ICYMI : Better service, more frequent buses

Check out my new column in the Citizen-Times, “Better service, more frequent buses coming to Asheville Transit.” If you’ve only got a minute, it’s worth a read. The city bus system is rolling out major changes on January 5, 2019, as part of a multiyear plan to deal with mounting traffic congestion and increase bus frequency on the city’s main corridors. As Chair of Asheville’s Multimodal Transportation Commission, I’m proud of the role I played in helping draft and pass that plan, then negotiating funding for its recommendations, beginning this past year.

That’s the short version. Got more than a minute?

This transit story actually starts in the Kingdom of Jordan in 2004. I was a new U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in the rural state of Karak, and my job in a big residential mental institution was the next town over, 10 miles away. In the Kingdom, buses are privately-owned, basically taxis with bench seats. They aren’t required to stop for you. Or do anything else, really. I spent a lot of days paying double fare, hanging outside the doors, sitting on laps. More than that, I spent a lot of time waiting as bus after bus drove past my corner with a mocking or sympathetic smile and wave.

It could have been frustrating, but it turns out everything is relative. Using a public service – such as it was – became a sort of zen exercise, subsuming my American impulse to leave and arrive exactly when I want, to have everything the exact instant I want, to a sort of inscrutable higher timetable outside my control. I learned to streamline schedules to stop by the dukkan (grocery store) and internet cafĂ© on the way home, because going out later was another trip and another wait. I spent a lot of time thinking about the people who have even less opportunity than me, the truly poor trudging bundles along the highway under the relentless sun.

So it sort of goes without saying that by the time I got back to Asheville I was a transit pro. When I got a job – overqualified and underpaid – working retail across town, I took the bus. Every day, for four years, I took the bus. My trip took me down Haywood Road, across the river and up to the transit center, then a 15-minute wait, then another 30 minutes across Kenilworth and out Tunnel Road. And you know what? It was sort of heavenly. At least when I got to the stop on time, and the bus was on time, it had to stop for me. At least I didn’t have to pay double, or sit in the driver’s lap, or hang off the outside.

Sure, sometimes the bus was late, or – worse – early. When it was early and I got to my corner to see the back of a bus vanishing down the hill, I learned I could hoof it across the river and make it to the transit center, sweaty and panting, just in time to catch my next leg. When it was late… well, what then? Had I missed it? Should I start hoofing it? How long should I stand there, trying to see if it was coming? But I had a lot of zen from my days in the desert. Probably more zen, sad to say, than I have now.

Now I have a car and a job that requires me to use it, visiting clients. I have four kids to pick up from two city schools. I don’t ride the bus daily anymore. Though I have an annual transit pass and ride often, it’s usually for low-stakes trips downtown. As Multimodal Commission chair (‘multimodal’ meaning more than one way of traveling), I ask my fellow commissioners every meeting what non-car form of transportation they’ve used in the preceding week. Most are reliable walkers, bus users, and bicyclists. I try to make sure I can say I’ve been on a bus, if nothing else.

Helmet, shield and princess dress not actually required.

All that is a long way, like a recipe-blog long way, of introducing the new changes to Asheville Transit. Here’s the context: the last major set of changes to the bus system happened in 2008, when Terry Bellamy was mayor. Around that time was also a major investment in new buses, meaning that by the time 2019 rolls around, much of the bus fleet is passing – if not already past – its usable lifespan of reliability.

Worse still, traffic has changed in the city over that decade. Bus routes that could run on time in 2008 can no longer hit their timetables during busy hours of the day, which are growing longer and more pervasive. By mid-2019, on-time performance, measured as whether a bus reaches a stop more than a minute early or more than five minutes late, is hovering around 60% systemwide. When a bus is late, there isn’t another bus to press into service as a backup, thanks to multiple engine failures among the aging fleet. People who depend on the bus lose their jobs over delays. They miss appointments. A growing number come to rely on Uber and Lyft, where a trip can cost ten or fifteen times what a bus fare costs, rather than chance their employment on a bus arriving on time. The deficiencies in the system become an extra tax on the already-poor, the lowest-income populations who can least afford it.

Could the city just buy more buses? Sure, and it did, though they take a year or more to get into service. More importantly, more buses weren’t going to fix the systemic problems with the routes. We needed a bigger overhaul.

So in 2018, the City of Asheville adopted a sweeping new plan for the transit system. It is available to read and has lots of moving parts, incorporating lots of community input. The biggest components, at least from my perspective, are:

Increase frequency of buses to 15 minutes along most major corridors. This would let people get by without timetables or such careful planning. The schedule up til now has meant some areas of the city only see buses once an hour. Miss one, you’re out of luck a whole hour. Instead, for most trips, riders could just go to a stop, wait a reasonable length, and a bus would be along shortly. For so-called “elective riders” or “riders-of-choice”, frequency is a necessity, a dealbreaker. But for folks traveling to work or their kids’ daycare, it’s the difference between convenience and hailing an Uber, too.

