As Asheville grows, so too does traffic congestion. For anyone frustrated with slow-motion rush hours, ballooning gas prices, or the routine of circling around until a small miracle occurs and a downtown parking space opens up, there’s always the city bus.
Lately, more energy is going into improving the Asheville Transit System, and it’s the “choice” riders—riders who have a choice between driving and riding the bus—that the city hopes to attract.
That was one of the points made at a recent retreat held by the Asheville Transit Commission—made up of an advisory board to City Council and transit director—where members tackled some big-picture questions about the future of city transit.
“We want a better system, but we want to do it wisely,” says Mariate Echeverry, who recently joined city staff as interim transit director. Echeverry will sit at the desk of former Transit and Parking Services Manager Bruce Black, who has moved to a new position with the city in the Building Safety Department. Prior to moving to Asheville six months ago, Echeverry served as transportation manager for Miami Beach, Fla., where she developed that city’s transit master plan.
Now, a long-range master plan is in the works for Asheville’s transit system, as well, with particular attention on improving and expanding bus routes. City Council recently allocated $100,000 toward system improvements, to be put toward conducting a routing model, creating a master plan and attracting more riders and revenue through new marketing initiatives. The master plan is expected to be complete in roughly a year.
The transit system supported some 1.5 million passenger-trips last year, a 29 percent increase from the year before, according to Cathy Ball, director of transportation and engineering for the city. That spike can be attributed to evening bus services and a three-month promotional campaign that allowed passengers to ride for free, Ball says. But the ultimate goal is still to ramp up bus-ridership, which can help improve traffic congestion by taking single-passenger vehicles off the road, improve air quality, and open the door to more funding. Ball is quick to point out that new efforts to attract “choice” riders will be conducted “without compromising those who have to ride the bus.”
One attempt to get more riders is the transit system’s PASSport Program. Through that initiative, employers and schools can pay a discounted monthly rate to secure bus passes for their employees or students. To date, UNC Asheville and the Grove Park Inn have signed onto the program, and about half a dozen other businesses have expressed interest.
Asheville City Council member Brownie Newman says he hopes to look into whether it would be feasible to convert city buses to hybrid-electric vehicles, in order to save on fuel costs and improve air quality. “Buses use such a gigantic amount of fuel,” Newman says. “It wouldn’t take long for the hybrids to pay for themselves.”