If you live in the Charleston area and you don't absolutely have to ride a CARTA bus, you probably never will. It's slow, it's not glamorous, and there might not even be a route that gets you where you need to be.
Let's say you need to get from Park Circle to the City Paper office on Morrison Drive. On a normal weekday morning, that's about a 15-minute drive, a 30-minute bicycle ride — or an hour-plus CARTA trek involving a transfer from the No. 104 bus to the No. 10 on Rivers Avenue. You can literally race a bus on a bike and win by a long shot.
Other routes are simply impossible. There are, for example, no routes that take you to an area beach since CARTA cancelled its 402 route to Sullivan's Island and the Isle of Palms in 2013.
People without cars who work on nights and weekends often have to catch a cab or call in favors from friends to get to and from work, because the buses just aren't running on the routes they need when they need them. One of them is Malcolm Abdullah, a homeless veteran who sleeps downtown but goes to work at various jobs off the peninsula. He says he often finds himself unable to get back downtown at night and on weekends. "I have to either try to find a ride or walk," Abdullah says. "Oh, I have walked."
According to a recent rider survey conducted by the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments (BCDCOG), three-quarters of the people who ride CARTA do not have another choice when it comes to transportation. In public-transit parlance, these people are known as "captive" riders, as opposed to "choice" riders who have access to another vehicle.
Financially, CARTA functions more like a public service than a profit-driven business. Out of CARTA's $20 million annual operating budget, just over $4 million comes from fare box revenues, sales of bus passes, and advertising sales. The rest comes largely from Charleston County sales tax funding, federal grants, and partnerships with area governments and businesses that fund special routes like the NASH in North Charleston and the DASH downtown.
CARTA Interim Director Jeff Burns says the service-oriented mission isn't going to change. "I always get that question: 'When is transit going to be profitable?' That's like asking the fire department, 'When are you going to make money?'" Burns says.
Still, he says, it's in CARTA's best interest to attract more riders. "A full bus is more profitable than an empty bus, and the more conveniences we can provide, the more utility we can provide with the service, the more it's going to be used," he says.
At a June 3 meeting of CARTA's Route Advisory Committee, the focus was on cutting or curtailing several struggling routes, some of which carry as few as five riders per hour. But in the long term, CARTA, area governments, and public-transit advocates have some blue-sky ideas that could radically change the public transit system and attract riders from the biggest possible growth area: choice riders, who intentionally leave their cars at home to take the bus.
"We have to serve the captive riders, the folks who rely on us," says County Councilwoman Colleen Condon, chair of the Route Advisory Committee. "But it'll be great when we can serve everybody."
Here are the big ideas:
1. Cutting inefficient routes
The Route Advisory Committee voted last week to recommend several service cuts that would be estimated to save the transit system a half-million dollars per year. The recommendations to the full CARTA board include doubling the system's holidays from five to 10, decreasing the frequency of the Route 20 King Street/Citadel line on Sundays, and combining the overlapping 201 and 213 routes downtown into a single route.
The biggest recommendation was to completely eliminate North Charleston's 105 NASH line, which connects Charleston International Airport, the Tanger Outlets, and Park Circle's Olde Village. Fares on the route are always free because it is funded by Tanger, the Charleston County Aviation Authority, Charleston County, and Boeing, but a recent ridership study found that it only gets about five passengers per hour.
In contrast, other free and subsidized routes like the downtown DASH routes and the 203 Medical University Shuttle (frequently used by MUSC students and employees, who get free system-wide bus passes thanks to $880,000 in CARTA funding from the university) ranked among the most-used routes in the system. The Meeting/King DASH, for instance, averaged about 60 riders per hour in April.
Condon says heavily used routes like these — which also rank among the most profitable — are essential. She's also bullish on express routes, which include fewer stops and travel along roads with heavy car traffic.
"If you look at express routes that are for very heavily driven routes, 88 percent of people on the express routes are choice riders. They have a car," Condon says. "We've got to have more of that kind of routes."
2. Thinking big about the I-26 corridor
"Imagine if there's a dedicated lane on I-26 just for rapid transit," Condon says. "Would you take it if you lived in Summerville and were going downtown? I think the answer is yes."
When it comes to choice riders, plain old bus service isn't always an attractive option — particularly when the bus service gets them to work more slowly than their personal vehicle. CeCe Grant, executive director at Americans for Transit, says, "Choice riders overwhelmingly favor rail, yet will also flock to express transit service such as park-and-rides."
