The big ride

This August marks Vasiliy Lebed‘s second anniversary as a driver for the Asheville Transit System. Lebed is well-qualified for his work: After driving a tank truck in his native Ukraine, he emigrated with his family to Seattle. There he had a tractor-trailer route, but not on the interstate — it was round and round, in and about central Seattle’s maddening traffic.

Even maneuvering the No. 2 bus down busy Merrimon Avenue is easier, and Lebed says he likes Asheville very much. He and his wife are happily raising their two children here, one of whom is now old enough to point out the occasional flaws in his dad’s English. With his thick accent and easy demeanor, Lebed answers passengers’ requests with a quick smile and a “no problem” while deftly piloting the 28,000-pound bus.

In an informal survey of passengers conducted during several weeks of riding, Asheville Transit drivers’ courtesy and professionalism ranked high on the list of likes. The drivers are quick to “kneel” (lower) the buses to accommodate elderly and disabled riders, and they take pride in getting folks where they need to go, whether it’s to and from work, shopping, visiting friends in other parts of town, or (as Curtis, a retired gentleman, reveals) going downtown “just to have a look around.” A woman passenger disembarking at the north Asheville Ingles asked our driver: ” You come back round for me? I’m just gonna run in here for a few groceries.” And he said, “You do it. I’ll come back for you in an hour.” And of course he did.

Many passengers wish the buses would run later in the evening. Downtown Asheville is jumping, and 6 p.m. (the last bus on many routes) is way too early for anybody seeking a piece of the action. As one 5 p.m. passenger tells me, “My daughter and I come downtown to shop; I just wish we could stay and enjoy dinner at one of the outdoor cafes and then head home.” Those eateries would doubtless love to have her business, too. Another frequent request is for more shelters at the bus stops. Who wants to be at the mercy of the rain or sun while waiting for your ride?

Yet another problem is the lack of posted info. How are you supposed to decipher the system with so little to go on? New York, London, middle-of-nowhere Austria or Ireland, there are signs at the bus stops to help you chart your route. This spring, I watched a couple of German tourists approach my bus stop and quizzically walk round the signpost in an obvious search for a map. I tried to help them figure out where to catch the bus they needed. But they weren’t riding my bus, and there wasn’t much I could do except send them packing to the downtown Transit Center to obtain the full route schedule. They wound up choosing to walk to their destination instead.

Help, however, appears to be on the way. According to Transit Services Director Bruce Black, about 100 new route signs have been paid for (though they’ve yet to be designed). It’s a long-overdue improvement that’s sure to encourage more folks to use the bus, especially first-time riders.

Most Asheville Transit regulars are either physically limited or lack a car or license. And if you can’t decipher the city bus system, just ask one of them, because they already have. Other passengers, however, are what you might call “crossover riders” — we have cars and can drive them but often wish we didn’t have to. This group holds the greatest potential for boosting ridership, and we are legion (75 percent of city residents live within a quarter-mile of a bus route).

Asheville’s bus ridership is already on the rise (up 9.4 percent between 1998 and 2002). And seeing more bodies on the bus may be the best argument for shortening wait times and perhaps adding those long-awaited evening runs.

A common misconception is that Asheville needlessly employs big buses to accommodate a limited number of riders. But when I board the No. 2 bus at either Pritchard Park or Biltmore Avenue between 3 and 6 p.m., there are generally about 22 people on board. That’s pretty full (the total seating capacity is 28). And the bigger picture lends further testimony to the value of the city’s buses: With 15 vehicles running 19 routes, the Asheville Transit System averages 83,000 rides per month. (By way of comparison, consider that the Asheville Regional Airport served 43,322 outgoing and incoming passengers in June, according to their online statistics.)

In many ways, it’s easier and less stressful to get around on the bus than to deal with the cost and angst of operating an automobile. A blind woman who commutes to town for her job asserts that even if she could drive, she’d stick with mass transit, urging, “Let’s save the earth and ride the bus!” Other commuters agree: Using Asheville’s bus service makes sense. It’s affordable; the buses are clean, comfortable and air-conditioned; and with rare exceptions, they’re on time. Rising downtown parking fees and the ever-present threat of a parking ticket offer still more reasons for leaving the car at home.

Sharing a bus ride is also a great way to get to know the folks who live and work alongside you. Inevitably, a real camaraderie develops among the regulars on a particular route. As one rider put it, “You can form relationships with people that you would never know, except from the bus.”

Americans typically leave their home box to ride in their car box to get to their work box and back again. Riding the bus helps you live outside the box.

Route No. 2 – Merrimon Avenue

Monday through Saturday, the first bus departs the Asheville Transit Center at 7:30 a.m. It reaches Regent Park at 7:35, Florida Avenue at 7:40, and Haywood Road at 7:45. The route continues down Brevard Road, reaching the Farmer’s Market at 7:52 and Biltmore Square at 8 a.m. The return ride reaches the Farmer’s Market at 8:10, the Hanover Center on Haywood at 8:15, Clingman (Patton School) at 8:22 and the Transit Center at 8:26. 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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