The Tale of CAT 14

The case for reexamining local bus routes

WHY IS Chatham Area Transit’s 14 bus going around the squares on Abercorn Street? The bus gets stuck behind slow-moving horse carriages, trolleys and people crossing on foot.

And on Calhoun and Lafayette Squares, parking officials refuse to enforce the law when drivers illegally park on the square when they go to church services (which happen all week long) or even just picking their kids up from church schools (all week long).

As a result, the big 14 bus gets jammed in the square and everybody riding inside has to wait for it to get unjammed, making them late for work. I should know. It’s happened to me twice this year alone.

All of this might seem like a trivial issue affecting a few unlucky people. But it illustrates wider problems and opportunities within our local public transit service.

When you ask CAT why they can’t send the 14 bus down Drayton and Whitaker Streets, they say that they’re hobbled by the desire for bus shelters, the size of the 14 bus, which needs a wide turning space, and the number of one-way streets downtown.

CAT has laudable goals, like making sure sidewalks have enough space for both bus shelters and wheelchairs. But this isn’t like finding a cure for cancer. We have solutions right now. Plenty of options, like East Broad and Price, are waiting to be tried.

The larger problem is that CAT’s entire system needs to be completely re-routed. CAT hasn’t rethought its basic route map in decades. Last month, they started a two-year process to create a new system map.

When it’s done, sometime in 2020, it’ll cause a lot of disruption in the short term.  But in the long term, it promises to make CAT more efficient and attractive because right now, CAT is running some very ineffective and money-losing routes.

And it’s not just a grumbling rider saying so. CAT hired a consultant to study its routes. And in less densely populated areas, like West Chatham, Coffee Bluff, Georgetown and Wilmington Island, the consultant found abysmal ridership.

The opportunity for CAT is that the consultant found great ridership elsewhere, like along Abercorn, served by that square-rounding 14 bus, CAT’s most popular route. Riders like the 14 because it goes where people want to go and it’s the most frequent, at 30 minutes.

As CAT embarks on a major system-wide re-route, let’s do what the 14 does on every route, and expand on it:

Focus on where people want to go. And serve them quickly.

This doesn’t have to mean “Leave everyone else without service,” with all the ugly politics that that brings up. In less densely populated areas, try something radically different, like on-demand flex-service (a.k.a. Neighbor Link).

Used in Orlando and other places, Neighbor Link is a curb-to-curb ride-share that serves small areas and transports people either within the area or to a downtown fixed-route.

The consultant’s study has a lot of great ideas but doesn’t say anything about Neighbor Link or getting the 14 bus from around the squares. I hope CAT will add those ideas and I hope other people repeat my ideas to CAT.

Plenty of other ideas should come up during this 18-month public input phase, which is way too long. I appreciate the desire for public meetings.

But it can be done more quickly. Just ask any rider, especially one that’s been late to work because of a late bus.

Anything we do to improve CAT improves our economy. After years of mismanagement, including a former CAT director now sitting in jail for bribery and fraud, and the culture of “can’t do” that came with it, it’s time for CAT officials to show that they “can do.”

Concurrent with that, our elected leaders need to step up and “do, too.” That means giving CAT more resources, state and local especially, to move people better.

In the meantime, I’ll just have you know that it’s not a First Amendment right to park illegally on a square while attending church. It’s actually a fire hazard, too.


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