Live Local, Live Small: Examining the use of Wilmington’s public transportation for a round-trip to the beach
“You can’t take the bus to the beach!”
Over the summer, my friend Jim Reedy, a relatively new transplant to town, was in the bookstore expounding upon his surprised discoveries of his new home.
“Well, you can take a bus to Carolina Beach, but not Wrightsville Beach,” I responded. “Do you know they are separate municipalities?”
“No.” Jim shook his head. “Are they?”
I launched into what the staff at the boostore refer to as one of my “speils” when I begin to wax poetic on a topic that no one could find interesting. Jim finally grasped the gist of things and interrupted me with a pertinent question: “Have you ever done it? Have you taken a bus to the beach?”
“Ah … ahem.”
Admittedly, I have been planning to do this for quite some time. Actually as early as 10 years ago, I tried to do this story for WHQR. Then, the closest one could bus to Wrightsville Beach was the corner of Eastwood and Military Cutoff. Nothing’s changed. Carolina Beach wasn’t even an option.
About four years ago the encore editor, Shea Carver, and I started talking about possible stories on the bus situation here. “Maybe a story about only using the bus for transport for a month?” she suggested. “Or a week?”
For a long time that just wasn’t an option as the majority of the driving I did for several years was as my father’s chauffer. Though doing a story about going to doctor’s appointments via the bus would be quite appropriate, he was not willing to be our guinea pig.
“Well, what about taking the bus to the beach?” I asked recently. “With the opening of the Pleasure Island route, that would be a day trip I could do right?”
It is a good thing that we have all year to work on our New Year’s resolutions, because I finally fulfilled my pitch. Yes, I have promised all year I would take a bus to the beach and report back to the encore readership. It may be October, but I did it!
I began this trip the way I do most: packing a bag and taking two aspirin. In this case I had a towel, an umbrella, maps, a paperback book, cash for bus fare, any other possible emergency needs, and a fully charged cell phone. I decided it was important to get the bus from the closest stop to our house—not to have Jock drop me off at a station to shorten the trip. I departed our house at 9:05 a.m. and walked two blocks to the Market and 16th street bus stop. The bus was on-time to the minute at 9:18 a.m. I paid the $2 fare and asked for a transfer pass for the next leg of my trip. Once paying the fare at the initial boarding location, riders can transfer to another bus for the duration of their ride—with one exception: the Pleasure Island route.
At Forden Station I transferred to the College Road route, which would take me to the Monkey Junction Walmart parking lot to begin the trip down Carolina Beach Road. At Forden Station the bus I was boarding had a gentleman in the classic blue work uniform changing out the ticket meter at the front of the bus. In the five-minute layover the young man actually changed out the equipment and had the bus ready to roll on time! I was stunned.
At the Monkey Junction stop I disembarked and contemplated the possibility of finding a bathroom nearby. According to the schedule, my next bus would be leaving in five minutes. I looked around to see if the next bus was in sight and noticed the bus behind me had a ramp extended out the front door. A gentleman in a wheelchair cheerily rolled down the ramp and across the grass median. My eyes followed him, impressed by his off-road capability and how quickly the bus drivers responded. He paused in front of the bus I had just left, and the driver flipped the ramp down to him. I noticed the placard for the bus had been changed from College Road to Pleasure Island.
“Is the Pleasure Island route now?” I asked foolishly. The driver nodded, expertly put the ramp away and beckoned me aboard in one fluid motion. A nice lady handed me a survey about my bus-riding habits and a golf pencil.
“Oh, great,” my friend Anthony, a longtime bus rider, exclaimed when I told him the story. “You know what that means? That means things are going to get worse! They do surveys and then things get worse.”
Personally, I found the survey interesting. It asked how I got to the stop: Did someone drop me off, did I drive and park, walk, ride a bike, etc.? Why was I riding the bus? Options included saving money or helping the environment. I noticed there were no boxes for “journalistic research.” But the park-and-ride mention got me thinking about time spent in larger cities. The park-and-ride idea of public transit is pushed pretty heavily. It surprises me to no end that, while the commuter traffic to get over the bridge in Brunswick County has been in the news, I haven’t heard anyone pushing the “drive to Walmart, park, and get the Brunswick Connector” option. It would bring riders right across the bridge and into downtown Wilmington.
Maybe that should be my next trip…
The bus to the beach also included an appearance by Wave Transit’s biggest supporter and possibly most frequent user, Rickey Meeks. Rickey walked me through bus procedures and showed me that I should have gotten a day pass for $5, which would have given me unlimited ridership for the day. He was right: I would have saved $3 on my round-trip fare. The survey lady and Rickey’s insight sparked conversation among the riders about usage of the bus and prices. The young lady next to me works as a waitress at a restaurant in Carolina Beach and noted that if she worked evening shifts instead of day shifts, then she had to get a cab home—a minimum of $20, because the bus doesn’t run that late.
I arrived in Carolina Beach at 10:53 at the Winner boats dock, almost two hours from leaving home. If I had driven, it would have taken about a half an hour, depending upon the time of day. I would have used almost $1.50 in gas each way (in my little 65 VW Bug with wonderful gas mileage). Cost to park at Carolina Beach averages $1.50 an hour from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. I stayed for three hours because the bus has a three hour turn-around time. The driver told me he would be back at 1: 57 p.m. If I had paid to park for three hours, that would have been $4.50, bringing the total cash outlay for the trip to $7.50 round trip by car.
Because I hadn’t had Rickey’s guidance at the beginning of my trip, it cost me $8 round-trip by bus, and I had almost four hours of travel time. On the plus side, every bus was on time or early, and all the drivers were absolutely wonderful, helpful people who made me feel safe and welcome.
“How many people were on the bus with you when it was the most full?” Jock asked upon my return. “Because I think they need smaller buses, and nobody is riding the bus.”
“At one point there were 16 people riding, including me.”
“Yes,” I confirmed. “At the big-transfer areas where several buses intersect, the ridership was the highest, because a lot of people get on a bus and then the bus distributes them around town.”
“There were a lot of families.”
I recounted for him the adventures of a grandmother, daughter and two grandchildren, who brought two strollers on the bus and had perfected a system of breaking down and stowing the strollers while riding. Several people put bikes on the front racks, too. Thinking about the personal economics of it really stunned me. If the theory that many riders use the bus because they cannot afford to purchase, insure, maintain, and gas up a car, well, $4 for a round-trip ride adds up quickly. It would be hard to have much to put into savings toward a car if dependent upon bus transportation. Certainly I met people who rode the bus for medical reasons, students who were too young to drive, college students on their way to class, and a lot of people dressed in work clothes on their way into a job. Maybe that was the big payoff: You get to meet people.
“Everybody can say ‘hello,’ and give that back to you,” Rickey pointed out. He was right. We can all do that.