As 2020 began, the Asheville Rides Transit bus system was gearing up for new routes, increased hours and enhancements to the city’s downtown bus station.
But by early April, the bus system, like many areas of public life, was making drastic changes to stem the spread of COVID-19. Buses began operating fare-free to protect drivers and passengers alike. Three routes were temporarily reduced or eliminated due to staffing issues, and fewer drivers shared more of the workload.
“The No. 1 thing that has increased with the drivers — and I’m sure with the passengers as well — is stress,” says Diane Allen, who has worked as a city bus operator in Asheville for 14 years.
A new social distancing policy caps the number of passengers to nine, down from as many as 35 people seated and standing. Allen says that while the new protocol does increase safety, it has also strained relations between riders and drivers.
“You have people trying to shove their way on to be that ninth passenger, and it causes even more tension if they can’t get on the bus,” she explains. “People are stuck and have to wait another hour, or even an hour and a half, for another bus.”
Allen, the president of the local union that represents Asheville’s bus drivers, says she and other ART employees have been provided with hand sanitizer, masks and gloves. Shields that separate drivers and passengers have also been installed.
While she doesn’t fear for her own safety, Allen says she does worry about bringing COVID-19 home to her husband, who has a lung condition. So far, no drivers have tested positive for the disease; her focus for now, she says, is adjusting to new protocols.
“I think that now it’s just trying to grow accustomed to the new norm, just like everybody else,” Allen says. “Social distancing on a moving vehicle that doesn’t have much space in it anyway is difficult, but we’re managing the best that we can.”
This article is part of COVID Conversations, a series of short features based on interviews with members of our community during the coronavirus pandemic in Western North Carolina. If you or someone you know has a unique story you think should be featured in a future issue of Xpress, please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.