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Taking the bus to work: A Times reporter's experience riding Red Rabbit
Bus changes, plotting routes part of the experience
Times reporter Jeff Gill boards the Red Rabbit at the Labor Department stop on Atlanta Highway to begin his ride to work. - photo by Tom Reed | The Times

Editor's note: Funding for Hall County Transit recently has come under scrutiny. On Wednesday, reporter Jeff Gill commuted to work on the public bus system to meet those who depend on the service and learn just how the system works.

Getting to work in Gainesville from home in South Hall has never been a problem or really eaten away at the clock, except for the occasional wreck that backs up traffic on Interstate 985.

But that's by car, my bright red subcompact pushing up the road at 70 mph.

Traveling by bus is a different story, primarily because the farthest Hall Area Transit dips into South Hall is the area around Gainesville State and Lanier Technical colleges in Oakwood.

Flowery Branch, where I and a huge chunk of Hall's population live, isn't part of the spidery system of transit routes.

The first challenge in the bus-to-work experience was finding the right location to hop on the Red Rabbit, the name of the fixed-route system of bright, red- and white-striped buses circulating through Gainesville daily.

That's when I sought a Red Rabbit map, which can be found on the Hall County and Gainesville government websites.

Parking was the next big issue. Putting the Chevy in a good, safe spot for the day was a must. I got permission to park at the Georgia Department of Labor off Atlanta Highway, where there is a bus stop on the south and north sides of the road.

Photographer Tom Reed and I boarded the bus at 8:37 a.m. and then began what would be the scenic route to work, as plotted with the help of Richard Ticehurst, Hall Area Transit's operations and general manager.

The bus traveled through and by the college campuses, then returned by the labor department at 8:47, continuing north on Atlanta Highway, picking up a handful of passengers on the way.

Jacob Maloney was on the bus as it headed to Lanier Tech, where he's a student. He talked briefly about his transit experience and how it has benefited him.

"My mom doesn't have to drive me down here," he said.

The most obvious challenge for Tom and me was figuring out exactly how to get to The Times, as no one bus accomplishes that feat from the starting point we chose. Switching buses would be required and that meant studying the map in advance.

I also talked to transit officials, who alerted bus drivers to our ride. The drivers helped walk us smoothly through the routes, while also fielding questions from other riders.

"Getting to know the routes just comes natural," said one of our drivers, Shane Thompson. "It takes some time when you are first driving. One of the things I like most about this job is helping people (get where they're going)."

We made our first bus transfer at 9:05 a.m. at the Shoe Show stop across from Lakeshore Mall on Pearl Nix Parkway.

From there, a bus took us to the transit service's main office at 9:30 a.m. We then took the Route 1 bus, which travels south and north in the city.

The bus zigzagged its way to Lenox Park apartments off U.S. 129/Athens Highway and then headed back toward downtown Gainesville.

By now, the bus was jammed with people - actually, had been for a while - as passengers boarded and got off at various stops.

John Spillers, who lives off Browns Bridge Road, said he rides the bus all the time.

"It gets me to appointments, medical visits, shopping ... just all around town," he said. "It's a catch-all for me. Having the Red Rabbit is non-negotiable. Without it, I'd be in a lot of hot water."

He said he wished the service would expand, especially in hours of operation.

Our bus returned to the main office at 10:02, but we stayed on for the north route that would take us by Northeast Georgia Medical Center and, finally, Brenau University. We reached our destination, the parking lot behind the post office off Green Street, at 10:14.

The next part of the trip was the most harried one of the day: hustling safely across busy Green Street to The Times.

My trip from home to work took 1 » hours, counting the drive to the labor department. My average commute is about 25 minutes and that includes the daily jam of vehicles at I-985 and Spout Springs Road.

But then, as mentioned earlier, that span of time was intentional. Ticehurt put us on routes that would give us the most exposure to the system and enable us to meet the most riders.

I took the quickest route home in the afternoon, which involved catching my first bus at the Hall County Library System's main branch off Academy and Main streets. That bus traveled down Dawsonville Highway, then circled back to the Target store off Shallowford Road.

From there, I took the Route 6 bus that brought me back to the labor department.

On the way home, I tried to unwind a bit, like a regular passenger. With my notepad in the seat next to me, I made a couple of calls on my cellphone, watched the scenery and chatted casually with the passenger in front of me.

Nearer to my destination, I approached the front door and knelt to ask driver Lawrence Thomas a couple of questions. He told me he had been driving for six years and had decided to return to work after retirement.

"I love working with people," he said. "I'd rather be doing this than staying at home watching the judge programs."

Thomas slowed to allow some passengers to get off at their stop. He called them by their first names as they left.

There are plenty of regular riders, he said.

"I think we are helping people so much - folks who couldn't get back and forth otherwise," he said.