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Waiting for Reliable Transportation a Costly Proposition

C

ommuting to work can be a challenge in Winston-Salem for many of us with cars. But when Tom Petty sang “The waiting is the hardest part,” it rings even more true for those who depend on our city’s public buses. Some bus riders endure commutes of up to 90 minutes each way to cross the city. Waiting for a bus that comes once an hour, a person may find little comfort other than a sharp-edged steel pole to lean against at most bus stops. Blazing heat, rain and freezing cold can add to the challenges of getting to a destination.

What many of us forget is just how essential a car is in Winston-Salem to move up the economic ladder. Buses provide affordable service, at $1 a ride, but access to jobs, medical care and shopping are limited to stops along the bus routes. People’s lives then shrink because there is a smaller set of available choices. As Robert Frost once wrote in his famous poem, “the road not taken” may never be known.

Winston-Salem State University’s Center for Study of Economic Mobility (CSEM) is interested in examining the scope of this “road not taken question” as it relates to economic mobility. In the coming months, CSEM plans a survey of WSTA fixed-route bus riders. The survey will study their current career, medical and spending choices, to better glean what sorts of missed opportunities are occurring. Is it harder to climb the economic ladder when the bus system is the only transportation option? Are job opportunities lost because workplaces aren’t on the bus route? Are there missed promotions and missed medical appointments? Are there innovative ways to solve these problems?

Because CSEM highlights people behind the statistics it produces, it also had local filmmaker Diana Greene produce a compelling documentary. Titled Bus Stop Jobs, the 10-minute film puts a face on the transportation barrier by showing a day in the life of a Winston-Salem bus rider.

That face is Brittany Marshall, a single parent who lives in Eastern Winston-Salem. At 25, she’s been riding public transportation for most of her life, tens of thousands of hours in a life with its share of challenges. She’s never had a car. She and her 7-year-old son, Elijah, depend on the Winston-Salem Transit Authority’s buses.

Bus ridership peaked at 3.46-million riders in fiscal year 2011-12 and has fallen every year since, according to the Quality Transportation report put out by the City of Winston-Salem. It dipped to 2.75-million riders in fiscal year 2016-2017. Ridership is expected to sink again, to 2.50-million riders, as this fiscal year ends, according to the report. That’s a cumulative drop of 27.7 percent in ridership between fiscal year 2011-12 and fiscal year 2017-18. Route changes in 2017 contributed to some of the decline. Many buses now only come once an hour, where they previously came every half hour.

At the same time, expenditures on the fixed-route bus system are expected to rise, from $11.87 million in fiscal year 2016-17 to a proposed budget of $13.93 million in fiscal year 2018-19, according to the same report. That’s a two-year cumulative increase of 17.4 percent in money spent.

Lack of access to reliable transportation holds people back in their careers and makes it all the harder to raise children. Marshall and her son get up before dawn most days in their modest apartment, packing their lunches and backpacks the night before to save precious minutes. Marshall takes a 10-minute walk with her son to Petree Elementary School, where he waits an hour to catch a bus to his magnet school, Brunson Elementary. Then Marshall waits at a stop near Petree for her Winston-Salem Transit Authority bus. She waits in rain and snow and heat. Her stop, like so many in the city, does not have a place to sit, much less a roof over that seat. The nearest covered bus stop is too far away, she said.“It’s a real challenge,” Marshall said in a recent interview. “I have gotten sick from being in the cold too long and sick of being in the heat too long. I have asthma, and sometimes I’ll have an asthma attack.”If her bus is on time, she gets to work by 7 a.m. If not, she’ll have to stay at work longer. Some employers dock their workers for being late. Fortunately, Marshall can use flex time.

Marshall, who took some classes at Forsyth Tech after earning her GED, is an automated clearing-house processor for Wells Fargo at its Innovation Quarter office. After work, she walks about a half-mile to her son’s day care center. Then they walk to the bus stop at 7th Street and Patterson Avenue. If they’re lucky, they catch the 5:10. If not, they have to wait an hour for the next bus, Marshall said. There are many working folks like Marshall on the bus. But some passengers are drunk or use foul language, according to Marshall. Sometimes, she said, she covers Elijah’s eyes and ears. “He just looks at me like ‘What are you doing?’” When her son asks her why they ride the bus, she tells him, “Because it’s just our only way of transportation right now. And I teach him to thank God for what you have.”

Bus fare costs her $60 a month, she said. Cab fare, which she uses for situations such as medical emergencies, can run another $100. While that’s below the annual costs of a car, there is, again, the sheer inconvenience of it all. Most bus routes only run once an hour, so missing the bus is a huge problem.

Given that, Marshall and other riders want better service. As it is, they often have to resort to cabs. They can take longer than an hour to arrive, depending on how busy their companies are. (Uber rides would be quicker, but Marshall hasn’t tried those yet.)

There’s the fact that Marshall can’t take a better-paying job in a neighboring city because, if her son had an emergency, she couldn’t get to him through the bus system fast enough. And the lack of a car inhibits the hair-styling business she does on the side, both at home and in a shop in an independent living center. Once while she was leaving that job, she said, her bus rode right past her. “I’m like, ‘You know I’m a single parent and I don’t want to be stuck out here in the dark.’” She gets by with the help of friends and her faith. She attends Destiny Christian Center in Greensboro. “One of my friends drives the church bus,” Marshall said. “That’s where she goes to church so I ride with her.”

Marshall hopes to buy a car in the next few months through a Triad nonprofit agency, Wheels for Hope, that works with partner agencies to provide donated cars to qualified recipients for $500 each. Recipients are responsible for taxes and insurance. Marshall learned how to drive in parking lots from friends, and is studying for her driver’s license test. She believes the city of Winston-Salem and the county of Forsyth should explore ways to improve public transportation. A good start, she said, would be having the buses run every half hour instead of every hour. She’s not alone in such brainstorming.

Winston-Salem State University’s CSEM Director Craig Richardson is listening to folks like Marshall. He’s also enlisting the help from well-established institutions such as Wake Forest University School of Medicine, The Winston-Salem Foundation and Forsyth Futures. “Our city is known for its creative ‘out of the box’ thinkers,” Richardson stated. “As a result of our collaboration, we aim to ask pointed questions about ‘the road not taken’. We want our city to be known for trying new ideas that not only help the tech sector, but also some of its hardest working individuals, like Brittany Marshall.”

The researchers plan to present their results to city officials this fall and host community discussions.

For Marshall and many others, those discussions can’t come soon enough.

For more information go to Wheels for Hope.

Railey can be reached at raileyjb@gmail.com 

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