Catching CAT: A veteran reporter rides the city buses for the first time

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Catching CAT: A veteran reporter rides the city buses for the first time

Lesson number one: The bus waits for no one.

I find this out pretty darn quick as I hike up Elliott Avenue about three quarters of a mile south of the Downtown Mall on January 8 to catch a Charlottesville city bus for the very first time since I moved here 17 years ago.

I’m embarrassed to admit that. After all, I’ve written plenty of stories about public transportation. I’ve ridden the free trolley between UVA and Downtown, sure, but I’ve never boarded a city bus to get anywhere, even though I’ve often said I’m going to start doing it. My excuses are always of the moment: I’m running late… I have too much to carry… It’s too cold… Bottom line is, I’m spoiled by the convenience of my car.

Today, there won’t be any excuses, even though I’ve picked a doozy of a day for my entrée into bus riding, four days after the Charlottesville Area Transit put new routes into effect. The weather folks are calling this early January arctic chill a polar vortex, but I’m going to stick with a simpler description: “Too freaking cold.” According to my phone, it’s 10 degrees at 9:15am.

I’m dressed for it with gloves, hat, ski parka, and wool socks, but even so, the wind is biting the front of my legs through my jeans as I arrive at the bus stop on Elliott Avenue near the Burnet Commons neighborhood, clutching the schedule for Route 6 in my rapidly numbing hand. I thought I had things under control, but figuring out exactly when a bus arrives at a given stop is turning out to be harder than I had imagined. The schedules show only the times a bus arrives at main stops along their routes. For Route 6, that means times are given only for the Downtown Transit Center, Willoughby Shopping Center out Fifth Street Extended, and UVA’s Jordan Hall. I know this stop is between the Transit Center and the Shopping Center, and I’m figuring I’m a couple minutes early for the next bus.

I’m not.

“There is no bus scheduled to arrive at this stop in the next 30 minutes,” says the automated voice when I call the number the Transit Center provides for up-to-the-minute bus arrival information. I look at the map again, and realize I’ve read it wrong. The bus must have come about 10 minutes earlier, and now there won’t be another one for close to 45 minutes.

Do I hunker down at the stop and wait in the biting cold, or do I walk to work in the biting cold? The wind whips as I contemplate my unattractive options. I’m three-quarters of a mile from work and half a mile from my house, where my car, my sweet, warm, comfortable car sits in my driveway. So warm. So convenient.

I banish such thoughts and head north on foot toward the Mall. At least I’m moving. It’s an inauspicious beginning to my day as a city bus rider, but as I’m about to find out over the next few hours, regular bus riders do a lot of walking, too, and with the changes in the bus routes, some are doing more walking—and more waiting— than they’d like.

Younis Suleiman waits outside the Downtown Transit Center for Route 2 to take him to an appointment at the Department of Social Services. Photo: Elli Williams
Younis Suleiman waits outside the Downtown Transit Center for Route 2 to take him to an appointment at the Department of Social Services. Photo: Elli Williams

“We had to walk from the Chester food store to catch the connecting bus,” says 17-year-old Athena Evans, her breath visible in the air outside the Downtown Transit Center where she and 18-year-old Alexis Ford, both students at Virginia School of Massage at Seminole Square, are waiting for the Route 7 bus.

They ride Route 3 in from their apartments on Fifth Street Extended into town, Evans explains, and the recent changes to that route mean they no longer get dropped directly at the Transit Center but instead have to walk several blocks from the stop at the corner of Market and Ninth streets to the Transit Center to catch the connecting bus. As a result of the change, both women say, they’re having to leave home significantly earlier, and today both are late.

“Very late,” Evans stresses. Both express gratitude there’s a bus to ride at all, but note that there’s little room for scheduling error. You miss the bus, you’re out of luck if you don’t have a  car.

“What do you do then?” I ask.

“I call every one of my contacts and say, ‘Help me!’” laughs Evans.

It’s a tactic several other bus riders I meet say they use, too, since a missed bus can mean anything from a missed appointment to a lost job.

Lesson number two: Make sure you have good friends with cars.

Alexis Ford and Athena Evans say the change in bus routes has made travel harder, but they have praise for the Transit system as well. “The heat is amazing, and you do get where you’re going for a cheap price,” says Ford.
Alexis Ford and Athena Evans say the change in bus routes has made travel harder, but they have praise for the Transit system as well. “The heat is amazing, and you do get where you’re going for a cheap price,” says Ford. Photo: Elli Williams

I’ve decided my errand for the day will be a shopping excursion. Business with pleasure, right? And for shopping options, you can’t beat Route 7, which takes riders from Downtown to nearly every money-dropping opportunity Charlottesville has to offer: Barracks Road, Stonefield, Albemarle Square, and Fashion Square. Plus, that’ll give me a chance to check out CAT’s newest offering on the way back, Route 11, which shaves 20 minutes off the Downtown to Fashion Square trip.

Route 7 arrives on schedule at the Transit Center at 10am, and I purchase a day pass for $1.50, greeting the friendly driver who humors me as I ask whether I can use dimes and nickels in addition to quarters to pay the fare. I can, he says with a smile, handing me a small, pink pass which will get me on any Charlottesville city bus for the rest of the day. We pull out of the Transit Center just after 10am, and head out on a long loop past UVA, Barracks Road and Seminole Square shopping centers and on to Fashion Square Mall. With the blasting heat a welcome respite from the still-below-freezing temperatures outside, it’s not hard to get riders chatting.

