New riders consider getting on the bus: The GTA envisions an expanded transit system for our sprawling city

by Jordan Green

A diminutive black woman draws from a cigarette, bounces on her heels and turns a pirouette, doing a dance to ward off the cold in the giant shed that covers the Greensboro Transit Authority’s section of the Depot in downtown Greensboro.

Nearby a Montagnard couple squats to keep warm next to the slip for the High Point Road/GTCC bus. A black man wearing a starchy white dress shirt and jeans queries whether the buses are running every 30 minutes.

After receiving an unsatisfactory response, he grumbles, ‘“I know what I can do,’” and disappears.

It’s a quarter after seven, time enough to find a cup of coffee before the 8 o’clock High Point Road bus rolls out. A handful of people huddle around the coffee dispenser off to the side of the waiting room. Many of them are black men, and the talk floats around the topics of Virginia roots, the difficulty of finding work and who’s got cigarettes.

At around ten ’til the slips begin to fill with inbound buses drawing riders in from the periphery to the center of the city. After being disgorged, they hurry across the parking bay to make their connections.

With almost uncanny timing, a graying activist appears in the crowd with an armful of leaflets announcing a day of protest against the Bush administration for its failings in Iraq and Louisiana. Most of the waiting riders accept the leaflets eagerly and read their bill of particulars.

When the High Point Road departs the seats are full. Almost all the riders are African American, with the exception of the Montagnard couple and a 30-year-old white ethnographer. A few pass around the anti-Bush leaflets. Some others sleep or talk quietly on cell phones. There are those with eyes hidden behind sunglasses whose heads rest against the windows as the scenery unfolds. Many hold heavy textbooks on their laps ‘— chemistry, civics ‘— and a couple of them are turning the pages at this early hour.

It’s after eight when the bus cruises past the Coliseum. By this time I’ve been in transit for an hour and a half. It’s the proverbial long story, but suffice it to say I have missed the inbound Friendly Avenue bus by a couple minutes despite my care in scouting my stop and studying the schedule the night before. I’ve ended up walking a mile across downtown around 7 a.m. to get to the Depot. I’d missed the 7 o’clock bus and lost an hour.

My journey will yet require a wait under a stand of pines at the end of the High Point Road/GTCC bus line on Merritt Drive to wait for the connector service that actually goes to GTCC. Then a meandering ride on the connector service and a half-mile walk over well-irrigated grass along the roadway that leads to my newspaper’s office on Adams Farm Lane. By the time I get to work it’s almost 9 o’clock.

But that’s nothing.

Linda Lee, a student and employee at GTCC who describes herself as ‘“middle aged,’” spends three hours a day on the bus, riding from her home on Guilford College Road to the community college and back. By car, the seven-mile commute would take only about 15 minutes each way.

The Greensboro bus system is laid out like a gnarled set of spokes radiating from a hub with no encircling wheel. So Lee rides into town on the inbound West Market Street bus from the western edge of Greensboro to the Depot, transfers to the High Point Road bus and then takes the connector to GTCC at the end of the line in Jamestown.

‘“It’s not long if you think about it,’” Lee says. ‘“You can do your homework. You can talk to people. You can listen to music. Sometimes it’s a headache when you have to stand out in the cold. But I don’t have to pay for gas. I don’t have to pay for parking.’”

When I started planning my personal experiment with public transportation, I’d imagined that I’d be helpless without my car. I’d imagined that if my car suddenly gave out and I didn’t have $500 or so in reserve for repairs I’d face some kind of catastrophe, that my life would move in a downward spiral of failure. I’d be unable to get to work and would suddenly find myself without a job. I’d crack under the pressure of hardship and have to turn to family for support. In other words, I’d be reduced to a state of utter dependency.

The night before my first gambit I experienced a mild panic attack. I wondered if I had enough money to cover the fare. Would I need more than a dollar to cover the transfers? I was waiting for my paycheck to be deposited and felt sure my checking account was already tapped out. Could I pay for a fare card out of my savings account with my bank card? Could I pay with cash instead? For a moment I was certain that I’d spent all my cash on a six-pack of Yuengling. I wasn’t doing a very good job of playing at being the virtuous poor.

The money turned out to not be a problem. Buses take cash and fare cards. You can purchase fare cards by the ride or passes for the day, week or month that include free transfers at the Depot with cash or checks. What I did have a problem with was reading the signs. Even after picking up a stack of maps for the 14 day routes and seven evening routes, I’m still confused about where and when the buses will stop to make pickups. Unlike the trains in a major metropolis, there are no stations with stairs leading to a subway or steps to an elevated platform. The bus system is laid over the automobile grid and you probably wouldn’t even notice the little green rectangular signs unless you were looking for them. You’ll also soon learn that more than one bus travels on the same street, so it’s advisable to read the route numbers. The signs don’t tell you what time the bus comes through. If you consult the map, you’ll find it lists the times for about seven stops on the route, so the best you can do is predict a ten-minute window when the bus will arrive.

