Asheville’s food deserts have drawn increased attention in recent years: Studies by Tyson Foods and the Food Research & Action Center have ranked Asheville and its environs as high as the sixth most food-insecure metropolitan area in the country. (The Action Center’s 2016 assessment rated Asheville 28th among more than 100 U.S. cities — a marked improvement but still highly troubling.) A key reason for the problem, these studies found, was a lack of access due to transportation barriers.
“Food deserts are areas that have low availability of healthier food; there are four or five areas here in Asheville that the USDA considers food deserts,” says Ameena Batada, an associate professor of health and wellness at UNC Asheville. She’s worked to develop a relationship between the university and the Asheville Buncombe Food Policy Council, offering course and internship credit to students who assist the grassroots group by conducting research. Those local food deserts lie in a horseshoe-shaped arc around the city, leaving thousands of people miles away from anything resembling a grocery store.
“In the survey we did last year, 93.7 percent of the responses said that extending the bus routes to later times would help them meet their basic needs, including accessing food,” notes Batada. In the Hillcrest neighborhood, for example, “Even though it’s not that far from Earth Fare or the Save-A-Lot, a much more affordable option, you can’t easily get there by walking. Even if you have affordable outlets in your neighborhood, if you don’t have time to walk to those, then you still have to rely on public transportation.”
Limited service hours aren’t the only problem: The system’s buses are late almost half the time. “We have an on-time performance rate of about 50 to 51 percent, which is not good at all,” says Amy Cantrell of Just Economics, an Asheville-based nonprofit.
There were still a few snow crystals clinging to the grass at the corner of South French Broad Avenue and Bartlett Street one crisp recent morning. As part of a ride-along sponsored by Just Economics, Asheville City Council member Cecil Bothwell was waiting for the 10:05 bus at stop 781 on the S4 route along with eight or so other passengers. After 10 or 15 minutes, someone texted the NextBus service asking for an update but got no response. When Bothwell tried, it said the bus would be 15 minutes late. When that time came and went, however, he tried again and was told “No information at this time.”
“I saw many people who clearly depend on public transit, which certainly failed them on that day,” said Bothwell, who fortunately had his car nearby. He eventually called the Coxe Avenue ART Station and learned that all morning buses on that route had been canceled. “How can you keep a job or keep up with classes if the bus doesn’t run?” he wondered, as he drove some of the other waylaid passengers to their classes at A-B Tech.
This was a new experience for Bothwell, but for regular users of the Asheville Redefines Transit system, it’s an all-too-common occurrence. The ART’s 2012 system makeover, frequent riders say, cut services drastically in order to make expensive improvements — most of which proved to be purely aesthetic — in a failed bid to attract a more diverse clientele.
Bothwell says he doesn’t normally use the bus. To get to City Hall, for example, he could catch a bus two blocks from his home near UNCA. “But the meetings often end after the bus quits running, so I would have to walk the mile home afterward, and that is not exactly practical. Using the transit system is hard, actually.”
Bothwell isn’t the only one who thinks that. Sabrah N’ah Raven, who was also waiting for the bus that day, says she once lost a job because of a late bus. “It was an employer that had very strict punctuality requirements,” she says. “A lot of low-income jobs are strict about punctuality, and I was still in the training period, so it was a one-stop-and-you’re-out thing. It was the same situation: There were a few snowflakes, and the buses started running a few hours late.
“It’s the management company’s and the city staff’s job to know how to avoid problems like that. And we’ve seen enough from them to know that they haven’t really been paying attention to the needs of the riders.” Most job applications, notes Raven, “have a line asking if you have reliable transportation, and pretty much everyone knows that the buses around here don’t count as reliable transit.”
Just Economics designated the first week of February as Transit Week. The seven-day event was equal parts celebration and lobbying for the group’s 19-point transit agenda (see sidebar). Some of those goals were accomplished last year, but key issues have yet to be addressed, and the grassroots transit coalition — a project of Just Economics with a lot of involvement by bus riders — isn’t finished yet.
