How can Greenlink, the public transit system that serves Greenville County, South Carolina, be made more efficient and more responsive to riders? And how can it do so within its already modest budget?
This is one of the key questions of a study currently underway. The study, called a Comprehensive Operational Analysis (COA), provides a snapshot of the current system: which routes and stops are being the most utilized and when are people riding, which areas have housing and employment densities that will best support transit use, the effectiveness and efficiency of its maintenance and operations, and more. Most interesting, the study will provide recommendations for budget-neutral changes that Greenlink could make to better serve the community.
The COA was one of the top recommendations from the Piedmont Health Foundation’s 2015 study of public transit and health and human services transportation. During that study, it became apparent that Greenlink’s routes were designed long ago and had not been reevaluated in years. Additionally, Greenlink lacked data on where and when riders were getting on and off the buses, which would help staff and the Greenville Transit Authority Board know what is working and what might need adjustment. The COA, funded by the City of Greenville, County of Greenville, and Piedmont Health Foundation, is designed to provide that important information.
Connetics Transportation Group (CTG) of Atlanta was hired to conduct the COA, with oversight and input from a community steering committee. They have spent hundreds of hours riding buses; interviewing drivers; surveying riders; leading focus groups with community members, business leaders, elected officials, and others; analyzing data on the community and stop-level ridership numbers; studying Greenlink’s maintenance and transit facilities; and more.
The consultants are identifying many needs and opportunities for Greenlink. However, one of their main charges required that any changes must not cost the system more money than it has available currently. Policy makers and community members have wondered if the system is as efficient as it could be and whether there are “easy fixes” to better serve residents.
I’m reminded of the scene in Apollo 13 when engineers are charged with figuring out how to bring the incapacitated spacecraft home using only the supplies currently on the ship. A box full of what appeared to be junk was dumped on the table at mission control, and the NASA team got to work.
Greenlink staff and the consultants from CTG have a similar task: serve the community as well or better but with the same old diesel buses, the same inadequate maintenance facility, and the same woefully low level of funding.
Like the Apollo 13 team, I believe Greenlink will be successful. The skill and passion of their staff and the loyalty of their riders will, indeed, go a long way.
Service change recommendations will be presented to the Board of Greenville Transit Authority this summer, and Greenlink will seek public input on these ideas throughout the fall. I encourage you to take part in this process and help spread the word about Greenlink’s plans.
But as you do, imagine what Greenlink could be if it had more than the figurative box full of supplies to work with? Hopefully, a future-looking Transit Development Plan will answer that question for Greenlink in early 2018.
Jim Collins’ book on management, Good to Great, is often quoted when discussing community change and excellence in leadership. It’s particularly fitting in describing the work to improve our public transit system, because one of its characteristics of great companies is a mindfulness of “who’s on the bus.” Collins argues that companies that go from good to great start not with the question of where they are going but with who is working there – getting the right people on the bus and in the right seats.
The management team at Greenlink has been fully in place for less than a year, but these folks’ collective experience and passion for improving connectivity in our growing community indicate they see a system that’s here to stay. Greenlink has the right people on the bus, and they are already working on where Greenlink will go in the future.
Gary Shepard, Director of Public Transportation
Gary Shepard joined Greenlink as the director of public transportation in November 2016. He brings extensive experience in economic development and public transportation to the position, including serving as the economic development coordinator for the governor of Massachusetts for eight years and as the director of economic development for Springfield, Massachusetts, the state’s third-largest city. He has also been the administrator and CEO of two regional transit authorities in Massachusetts.
Gary has served on numerous civic boards throughout his career and has worked with a nonprofit that assists homeless veterans and develops permanent housing opportunities. He received a bachelor’s degree in government from Western New England University and a master’s degree in business administration from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.
