The free downtown shuttles that run through the heart of Charleston often are filled with tourists as well as the city’s poorest residents.
Cheryl Cobb is homeless. She often rides Route 20 along King and Meeting streets to get out of the sun when she can. Cobb ties sweetgrass roses as she rides.
“I ride the free bus every day, all day,” she said. “I never have enough money for the other ones.”
Her story is one of many that Charleston City Paper reporters heard over the last week as they rode bus routes in Charleston and from downtown to West Ashley, Folly Beach and North Charleston.
The free shuttle reached its end at the Charleston Visitor Center after repeating its route twice. The driver tells Cobb that he “isn’t running a hotel.” With that, she goes back into the sun. The driver steps outside to smoke a cigarette. His shift is done. He waits for the next driver.
A new breath of life
The Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority (CARTA) received a $25.9 million federal grant in June and changed driver companies this month to bolster declining bus employment. The new changes are happening as it grapples with the realities of public transit in the Lowcountry.
With the new federal funds, CARTA is updating its aging fleet and building a hub in North Charleston on Rivers Avenue along the Lowcountry Rapid Transit project.
The American Public Transportation Association reported in 2022 that nine out of 10 transit providers said they were having difficulty hiring new employees with nearly two-thirds struggling to retain workers.
CARTA Chairman Mike Seekings, a Charleston city councilman, said the new changes and federal grant were steps in the right direction.
“We are excited to see these new changes, and hopefully, service will improve,” Seekings said.
He said CARTA has shifted from having the oldest bus system in the country five years ago to making recent progress with electric buses.
CARTA has 17 fixed routes, three express routes and three DASH routes. From its longest to widest route, CARTA covers 802 square miles. The CARTA bus system is twice the size of all the boroughs of New York City with a fraction of its transit funding.
Mount Pleasant attorney William Hamilton is the executive director of Best Friends of Lowcountry Transit. Hamilton said he sees the changes as a step in the right direction, but the problems “go deeper,” he said.
“This region doesn’t just have a $25 million transportation problem,” Hamilton said. “The amount of congestion and the cost of congestion is staggering.”
CARTA has a budget of $25.6 million for 2024, a $367,000 increase from last year. Most of the agency’s funding is from Charleston County sales tax and federal dollars, CARTA spokesman Daniel Brock told the City Paper.
Hamilton said people will only ride buses if they have the support to be on time and reliable. “And right now, they don’t,” he said.
Charleston is 21st on a list of U.S. cities with the worst traffic in America, according to the TomTom traffic index. Despite its relatively small population of 150,227 reported by the 2020 U.S. Census Bureau, it has more congestion than cities like Charlotte that are three times its size.
Riders have different personal perspectives on how the buses are run. Some riders find wait times intolerable.
“People don’t want to hear the truth, but the bus sucks,” said Geraldine, a rider from North Charleston. “I’m already late for my doctor’s appointment.” Her bus was 15 minutes late.
“Jesus is the only thing keeping me sane. I just put on my earphones,” she added.
Charleston retiree Harvey Washington felt the opposite. He thought the bus never gave him any problems. Washington said he felt there needed to be more bus lanes in the city.
“The buses have been good to me,” he said.
Hamilton, the bus advocate, said traffic is caused by the commute from multiple islands converging towards the downtown area at the same time. He said dedicated bus lanes should be prioritized.
“Every serious city needs a transit system to survive,” he said. He explained that because the city bunches buses in with the rest of the traffic, they are often late.
Hamilton said when municipalities mark off entire areas as exclusively residential and others as business, problems with traffic will happen.
“The problems in CARTA reflect the bigger problems in the city,” he said. “If we don’t get our act together, our service workers will leave and live somewhere easier.”
Martin Frasier, who works at farmers markets around Charleston, believes the current bus routes make it difficult to work in the city.
He said Charleston depends on workers, especially its service workers, and many of them don’t have the time or money to commute around Charleston.
John Iacofano, a CARTA board member and a councilman in Mount Pleasant, said he believed the best way forward is to listen to service industry workers and create easier routes to and from the Charleston peninsula.
A trip from North Charleston to Mount Pleasant requires a connection through the downtown area, which can sometimes take an hour.
“We need to learn to work alongside the service industry and realize that time is valuable to everybody,” Iacofano said.
Charleston city councilman Karl Brady said traffic could be reduced with better neighborhood planning. He represents Johns Island and outer West Ashley and is the vice-chair of the city’s Committee on Traffic and Transportation.
Brady emphasized that mixed-use neighborhoods were the best way to reduce Charleston traffic. A mixed-use neighborhood is an area where residents live, eat and shop all in the same place.
“Now we’re starting to see the slow wheels of progress start to move,” Brady said. “That is what has got to happen.”
Owen Kowalewski contributed to this story.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated the 2024 CARTA budget would decrease by $464,000 compared to 2023. CARTA’s 2024 overall budget will not decrease. It will increase by $367,000. CARTA’s federal funding will double in 2024, but state funding will decrease.
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