The big ride

I wonder how many local drivers have the same nasty little demon inside them that I do — the one that curses you every time you pull up to the pump, shaming you for your fossil-fuel consumption. “Fine,” I tell its scraggly head and accusing little eyes. “I’ll take the bus tomorrow, when I’m not in a hurry and can afford to wait an hour.”

In Asheville, taking the bus is cheaper, cleaner and smarter than driving. Nonetheless — and despite the city’s burgeoning parking problems — the rule for most of us still seems to be that if you have a car, you’ll drive. Public transit doesn’t seem to be ranked among Asheville’s stellar attractions — which, of course, helps account for our galloping smog problem. And it’s just so easy to forget to call the Asheville Transit System and order a bus schedule. (It helped me considerably when my editor handed me a schedule and pass and told me to get on it.)

To see what we’re missing, I decided to go one neighborhood over and take a ride on Asheville Transit Bus Route 5. For the sake of my story, I opted to hop on the bus at the farthest stop, so I could check out the whole route. Consulting my Asheville Bus Schedules booklet, I discovered that the Kimberly Avenue stretch of Route 5 is Dial-A-Ride service. In other words, you have to call ahead before the bus leaves the depot and ask them to swing by and fetch you. (This raises some interesting sociological questions: Does the city assume that anyone who lives on Kimberly is too prosperous to ride the bus? In my neighborhood, for instance, not only is there no Dial-A-Ride, but the much-used buses seem to stop about every 12 feet or so.)

The trick with the Dial-A-Ride service is all in the timing. I called around 12:45 p.m. “Too late,” said the nice lady on the phone. “You’ll need to call back on the next go-round at 1:25.”

“OK, 1:25,” I confirmed. And on calling back at the appointed time, I was assured that the bus would be on Kimberly within 15 minutes. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. After 45 minutes of standing on the curb in frigid weather, leaning against the Dial-A-Ride sign and studying the schedule while I tried to decipher the various routes around town, I realized that the bus just wasn’t coming. It occurred to me that even my cat comes when called, albeit grudgingly and with a great deal of attitude. Still, I consoled myself with the knowledge that all this standing around was, technically, research that would benefit you readers.

According to the pamphlet, the bus would be in the depot from 2 to 2:30, so I had some time to kill. As I walked toward Charlotte, where I knew the bus runs, I savored the day — beautiful and sunny, despite the cold. And strolling these streets that I usually run gave me a different perspective: I was a casual walker with a destination in mind, rather than a speed-conscious runner. There’s also a certain civic pride that comes with being a bus rider — a feeling of being involved in your community.

Long about the time I was desperately in need of a place to huddle out of the biting wind and slurp hot coffee, I arrived at the City Bakery on Charlotte Street. As I drank, I read my schedule, discovering that there’s only one other Dial-A-Ride route in the entire ATS system: Pearson Bridge Road. That might help account for the confusion; they probably don’t get that many Dial-A-Ride requests.

When it was time, I walked down to the nearest stop, outside Pearlman’s Carpet on Charlotte. The thought of someone hauling home their fresh, new carpet on a bus evoked some interesting visions.

When at last I spied my ride rolling purposefully toward my stop, I felt like a kid at Christmas. Upon boarding, I casually asked the driver why the bus I’d called to Kimberly had never arrived. He looked up, entirely nonplussed, and said, “You have to call by a quarter after.” Good to know. I suggested that everyone who answers the info line at the bus depot also needs to learn that vital fact; he agreed (though in a way that reminded me of my cat).

As I took my seat, feeling strangely relieved that the driver hadn’t simply forgotten to drive down Kimberly, I noticed that there were exactly five other people on the bus — all of them, it turned out, en route to work at the Grove Park Inn and none of them looking very happy about it. Soon after they got off, a girl who looked to be about 18 climbed on board. She was perhaps the happiest-looking person I’d seen all day; she’d just applied for a job at the Grove Park Inn and excitedly told me what a joy it would be to work there. I was glad she hadn’t seen the gloomy crew who’d just disembarked; it would’ve been a shame to spoil her sunny mood.

Reading the signs inside the bus, I realized that despite what I’d heard from cynical bus riders, there is some bus service after 6 p.m. (good news for weekend partygoers). Route 3 runs Friday and Saturday evenings on the half hour until 12:30 a.m. It’s a pretty comprehensive route from UNCA through downtown to the Asheville Mall and back. I was encouraged by this news about my city. I was beginning to recover my excitement about Asheville’s public transit, and my little demon delivered me a twinge of shame for having taken so long to venture onto the bus, despite my best intentions.

And as our bus traversed Macon and progressed toward downtown, I tried to remember if I’d ever before enjoyed such a leisurely cruise around downtown. Maybe it was the quiet inside and the fact that I was sitting so high above the rest of the traffic, or perhaps it was the joy of finally being warm enough, but I was seeing my town from a new point of view. Instead of hunting for a parking place or trying to navigate traffic or entertain a passenger, I could sit back and relax. I even felt warm feelings toward the driver and regretted the cat comparison. I got off downtown; later that evening, I hopped onto the Route 2 bus for the short, leisurely ride back to Merrimon on a bus packed with people, disembarking just a short walk from my apartment.

All things considered, I recommend the bus. It has many advantages — and it seems to be the best way to pacify my public-transit demon.

Route No. 5: Charlotte, Macon, Kimberly

Monday through Saturday, the first bus departs the Asheville Transit Center at 6:30 a.m. It reaches Charlotte Street/Hillside at 6:35, Charlotte/Edwin Place at 6:37, and the Grove Park Inn at 6:42. Assuming there are no Dial-A-Ride requests, the bus returns to Charlotte/Hillside at 6:55 and arrives back at the Transit Center at 7 a.m. The pattern repeats every hour, with the last ride of the afternoon pulling into the Transit Center at 6 p.m.

For Asheville bus schedules, go to Ashevilletransit.com or call 253-5691. For information about local transportation options, visit www.gettingaround-wnc.com.

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