James Keel, Assistant Director of Public Transportation
James Keel is the Assistant Public Transportation Director for the City of Greenville Public Transportation Department in Greenville, South Carolina. Initially, he was brought onboard to serve as the General Manager but seven months into his career with the City he was promoted to his current role. James currently oversees transit operations division, the safety and training unit, and the transit planning and grants unit.
James came to Greenlink from Greenville, North Carolina where he served as the Charter Services Coordinator for East Carolina University Transit. He studied management and has received both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in business administration. James’s passion for public transportation began in 2009 when he served as a bus operator for the ECU Transit.
Alex John, Transit Planner and Grants Coordinator
Alex joined Greenlink in July 2016. He previously served as the Senior Transportation Planner for Delaware County, PA and as the County’s Planning Liaison to SEPTA, the public transit provider for the Philadelphia metro area. Alex brings a comprehensive planning background to Greenlink including previous work with rail, road, and sidewalk projects – a beneficial asset in coordinating Greenlink’s short and long-term planning efforts with city, county, and state agencies.
Alex is responsible for all service planning activities including analyzing and modifying bus routes, bus stop design and placement, and addressing pedestrian and ADA access at bus stop locations. He is also responsible for developing grant applications for state and federal funds and reports all operational data to the National Transit Database (NTD).
Alex earned a Bachelor’s of Science in Community and Regional Planning and a minor in Geography and Urban Studies from Temple University and is currently pursuing a Masters in Geography and Environmental Planning from Towson University.
Nicole McAden, Marketing and Public Affairs Specialist
Nicole came on board with Greenlink in December 2015. Her current duties include coordinating advertising sales to increase Greenlink revenue, managing a bike locker program in downtown Greenville, updating the Greenlink website and creating quarterly newsletters, planning public hearings and communicating service changes, and serving as Greenlink’s community liaison with media outlets, elected officials, and other stakeholder groups. Nicole is also a member of the Bike Walk Greenville Board of Directors and the Upstate Transit Coalition Board of Directors.
Nicole’s experience in transportation began in 2011 with URS Corporation (now AECOM) as a School Outreach Coordinator, and then as Deputy Project Manager, with the SC Safe Routes to School (SRTS) Resource Center – a project of SCDOT. With the SRTS Resource Center, Nicole recruited K-8 grade schools to participate with the SRTS program by planning Walk and Bike to School Day events, conducting walkability audits, and drafting school travel plans to seek funding for pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure improvements. Additionally, Nicole served as an ambassador for the program by presenting at national conferences including the Pro Walk/Pro Bike 2014 Conference and the 2014 US Play Coalition Conference.
Nicole is originally from DeLand, Florida, and attended the University of Florida where she earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration. Nicole majored in Marketing and received minors in both Organizational Management for Nonprofits and Leadership. She is currently earning a Master of Public Affairs degree from the University of Missouri.
Joel Barefoot, Transit Safety and Training Officer
With over 12 years of experience in a variety of transportation roles, Joel came to Greenlink in August 2016 to focus on developing a comprehensive safety program. He believes instilling a culture of safety among employees and incorporating risk mitigation into all aspects of operations are keys to minimizing safety-sensitive events.
Monthly safety meetings with all operations staff are used to discuss recent trends in overall performance and continually update them on recent changes to laws, policies, and best practices. These meetings also offer an opportunity for him to reinforce the importance of being safe on the road by driving defensively and maintaining awareness while still providing great customer service. By interviewing and hiring qualified bus operators with the right mix of people skills and behind the wheel experience, Joel hopes to help maintain the City of Greenville’s image as a safe place to work and live.
Joel first received his Associate in Applied Science in Advertising & Graphic Design before beginning his transportation career as a bus operator while attending classes at East Carolina University in Greenville, NC. Here he received his Bachelor of Science degree in Information and Computer Technology as well as a minor in Business Administration. During his time at ECU Transit, he quickly moved up to become a dispatcher, training instructor, and finally Planning, Marketing & IT Manager. Additionally, he served as a Third Party Examiner certified by the NC DMV to administer skills tests for new employees who had completed training and were attempting to obtain their Commercial Driver’s Licenses.
