Getting ‘em on the bus

When Burlington, Vt., implemented a one-year, fare-free promotional period, ridership increased 56 percent — and it remained 25 percent higher after fares were reinstated.

The recent article “How Green Is Asheville?” (March 15 Xpress) gave a good overview of sustainability initiatives. As a follow-up, here are some specific ideas for how Asheville can create a more innovative and viable transit network as part of an overall community strategy for: improving air quality; cutting spending on new parking facilities; encouraging healthier, more active lifestyles; and reducing transportation costs for working families.

I’d like to emphasize up front that even if Asheville takes bold steps to create a more effective transit network, we will still need to provide more parking. It’s not an either/or question — we need both.

I first got interested in mass transit while working for the Western North Carolina Alliance. Once it became clear, back in 2002, that the General Assembly was going to pass the N.C. Clean Smokestacks Act, we started looking at what other steps could be taken to improve air quality. Creating a transit network that allows more people to get around town without using their car seemed like a no-brainer. Since that time, there have been many community forums to solicit public input, and a lot of research has been done on what’s working in other cities. Based on what I’ve heard and learned, I’d like to suggest three key actions we can take.

First, we need better transit service in the evenings. This is the No. 1 service improvement city residents have asked for. Most of our bus routes depart from the downtown transit station for their final trip of the day between 5:30 and 6:15 p.m. Many people are still working at that hour; others may not be ready to go home yet. City Council should support extending basic transit service into the evening hours.

Equally important is an effective marketing strategy for attracting new riders. The biggest challenge to building public and political support for investing in mass transit is the fact that our buses run around mostly empty for much of the day. “Why should we invest more in transit when so few people use it?” critics ask. That’s a fair question.

One of the most powerful ways to attract new riders is simply letting people ride for free. Communities across the country have used a fare-free program either as a temporary promotional strategy or as an ongoing, permanent policy to attract and retain riders.

When the Transit Authority of Topeka, Kan., offered a month of free bus service in May 1998, it sparked a 93 percent increase in ridership. Amherst, Mass., expanded its fare-free campus-shuttle service into outlying neighborhoods in 1976. Transit usage increased by 4,000 riders per day, half of whom had previously traveled by car. And when Burlington, Vt., implemented a one-year, fare-free promotional period, ridership increased 56 percent — and it remained 25 percent higher after fares were reinstated.

Some communities have used unlimited-access programs in which universities or businesses pay the transit system directly so their employees or students can ride for free. This is a good idea and one we should pursue in Asheville. But using this strategy alone would restrict our marketing campaign to a tiny percentage of potential bus riders. Combining unlimited access with a 90-day, fare-free promotional period, on the other hand, would create an incentive for all city residents to give transit a try.

Some City Council members point out that people rarely cite free service as an incentive that would entice them to use mass transit. Relying on citizen surveys alone, however, ignores the subtle but powerful psychological factors that deter many people from using mass transit. Most city residents have never used the system and don’t know how to navigate it. They don’t know which bus to take to get to work, how much it costs to ride, whether exact change is required, and who you pay (i.e. do you give the money to the driver or drop it in a slot?). Rather than risk a potentially embarrassing situation in front of strangers by getting on a bus and not knowing what to do, people exercise their other option: using their car.

Fare-free promotional campaigns lure new riders by making transit radically simple: All you have to do is get a map of the transit routes and then you can just hop on the bus free of charge.

In fact, expanding transit service into evening hours without a great marking plan that reaches out to the whole community could turn out to be a recipe for spending lots of taxpayer dollars so more buses can run around mostly empty. But targeted service improvements coupled with effective marketing creates much greater chances for success.

Finally, Asheville should commit to buying clean-running, hybrid-electric buses. Hybrids are quiet. They reduce particulate air pollution (i.e. smog) by 90 percent, nitrogen-oxide emissions by 40 percent and global-warming emissions by 30 percent. Orion hybrids are also 30 percent more fuel-efficient than conventional buses, which helps offset the higher up-front cost.

Investing in transit, sidewalks and greenways does not require local governments to raise taxes. It simply means making these things higher priorities within our existing transportation and community-development programs.

Even as you read this, the Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County commissioners are developing our 2006-07 budgets. During this critical time, I particularly welcome your feedback and ideas (you can reach me at newmanasheville@aol.com). These are your tax dollars, so if you have an opinion, make your voice heard!

[Asheville City Council member Brownie Newman serves as liaison to the Asheville Transit Commission and representative to the Metropolitan Planning Organization. He lives in Montford.]

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