The big ride

It’s the top of the hour, and the No.16 bus is pulling into the Asheville Transit Center — precisely at its scheduled arrival time. This is a good sign. Time is of the essence today, as I have a tight schedule and can’t afford any delays. Between now and the end of the workday, I’ve got to race through a laundry list of errands that will take me to the far reaches of Asheville proper.

Usually, I can rely on my trusty little red Subaru to help me complete my appointed tasks. She’s a faithful steed who bequeaths me my freedom. But today will be radically different: Rather than being the captain of my own ship, I’ll be riding the bus. The wheel will no longer be in my hands, and the course will be charted by the dictates of mass-transit necessity — rather than my own decidedly selfish need to get to Kmart pronto.

Upon boarding the 16, I’m greeted warmly by Don the Driver and Allen the Passenger. Allen, sitting close to the front of the bus, motions me to take a seat near him. We’re soon joined by a handful of fellow voyagers, and Don the Driver has a nod and a smile for all.

As we pull away from the station, Allen slides a seat closer so we can talk over the rumble of the engine and the rush of the a/c. He points to the mesh cap perched high on his head, emblazoned with the logo of a fast-food chain that’s repeated on his shirt. “This is where I work,” he declares proudly, adding, “I’m going to work.”

And the No. 16 bus will get him there, just as it does every other day he works.

Allen is but one of the many adults with disabilities who rely on the Asheville Transit System to help them live as independently as possible. Through Allen’s eyes, I see a more accessible world — with Don the Driver at the helm.

The No.16’s route might best be described as a tour of those portions of West Asheville not yet reached by the revitalization efforts that have made the Haywood Road corridor so popular of late. After leaving the Transit Center, the bus heads west on Patton Avenue, crosses the Smokey Park Bridge, then climbs the curvy Hazel Mill Road to its intersection with Louisiana Avenue. From there, the 16 makes its way down Bingham Road to the Woodridge Apartments, then backtracks to Patton Avenue, heading east. All told, the ride takes less than half an hour. But for the folks without cars who live in the apartments, trailers and small houses that dot these high hills, it’s a 30-minute lifeline.

All the riders on the No. 16 seem to know one another. At one stop, a man with an anxious grin seems all too eager to climb aboard. Once inside, he calls out to Allen and some of the other regulars. Then, noticing my unfamiliar face, he quickly introduces himself as James. His banter is playful, and his shouted salutation to one rider in the back of the bus borders on the teasingly antagonistic: “Hey, Dallas Duds! How’s it goin’, Dallas Duds?” James can tell that I am obviously on the outside of an inside joke. “That guy there’s a Cowboys fan,” he explains. James’ attention then quickly shifts to Allen; giving his hair a gentle tug, James observes, “It looks like you need a haircut.”

Like Allen, James lives with a disability. He takes the No. 16, he informs me, because he “loves to go downtown.” Thanks to the bus, James can do that.

As the bus descends from the upper reaches of west Asheville onto the gaudy fast-food boulevard called Patton, Allen readies himself for his stop. His movements seem ritualistic but tried and true. Don the Driver eases the bus to a stop directly in front of Allen’s workplace. Gathering his belongings, Allen makes for the door, his motions now manic, but joyfully so — he is clearly excited.

Before stepping off, he locks eyes with me, smiles, and points repeatedly to his final destination, proclaiming: “That’s where I work! I’m going to work!”

And so he is.

Route No. 16 – Bingham Heights

Monday through Saturday, the first bus departs the Asheville Transit Center at 6 a.m. It reaches Patton/Hazel Mill at 6:05, Emma/Louisiana at 6:10, and Wood Ridge Apartments at 6:15. The route returns to Louisiana Avenue at 6:18 a.m., to Lousiana/Patton at 6:20 and back to the Center at 6:26. The route includes Dial-A-Ride service to Adams Hill and Pearson Bridge Road. The pattern repeats every hour, with the last ride of the afternoon pulling into the Transit Center at 6:26 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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