‘“It’s good to do a dry run,’” counsels Chantell Hill, a 21-year-old NC A&T University social work student who has been riding the bus since her car gave out last November.

On my first day without a car, my attempt at using the bus to do some evening shopping began much as my ill-fated journey to work. I walked out to Friendly Avenue to look for a bus to take me to the Harris Teeter in the Friendly Shopping Center. When I consulted the map and learned it would be roughly another 45 minutes before the bus would come I set out walking west. Sure enough, I covered the two miles to the grocery store before any bus came through.

When I’d completed my shopping, I asked two grocery store employees where to find the bus stop for the Friendly Shopping Center ‘— a listed stop for the Battleground Avenue/Friendly Shopping Center evening service bus. One of them confessed utter ignorance; another gave me vague instructions to go ‘“across the street.’” I walked across a massive parking lot that offers few sidewalks, finding no bus stop signs until I reached the Exxon gas station on Green Valley Road. The clerk pointed me down the street a couple blocks, and after about a half hour the bus appeared.

The local administrators who run Greensboro’s transit system are well aware of the perception by middle-income residents ‘— ‘“discretionary riders’” in transitspeak ‘—’ that public transportation is wholly impractical. The Greensboro Transit Authority, or GTA’s ‘“Long-Range Public Transportation Plan, which charts a plan to significantly expand the system over the next five years, frankly acknowledges as much.

‘“Transit service is not convenient enough to encourage potential riders to leave their cars at home, especially in many middle-income neighborhoods with hourly service,’” it reads. ‘“Discretionary riders are generally more time-sensitive and expect a higher level of service that more closely resembles the automobile.’”

I do find that the Battleground Avenue evening bus provides a convenient service for my evening shopping once I locate the stop. After a swing through the Depot, it heads north along Battleground Avenue and Lawndale Drive. I disembark with an hour to spend shopping for a winter jacket before I catch it on the next cycle. It deposits me three blocks from my house in Westerwood.

Life is not necessarily a catastrophe of accumulating misfortunes for those who rely on public transportation in Greensboro. But the transit system does provide a steady stream of aggravations.

‘“I don’t get a kick out of riding the bus,’” says A&T student Hill, who uses it to get to class, to an internship and to work. ‘“My brother-in-law is fixing up my car. I’ve been a year without my car. Even when I get it back I think I’ll continue to use the bus. It really doesn’t bother me to ride the bus. I just get on and go.’”

Like many riders, she cites the high cost of gas and parking ‘— $200 per year on A&T’s campus ‘— as reasons to use the bus.

But venturing into new territory on the bus, say, for the purpose of looking for housing or employment, can involve plenty of stumbling blocks.

‘“Over the summer my roommate and I were looking for apartments,’” Hill recalls during an interview at the Hardee’s down the street from Big Brothers/Big Sisters, where she goes for her internship. ‘“The number nine bus was the bus we got on. We asked the driver: ‘Which is the stop for Aspen?’ She said: ‘You’re on the wrong bus.’ The people at GTA said: ‘You need to be on a number nine.’ By then the bus was already gone. I called the supervisor, and she told me: ‘We’re very sorry for the inconvenience.””

Hill ended up having to beg a ride from a friend to get to the apartment complex before the manager went home for the night.

The A&T senior spends about 10 hours a week on the bus ‘— as much as three hours and 30 minutes a day ‘— to get from her home on West Market Street to classes at A&T, to her internship in downtown Greensboro and her job at the McDonald’s at the Friendly Shopping Center. Between classes, the internship and her job, Hill works a total of 58 hours.

She says she doesn’t go out much on weekends because of the reduced service hours. She sometimes finds herself cutting dangerous corners after a Wednesday evening class to avoid wasting an hour on a bus that will ultimately deposit her a mile away from her point of origin.

‘“For us to get back home we have to ride all the way up to Phillips Avenue even though the Depot is right near campus,’” she says. ‘“It’s two hours to get back home if you leave after seven p.m. If we get out at 8:20 I end up walking to the Depot. That’s not safe at all, but I’d rather get my adrenaline up than wait an hour.

‘“One hundred and ten percent of the time I observe my surroundings,’” she adds. ‘“My family and I are concerned, but what am I going to do? I talk to my family two or three times a day. I’m expected to call my mother and father. If I don’t they will call yelling.’”

She’d like to find another job to replace her McDonald’s gig, but that would require more flexibility than the bus affords.