Lorrie Brown, Administrative Assistant III
Lorrie Brown is the first smiling face that visitors see when they enter the Transit Center at 100 W. McBee Avenue. She is Greenlink’s Administrative Assistant and has worked with Greenville Transit Authority/Greenlink since 2005. During tenure at Greelink, she has been given a Customer Service Award in 2009 and was voted Transit Employee of the Year in 2011.
Prior to her employment with the Greenville Transit Authority/Greenlink, Lorrie worked for South Trust Bank as Administrative Assistant to the Bank Administrator, and for 18 years she was the Human Resource Secretary for Hexcel Schwebel where she maintained records for over 1,000 employees. She also assisted with safety training and signing up new hires during her employment. When the Corporate office moved from White Plains, NY to Anderson, SC Lorrie left the Hexcel Schwebel HR Department and went to work in the Corporate office as Administrative Assistant assisting the President and Vice Presidents. During her employment there, she received various customer service and perfect attendance awards (missing only two days during her 18 years of employment!).
The award recognizes excellence in building community support for mobile infrastructure-related projects through participation in community affairs, grassroots relationships or marketing and promotion of the system, services, and more.
In making the award, TASC Executive Director Terecia Wilson noted the following:
Over the last several years, Ms. Katy Smith, supported and aided by the Members of the Board of Directors of the Piedmont Health Foundation, worked tirelessly to complete an in-depth research project in Greenville County to assess the health of the local community; barriers to good health and active lifestyles; and opportunities to improve the health of the community.
Through the study, there was extensive outreach to all segments of the local community to obtain their input and their concerns. The local response was overwhelming, due to the marketing and outreach efforts by Katy, the Board, and the staff of the Foundation. Much was learned and a series of recommendations/plan of action to move forward was created.
One of the key findings of the study was the impact of affordable and accessible transportation services on public health. Many local residents were not able to go to doctor’s appointments, obtain needed medications, or purchase healthy foods due to lack of access to transportation.
The study clearly demonstrated the linkages between transportation and wellness – long before federal authorities implemented the national “Riding to Wellness Initiative”.
At last year’s TASC conference, and again at our recent, statewide Transportation and Wellness Summit, Katy and the Piedmont Health Foundation’s presentation on their study demonstrated true excellence in community outreach, as the project methodology was explained and the key results identified.
“We are proud of this recognition and appreciative of the support of the Transportation Association of South Carolina,” said Katy Smith. “TASC unites the many people and organizations in our state that provide transportation services, ranging from transit systems to Councils on Aging to state universities. Because it is critical that we have a strong mobile infrastructure to serve the residents of South Carolina, the Piedmont Health Foundation believes our partnership with TASC is an important way we can improve health.”
One hour wait times. Insufficient geographic coverage. Hours of operation too short for most residents’ work, educational or recreational schedules. These are the primary reasons most Greenville County residents don’t use public transit and why life is difficult for those who must rely on it. If residents can’t reach the doctor’s office for preventive care, the grocery store for healthy foods, or a job to earn a livable wage, they won’t likely be as healthy. Since 2015, the Piedmont Health Foundation has focused on transportation and public transit as a way to improve the health of our community.
The public transit system operating in Greenville County, South Carolina, has come a long way since the City of Greenville began operating it as Greenlink in 2008. However, its limitations cause many to say it still has a long way to go.
But why is the service so insufficient? Why can’t the system serve more people and more frequently? Greenlink staff and the Greenville Transit Authority Board, which governs the transit system, say that the service they can offer is limited by the funds they receive for operations.
To better understand funding for public transit in Greenville, the Piedmont Health Foundation conducted a study using Federal Transit Administration data to compare Greenlink to transit systems in “peer communities” – areas in the Southeast that are similar in terms of population, geography, economy and culture.
