Friday, June 23, 2006

User-friendly? Not CATS

The car was in the shop, so I tried to take the bus home the other day. I’ve done it before. Bus 14 quite handily runs very near our house. So why do the folks who run the bus system make it so hard to ride the bus? Maybe some more customer-friendliness would help them increase ridership.

I’ll see if I can get Ron Tober, Charlotte Area Transit System CEO, to respond to my little rant, which follows. If you have similar gripes, add them to the comments, and I’ll see if Tober will address them.

I walked from the Observer building at Tryon and Stonewall to the Transportation Center, between East Fourth and East Trade. It was late afternoon and it was hot enough to sweat just standing in the shade.

First, I notice that if you’re on Fourth Street, you can’t even get to the bus depot without jaywalking in rush hour traffic, because construction at the old convention center site has been allowed to close the sidewalk.

Memo to city officials: Put up a pedestrian passage on the bus station side of Fourth. It can’t be that hard, but if it is, paint in a pedestrian crosswalk across Fourth.

I arrived at the Transportation Center 20 minutes early. For years, Bus 14 left from Bay A on East Trade Street, but the last time I took it, it had moved to another bay. I couldn’t remember which, but happily, there are TV monitors to tell you where, in the vast and bus-filled depot, each bus arrives. It said Bus 14 was at Bay Q. I went to Bay Q. No Bus 14.

Because of construction, a small sign told me, Bus 14 stopped “along Trade Street.” Well, where along Trade Street? It’s a long street, with lots of traffic. I went to Trade Street but saw no signs mentioning Bus 14.

Luckily I was still about 15 minutes early. I sought out the information booth. A nice lady there said Bus 14 had moved to Bay A. I went to where I remembered Bay A had been, along Trade Street. By now I was sweating profusely in the heat. Luckily, I still had 5 minutes.

A clump of people loitered along Trade Street, but I saw no sign or any other indication that this was still Bay A, no benches, no list of what buses stopped there. But people waiting there confirmed it was Bus 14’s stop.

So, CATS folks, if some eager bus rider wants to take Bus 14, how in thunder is EBR supposed to find it? The TV display is wrong. The lone directional sign (at Bay Q) is so vague as to be useless. Bay A itself is going incognito. EBR is somehow expected to intuit that’s where it used to be.

Another hint: If I had missed Bus 14 by not happening to be 20 minutes early, I’d have been looking for alternative buses. Why not put up about 10 of those maps of the whole bus system in prominent places, so people like me could figure out options? It's S.O.P. in many big cities to have transit system maps all over the stations.

Not everything was negative, of course. Getting the schedule online was easy. The bus driver was friendly, the ride was (sort of) on time, and the trip itself comfortable and efficient.

I mentioned my adventures to a colleague who takes the bus to work daily and has for years. He just chuckled and said, in effect, it’s always like that.

It shouldn’t be.


Anonymous said...

Mary. That's weird. Even you said you've taken the bus numerous times without incident. But you had one bad experience (which even I admit is legitimate) and you dedicate an entire article to it. Save your ink something worthwhile and not your personal grips.

Anonymous said...

I commuted to uptown from East Charlotte for over 13 years, taking both local and express busses. We are a 2 car family but I choose public transportation for environmental reasons.

The last probem I had was in 1996 with a local bus that seemed to never show up; it turns out it was chronically early. But since the transit center was built, no more problems.

Anonymous said...

I ride the 77X every day and have nothing but compliments for CATS. My experience has been great.

rebecca said...

Your mistake was to take the local with the poor people - if you can catch the 14 you can catch the Rea Road or the Arboretum also on Providence. CATS has 2-3 people with clipboards standing around where the Xpress busses pick up in the afternoon - if one of the yuppie trams is even a minute late and they are all worry and furrowed brows, talking feverishly into their radios. But when the local does not show up, or the stops and schedules are moved without explanation/notification - all you get is a shoulder shrug. As with everything else in Charlotte - Money talks and poor people walk around looking for the bus stop!

Anonymous said...

A capitalist answer to your bus problem:

Washington, D.C., has and an accompanying book for the low price of $8.95....apparently it's so good that the official metro websites refer to the stationmasters website for those who want to learn more.