Run some buses through downtown and out the other side. Imagine a pinwheel with all the blades joined at the middle. That was the old bus map. Now imagine some of the blades crossing through the middle and heading on, like the rotors on a helicopter, and that’s the new map. Eliminating stops at the transfer center can reduce stopped time and keep things moving. People riding west-to-east – or east-to-west – like I did can avoid transfers and waits. Shortly, north-south will be the same. With the same buses, we can cover more ground, and faster.

Serve public housing and low-income communities better. Some changes have less to do with adding service, and more to do with making it serve the populations who use it most in ways that make more sense to their travel patterns. A lot of that kind of thinking went into the new routes. Think of buses from Pisgah View Apartments to the grocery store, for example, or Hillcrest Apartments to downtown.

Extend the time and distance transit covers. Late hours for late-shift workers. Broader coverage up Leicester Highway, out past Enka and Long Shoals. These latter extensions would push bus service outside city limits, but they’d require funding from the county government to do so.

The Transit Master Plan (TMP) calls for its recommendations to be phased in over ten years, with most of them happening in the first five. In theory, each planned year’s changes would need a big, but manageable, increase in the city’s transit budget. More importantly, most would represent ongoing commitments in future budgets: fund extended running times in 2020, you couldn’t reasonably go back to shorter hours the next year. You’d be expected to keep them going indefinitely. So planning them becomes a stacking-block exercise where you have to keep adding new things, as fast as you can reasonably manage — transit can’t wait! — while planning to keep funding for the past things going, too.

Almost from the moment the TMP passed in 2018, it was clear the first round of improvements were going to cost the city more than originally estimated. The route changes weren’t just a matter of the same drivers, driving the same buses, just on different streets. They added miles of gas and maintenance expenses, hours of driver and service shifts. The extension of service hours into late night, too, would mean more buses and workers, and would mean a separate city and county Paratransit service would also have to be extended. The cost of the new routes, even for only half a fiscal year, as we planned to save costs by pushing rollout to January, looked to be $1.7 million or more. The late hours would have added another $600,000 or so.

Priority exercise from the 2019 city council retreat

In March 2019, city council at their annual retreat received a budget-outlook presentation. The buyout of Mission Hospital made hundreds of properties around the city taxable that were previously tax-exempt nonprofits – a multimillion-dollar bump in city revenues. Yet in the longer term, the city’s ongoing costs for services were shown passing revenues and creating unsustainable deficits within a few years. Nevertheless, council made implementing the first year of TMP their top budget priority for the year, and transportation staff set to work trying to figure out how to make it happen.

(Side note: Asheville transit is actually run day-to-day by a private company, not by the city itself. Since transit workers are unionized, and state law forbids local governments from directly employing union workers, we have to work through this intermediary. The city’s contract with the transit management company periodically comes up for review. And big increases in funding, as this would surely be, trigger automatic contract reviews. But otherwise it’s negotiated, and treated, like any other legal contract.)

Over months of planning and negotiation, the Multimodal Commission pushed for all the Year 1 changes to happen at once. Outside advocacy groups and other community members pushed too, at city council meetings and public events. Yet it was clear the city wasn’t going to spend much more than $1 million in 2020. We were competing with other high city priorities, for one thing. But as importantly, passing all the changes at once was going to create a ripple through the budget that would seriously impact services in future years. Staff negotiated with transit management for the routes, some extra customer service and janitorial staff, and a few smaller items, and got the price to $1.2 million for 2020, and in June 2019 city council passed the largest budget increase in the existence of ART, and we began planning for Year 2.

This is a city success story. It wasn’t everything everybody needed, no. But it was a good fight for more than we had, more than we ought to have reasonably expected, for less money, and it lays the groundwork to build on in future years. We’re already pushing forward with extended service hours and more buses and routes in the 2021 budget request. It looks already to be another huge ask, and it will be a fight to get as much as we can with what’s available.

I will be leaving my term-limited seat on the Multimodal Commission in March, but we’ll be most of the way through the process by then. To celebrate, I’m going to ride a bus, and you should too. Expanding transit isn’t about forcing lifestyle changes on everyone. Those changes may be forced on us by growth, congestion, and climate change soon enough. It’s first and foremost about how the city serves those who need it most. But here’s the thing: your lifestyle can change, in small ways and large. Start by taking the bus on a weekly or monthly trip into downtown. Skip the parking fees and traffic hassle. Take a friend and chat, face-to-face as the city carries you along — it’s fun! Go from there.

Most everyone’s seen this image by now. The space on streets used by 200 people in cars is hundreds of times that used by bus riders, bicyclists and pedestrians. When we look at ways to reduce congestion on local roads, we have to recognize that, most days, we’re that congestion. Giving someone, anyone, the chance to take a trip by bus or walk to their destination is an easy, cost-effective way to save roads from expensive repairs and upgrades. Maybe someone making that choice saves you a bit of time in your day. Maybe you save it for someone else. We can all appreciate that, can’t we?