulted on the job. Their installation was coupled with a massive PR campaign asking riders to treat drivers with respect. Granted, I doubt the PR campaign did anything, but I do think the plexiglass barriers have helped. I don't hear as many reports about drivers getting assaulted as I used to.  
I have posted this before on here, but it really pays off to be friendly to the bus driver. Unless I am on an articulated bus, I always yell "Thank You" to the driver when exiting the rear door. Roughly ~60% of my fellow riders do the same. It's a lonely, isolated, thankless job, and I can tell they appreciate it because I usually get a hearty "You're Welcome!" back. 
Drivers I have gotten to know have picked me up in the rain on parts of the street that weren't my stop, and have dropped me off at areas that weren't stops but were simply closer to my destination. 

That’s actually good to know that the plexiglass is enough to make a difference. Like you can still interact with the driver, but there is a safe separation.

Absolutely! I agree and I can imagine if they feel appreciated it makes them enjoy the job that much more.

I wish there was a bus route from where I live to my work, I would definitely take that route often.
Maybe it’s time for Automation… or hybrid format

Definitely could be a solution, I heard that something of that nature is essentially operational in Phoenix with driverless taxis.
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