Maybe when we get light rail as well as our lovely bus system, some business will do the same for Charlotte. Imagine being able to go to a website before you leave work and find a panoramic photo that shows exactly what your bus stop looks like.
Or darn, maybe even a newspaper website will provide this service in the future. Some folks would likely be willing to pay extra for the information.

rebecca said...

Off topic - if you can't get to the latest blog entry, go to Archives and click on June 2006 and it will take you to the latest blog entry. For some reason Mary's blogs take days to be "live" using official link, but this little trick gets me in!

Anonymous said...

Before you attack the poor lady please read the whole blog again. I agree with her. If I was new to the experience how the heck would I figure out where I was suppose to be when the displays tell you the wrong bay and the sign in the wrong bay just says 'Trade Street' and the Trade Street stop has no sign indicating that bus stops there. That was the point she was trying to make. CATS is not user friendly, I have had that same problem numerous times. And Charlotte is so far behind in the Park and Ride it's a joke. I stopped trying a few years back. I lived in an Apt on Harris Blvd that had 2 Apt complexes using the same entrance road. Great place for a bus stop, but nope I would have had to walk a 1 1/2 miles to get to a bus stop and there was no park and ride then. I just gave up.

Sarah said...

Please allow me to vent for a moment in response to this blog post.

Imagine, what would happen if everyone who worked for Bank of America or anywhere near Ballantyne had their cars in the shop on the same day? Imagine, the outrage at inefficiency and poor customer service. Someone surely would be fired. Strategy meetings would take place to better CATS' public image. Think tanks would come up with obvious solutions like putting route maps at the bus stops.

Welcome to Charlotte! That's what the majority of Charlotte has to deal with on a daily basis. That's why I moved. I'm just too logical.

Thank you for your blog. Maybe someone will pay attention and take your observations to heart.

Anonymous said...

A CATS sign recently appeared at the Promenade of Providence indicating that it is a park-n-ride. I have searched the web site and can't find any bus that goes there? I know better than trying to call, so I'll continue to drive.

Anonymous said...

I have taken public transit in cities all over the world and consider myself well-versed in finding my way around such systems. However, the first time I rode the 51X express bus from Mint Hill to uptown, I got off about five stops before I should have. The map online of the route suggests the express bus only stopped at two or three places when, in reality, I could get off all over uptown. A little more clarity in numerous places would make the entire CATS system MUCH more user-friendly. I'm thankful I don't have to navigate any of the local routes!

Anonymous said...

Why is it that people in Charlotte always bring class into an issue? If you are so upset that you do not work at Bank of America and live in Ballentine, then go get a different job. I worked full-time and had child while I attended college and it sucks that people criticize those of us who are successful.

Sarah said...

In response to an anonymous commenter:

Why it is that people bring class into the issue because it DOES matter and it does affect the way Charlotte works. Note Rebecca's comment "Your mistake was to take the local with the poor people... "

I'm not upset I don't work for Bank of American nor am I criticizing you for being successful. I did get another job and am quite happy, thank you. You sound defensive and you should be proud of your accomplishments.

Anonymous said...

This is your complaint? Serously? That you had to ask for help? Please, on behalf of CATS and the rest of the country, accept my apologies that we don't live ina perfect world.

Sarah said...

To "This is your complaint? Seriously?" There are so many anonymous posters, I'm not sure who you are asking.

If you read the blog, it was about more than asking for help. None of the responses seem to be about that either.

To all, I apologize to everyone for asking questions about our imperfect world. No, I take that back. Seriously.

Rick said...


This will probably surprise you because of some of my previous posts about public transit, but I used to be a bus driver for five years during college and grad school.

These were real busses running on a ten minute schedule filled with 10 times the people as the average CATS bus I see - really, standing room only and packed in like sardines.

Let me tell you something about your complaint. It will fall on deaf ears with CATS.

You sound like a complainer who called in one time when I was working a shift at the office desk. This person informed me that their hobby was keeping time, and they had two super accurate clocks set to the nuclear time at the Smithsonian. Apparently, one of our buses left a little early and the caller missed it. (Remember, it's only a ten minute wait until the next one.)

They saw the need to make a big deal out of nothing - just like you.


