I learned a long time ago that numbers may be used to say just about anything you want them to, so when I read a recent editorial noting that ridership for the Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority was up over the past year and that the organization had managed to net a surplus, I shrugged it off as unmerited positive press.
According to the article, CARTA ended its fiscal year with a $17,000 surplus and a 22 percent increase in riders. Ordinarily that would be great news except I've been riding the buses more lately, and in my opinion, our bus service is nothing to brag about. I know that no system is perfect, but this community really must take a critical look at its public transportation system.
I've long been an advocate of public transportation. Mass transportation offers the community immeasurable benefits beyond the present focus on our distressed economy or the need to conserve fuel.
As far as I can tell, there's never been a committed effort to create an efficient and effective bus service for the masses in this community. Our bus caters to a few special interests. If you're a tourist or if you work in the accommodations industry, the bus service can get you where you need to be. But for many others this system is a nightmare. I recently met a lady who lives downtown and works in North Charleston. She said getting to work and back home takes four hours out of her day.
Recently, I lost a job opportunity for lack of transportation. I was virtually guaranteed the job, but had to be at work at 6 a.m. before the local buses start running. I couldn't get there at 6 a.m. so I couldn't take the job. I'm sure I'm not the only member of this community who has had that experience.
A couple of weeks ago I had to be in North Charleston for an appointment. As an infrequent bus rider, my challenges were identifying the bus routes I needed to use and coordinating them to make the most efficient use of my time. I was fortunate that there was a bus route that could take me exactly where I needed to go, but coordinating the transfers between downtown and North Charleston was a headache. I'd be either an hour early or an hour late. I opted for a second alternative which could get me within walking distance before the appointment, but I guessed wrong and got there 15 minutes late.
On the return trip, I had trouble finding the bus stop on the primary route option, the one I chose not to use, so I walked back to my secondary option. Since the driver had let me off close to my destination because he wasn't going where I thought he would, I didn't know where the bus stop for that route was either. I stood at a stoplight and flagged the oncoming bus down.
Later, I met a friend on the bus who's originally from New York City and has lived in Atlanta. He also depends on the bus system for transportation. The local bus system seems to have been designed by consultants who never use it, he said. Though some services like the CARTA Express are adequate and I'm sure some routes meet the basic needs of the people who must use the system, if the buses are your only means of transportation, your mobility is severely inhibited.
I challenge anyone reading this article, especially the folks at CARTA, to park your car for the next two weeks and commit to using the bus system for all your transportation needs, and then get back to me. I applaud the efforts to improve the system that have been made, but there's a lot more that needs to be done before we start patting ourselves on the back.