On Jan. 1, just to be dramatic, the old, sometimes tempermental car that had taken me from place to place for years finally died in a friend’s driveway. I’d already shelled out no small amount of cash repairing it in recent months, and this time the bill was too high to be worth it. Like a lot of old cars, there was too much wrong that cost too much money for me to keep the thing on the road.
Meanwhile, I didn’t exactly have a chunk of money sitting around for another vehicle. So since then, along with thousands of Ashevilleans, I’ve been riding the bus. I already didn’t drive much (I like walking, even in winter), but there are certain places where my legs won’t take me in a reasonable amount of time.
So far, so good. I haven’t missed any major appointments and I can get at least within walking distance of most (though not all) places I need to go. The drivers and riders are generally friendly, even when everyone’s packed in close on a particularly busy route.
I admit, as a public policy wonk who has followed the debates on Asheville City Council about funding and overhauling transit over the years, it’s been interesting to get a better idea of how things operate up close. From walking around the city, I already knew that Asheville is largely built for cars, rather than pedestrians, cyclists or bus riders, but this is a new perspective.
Personally, the worst that’s happened was that I misread a route schedule and had to take an extra loop around Haw Creek. It actually meant I got into an interesting conversation with an older gentleman in a kilt about his world travels and how our respective Scottish clans (I was wearing a tartan scarf) used to feud a few centuries back.
But I’m exceptionally, unusually fortunate here. I’m young, healthy and was already used to walking most places I go. I can walk to work and to get groceries. My job requires plenty of hours, but they’re usually flexible, and it pays enough that I’ll have cash for a fare. I don’t have children or dependents. A number of my friends’ cars didn’t decide to ring in the new year by dying, so sometimes I can catch a ride with them if I need to go someplace the bus doesn’t (and there are plenty of those). Days can go by without me needing to board a bus.
Yet I’ve known friends who’ve lost jobs because the bus flew past their stop, just once. If I still worked in most of the other jobs I’ve had, if I were a student, if I had to work regularly on Sunday (or late) or just get my family from place to place, things would be much trickier to manage. Several times while I’ve waited at the ART station, people have come up to me frantically asking if the bus to a particular destination is running on time, because they’re late for something important. These riders run the gamut from the elderly to young workers and students.
In all the talk of public transportation’s role in a sustainable future, it’s perhaps easy for those that don’t rely on the bus to miss that, for many, it’s an absolutely essential part of the present. Due to low wages and a high cost of living, plenty of Ashevilleans live on precarious ground already. Sometimes a late bus or a route shift is all that’s required to throw life into some pretty stark chaos.
As it happens, my stint riding transit coincides with growing discussion of these issues. Particularly, a push by a group of activists, the People’s Voice for Transportation Equality, aimed at ensuring better representation and a more effective system for those who rely on the bus. At a recent rally, some of their members told stories about friends losing jobs due to a lack of Sunday service and the difficulties of simply getting home with groceries while relying on transit. They’ve laid out a 19-point agenda for what are, in their view, necessary reforms.
As it crafts the city budget over the next few months Council will, once again, deliberate on transit and how much money the city coffers can spare for it. It promises to be an interesting debate.
Several blocks away, hundreds of Ashevilleans will board and exit, hoping that the system works well enough that they can go on about their lives.