With rush hour traffic on I-26 getting worse by the year, and more development along the interstate corridor coming soon (one 2006 study predicted a population increase of 45,000 along the corridor in 20 years), the BCDCOG is conducting a $1 million study on possible alternatives to car traffic on I-26, which could possibly be funded with the help of federal grants. Possible alternatives include a dedicated bus lane, commuter rail along existing freight lines, and light rail along brand-new rail lines, either alongside I-26 or Rivers Avenue.
The study is scheduled to be completed by the end of this year. Whatever solution is proposed, it is not likely to be cheap. While some alternatives could be less expensive than commuter rail, a 2011 study placed the cost of laying commuter rail from Summerville to downtown Charleston at $300 million.
The I-26 alternative is not a new idea. Local governments commissioned the first feasibility study on commuter rail in 1990, but the study found that a rail solution was inappropriate at the time. Today, Condon says that in one form or another, an I-26 alternative is an idea whose time may have finally come.
"We all know how many people are sitting in traffic on I-26, so a big part of what we're doing with COG is saying, 'All right, what is the solution for I-26 long-term?" Condon says.
3. Sprucing things up
Here's an idea: free wifi on buses. "We want to roll out conveniences like wifi, and that's going to help everyone," Burns says.
According to Burns, CARTA is still looking into how a wifi system could be installed, and nothing is set in stone or funded yet.
Another big idea: a smartphone-based fare payment system. "We heard from our millennial riders over and over that, 'We don't carry cash. Let me pay on my phone or tap and go or something.' So we're aggressively pursuing that," Burns says.
4. Recruiting new riders
The public-transit advocacy group Best Friends of Lowcountry Transit has applied for a grant from Enough Pie to canvas neighborhoods telling people the benefits of bus ridership. And when it comes to encouraging tourists to ride the bus, Best Friends founder William Hamilton says, "Some of our best allies are hotel concierges."
Outside of CARTA, perhaps Charleston's biggest evangelist for public transit and prophet of the coming car-traffic apocalypse is Hamilton, an attorney who lives in Mt. Pleasant and works downtown. Hamilton is legally blind and relies on the bus system to get around town, and he refers to car culture as "an American disease." At sparsely attended CARTA board meetings, Hamilton is often the only member of the general public in the room.
Hamilton, who lives in the tony I'On neighborhood, says he's been able to convince some of his neighbors to leave their cars at home and take the bus into work downtown. His pitch goes like this: "Park your car at this shopping center and ride this bus to the Visitors Center downtown. When you get downtown, take the DASH — you won't need your car downtown, you don't have to pay a fortune for parking and smell the funny parking-lot smell, there's nothing to park, no hassle, and nobody bangs into your car." He says one neighbor started taking the bus into downtown simply because she didn't want anyone to hit her Mercedes convertible.
5. Listening to the people
As CARTA looks to make some data-driven adjustments to its route schedules, Hamilton says the bus service would do well to pay attention to some data points that don't show up in the numbers: the complaints of its customers and the insights of its drivers.
The NASH route, he says, might have been saved if CARTA had paid attention to what drivers on the route were hearing all along. "What they heard each and every day from everyone in that part of North Charleston was, 'We need this bus to go to Walmart,'" Hamilton says.
On another front, Best Friends of Lowcountry Transit is planning a March to the Sea protest on the Isle of Palms July 18 in favor of extending bus routes to area beaches.
The Route Advisory Committee did recommend one change based on rider complaints last week: extending the weekend hours for the No. 10 Rivers Avenue bus to 12:30 a.m. Charleston City Councilman James Lewis told the committee he had heard from several workers in the restaurant industry who work late at night and depend on the No. 10, which goes as far south as Meeting and Mary streets, to get to work from their homes in North Charleston.
When the workers finish their shifts after midnight on weekends, Lewis says they are often stranded by the bus and have to take a taxi. The last northbound bus leaves from Mary Street at midnight on Fridays, 11:07 p.m. on Saturdays, and 7:57 p.m. on Sundays.
Particularly now that City Council has allowed taxi companies to double their nighttime fares (a measure that Lewis voted against), Lewis says CARTA-riding workers are really taking a financial hit when it comes time to find a ride home.
In that sense, CARTA is currently failing part of its core demographic: the captive riders.
"We're not taking care of the working people," Lewis says.
CARTA is flawed, but for the more than 15,000 passengers who ride it on an average weekday, it's essential. And Burns, who took over as interim director in June 2014, says fixing those flaws is going to be essential to the area as a whole.
"When I worked at the Council of Governments, I'd look at the traffic demand looking out 10 years, 15 years, and there is just not enough money to build roads to accommodate this. We have to shift our transportation investment," Burns says. "I think I'm biased because of my job, but I don't know a better solution than transit."