Anonymous said...

My teenage son has had no problems riding the 77X from his bank job downtown to davidson each afternoon. Go CATS!

Anonymous said...

After Tober responds -as surely he will- and after you are assured that it was a temproary problem or an unsual set of circumstances that made it difficult -and surely he will say that- you really ought to check back a week or so later and see if the difficulties are respolved. I wouldn't expect the missing sidewalk/unmarked crosswalk issue to be resolved, but everything else you've mentioned are things that should be fast and easy to fix. Or at least they should be if the folks in charge of the day-to-day operations (1)care and (2)are capable managers.

I'd be very curious to see whether that is the case.

Ed said...

The transportation center can be a little confusing...

Anonymous said...

Mary, I live on a cut through street and the drivers make the turn in front of my house at 50 miles and hour. I am fearful for my 7 year old. If we actually had traffic enforcement, cut through traffic wouldn't be bad at all. The reason people want to block cut through traffic is that our NASCAR crazy drivers literally run 50 miles an hour. And, if you can't show 200 cars a day traveling down your street, you can't get speed humps. Can you let us all know where you live so we can speed down your neighborhood street to allow you to experience this?

Anonymous said...

It currently COSTS $19 for a round trip on the CATS bus system.

When light rail is up and running, the average run trip on any CATS transit will move closer to $25 per round trip?

Mary Newsom, would you shell out of your pocket $20 or so for a round trip on CATS transit?

If so, then why don't you and give the rest of us our money back.

If not, then how could you expect anyone ELSE to pay it for you through subsidies?

CATS is a bottomless pit of money that only gets worse.

Mary Newsom admits that not only does she own a car (gasp), but also finds CATS to be less than ideal for her transit needs.

If the city's greatest new urbanism cheerleader does not like the product that CATS is cranking out, imagine how the rest of us think.

Anonymous said...

Complaints about CATS?

Mary, stop it, or before you know it people will start fabricating bad customer service stories about the post office, county government, or the department of motor vehicles.

There is no doubt that government-run, competition-less quasi-business enterprises like transit are well-run and offer a competing service for a competing price and make great use of the taxpayer's money.

Please do not slander those hard working folks by pointing out behaviors or policies that would probably bankrupt any private enterprise.


Rick said...

Rebecca and Sarah,

Did you ever stop to think that CATS is more concerned about the express lines because that's where all of the CATS growth in ridership originates?

Did you ever stop to think that from a business point of view the express fares are significantly higher while the fixed costs are relatively the same?

Did you ever stop to think that successful and efficient express routes provide the best business case to support eventual rail lines to those same areas?

No, of course you didn't. It's so much easier to be a class warfare bomb thrower.

Sarah said...

I'll ask one more time, why is it if your ask a simple question, you get labeled a "class warfare bomb thrower?" I don't even like Marx. And let me tell ya' it ain't easy being one who asks questions.

Rick asked:
"Did you ever stop to think that CATS is more concerned about the express lines because that's where all of the CATS growth in ridership originates?"

And I'll answer, yes, I did think about it, and DUH, those areas are getting further and further from central Charlotte, where, guess who, a large population of people still reside, who still need some sort of dependable transportation service.

Rick asked:
"Did you ever stop to think that from a business point of view the express fares are significantly higher while the fixed costs are relatively the same?"

There seems to be some business problem if a more direct route's fees are higher than other routes. It seems the entire system would be better served if that "extra" was re-invested system-wide and not only to the express routes. What, a redistribution of "wealth"? NO, you are investing in the CATS infrastructure as a whole, not just a smaller portion of it.

Sorry, the bomb-throwers are at it again. Our jobs are done, we've gotten people talking. THAT'S the point of bomb-throwing.

Anonymous said...

Simple answer to CATS:

Charge people what it costs. This is an ideal fee-for-service program.

That way CATS would eliminate the unprofitable routes, or learn to create efficiencies.

Even the most die-hard supporter of mass transit would NEVER pay what it actually costs to ride the bus.

People always support things that they perceive other are paying for.

If I were poor, I would support government subsidized transit too.

The question is, why is the rich dude standing in front of his $900K Myers Park home getting a 90% taxpayer subsidy to help him get a ride to work?

