Just Economics State of the Transit System

Just Economics Transit Celebration 7The majority of bus riders on Asheville’s transit system are non-elective, meaning they have no form of transportation other than the city bus. These riders depend on the bus to get them to their jobs, schools, grocery store, doctor’s visits, child care centers and so on. For years, workers depending on the bus would have to find alternative transportation on Sunday’s and holidays, but transit advocates celebrated the implementation of limited Sunday and holiday service last January 2015.

There continues to be positive movement in our local transit system, due largely to the advocacy work of the People’s Voice on Transportation Equality (VOTE), a grassroots transportation advocacy group born from local non-profit, Just Economics.

The group is applauding the City of Asheville’s decision to add an additional 8 evening service hours to the ART (Asheville Redefines Transit) system. Extending evening bus service was the main focus for the VOTE advocates and was the primary issue addressed at a “State of Transit” press conference held by Just Economics on January, 26, 2016.

“There is great support for extending evening bus service,” says Just Economics Community Organizer, Amy Cantrell.  In order to gauge the level of support, the People’s VOTE group and UNCA students conducted a survey with 138 bus riders and nine business owners and the results were astoundingly in favor of increased evening hours. 100% of surveyed riders/community members showed  support of extending bus service on some ART routes. 92.5% reported that extending bus service would help them get to/from work while 93.7% reported that extending bus service would help them meet their basic needs, such as grocery shopping, doctor’s visits, etc.

Business owners who were surveyed also showed strong support for extending evening bus service, with 55.6% of businesses reported that it would increase the number of customers and 66.7% of businesses reported that it would increase the number and pool of potential employees.

“Increased funding to implement extended evening hours is what we were really working for,” says Amy. “This is good news, but it’s still not enough.”

Additionally, the transit department has decided to run the popular S3 bus, which goes from downtown to South Asheville and to the airport, to run every hour instead of every 1.5 hours.

Finally, an additional staff member will be hired for the City of Asheville Transportation department, which oversees transit improvements, routes, bus stops and scheduling for the ART system.

Between now and January 2017 when these changes will be implemented, the City of Asheville Transportation department will be accepting public input about which bus routes they feel would be best suited for the additional evening hours. There will be surveys available at the downtown transfer station on Coxe Avenue, at various bus-tops, online at www.ashevillenc.gov/Departments/Transit and through Just Economics Voices on Transportation Equality.

Unwilling to rest on these victories, the Just Economics People’s VOTE group has their eye on advocating for more changes within the transit system.

In an effort to help establish formal transit guidelines, the group has written language that will be adopted into transit policy upon approval. Previously, there were unwritten yet somewhat understood rules and regulations for bus riders, but they were arbitrary and inconsistent. The group worked for a year to draft language addressing suspensions, the number of carry-on bags allowed, whether portable grocery carts were allowed, and so on.

Upon waiting for approval from the City of Asheville Transportation department on their policy language, they did get receive tacit approval that allows bus passengers to bring portable grocery carts onto the bus.

Previously, the unwritten rule was that each bus passenger was only allowed to carry 3 bags of groceries onto the bus. Mothers travelling with children would load backpacks up with groceries and cram groceries into strollers in order to get everything onto the bus in the allotted number of bags.

Now, with advocacy from People’s Voices on Transportation Equality (VOTE), passengers can bring as many groceries as they can carry onto the bus-including transporting them with a portable cart.

With this new adjustment, Just Economics is ready to launch a pilot project of asking local grocery stores to start supplying portable grocery carts, so they can be on hand for riders. Soon, they are hoping to provide vouchers for the purchase of carts so they can provide them to people unable to afford them.

Among the many items on the current People’s VOTE agenda is the re-instatement of bus stops inside public housing and retirement communities.

Just Economics Transit CelebrationWhen the city redefined its transit system in 2012, one of the major changes it made was removing many popular bus stops inside large public housing and retirement communities-namely, the Deaverview apartments with 160 units and the Bartlett Arms with 114 units and large low-economic retiree population. “People come and tell us of their elderly neighbors having to walk incredibly long distances to get to the nearest bus stop,” says Just Economics, Amy Cantrell. “Some of these communities are huge with a lot of hills, making it very difficult for the elderly and families with small children.”

Finally, the transit advocacy group is looking to condense and clarify bus information including schedules and routes. “Right now, you have to wade through about 17 pieces of paper to get all of the ART information,” says Amy. “We just want to make it clear and easy for all bus riders to understand.”

*In the next fiscal year starting July 1, the city is planning to spend $7.5 million on transit, a 13 percent increase from this year’s $6.6 million.  The biggest source of the transit budget would be $2.7 million from the city’s general fund, which comes from property taxes, fees and sales taxes. The next biggest, $2.4 million, would come from federal and state grants. Fares would cover $840,000.

If you would like to join Just Economics’ People’s Voices for Transportation Equality, call Just Economics at 828-505-7466 or attend a meeting on the second Wednesday of every month at 4 p.m. at the United Way building downtown. To find out more about the 19 point Transportation Reform Campaign go to www. justeconomicswnc.org.

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This story was written as a part of the Success Equation. Under the umbrella of Children First/Communities In Schools, the Success Equation is an initiative to reduce and prevent the root causes of poverty so all children can thrive. Get involved! Learn about action steps, volunteer opportunities and help share these messages by going to www.SuccessEquation.org or join us on Facebook at SuccessEquation.

*Asheville, county managers to discuss bus for US 74A, Reynold- Asheville Citizen Times, Joel Burgess