Count your change and climb aboard

On a windy May afternoon, three professionals stood on a downtown Asheville street corner and confessed that they didn’t have enough change for the bus. I know … I was one of them.

“Hey, I don’t have 75 cents! Do you?” I called out to Asheville City Planner Bruce Black. Frowning as he reached into his pockets, he replied, “I don’t know if I do.”

“These are real issues that bus riders have to face everyday,” observed Quality Forward Pedestrian Coordinator Katie Breckheimer, as she dug through her purse.

As part of a May 29 Strive-Not-to-Drive celebration, Breckheimer had put together a little bus ride for Mountain Xpress, Black and Asheville City Council member Barbara Field — who had yet to join us as we waited beside the seven-foot black iron on Battery Park Avenue.

“We’ll make Barbara pay,” one of us joked.

About that time, Field walked up and assessed the situation. She mentioned that Council members have bus passes … which didn’t do us much good.

“Do we need change?” Field asked. She confessed that, although her husband rides the bus quite frequently, she doesn’t know much about bus specifics, since she walks to work from her downtown apartment.

It was becoming apparent that we needed help. We strolled over to Pritchard Park, where a diverse crowd either sat or stood, waiting: retirees, middle-aged workers, uniformed fast-food clerks, youth carrying backpacks, and parents with toddlers in tow.

Breckheimer flipped through an Asheville Transit Authority bus schedule and suggested that we try Route 2, which ventures up Merrimon Avenue to Beaver Lake and back. That decided, we looked around. “Where do we stand to catch that bus?” Breckheimer wondered out loud.

There were no signs. Breckheimer noted that this was one of the public-relations challenges facing ATA: “People don’t know where the buses run, or when,” she reflected.

Field interjected that the new bus station, slated to open sometime in June and located next to the downtown Post Office, will have route signs clearly posted — and someone on duty to answer questions.

But that was the future. Seizing the moment, I walked up to a tall young man and asked where we should wait for the Merrimon bus.

“Over by the hot-dog stand,” he replied kindly.

We walked over to Anderson Davis‘ hot-dog stand, between the fountain and Haywood Avenue. Davis proved a helpful source of information: He told Breckheimer that we needed exact change for the bus — and, yes, he teased, he’d give us change, even if we didn’t buy a hot dog.

As we waited, Field looked around at our fellow riders and remarked that, when she was a child, it was a big step forward to be old enough to be allowed to ride the bus around town. “But now, it’s considered a social stigma to ride.”

Breckheimer nodded sadly. It’s her job at Quality Forward to encourage people to use alternative modes of transportation, such as walking to work, biking to the store or taking the bus.

In a few moments, our ride arrived: a shiny new bus that “kneels” for passengers, lowering to bring the steps down closer to waiting riders. Bus driver Casey Danahy welcomed us aboard, then took a moment to help another woman figure out which bus she should catch to get to Westgate.

“This feels nice,” said Field, as she sat down. Cool air from the bus air conditioner wafted over us.

“I don’t know why more people don’t ride,” said Black, taking a seat across from her. Black recently added city-transportation issues to his workload, and now serves as staff liaison between the city and the ATA.

Breckheimer took the opportunity to pitch the merits of bus-riding, saying it provides mobility for all sorts of people: kids not old enough to drive; elderly residents no longer able to drive; and the “working poor” who can’t afford cars.

Danahy, meanwhile, announced over the intercom that this was a nonsmoking bus. He then explained where his route would take us and how riders could request a stop (push one of the yellow strips located along the length of the bus).

We began our ride with an elderly man and woman, a mother with two children, and two young men.

As we headed up Merrimon, we took on a Red Cross technician and a grandmother with two children.

Along the way, Field — who has a long-standing interest in transportation issues — told us that the new bus station will be a “full pulse system.” Unlike the sequenced bus arrivals and departures at Pritchard Park, all Aston Station buses will converge at the same time, allowing passengers to make prompt transfers — without having to wait, as they do now. A consultant’s study in the early 1990s concluded that improved convenience — such as quick and easy transfers — would boost ATA ridership.

As Field chatted, we took on two middle-aged women near Ingles, both carrying their groceries. Breckheimer asked one of the women if she liked riding the bus and whether she used it often. The woman replied that she did, but seemed reluctant to engage in conversation with a stranger.

Up ahead at a bus stop, a young man, with oversize sunglasses in his hand, stood waiting in knee-high grass at a stop that had no bench or shelter.

Contrast this with Paris, France, where certain subway stops have been designed by various architects, Field said. “People will ride the subway just to look at the art,” she noted, adding that maybe Asheville should try something similar.

Ding! went a bell when a rider touched one of the yellow strips. Danahy waved his hand to acknowledge the request, then brought the bus to a stop. With a swoosh of hydraulics, the bus lowered to let the young man and his daughter off near the Fresh Market. We continued on, Field still reflecting on ideas for better service: Longer hours (some Asheville buses routes have no service after 6 p.m.) and more frequent service (some routes run only once an hour).

“What happened to the bike-rack idea?” asked a bus rider. Not long ago, someone had suggested attaching bike racks on the outside of each bus: Patrons could bike from home to the nearest bus stop stowing their bikes on the back of the bus, then ride the bus into town.

Field confessed that she wasn’t sure what happened to that proposal.

Heading back into town, we rolled up to UNCA, where two students climbed aboard, one sorting through his pockets for the correct change.

We continued chatting amongst ourselves about Asheville’s bus system … until the Red Cross worker (still with us, having taken a round-about air-conditioned ride to downtown) pitched in: A co-worker of hers had to quit her work when the ATA dropped its Brevard Road/Biltmore Square Mall route. “When you don’t have transportation, you can’t work,” the young woman said, asking that we not mention her name.

Her need for anonymity didn’t hold back her ideas, though: Buses used to have more night routes, she said, urging the ATA to consider reinstating them.

I shared my own tale of trying to convince my younger sister to ride the bus: She just wrinkled her nose, as if the bus was not cool.

“We’ve got to make it cool to ride the bus,” said Field. “Maybe each bus needs to have audio jacks with headphones, so you can plug into your favorite music,” she added, half-joking.

With that, our ride came to an end. Danahy dropped us off at Pritchard Park, where a large number of waiting riders gathered, hoping to catch the 5 p.m. bus home.

Breckheimer reminded us that on Strive-Not-to-Drive Day, May 29, the ATA would be offering 25-cent bus fares. Quality Forward will also be sponsoring several events: a completely non-motorized parade downtown, a Golden Sneakers Award presentation and Moonlight Over Downtown, a festival event.

For more information about alternative transportation or any of these special events, call Breckheimer at 254-1776. For ATA bus information, call 253-5691.

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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