Rick said...

That's funny. I thought the point of bomb throwing was to get people riled up by appealing to emotion rather than making a real arguement.

You did not "ask a simple question". You used a hypothetical which could never realistically happen, then used that to make a negative generalization about a specific class of people. To me that sounds like the definition of class warfare bomb throwing.

Other flaws...

- There is no "extra" from the express busses and use of that term incorrectly implies that CATS overall makes a profit and is choosing to spend it on express rather than local routes.

- The local buses have a fraction of the per bus ridership at any given point in time, so it's hard to make the arguement that those routes are underserved. When you can show me local buses that are at least 80% - 100% full on at least half their loop as most of the express busses, then you can make the arguement that the close-in city is not receiving a correct level of service.

- Saying that there must be a business problem because the express costs more than the local just doesn't make sense. Have you ever tried to buy a non-stop airline ticket vs one that has a layover? It's typically more expensive because of supply and demand.

It doesn't matter if you like Marx or not, and I didn't think your message was talking about wealth transfer. However, if your point as you stated, was to make an outrageous statement to start discussion, then you've succeeded.

Sarah said...

I’m not sure if your last comment was a snide insult or a compliment. If I can rile people emotionally AND make an argument, that would be a successful goal. Maybe I didn’t do that successfully. I do think I did ask a simple question. “What would happen if everyone who worked at Bank of America had their cars in the shop on the same day?”

My main motivation in writing was to flush out stereotypes, to hear what “the rich” and “poor people” have to say. Who is rich or poor anyway? And I was curious to know if there really is a “two-tiered” CATS service. Hypothetical yes, but my basic question was neither a negative generalization nor an outrageous statement. The subsequent responses have affirmed my question.

An anonymous writer said: “My teenage son has had no problems riding the 77X from his bank job downtown to davidson each afternoon.GO CATS!” As Rebecca pointed out to Mary, “Your mistake was to take the local with the poor people - if you can catch the 14 you can catch the Rea Road or the Arboretum also on Providence.” She also describes how if an Xpress bus was late, someone was there to look into it, but if it was a local bus, “all you get is a shoulder shrug.” Negative generalizations?

Obviously, express services serve large markets in the region. They are concentrated in major business and residential areas-- uptown, Ballantyne and the Arboretum. Yes, despite your allusion to the contrary, I do understand principles of supply and demand. Yes the higher demand routes should result in higher fares. But CATS is a publicly funded government service, not a “profit driven” operation by traditional standards. By “extra” I should have said the differential fees charged by the express services relative to the local routes. (I guess I thought that too wordy.) No, there is no “profit”, but there are resources to support CATS routes. It isn’t nonsense to expect comparable service for the routes that are offered.

I lived in east Charlotte for eight years. It is a very diverse community economically and socially and culturally. There is also a sizable small-business presence there, as elsewhere in Charlotte, which contributes to the Charlotte community as a whole. Bank of America and its employees offer a great amount of talent and input to Charlotte, but so do all the other employees of the cities’ small businesses. My point is that those people shouldn’t have to wonder where their bus is while they are on their way to work.

And yes, I have tried to get “cheaper” airline tickets non-stop versus layover. That’s why people living in Charlotte have traveled to Greensboro just to fly back to Charlotte then onto another destination. Boarding that same flight in Charlotte, as a direct flight, costs significantly more, in the past $500 more. $500 is a lot for many people. The point is, if you have less disposable income, you may have to go further out of your way, sometimes literally, to get transportation. That’s not a class warfare bomb.

Anonymous said...

I tried using CATS to commute to work which was from Fairview down to the Coliseum area on Tyvola which is a straight shot. I called CS at CATS who were very friendly but told me to take this route I would have to transfer three times and it would take at least twice the time for this commute. You would think it would be easier to go down a straight line!

Anonymous said...

I tried using CATS to go to Bobcat games and this was great! I contacted the CS at CATS and they gave me perfect info. The bus was on time and made the event that much more enjoyable since I didn't have to park and walk a long distance. I asked the CS rep for CATS if they advertised their services for Bobcat fans but she said the did not. I think that would be a great way to bring drivers out of their cars to the games if it were simply advertised as an option.

