Editor’s note: Writer John Jeter rode Greenlink’s bus lines for a firsthand experience of the challenges of getting from point A to B.
Spend a few hours with the Citizens Transit Academy, and you hear the word “suck” a lot.
“The transit system here sucks,” says the man who oversees it, James Keel, the city of Greenville’s 29-year-old director of public transportation. “I don’t mind telling you that, but telling you this ain’t going to do a damn thing about it. We don’t have a funding problem, we have a priority problem.”
But spend a half a day riding the bus and talking with riders — the customers who account for the transit system’s 693,000 fares in 2019 — and you hear a different story.
Some ride the buses because they have to, a few because they want to. Those who have no choice can’t complain — at least, not much — and those who do have a choice don’t gripe — for the most part, anyway.
Thomas Milon, for one, just wishes the system operated the way it did when he was growing up on the Westside.
On a frigid Friday morning, Milon, 63, huddles close to Charlene Yorty on bus Route 502: White Horse Road. She’s hard of hearing, her hazel eyes unblinking, wide and curious. She looks out from her pale face, scarred in a house fire when she was 10 months old.
Milon lost his license about three years ago. Yorty’s bicycle, with its rattling fenders, is mounted to the front of the bus.
Later, during a cellphone call through an interpreter for the deaf, she says she finds the drivers helpful — if they know you.
“I really like that they’re knowledgeable, but some drivers have an attitude if they don’t know who you are. Sometime’s the bicycle, that’s a struggle. Sometimes they give me an attitude if I have to ask them to help me.”
The fingers of her left hand are bent, stubbed. At 37, Yorty has no job.
“I’m limited,” Milon says during their ride together. “I ain’t got no car or nothin’ like that. Whatever job I get, I have to get on the bus line. Jobs on the bus line, they pay minimum wages.”
Milon, who started working when he was 12 or 13 years old, goes on to say:
“I can tell you this much, they need to run the bus like they used to. They used to have two buses on each line. You used to be able to catch the bus every half-hour. One bus’d be going, one bus would be coming. Every half-hour, you could catch a bus. The bus ran from 6 in the morning to 1 o’clock at night.”
Struggling to keep up
That was when Duke Power ran the system. By 1930, the North Carolina-based energy company owned streetcar networks in nine cities in the Carolinas. In 1937, Duke was authorized to substitute buses for those trolleys. The city of Greenville took over mass transit in 1974, creating the Greenville Transit Authority, which oversees Greenlink.
Ever since then, Greenville has had trouble keeping up — with its population growth and with competing municipalities such as Asheville, North Carolina; Charleston; Columbia; Nashville, Tennessee; and Mobile, Alabama, among others. Those cities typically spend two to three times more on mass transit than Greenville does, documents show.
“On average, its peers are operating much more service related to area size,” the Greenlink Comprehensive Operations Analysis report said in August 2017.
Put another way, Chattanooga, Tennessee’s roughly 167,000 residents financed the Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority to the tune of $22.4 million, compared with Greenville’s $5.6 million system serving nearly 189,000 residents, according to 2018 Greenlink figures.
Plans in the works
On the money front, however, good news pulled into town two years ago when the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded an $11 million grant to Greenlink for a new maintenance facility. The current shop on Augusta Street is a dilapidated 40-odd-year-old former beer-distribution company with a distinct moldy odor. A new one is expected to cost up to $25 million, officials say, though its reality appears to be a long way off.
In other words, things haven’t changed much. Just ask those who ride any of 13 vehicles that ply Greenlink’s 12 fixed routes. Every day but Sundays, buses operate from 5:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on Saturdays, although Greenlink does have ambitious expansion plans.
A 65-page “Greenlink 2020-2024 Transit Development Plan,” released in April 2018, says the system aims to “roughly double the size of Greenlink, including the construction of the new maintenance facility and a doubling of the fixed-route fleet.” Moreover, routes would run every half-hour and all seven days.
Daily operational hours are to be expanded, as well. Which suits Milon, who says workers “can’t get to their second-shift job. They can’t get to no third-shift job.”
‘They do the best they can’
At the moment, though, the schedule doesn’t always fit those it serves.
“It don’t work for me,” Bradley Smith says. “I’ve got to go out of my way to get the bus, know what I’m saying? I had to walk all the way from Rutherford Road to the bus terminal, and I missed my bus.”
Now aboard Route 502, winding through Berea, the 52-year-old Greenvillian is trying to get to Walmart to return a cellphone. The trip to and from downtown will take him two to three hours since Greenville’s buses run every hour, and each route follows a loop, rather than bi-directional lines, which riders and officials say offer more frequency.
