“Please pay exact fare:
Driver does not make change,”
The text boldly reads from a black placard fixed to a squat steel tower, the first greeting as the two doors push apart. The bus heaves and sighs as it kneels its right front tire to the curb.
Up the three steps, I drop my four quarters into the steel tower and smile at the driver. Ms. Mabel, who drives the morning shift, greets me with her typical line. “When you gonna give me those shoes, girl?” and laughs as the door hinges release a short breath of air and clamp shut.
It’s common courtesy to avoid eye contact with strangers in a public space, is it not? Still I allow myself a brief survey of the crowd – mostly older, casually dressed Black men sit towards the front of the bus talking with Ms. Mabel. In my business attire, dress heels, and school bag I push in my earbuds and make my way to an open seat.
Admittedly, this semester has been the first that I have encouraged myself to explore downtown Winston-Salem; not that I’ve had much of a choice: I intern three days a week at the Human Relations Department of City Council, report for a journalism class blog that covers downtown Winston-Salem, and have an uncanny affinity for getting lost. As embarrassing as this is for a college senior, I’m even more embarrassed that I cannot confidently recall a single instance throughout my college career when the term ‘public transportation’ was seriously used by my Wake Forest peers.
Now with some experience under my belt, its a shame Wake Forest students don’t take greater advantage of the No. 5 bus – if not for a daily commute downtown then at least on the weekends. For one dollar it’s a twenty minute bus ride from Wake’s campus to the center of downtown, just a street up from the restaurants and major attractions of 4th street and a block down from newly opened local brewery, Small Batch.
Still, I share the apprehension of many students making use of public transportation to the downtown area. Of course if offered a ride from a friend, I’m going to choose the car – the bus ride is anything but comfortable. A crowd of strangers crammed into a small space produces an abundance of fragrances, awkward conversations, and ferociously avoided eye contact. Add to that the number of times I’ve heard from fellow bus riders, “You go to Wake, don’t you?” and suddenly I’m very aware of how few young, Brown women are riding the No. 5 bus downtown.
For a long time I was convinced I had some look, or scent that tipped off Winston-Salem natives that I am in fact a Wake Forest student. Given closer consideration, and a strong personal bias, I don’t think that I do look like the typical Wake student, first I’m not White. Not saying that all Wake students are, but of what I’ve gathered from my experience riding the bus and walking through the downtown bus station I certainly stand out among the predominantly Black population. Twice I’ve had men begin speaking spanish to me, which leads me to believe that if I’m not Black enough, then I’m not White enough either.
It’s hard to say why the majority of bus riders are Black. A 2012 demographics profile of Winston-Salem shows African Americans make up 37.29% of the entire 229,617 population. That same profile shows the largest percentage, 21% of the Winston-Salem population live on a household income between 10K-25K a year. Although the profile makes no correlation between the two statistics one is left to wonder if the riders of the No. 5 bus were polled of their annual household income whether they would fall into this very 10K-25K income range.
Perhaps it is likely that many of the bus riders simply prefer riding the bus to driving their own cars, but even if that is the case it still prompts the same questions. If it isn’t a matter of race, why aren’t or more White, Asian, or Hispanic people taking advantage of the bus to the same extent as African Americans? If it isn’t a matter of income why are there not more college-aged individuals? As the downtown continues on its path of renovation and growth, attracting and retaining a vibrant and diverse array of college graduates is a key component to maintaining it.
Tina Larson-Wilkins, the Marketing Director of the Winston-Salem Transit Authority agreed upon the importance of integrating university students into the Winston-Salem community.
“It is the city’s responsibility to accommodate for its colleges. We’d like to see more students from all the campuses downtown,” said Larson-Wilkins.
The city currently has three routes that run hourly from three separate college campuses – Winston-Salem State University, Forsyth Technical College, and Wake Forest University – into the downtown bus station and back.
“We’re in the process of editing the bus routes in Winston-Salem to get more direct routes from campuses to downtown, campuses to other campuses, campuses to the mall, and stuff like that,” said Larson-Wilkins.
This annual project to edit the bus routes to better serve the Winston-Salem college community was brought to the attention of the City Council’s College Advisory Meeting last Thursday, November 21. The College Advisory Board, sponsored by the Human Relations Department of City Council, is a board of students from Wake Forest University, Salem College, Forsyth Tech, and Winston-Salem State University.
Representatives from each college have since voted on the proposal to bring Winston-Salem Transit Authority to their respective campuses. The resolve was a unanimous decision to set out school-wide surveys asking students when they might need and most want a bus route from their campus to four major Winston-Salem locations – Hanes Mall, other campuses, major shopping centers for groceries, and downtown.
With more tailored and direct routes to event venues like Ziggy’s or various bars and restaurants downtown, the bus would offer an affordable and reliable form of transportation that would eliminate the risk and inconvenience of driving after a night out on the town. If the Winston-Salem Transit Authority could take the level of comfort one step further and promote a more diverse bus audience, that encouraged students to ride alongside other students, then there holds promise to a more inviting and integrated atmosphere.
Take it even a step further, WSTA, and promise me I get to ride with Ms. Mabel and you’ve got a patron for life.