Anonymous said...

To those who complain of CATS being taxpayer subsidised, please remember that a decent public transportation system is one of the amenities one expects living in a big city. If Charlotte truly aspires to being a 'world class city', that is one of the things it needs. Boston, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Paris, London, Moscow--can you imagine any of them without public transit? Of course not.

Brad said...

The system needs to be broken down into mini hubs located in the major parts of town. This will allow for more smaller buses to target neigborhoods and business that are not on the major roads in town.

I lived off Sugarcreek and Harris and there were no bus stops anywhere near my house that I could easily walk to from my townhouse so using the Bus was never a logical answer.

Using Mass transit will only be a success for people who have the option of driving is if the time spent on the road takes longer, parking becomes too expensive or gas become too expensive.

I like using transit but it has to bring me some type of added value.

Example in Chicago I was able to take the red line from the hotel to a ball game and back for 3 dollars when a taxi cab would of cost 20 dollars. The other benefit was it save time taking the "L" than taking a cab in the city.

Chris said...

"Simple answer to CATS:

Charge people what it costs. This is an ideal fee-for-service program."

Yes yes!!! And every road should be a toll road. Police should hand the victim a bill after aiding them.

The answer's been in front of us this whole time.

jena said...

Mary, it had been a while since you rode the bus, and the pick-up point had changed. Welcome to life!! Yes, perhaps the pick-up point could have been communicated more clearly, but you know what: in the scheme of things, that's a very minor problem. As my father used to say: if being hot and confused while you wait for a bus is the worst thing you have to complain about, then you're a lucky woman. Next time any of us have to do something out of the ordinary, just think of it as an adventure and a learning experience. No harm was done, no lives were on the line, it was just a one-time experience involving a little frustration. You got home safely. And yes, I've been in your shoes before myself, trying to take a new bus to a new destination. Thousands of people ride CATS buses every day (myself included) and for the most part things run smoothly. Chalk it up to a learning experience--we all have 'em-- and now you KNOW where to pick up the #14 bus.

Anonymous said...

>>decent public transportation system is one of the amenities one expects living in a big city. If Charlotte truly aspires to being a 'world class city', that is one of the things it needs. Boston, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Paris, London, Moscow--can you imagine any of them without public transit? Of course not.

Aaaahh. There we have it. The ENTITLEMENT mentality.

I 'deserve' a taxpayer-supported transit system.

I don't want to pay fo it, but I want it anyway.

All of those cities you mentioned are bankrupt. New York's mass transit system loses 2.5 billion per year.

If you want that, they move to that rat-infested sh*thole and leave us alone with our cars.

Anonymous said...

>>Yes yes!!! And every road should be a toll road.>>

No, roads are already paid for by motor fuel taxes, which also generate a surplus into government funds.

>> Police should hand the victim a bill after aiding them. >>>
Hardly. Cops don't bother to show up when there is a crime. We should cut off all public funding for the police, and private neighborhoods can just contract their own private secruity firms.

We already pay for the cops and what do we get? a 44% rise in violent crime. But heh, Bob Johnson gets all the free crowd control he wants at Bobcats games.

That sad reality of modern local law enforcement is that there is no money in catching criminals.

That is why if your car gets broken into you get a voice mail at the police department, but if you park next to a meter too long or let you inspection sticker run out or go a littel too fast by a traffic camera, lord knows the nanny state will slap a fine on you faster than spit.

Anonymous said...

(1) I'd love to ride CATS to uptown events. However, the route nearest home (about 3/4 mile away) stops running at 6:30 PM and has no Sunday service at all.

(2) The morning female bus driver talks on her personal cell phone while driving. Try crossing four lanes of Rama Road rush hour traffic while clutching a phone to your ear! Scary.

(3) I do ride the bus often and they are on time and clean.

(4) I can't wait to hear the howls of protest on the new and improved East Boulevard when a bus stops to pick up a wheelchair-bound person. At least five minutes to activate the lift, strap in the chair, etc. Traffic will be backed up for a mile. Great planning, traffic guys.

Chris said...

To the anonymous poster who suggested people who see value in transit go live in a sh*thole, I have to question your assertions.