“I’m trying to get used to the change,” says Verdell Berry, who’s been riding city buses for seven years. Photo: Elli Williams
“I’m trying to get used to the change,” says Verdell Berry, who’s been riding city buses for seven years. Photo: Elli Williams

“I’m trying to get used to the changes,” says Verdell Berry, who’s on her way home to Angus Road from a doctor’s appointment at UVA. She says she’s missed the bus a few times since the new schedule and routes went into effect, but she’s not fazed. “Once I get used to it, I’ll be O.K.,” she says. She’s amused when I ask her if it’s difficult to transfer buses. Figuring out the schedule and stops for a single bus has already bent my brain this morning.

“You have to have patience,” laughs Berry. “It takes time to learn it.”

Sitting a few rows back, Jenn Jamison says patience is good for a bus rider, but it will only get you so far. Some things just aren’t possible if you live in Charlottesville and your only mode of transportation is public.

“You can’t do more than two errands,” she says, describing the difficulties of navigating routes that run hourly, as several do. If you need to be at an appointment that starts on the hour, Jamison says, you have to plan to arrive there an hour before it begins or you’ll be late. That means leaving home as much as two hours before you need to get somewhere that could be just a 15-minute drive away.

“I’ll walk two-and-a-half miles because it’s faster,” she says.

Jamison, who had a car until it died in June, says she decided to give the bus system a try while she saves money for a new car. There have been some definite perks.

“The amount of time between buses is an issue,” says Jenn Jamison, a bus rider since June when her car died. Photo: Elli Williams
“The amount of time between buses is an issue,” says Jenn Jamison, a bus rider since June when her car died. Photo: Elli Williams

“I’ve met all kinds of cool people and seen things I’d have never seen,” says Jamison, who works in group homes. She praises the bus drivers for being knowledgeable and helpful and says the stop at the Omni on Water Street is where it’s easiest to catch just about any route. But despite an overall positive opinion of Charlottesville Area Transit, Jamison has several suggestions for improving local bus service. Most significantly, she says, she’d like all bus stops to have adequate lighting at night. And she’d like to see greater frequency of buses on popular routes.

“It shouldn’t take two hours to get across town,” she says, before getting off the bus a few stops before Fashion Square Mall, the northern terminus of both Route 7 and the new Route 11.

Given my inability to figure out when the bus was going to arrive at the stop that morning, I still have zero confidence in my ability to figure out bus transferring. So when I see the Route 11 bus already idling as the Route 7 pulls up, I cancel the plans I had to do a little shopping. I immediately hop aboard, and prepare for a faster ride back to town.

Steven Strumlauf, owner of the Market Street Market, normally uses his scooter to ride from his house off of Rio Road, but uses the bus when the weather’s unpleasant. Photo: Elli Williams
Steven Strumlauf, owner of the Market Street Market, normally uses his scooter to ride from his house off of Rio Road, but uses the bus when the weather’s unpleasant. Photo: Elli Williams

It’s the shorter time and fewer stops of Route 11 that pleases Steven Strumlauf, owner of the Market Street Market, who’s riding the bus in to work from his home off Rio Road because it’s so cold.

“I usually ride my scooter,” says Strumlauf, who says his wife is also a big fan of the new route. “She loves it,” says Strumlauf, noting that they don’t own a car.

George Davis is also aboard Route 11 and says while he appreciates the faster delivery from north of town to Downtown, he can’t make sense of changes CAT made to other routes, particularly Route 3, which was extended out Fifth Street, making it one of three city bus routes to stop at Willoughby Shopping Center.

Davis, who lives off of Carlton Avenue, lost the stop near his house with the change, and now he has to walk his girlfriend to the Transit Center at 6:30 in the morning so she can catch a bus to work. “It’s not safe for a woman to be out walking alone that early,” he says.

George Davis isn’t happy with changes to the bus routes, particularly to Route 3, which is now one of three buses to serve Willoughby Town Center. The new route makes it harder for some Belmont residents, he says. Photo: Elli Williams
George Davis isn’t happy with changes to the bus routes, particularly to Route 3, which is now one of three buses to serve Willoughby Town Center. The new route makes it harder for some Belmont residents, he says. Photo: Elli Williams

He notes that the changes to Route 3 removed a stop near an apartment building of elderly and disabled people who relied heavily on the bus.

“A lot of people are up in arms,” he says, describing another improvement he can imagine for the transit system: A dedicated Route 29 bus that would take riders up and down the heavily commercial corridor without requiring people to dart across traffic to get where they’re going.

My conversation with Davis ends as we pull back into the Downtown Transit Center. I head to work, but my bus experience isn’t quite over.

At the end of the work day, I remember with a start that I don’t have my car. I check the schedule and realize that, yet again, I’m about 10 minutes late for Route 6, and that even if I catch the next bus, I’ll have to walk half a mile home from the stop in the dark and the cold.

But all is not lost. I remember a lesson I learned from regular riders, and pick up my phone.

“Hey, Katie?” I say, a pleading note creeping into in my voice. “Can you give me a ride?”