SERVICE TO HALL: Every day average citizens serve Hall County in an important but often overlooked and underappreciated capacity. But once the service is slowed, delayed, canceled or even stopped, then complaints arise. This is the fourth in a series of stories examining the daily lives of the unnoticed workforce.
On most weekdays, Johnny Wilson arrives at Hall County Transit at 5:45 a.m., before the sun has even risen, to check the fluid levels, tire pressure and light functions of his bus in preparation for his 8-hour shift.
Wilson is a driver for Red Rabbit, a Gainesville public bus service that operates throughout the city and in parts of Oakwood. He covers route 5A, one of the system’s highest performing routes that travels Jesse Jewell Parkway, around Lakeshore Mall, past the Interactive College of Technology on Browns Bridge Road and to Memorial Park Drive.
“There are so many people who don’t have any means of getting anywhere,” he said. “We get a lot of people who are disabled, young people who have lost their licenses and seniors.
“Before I started working here, I thought everyone had a car, and it surprised me when I realized how many people need public transportation.”
After working as a manager for a soft drinks company for 35 years, Wilson left the company and searched for a new job. Six months later, he began working for Hall County Transit. Now, Wilson has been a Red Rabbit driver for five years.
Though there are better paying jobs for people with commercial driver’s licenses — a requirement for all Red Rabbit drivers — many people stay at the job for the benefits.
“Most of us drivers are retired or semi-retired but need a job for medical insurance,” Wilson said. “That is the key for me, but we still have some really good people who work here.”
Wilson, who served as Hall County Transit Operations Manager for several years, said he enjoys the people he meets on his routes. He often tries to get to know his passengers, striking up conversations with them on the trip.
Randal Haynes has been a regular on Wilson’s route ever since he wrecked his truck about six months ago. He frequently uses Red Rabbit to get to places such as his doctor appointments, where he is treated for a heart condition, or to the grocery store.
“It’s really a great thing for everyone,” he said. “Otherwise, I would have to walk a long way to get anywhere.”
Sometimes the conversations between Wilson and his riders take on a more personal tone. Many of his riders have fallen on hard times, he said.
“I had a daughter that went through a lot of bad things and passed away a couple of years ago,” Wilson said. “I see it in a lot of these kids; the same things. I try to tell them this is what happened to my daughter and now she is gone. It just breaks your heart sometimes.”
Driving his Red Rabbit bus has taught Wilson some valuable lessons, chief among them is to slow down and enjoy life.
After witnessing many impatient motorists drive erratically around his bus while it is stopped, Wilson is convinced most people are in too much of a hurry.
“People are so impatient; I see it so much,” he said. “I will pull up some time and I have a wheelchair that I am unloading, they will run around me, even while I’m trying to pull, and they come and turn in front of me.
“None of us are in that big of a hurry, we just get caught up.”
Red Rabbit operates more than 200 bus stops spread across seven routes covering 74 percent of the city. In the fiscal year 2013, the service provided more than 150,000 trips to a multitude of destinations such as senior service centers, doctor offices, educational sites, employment sites and shopping centers.
The service recently expanded its bus routes by adding new times and operation hours and revamped its fares. Now, all people older than 7 have to pay $1 per trip, down a quarter for people between 19 and 59 years old. Day passes also may be purchased for $3 a piece.
In addition, seniors who are 60 and older and people who are legally disabled can obtain a “free fare card” costing $3 with documentation, which allows them to use the service for free during a two-year period.
“We’ve got a lot of seniors and disabled people that call us and say ‘I don’t know how to get around,’” said Rich Ticehurst, Hall Area Transit’s operations and general manager. “So, we’ve done a lot of talking back and forth with the director, myself and city council and we all think this is a really good idea to help the seniors and the disabled to get them to shopping areas and to doctor’s appointments.”
Red Rabbit also provides transportation to a variety of postsecondary education institutions including Brenau University and the University of North Georgia’s Gainesville campus.
“If public transit does not do anything more than connect young people to institutions of higher education and allow older adults and persons with disabilities to avoid social isolation, then we have done our jobs,” Hall Area Transit director Phillippa Lewis Moss said.
For residents whose needs are not fulfilled by Red Rabbit, Hall Area Transit also offers Dial-A-Ride, a service allowing residents to reserve a bus to pick them up from anywhere and take them anywhere in the county. Fees are based on distance traveled and reservations must be made 48 hours in advance.