You say the MTA loses $2.5B a year? Can you site a source for that number?

The MTA has exceeded revnue projections for the last three years, and actually is now sitting on a $1.2B cash surplus.

The rapid rise in expenditures would result in a $1.5B operating deficit by 2009 IF nothing was done about it, but then, most every business would go under if there was no changes made in 3 years. Appropriate changes will be made and the countr's largest transit system will continue to be profitable.

Rick said...


I don't reallt care which of you is right, but if you are going to demand the other guy provide a source for his number, then it would be good to provide one for yours.

Just a thought.

I'm curious to see if the "cash surplus" you mentioned equals a profit. Just because there may be a positive cashflow, doesn't mean the enterprise is profitable. Depretiation and interest on a system like MTA is substantial I am sure.

Anonymous said...

>>You say the MTA loses $2.5B a year? Can you site a source for that number?>>

here ya go. This is 2004 data. They have not submitted 2005 data yet. The spent $6.7 billion. They received $2.5 billion in fare revenues. I lied, they actaully lost $4.4 billion.$File/2008.pdf

Anonymous said...

As a follow up to that last post, I am sure big Guv types are including tax subsidy in their 'revenue projections'.

That is not revenue. Only tickets sold are revenue.

MTA runs $4 billion plus in the hole every year.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I meant they lost $4.2 billion in 2004, not $4.4.

BTW, they spent $4 billion alone on salaries, wages, and benefits - against the same $2.5 billion in fare revenues.

Only politicians call taxes 'revenues' and tax cuts 'expenses.'

We truly would be better off paying no taxes and just fending for ourselves with most things other than basic security/law enforcement.

There is virtually nothing government does that is not a huge waste of money cmopared to the equivalent private sector service.

If they dispanded MTA, some provate enterprise would step in and the market would adjust, not doubt about it.

But think of all the fat bureaucrats that would be out of a job (like Ron Tober).

rebecca said...

Those who think CATS is a welfare program for the poor may need to re-think who is really getting something for nothing - As a banker who rides daily with fellow bankers as well as with working class folks, I have often wondered how much more the dry cleaner, the chinese restaurant, the Harris Teeter, the hospital and scores of other businesses all of you car riders frequent during your workday would cost you if those businesses had to pay their workers enough to own and insure a car. Any economist will tell you that cheap transportation keeps prices down for all of us. So in affect, CATS is subsidizing the businesses providing YOUR cheap services.

Anonymous said...

That's insane Rebecca. There are dry cleaners, Chinese restaurants, Harris Teeters and every othe rsort of business located in every part of the metro area NOT served by public transportation, and their prices are no different that the prices in thsoe areas that are. (And before you head there, the savings at one location of HT could be used to offset higher wages ata another, but as it happens they don't have differential wage scales. And the other businesses are basically stand alones.)

And then of course there is your characterization of CATS as "cheap transportation". In fact it isn't cheap at all. The cost per trip is substantially higher than the total mileage cost of operating an automobile on similar trips. In many cases, on many routes, it's even more expensive than cab fare!

Anonymous said...

>>that cheap transportation keeps prices down for all of us>>

that has to be one of the most idiotic statements I have ever heard from someone with a complete lack of understanding of economics.

Mass transit is EXPENSIVE relative to non-subsidized travel.

Where do you think that money comes from? Out of the pockets of working folks who no longer have that money to spend on other things.

Contrary to your belief, TAKING money from workers and spending it inefficiently by government bypasses the free market system, meaning consumers are NOT getting the most value for their dollar.

This hurts the nation economically, not helps.

I would think 50 years of communism, socialism, or wester-European psuedo-socialism would provide enough hard evidence that those systems are all failures.

Far higher unemployment, lower quality of life, and lost competitive advantage with tru capitalist countries.

BTW, people are paid what they are worth, period.

Anonymous said...

"Aaaahh. There we have it. The ENTITLEMENT mentality.

I 'deserve' a taxpayer-supported transit system.

I don't want to pay fo it, but I want it anyway."

I pay taxes, too, you know, and if I believe that subsidizing a decent public transit system is a proper use for taxpayers money I have the right to say so without being berated for it. You are entitled to disagree, but please do so in a civil manner.

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