‘“On the bus you really have to plan out your day,’” she says. ‘“You have to plan to go to areas where there are a lot of places you want to stop. For instance, if I go over to the Brown Building’” ‘—’ she gestures across the street ‘— ‘“I might drop off one application, but I’ll have to wait another full hour before the bus comes by again if I don’t have anything else to do in this area.’”

Along with students, another group for whom public transportation is a critical necessity are people with disabilities. One of them is 51-year-old Robin Sigmon, an artist who goes to a part-time job two days a week and also uses the bus to get to the YMCA.

Asked if the bus system is convenient, he responds emphatically: ‘“Yeah, it sure is. I’m thinking about buying a pass so I can ride it all week.

‘“My mother is sick,’” he explains. ‘“I just use it because I can’t drive. I’m on medication. Another reason is because it’s cheaper than taking the taxi. I plan to go to GTCC in the spring to take computer-drafting classes. I usually go to the grocery store on Fridays. My mother takes me. I get seven bags of groceries and some laundry detergent.’”

On a recent Thursday evening Hill and Sigmon are waiting with Mark Tener for separate buses at a stop at the corner of Friendly Avenue and Spring Street.

‘“My son and I, we rely on it because we haven’t got much transportation,’” Tener says. ‘“It works pretty good. The only thing is I wish we had a thirty-minute route on Battleground. [But] there’s so many empty seats I understand why they don’t have them coming every thirty minutes.’”

The bus transports Tener to the Social Security office, to the doctor’s office, to visit family and to get exercise at the Y. He said he believes the 6, 10 and 12 buses probably have enough riders to support increasing the frequency of service from an hour to a half hour. The three bus lines branch out across the eastern, majority black side of the city, together serving the Guilford County Department of Social Services, Northeast Shopping Center, A&T, Lorillard Tobacco, Urban Ministries, Hampton Homes, Smith Homes, St. James Homes, the unemployment office and the UPS distribution center.

Judging by the advertised stops on GTA maps, government services are big part of the transit demand. The conspicuous presence of textbooks on the bus speaks for the usefulness of buses to students. And uniforms bearing the logos of K&W Cafeterias, Wendy’s and Sonic clearly attest to low-wage service employees’ dependence on public transportation. But the largest workplaces and the most prestigious corporate names shake out from a mixed bag.

The city’s largest employer, Moses H. Cone Health System, with its main campus at 1200 N. Elm St. where 2,938 people work, is a prominent stop on the Route 3 bus. The US Postal Service’s bulk mail center lies at the end of the West Wendover Avenue line. Lorillard Tobacco Co.’s main campus at 420 N. English St. is listed on the East Market Street line. The Randleman Road/South Elm-Eugene Street line swings past the UPS distribution center. The previous three companies each employ thousands of workers in Greensboro. Bank of America, which employs about 1,900 workers throughout Greensboro, has its main branch in the heart of downtown.

But five other companies that fall in an unscientific ranking of the top 10 workplaces in Greensboro lie out of reach of prospective employees who rely on public transportation. The Volvo Trucks assembly plant, with 2,200 employees; the American Express call service center, with 2,100 employees; RF Micro Devices, a microchip manufacturer with 1,500 employees; and Tyco Electronics, with 1,800 to 1,900 workers, all operate facilities along the Highway 68 corridor near the airport and Interstate 40. Timco Aviation Services, the aircraft maintenance company that has received negative publicity this year for employing undocumented immigrants, operates practically at the airport, but far beyond both the Friendly Avenue and West Market Street lines.

‘“We’re really going to feel the lack of investment in rail around here,’” says Jane Redmont, a religion and women’s studies professor at Guilford College who catches a ride with me to Deep Roots Market on a recent Friday. ‘“The middle class are going to feel it soon. The poor are feeling it. The other thing about being poor and not having a car is you have to spend more money on food.

‘“Food and transportation are part of a larger issue,’” she adds. ‘“It’s about infrastructure, planning and priorities.’”

She’s buying avocados, red onions, Silk soy drink, organic milk and miso today at the food cooperative on Spring Garden Street ‘— items that aren’t necessarily available at the Harris Teeter across from campus.

The 53-year-old Redmont, who relocated to Greensboro in August to accept a teaching job after completing her graduate studies at the University of California at Berkeley, might not be the kind of person typically thought of as too poor to own a car.

She lost her car in Berkeley, but she learned to adjust. Here, it’s more complicated.

‘“I’m sure one of the reasons I’ve put off some medical checkups is because I don’t have a car, and the reason I don’t have a car is economic,’” she says. ‘“My car in Berkeley broke down. I was a student and I couldn’t afford to get a new one. I’m still paying off my move. It’s going to be awhile before I get one.’”