Brandon Boozer, 29, has to connect three bus rides to get to his job as a dishwasher at a wings joint on White Horse Road. He works mornings, so he doesn’t have to worry about getting off work past the system’s evening shutdown time.
“It’s tiring,” he says. “I used to complain all the time, but they fixed the buses, so it’s good for me. It’s all I do is ride the bus, track the buses. Other than that, it’s a pretty smooth ride.”
Until the Saturday after Valentine’s Day, Mary McGowan’s ride had been pretty smooth, too. Then she crashed her bike during a race and broke the fourth metacarpal bone on her left hand.
The following Friday, McGowan hopped Route 506 through Woodside.
On the morning after a wintry-mix storm that delayed school openings for up to three hours, she was taking her regular 10-minute ride to work. She’s a speech therapist for the Greenville County Schools and works at Berea Elementary School.
Were it not for her cast, she would have ridden her bicycle to work — she lives in Sans Souci, not too far from the Prisma Health Swamp Rabbit Trail.
She’s not only used to the 10-minute bus ride to work, she enjoys it. In fact, she chose it. McGowan moved to Greenville from Charleston in 2014 in part so that she wouldn’t have to have a car. She sold hers in 2015.
“I found I could get everywhere I needed to go,” says McGowan, 30, who, incidentally, also serves as board chair for Bike Walk Greenville. “Every time I drove, I was just, like, ‘Oh, I’d rather be outside on my bike, even if it’s cold, even if it’s kind of rainy.’ If it’s really inclement weather, the bus takes me there.”
With the thousands of dollars she saves every year on auto insurance, fuel and maintenance, the county’s car tax and the like, she takes long trips during her three-month summer vacations. She writes about it on her blog, rebelwithoutacar.com.
“I’m really lucky and I have that choice, but people who don’t make a lot of money or have a disability, they need to have the choice of not just driving. Taking an Uber or a Lyft isn’t efficient. It’s not good for traffic; it’s not good financially speaking.”
Steve Green enjoys the buses, too.
Green, 46, who’s on disability because of his epilepsy, started riding every day in 2004. Now he knows most, if not all, of the system’s 29 fixed-route drivers (nine drivers run the system’s paratransit and trolley lines). He chats with fellow riders. He’s created something of a community.
“I hear people complaining a lot about the buses, but they could be walking or taking a taxi. I don’t do much complaining about the buses,” says Green, who lives off of Pendleton Street, not too far from where he sits now near the front of a Route 506 bus. “They do the best they can. I’m just glad we have a bus system.”
Greenlink’s $11 million grant
Greenlink won $11 million from the Federal Transit Administration in 2018 to be spent on a new maintenance facility. This has been matched by a $1.4 million appropriation by the city of Greenville. Greenlink still needs $1.35 million to fulfill the local match commitment of the grant and needs to identify the land to begin engineering and architecture work.
- The increase in fiscal year 2019-2020 appropriation from the city of Greenville and Greenville County will provide Greenlink with the funds needed to expand service hours to 5:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. With this service expansion, Greenlink needs to hire at least nine new drivers in order to implement the extended service hours.
- Greenlink’s Transit Development Plan outlines 19 new routes. No funding has been identified for these new routes.
- Greenlink’s Transit Development Plan outlines plans for Sunday service. No funding has been identified to cover the cost of Sunday service.
- Greenlink’s Transit Development Plan shows these improvements scheduled out through 2029. No funding has been identified for these expansions.
BUS TRIP: Friday, Feb. 21, 2020
Weather: 32 degrees and sunny
Route 505: Rutherford
7:42 a.m. – Boards at Rutherford Road, just off South Pleasantburg Drive
8:18 a.m. – Returns to GreenLinkTransit Center
Route 510: Laurens
8:25 a.m. – Boards at Transit Center
8:52 a.m. – Disembarks at Innovation Drive and Sara Lane
Route 602-B, Woodruff Road Connector, to Haywood Mall
9:03 a.m. – Boards at Innovation Drive and Sara Lane
9:21 a.m. – Disembarks at Haywood Mall
Nearly 40-minute wait, long enough to go inside the mall for a coffee.
Covered bus stop with benches.
Weather: 38 degrees
Route 509: East North Street
9:50 a.m. – Departs Haywood Mall
10:20 a.m. – Disembarks at Transit Center
Route 506: Woodside
10:30 a.m. – Departs Transit Center
11:20 a.m. – Disembarks at Transit Center
Route 502: White Horse
11:30 a.m. – Departs from Transit Center
12:25 p.m. – Disembarks at Transit Center
Route 505: Rutherford
12:30 p.m. – Departs from Transit Center
12:43 p.m. – Last stop at South Pleasantburg Drive, near Rutherford Road