Bus advocate Jeff Jones left Asheville City Council’s June 11 meeting disappointed. Council members had approved only $1.2 million in funding to implement Asheville’s Transit Master Plan — enough to change bus routes and improve on-time performance, but short of the $1.85 million the city’s Transit Committee had recommended to add buses and expand service hours during evenings and Sundays starting Jan. 1.
For Jones, a community-based Unitarian Universalist minister and member of the Transit Committee since January, public transit is more than a desirable amenity — it’s a way of living out his values.
“As someone who aspires to practice nonviolent communication,” he says, “what is high on my list of intentions is to be kind to the Earth. This means spending less time in my car and more time walking and riding the bus.”
Although Jones says his initial interest in becoming a bus rider was sparked by Asheville’s troublesome downtown parking situation, transit has become part of his ministry in compassionate living. After buying his first monthly bus pass last summer, he found himself empathizing with vulnerable residents riding out of necessity.
“The first time my bus never showed up, I imagined that someone may have lost their job that day because they were late,” Jones recalls. “When I stand at a bus stop in the rain, in the cold and in the dark, I begin to understand what riders experience who, unlike myself, are completely bus dependent.”
What does transit — and the city’s support of its bus network — mean to Asheville? Xpress talked to residents with different perspectives to better understand the system’s role in the community.
Five months ago, Asheville City Council member Julie Mayfield was confident that the Transit Master Plan would be fully funded. In February, she told Xpress she’d make a bet of “100 percent” that the full complement of changes would go into effect by next January.
“We thought we were getting five new electric buses that would act like all of our other buses and that we were getting over $5 million from [property tax revenues resulting from] the Mission Health sale [to for-profit HCA Healthcare],” Mayfield now says. “I also assumed our transit staff would be back to full strength to ensure sufficient resources for planning.”
None of that happened.
Because of their size — at 35 feet long, the electric buses exceed most of the city’s current vehicles by 5 feet — the new additions can’t make the tight turns on many Asheville streets and can only be deployed on a limited number of routes. The buses also cannot always run for a full day without needing a charge for their batteries. (See “Road bumps,” p. 21.)
“We received just over $3 million [in new tax revenue] from the Mission Health sale and are still down a transit staff member — the very staff person whose job it will be to plan and implement these route reconfigurations and expansions,” Mayfield continues. “Therefore, the physical and human resources aren’t where we need them to be to effect full implementation, nor is the funding.”
Rachelle Sorensen-Cox, the single mother of an 11-year-old daughter, lost her driving privileges in early 2017 and has been bus-dependent ever since. Renting an apartment in West Asheville, she relies on the W1 and W2 buses to get to and from her full-time sales job in downtown Asheville.
“Being bus-dependent,” she says, “means that easy bus access dictates where I’m going to live.”
Fortunately for Sorensen-Cox, it’s a relatively short walk from her apartment to the W1 and W2 bus stops. But problems with the transit system’s consistency, she says, can make the journey much more challenging.
“When a bus arrives on time, I’m overjoyed,” Sorensen-Cox explains. “But when a bus is very late — or doesn’t show up at all — I have to walk 3.8 miles to get to work. Luckily, I’m in good shape, but it’s still a big deal, especially in the rain and the cold.”
Sorensen-Cox thinks full funding of the Transit Master Plan would create a more trustworthy system for her everyday commute. She would also love to see a transit app that works in real time to share pertinent messages, such as when a bus is removed from service.
“I want to know if I have to wait two hours for a bus that broke down,” she says. “I’d walk home rather than spend $15 on an Uber when I make only $16 an hour. Uber is simply not in my budget.”
As an Asheville resident, Sorensen-Cox feels she deserves buses that run on time, a clean, well-functioning bus station and decent customer service. “Top that off with a bench and shelter at every bus stop,” she adds, “and I’ll be one happy bus rider.”
A need for change
Would City Council put up with government employees who were late to work 40% of the time? Mike Plemmons, executive director of the Council of Independent Business Owners, believes Asheville’s leaders should be asking themselves a similar question about the bus system.
