The big ride

I boarded the Route 4 Asheville Transit bus at the Coxe Avenue station at 11 a.m. on a chilly Thursday morning. Snow was still on the ground and the wind was icy cold, but when I stepped onto the bus, I was immediately forced to open up several layers of winter insulation — it was really, really warm inside.

The bus filled rapidly to half its capacity, some riders greeting the friendly driver with a familiar “hello” or a smile as they dropped quarters into the coin counter or flashed bus passes. Soon the driver moved us out onto Patton Avenue.

As I live just outside downtown and own a car for use on longer excursions, I had never before ridden a bus in Asheville. In fact, the vast majority of times I’ve used mass transit have been during visits to big cities, where the ride was not merely a means of getting from here to there but also a chance to take in the scenery — natural, built and human.

Suddenly, I found myself observing Asheville in the same fashion, pleasantly oblivious to the traffic through which the driver skillfully maneuvered us. Instead of dodging pedestrians and cursing the ubiquitous, poorly driven SUVs, I was paying attention to the faces of people on the sidewalks, noting subtleties of downtown architecture that usually go by in a blur, and (after another rider had pointed them out to me) admiring the snow-dusted mountaintops framing the chaos of Tunnel Road. Viewed through the bus’s big windows, the whole experience took on an almost cinematic quality.

No doubt the novelty of riding past the hospitals, through Kenilworth and on to K mart wears off, but is long-term bus use at least tolerable?

“Oh yeah — I like it,” said one veteran passenger (who didn’t want her name used). She should know — she moved here the day after Thanksgiving in 1938 and has never owned a car. Yet this seasoned bus rider had only nice things to say about the Asheville Transit System.

“I don’t have to walk far from the stops, and the drivers are real nice,” she said, adding, “Even if I had a car, I’d leave it parked and get the bus.”

A radical notion. But when I considered the number of near misses I’ve witnessed or participated in at that nasty intersection near the Beaucatcher Cinemas, it began to make sense. And watching the cars careening around us (filled with — or, more often, only minimally occupied by — harried holiday shoppers and impatient folks on lunch breaks) while the driver piloted us smoothly past the mall drove home my fellow rider’s point nicely. As she put it, “Everyone is in a big hurry to get nowhere.”

So the next time necessity dictates a trip to Tunnel Road, I will seriously consider keeping my car out of the mess in the streets and leaving my mind free to occupy itself more pleasantly than with cursing the jerk in front of me while reading the equally unprintable epithets on the lips of the furious driver in my rear-view mirror.

Route #4 – Kenilworth/Asheville Mall

Monday through Saturday, the first bus leaves the Asheville Transit Center at 6 a.m. It reaches Mission Hospital at 6:10; Caledonia Woodhill at 6:15; Innsbruck Mall at 6:20; Asheville Mall/Overlook at 6:30 and Tunnel Road/Kenilworth at 6:40. Then it’s back to Memorial Mission at 6:45 and the Transit Center at 6:56. The pattern repeats every hour, with the last ride of the afternoon pulling into the Transit Center at 6:56 p.m.

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