For Redmont, public transportation holds a certain romance as a signifier of urbanity, but also offers a lens through which to view class differences.

‘“My rule of thumb is if I can walk to public transportation and a fresh loaf of bread, I don’t need a car,’” she says. ‘“In Berkeley I could walk to the post office, the subway, the bus, the school where I studied, where I worked. There were two farmers markets where I could get bread. There were clothing stores, bars ‘— I don’t go to bars ‘— restaurants, several movie theaters, and a monastery where I went to pray with the monks.

‘“I rode the bus from Berkeley to Oakland to go to church on Sundays,’” she adds. ‘“and the riders changed from students to working poor people of color, and elderly. I loved riding the bus. It reminded me of how isolated we are from each other in this country ‘— like what Hurricane Katrina reminded us.’”

And yet what’s striking is how few white people are on the bus, at least in Greensboro.

On the week following the death of Rosa Parks a black ribbon tied in a bow blocks off the front seat of every GTA bus to honor her memory. Someone not steeped in the lore of the civil rights movement might miss the significance of Parks’ bold refusal to relinquish her seat to a white man 50 years ago in Montgomery, Ala. Using public transportation in any mid-sized Southern city today it’s unclear whether many white people care about sitting at the front of the bus anymore ‘— or care to ride the bus at all.

Just as electoral power (and fear of crime and civil disorder) in the late ’60s and early ’70s prompted white flight to the suburbs, desegregation of public transportation may have resulted in whites choosing to withdraw their participation. One might say whites went on strike against desegregation.

The demographics of Greensboro bus riders have changed since public transportation was inaugurated in the Gate City in 1924, notes GTA Director Libby James.

‘“When public transportation first started in this community it was predominantly used by white persons,’” she says. ‘“Now the profile of the typical transit rider is an African-American female. I do know that the Rosa Parks incident in 1955 started it all in terms of giving the choice for people to sit anywhere they wanted.’”

She says she has no information about trend lines in white ridership since 1955.

Despite resistance from middle and upper-class residents and from many whites in the past couple decades, public transportation ridership is actually on the rebound. James says ridership in Greensboro increased by 20 percent from last year, which she attributes to both the renovation of the Depot and rising fuel prices.

Mike Byers, assistant vice chancellor at UNCG, says college students are increasingly turning to public transportation as an alternative to cars.

‘“There seems to be an increasing demand from students,’” he says, ‘“both from students who are becoming more environmentally aware and because of rising costs of transportation. Parking is a scarce resource on all campuses.’”

He adds: ‘“We have a large number of students who live within two miles of campus. That makes transit a very good option. Those people buy parking permits. That’s kind of low-hanging fruit. Those folks have many other options other than driving their cars on campus ‘—’ biking, walking, riding the bus.’”

The GTA is entertaining dramatic plans for expansion, as outlined in its ‘“Long Range Public Transportation Master Plan.’” The plan calls for doubling ridership between 2002 and 2008, and quadrupling public investment in transit from $10.7 million in 2004 to $44.6 million in 2009. The report pegs ridership at 2 million in 2002 and anticipates that double that number will be using riding the bus by 2008.

The plan would create a $10.1 million deficit by 2009, compared to the current projected deficit of $1.3 million. The deficit would be paid off by a combination of new sales taxes, increased property taxes, increased motor vehicle taxes and fare hikes.

For the taxpayers’ and riders’ trouble the master plan envisions in return a system with buses running every half hour, cross-town routes, park-and-ride lots on the outskirts to help move suburban commuters into the city, and a downtown circular service that would link UNCG and A&T.

The master plan proposes as a short-term goal adding cross-town routes along Florida Street, Holden Road and Cone Boulevard. A long-range plan would add three additional cross-town routes, along with express bus routes along Interstate 85 east of Greensboro, Benjamin Parkway and Highway 68. Also proposed is a rail service connecting Winston-Salem, Greensboro, High Point and Burlington that might be paid for by a joint sales tax between Guilford and Forsyth counties.

While these plans currently constitute an unfunded mandate, concrete plans are in place to eliminate fares for college students and add eight new bus lines to link up Greensboro’s six colleges and the new Elon Law School, starting in the fall of 2006. The city of Greensboro received funding from the federal Congestion Mitigation Air Quality Program to expand bus service. Of the six colleges in Greensboro, all but A&T have indicated a willingness to contribute to a 20 percent funding match, James says.

James maintains optimism that the perception of public transit as only for poor people can be successfully countered.

‘“That has already happened in terms of countering that stereotype,’” she says. ‘“The rise in fuel costs certainly has more people interested in riding. The Greensboro community is a non-attainment community in terms of air quality. I think that would have an impact on people’s perceptions of public transportation.’”

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