Pointing to recent data showing that Asheville Redefines Transit has an on-time performance rate of roughly 60%, Plemmons calls for Council to take an active role in the management of the system and fix its current problems before spending more money on the service expansions outlined in the Transit Master Plan.
“Transit means efficiency. It means getting people on time to their places of employment and to their doctor’s appointments,” Plemmons says. “[Council will] go into the discussion right quick about more routes, but the routes you have aren’t running so that people can depend on them.”
Although not a regular rider himself, Plemmons says he and other CIBO members recognize the importance of reliable transit for the community. Dependable buses mean more certainty and shorter commute times for workers, as well as greater circulation of potential customers throughout the city. Council should demand regular reports on transit operations, he suggests, and use that information to improve efficiency.
“The solution is not necessarily a ton more money. It could just be changing things around a little bit and making sure that responsible people are involved — and making sure that they don’t get ahead of the game,” Plemmons says. “You can’t be a major league baseball pitcher when you’re still in Class A ball.”
A paradigm shift
Kim Roney’s No. 1 reason for embracing the bus is to reduce her dependency on fossil fuel. The piano teacher, Transit Committee member and recent City Council candidate got rid of her car in 2008 and now commutes by transit, biking and walking.
“The first year for us was difficult and a complete attitude adjustment,” Roney says about her family’s transportation transition. “Grocery shopping can be a unique challenge, but the car-free benefits outweigh the negatives, such as no car payments, gas, parking and insurance.”
Plus, there’s the sociability factor. Riding the bus for more than a decade has given Roney an opportunity to create relationships with other riders.
“I’ve watched children grow up,” she says. “I’ve befriended Tom, an elder bus rider in the community. We check up on each other. I’m also grateful to chat with fellow cyclists who use the bus like I do.”
Roney explains that she’d eventually like to see multimodal connectivity countywide — an objective, she suggests, that’s a return to the region’s history. “When my great-grandmother lived in Asheville, the city had the second-best trolley system in the country,” she says. “We need reliable regional transit, and we’re fully capable of implementing that.”
But with City Council’s funding decision in place and the partial Transit Master Plan to take effect on Jan. 1, Roney acknowledges that the work to make that vision a reality is easier said than done. She says the Transit Committee will continue to follow up on transit funding as the city takes up its next budget cycle.
“I was incredibly disheartened to see the additional $600,000 announced in additional hospital property tax revenue earmarked for consultant fees instead of evening transit hours and extended Sunday hours,” Roney says, referencing Asheville’s spending of part of the Mission Health money on a design contract for city-owned property on Haywood Street. “We can and should do better with our budget prioritization.”
An urban extension
Public transit, Lyft and Uber were Kate Clark’s only forms of transportation during her multiple visits to Asheville and during her first two months of living in the city when she moved from Seattle a year ago.
“I lived in Seattle for 39 years, where I never owned a car,” Clark says. “After my license was stolen in the mid-1980s, I decided not to replace it.”
As public transit became her way of life, Clark discovered that riding buses is both a social activity and a way to sit back and enjoy the passing scenery. “When I ride the bus, I see slices of life I wouldn’t see any other way,” she says.
Clark hoped to live close to a bus stop when she moved to Asheville. Not being able to afford a home in Asheville’s city limits, however, she ended up buying a house off New Leicester Highway — and outside the bus system.
With no convenient bus access, Clark purchased a car last year, a situation she laments. “If I could ride the bus more often, believe me, I would,” she says.
The way Clark sees it, Asheville does itself a disservice by putting public transportation below other priorities. “With more traffic comes more street repairs and accidents,” she says. “If the city can come up with a plan that enables people to use public transportation that runs every half hour, perhaps the city could reduce the need for street repairs.
“Many other cities have gone through this, so how can we learn from those cities not to let the same thing happen here?” Clark continues. “Instead, we can make choices that work toward a better change.”