The coalition, notes Cantrell, who was one of the chief organizers, “has been going since the fall of 2012, so it was really important for people to see that history.” The week’s activities included a panel discussion featuring key community organizers, a press conference and bus ride-alongs with City Council members. “We really hope 2017 will be our victory year, where we accomplish the entire 19-point agenda.”
The wish list covers everything from getting actual transit system users represented on key committees to improving the complaint system to maintaining bus shelters.
In the bag
For many of the folks who rely on the current routes, says Cantrell, a simple trip to the grocery store can take anywhere from two to four hours. And until Just Economics intervened recently, riders weren’t allowed to bring more than three bags of groceries on the bus, ensuring that the whole ordeal would have to be repeated a few days later. “The problem,” she explains, “was that there is no official rule that says how many bags a rider can bring on the bus.”
But at peak ridership times, notes City Council member Julie Mayfield, “The policy is that you cannot take up a seat with your stuff: You have to hold it. We were never able to fully resolve that, much to my frustration.”
Extending the hours on all bus routes and implementing full Sunday service could cure many of these ills, Just Economics maintains. “What are you supposed to do if you work on a Sunday?” asks Calvin Allen, a member of the city’s Transit Committee. But Asheville faces significant barriers in meeting Just Economics’ call for increasing transit funding by upward of $3 million. The total transit system budget is already more than $7.5 million following a million-dollar bump-up for 2017, and cost, says Mayfield, is the biggest obstacle to progress.
“They did just expand hours on the routes that they thought needed expansion,” she points out. “Cost would vary on that kind of thing, and it would depend on what hours and what nights. But by way of comparison, in this current budget year, the city allocated about $125,000 to add eight hours of service to our entire system overall. Now Just Economics is asking for full service on every route until 10 at night. I think the professional transportation planners might say that’s not needed on every route. As a general matter, though, you could argue that if expanding service that way lets one person have a job who wouldn’t have a job otherwise, it’s a worthwhile investment. But it’s an expensive one.”
During the 2012 ART makeover, Asheville found itself squeezed between a federal requirement that cities hire union drivers for any citywide transit service and North Carolina’s right-to-work laws, which prohibit municipalities from dealing with unions. To get around that, the city hired a third party, the Cincinnati-based First Transit, to run its bus system. At best, the company has won tepid praise from both city officials and what are often called “captive” riders — people who have no choice but to take the bus because they lack other transportation options.
The makeover, which included deep cuts to regular and popular stops, also promised improved punctuality on the remaining routes. One of those canceled stops was the Vocational Rehabilitation office, forcing many people to struggle through a long walk up a steep incline. “If a person is going to rehabilitation, that means he is obviously disabled,” notes Allen. “They don’t need to be going up that hill.”
And despite those cuts, performance didn’t improve much, says Cantrell. “We tried to balance on-time performance on the backs of the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. These are often people with disabilities and chronic illnesses.” Meanwhile, she points out, there was no significant increase in ridership.
Asked about these concerns, First Transit spokesperson Nancy Lohr said that although the buses have become slightly more punctual, “It will not improve because of traffic congestion.” Lohr is still fairly new to Asheville, having started the job in August after serving as transit manager for a smaller system in Florida. And though she says she’s seen some increase in ridership, she has no way of knowing whether those new riders are using the buses by choice or necessity.
Notwithstanding these hurdles, City Council, First Transit and Just Economics all say they’re committed to continuing the push for a more effective bus system.
“It’s all about expanding the ability of people to be engaged and successful in their lives and in the community,” says Mayfield. “It’s as much about people getting to the grocery store as it is about people getting to work, or to church, or the library, or the pool, or to have dinner with friends. It’s all about economic and social opportunity and enabling people to be engaged and successful in life. If you look at the vision that Council adopted last year, there’s a paragraph on transportation. We envision a city with a transit system that allows you to live here without a car and not be disadvantaged in any way, and that is where we want to go.”