Un-fare: Ride-free day showcases Asheville’s transit system

May 19 was Transit Rider Appreciation Day and Asheville’s buses were free, so I rode as many routes as I could, viewing the city through the windows. It was foggy as I waited for the S3 inbound on Hendersonville Road. I was beginning to think I’d missed it when the driver spotted me in the fog and picked me up.

The fare box bore a sign announcing the free day, part of Strive Not to Drive Week. An ART official (Asheville Redefines Transit) said the city was footing the bill, encouraging folks to leave their gas-guzzling, smog-spouting beasts at home in favor of the bus.

But the really big news for local riders is “Next ART,” a new service that tells people precisely when their bus will arrive. If you have a cellphone, you can call or text the ART, punch in your stop number and get the arrival time, because the GPS always knows where the buses are!

Each stop has been assigned a three-digit number, posted on round signs added to the rectangular ones denoting the stops. At the ART Station on Coxe Avenue, staff were handing out brochures about the service. They were also giving away “breakfast”: several packaged biscuits, an apple and a tangerine. I consumed mine on the spot while deciding which of the buses waiting in their assigned slots to board next.

I chose the E1, which I’d never ridden. It wound sinuously eastward via Tunnel Road and Swannanoa River Road. Most of the dozen or so passengers were black men, veterans headed to the VA hospital. One boarded clumsily, his artificial leg bending the wrong way. He needed a seat quickly so I gave him mine. Clearly this route is essential: Every day except Sundays and some holidays, it makes 24 round trips between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m., sometimes running every half hour.

Almost all the ART routes are like that: They start downtown and end at some special place. The S2 wiggles south through Kenilworth en route to the Social Security office in East Asheville. The N heads due north to the Grove Park Inn. Several routes converge on Biltmore Village; one zooms straight south to the airport and the WNC Agricultural Center.

Two buses serve UNC Asheville at 15-minute intervals through most of the day. The A-B Tech bus runs hourly between 6:35 a.m. and 7:35 p.m. The 170 stops at Warren Wilson College on its way to Black Mountain.

The W3, one of several West Asheville routes, terminates at the most elaborate Goodwill store I’ve ever seen. It was so attractive that I got off and shopped for an hour until the next bus came.

The C line, the only route I haven’t ridden yet, doesn’t go to the ART Station. A feeder system, it loops from the northwest to the southeast, connecting with many other lines along the way.

The shortest route, the N3, entered the Hillcrest Apartments: blocks and blocks of neat brick dwellings with white trim and grassy front yards. Despite the no-fare day, we picked up no passengers there. After making the circuit through the public housing complex, the bus returned to the terminal.

One of the drivers, a “floater” who goes wherever she’s needed, recommended the N1, so I took it, and it is lovely. Heading north on Merrimon, it circumnavigates the UNCA campus, then continues around Beaver Lake — the only large body of water in the city.

Free schedules for each bus route are available online or at the ART Station, along with a map showing the whole system. Like an octopus, its routes extend through most of the city, though there are some unserved pockets. Still, I was glad to have seen the sights of Asheville this way, and I recommend it to everyone, even if you have to pay.

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