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Getting to and from work is a struggle for some
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Shanna Willis boards a bus in September at Hall Area Transit’s Main Street station in Gainesville. - photo by David Barnes

Someday, Shanna Willis would like to own a car and get to places on her schedule and not that of the public transit system in Gainesville.

“I have to leave my house at 7:30 in the morning to get to my job at 9,” Willis said, as she waited for a bus to take her home from the Gainesville Connection terminal on Main Street.

Hopping on a bus in the morning to get to work, and again in the afternoon to get home, has been a routine for Willis the past nine years. During that stretch of time, she has worked as a cook preparing meals for Brenau University students.

Willis said getting a car is on her wish list, but it’s not a priority. She said the needs of her three children — one attending Gainesville High School, another at Gainesville Middle School and the youngest child at Fair Street School — take precedence.

Willis said she’s thankful for a job that allows her to work Monday through Friday during hours that fit Gainesville Connection’s operating hours. Bus service runs during weekdays from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and is not available on weekends and holidays.

Getting to his job as a receiver at the Pilgrim’s processing plant is a challenge for 57-year-old Michael Simpson because he doesn’t own a car. He starts work at 3 a.m. — three hours before buses start running. He’ll catch a bus home after he clocks out at 2 p.m.

“Buses are OK, but if you need one before or after 6, you’re out of luck,” Simpson said. “Sometimes I work holidays and there’s no bus service. Sometimes I spend $80 a week on cab fare.”

Workers who struggle to make ends meet are the ones who rely on public transit the most.

Who’s riding the bus?

Ridership by race                   
  • White: 37 percent                

  • Black: 35 percent               

  • Hispanic: 27 percent       

  • Asian: 1 percent  

Ridership by annual income
  • Less than $15,000: 64 percent

  • $16,000-$30,000: 15 percent

  • $17,000 or less: 16 percent

  • Other: 4 percent

Ridership by employment status
  • Full-time employed: 35 percent

  • Part-time employed: 26 percent

  • Retired: 16 percent

  • Unemployed: 13 percent

  • Full-time students: 10 percent

Ridership by gender
  • Women: 59 percent

  • Men: 41 percent

Of about 12,500 bus riders each month, 64 percent of them are making less than $15,000 a year, according to a survey by Hall Area Transit.

The survey also finds that public transit is almost evenly used by whites (37 percent), African-Americans (35 percent) and Hispanics (27 percent).

The need for reliable transportation that gets people to and from work is becoming more of an issue as a result of the lack of adequate and affordable housing in the area, according to Joy Griffin, president and chief professional officer of United Way of Hall County.

“People are having a difficult time getting transportation to and from work because they’re having to live farther away to find a home that’s affordable,” Griffin said. “Transportation becomes more challenging when you’re coming from farther away.”

The situation is a Catch-22 for low-wage earners, Griffin said.

“Even if they find a home that’s near work, they’re paying more than 30 percent of their income for that home, which puts them at a disadvantage for all other expenses in their budget. It makes it a challenge to pay your utilities, groceries, gas, if you’re paying more than 30 percent of your income towards your housing. It stretches all the other areas.”  

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Bruce Terrell holds up a day pass as he waits for a bus in September at Hall Area Transit’s Main Street station in Gainesville. - photo by David Barnes

Phillippa Lewis Moss, the Community Service Center director for the city, who oversees Gainesville Connection, is working on a plan that would extend hours and improve frequency on the transit service.

“I’ve spoken with a dozen or so businesses to collect anecdotal information and data to better understand the commute patterns of their employees,” Moss told The Times.

Based on preliminary information gathered to date, Moss said she would not be surprised to find that 50 percent of employees of surveyed companies live in close proximity to existing Gainesville Connection bus routes.

“Why aren’t they using the bus system? Because we’re not open early enough and we close too early,” Moss said

The Gainesville-Hall Metropolitan Planning Organization commissioned a $62,000 Transit Development Plan last fall that made recommendations that could be phased in over the next five-plus years, according to Moss.

“They analyzed how existing routes were performing, and made recommendations for improvements like extending operating hours and creating new routes,” Moss said.

The final details of any proposal to expand Hall Area Transit service likely will be presented to Gainesville elected officials through the annual budget process that begins in January, Moss said.

Adjusting to bus service in Gainesville has taken a little getting used to for 29-year-old Bruce Terrell,  who recently moved here from Decatur, which is served by the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, known as MARTA.

“MARTA runs every day, on weekends and holidays from 5 in the morning until after midnight,” said Terrell, who takes the bus in Gainesville to work at Starbucks inside Kroger. “It would be great if they extended service here.”

Read more stories in the series.

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