Ever been stuck halfway in and halfway out of an overcrowded bus shelter, pelted by rain and silently cursing a bus that is running behind schedule? Ever feel at such a moment that no one from the city’s transit system much cares about your plight? Fear not, for a committee of people no different from you and me are keeping track of that shelter’s design, noting the number of riders who are using it and logging the wait time for any bus that is running late. In fact, one of those Asheville Transit Committee members might be hunched, incognito, in the rain alongside you.
On Tuesday, August 7, the Transit Committee – a subgroup of the city’s Multimodal Commission – convened for its monthly meeting in the first floor conference room of City Hall. During a two-hour session that glissaded from banal to contentious, the group covered everything from public comments to Sunday service, driver and route efficacy, bus-stop improvements, safety reports, new committee members (and departing veterans), approved and proposed route changes, and firsthand experiences riding the bus. The agenda listed the items to be discussed, but it said nothing about the diligence that addressing those items required.
Following an outline of the agenda and an approval of the last session’s minutes, Raymond Harris (one of two audience members in attendance) provided a bit of feedback for the meeting’s “public comment” segment. Apparently Harris, a self-described community activist and concerned citizen, decided one year ago to start using public transportation rather than drive. Overall, he said, his experience had been a good one. Having just returned from a trip to New Jersey, he compared Asheville’s public transit system favorably to the buses he encountered in the Garden State. In fact, Harris said, “I don’t think I’ll go back to using a car.” He went on to say, “Thank you for allowing me, on behalf of the citizens of Asheville, to use public transportation.”
After the meeting, Harris explained that his yearlong experiment had been completely voluntary. “When you look at the system, it serves all kinds of people,” Harris said. “I’m just a community activist who thinks: ‘How does this affect me?’ I come here to give them my perspective and to understand theirs,” he continued.
Each month, committee members recount their bus-riding experiences. As Committee Chair Julie Mayfield put it, “This is the point of the meeting where we share our experiences riding the bus – whether they were particularly good or particularly bad.” Mayfield related an anecdote about getting on the wrong bus by accident: “I’m just happy that we have so many buses in Asheville that I could accidentally get on the wrong one and still get to where I needed to go,” she said with a grin and a chuckle.
Mayfield also mentioned a technique she noticed that Atlanta’s public transit system used (she recently visited that city). Apparently, the bus marquis there encourages both riders and drivers to be respectful. She asked the committee, “How do we create and foster more of a culture – for riders and drivers – of respect?”
Overall, committee members said that their experiences with Asheville’s transit system were positive. Some members made suggestions – calling for route increases, clearer station announcements and more prominent signage at the airport. But for the most part they approved of the job that Asheville’s public transportation system was doing.
For the remainder of the meeting, committee members reviewed old business, previewed new and upcoming business and events, and pored over performance reports.
A bit of drama did ensue when committee member David Wilson brought up what he saw as a lack of compliance — among other committees — to a federal regulation (Title VI) that mandates that the composition of committees reflect the demographic makeup of the people they represent. “This committee has bent over backwards to meet those regulations,” Wilson said. “I don’t see why we should have to carry the burden for other committees as well.” (For the record, the Transit Committee does include one African American member, one Latina member and one blind member. Nevertheless, the majority of committee members are white males.)
Wilson also raised concerns about the recent appointment process for two new committee members. “I attended this meeting for months, applied three times and still had to wait six months before I received a seat,” Wilson said. “Now, the Multimodal Commission approves two new members when only one slot was supposedly available. I just think the whole practice is kind of shady,” he continued.
Mayfield objected to Wilson’s “shady” comment, and Asheville Transportation Department Transit Projects Coordinator Yuri Koslen assured Wilson that all city committees complied with Title VI regulations. The committee reached no definitive resolutions on either point, but discussions continued after the meeting closed.
Despite the strained tone, no one came to blows, and Mayfield adjourned the meeting at 5:30 p.m. She mentioned an upcoming retreat on Friday, Oct. 24, and double-checked to make sure that committee members had no problem with the cancellation of their Nov. 4 meeting.
The Transit Committee meets on the first Tuesday of every month from 3:30 to 5 p.m. in City Hall’s first-floor conference room. Admittance is free and open to the public, although the Nov. 4 meeting has been canceled. For more information, contact Committee Chair Julie Mayfield at email@example.com.