As was reported in the Greenville News, Greenlink received only $3.76 per capita from local sources in 2015. The next lowest peer community, Charleston, received $17.79 per capita in local funds, with others receiving much more (e.g. Winston-Salem at $33.14, Greensboro at $40.70, and Birmingham at $49.22). Greenville County and the City of Greenville give an annual apportionment to Greenlink for its operations – 13% of its total annual operational funding. The median percentage of local funding for the other communities was four times that of Greenlink’s. Over time, funding from local sources to Greenlink has decreased. In 1991, the system received $730,724 from the City and County. In 2015, it was almost $144,000 less.
So, compared to peer communities, we are far behind.
But there is another important comparison to make: how does our funding compare to what is needed for a system that will meet our community’s needs? And how can that investment generate an overall economic benefit?
Answering those questions is at the top of the agenda for Greenlink’s new Director of Public Transit, Gary Shepard. Shepard began working with the City of Greenville in November, and he comes with an extensive background in economic development and public transit. I’ve had the opportunity to join him as he has met with elected officials, community leaders, business people and others, and he clearly states his belief that investments in transit are, in fact, investments in economic development.
Shepard says, “Every time Greenlink transports someone to work, not only are we helping that person provide for their family, but it allows for contributions to the income tax. Every time Greenlink transports a person to shop, not only are we helping that business owner attract customers, but these transactions add to the state sales tax. Every time Greenlink helps a patient travel to a medical appointment, we are ensuring that person receives care and increasing the quality of their life, but we are also contributing to preventative care efforts and lowering medical bills. And every time Greenlink can transport a student to an internship, we are not only adding to their educational experience, but also increasing the brain power of the region.”
Greenlink is conducting a Comprehensive Operational Analysis to take the first steps in designing that system. This assessment – recommended by the Piedmont Health Foundation’s 2015 mobility study and funded by us in partnership with the City of Greenville, Greenville County – will identify ways that Greenlink can redesign routes, adjust or relocate stops, use different vehicles, or modify service schedules to provide service in a more effective but budget-neutral manner. The next step is a Transit Development Plan to imagine the system of the future, one that can better serve a changing Greenville County with a denser downtown core, more congested corridors, and population that has a wider geographic spread.
Our community is at the top of most favorable lists when compared with the rest of the nation. We pride ourselves on innovation, public-private partnerships, and quality of life. The Piedmont Health Foundation believes that improving the mobility of all residents is the next big opportunity for demonstrating, yet again, Greenville’s can-do spirit.
It’s summertime, and while the livin’ is generally easy, as a mom, I still seem to spend a lot of time driving people places. Now that school is out, the number one question I’m asked by my fourteen year old is: “Can I go to ___?”
Which really means: “Can you drive me to ___?”
Fourteen is a tough age. My daughter is mature enough to independently meet up with friends for lunch, movies, shopping, and “hanging out.” But since she’s a year too young to drive and with most places too far to walk or bike, it’s hard to make that happen without a ride from mom or dad.
Fortunately, Greenlink, our public transit system, comes through our neighborhood once an hour, and she can ride to our beautiful downtown for $1.25 in ten easy minutes. So I taught her how to ride the bus.
It took some convincing, though. Because here in Greenville County, South Carolina, in our upper middle class neighborhood, the number of folks who choose to take the bus is about as high as the number who choose to travel by rickshaw.
In urban communities, of course, public transit is part of daily life for most residents – students in particular. More than 15,000 students in Boston ride the T to school each day, using passes provided by Boston Public Schools. In 2012, Minneapolis Public Schools moved nearly 5,000 high school students from school buses to the metro bus system. Students in urban communities use public transit for education, work, recreation, and anywhere else the bus or train will take them.
Liz Seman, Executive Director of Corporate Engagement at Furman University and a member of Greenville County Council recalls her experiences as a teen in a more urban community. “Growing up in the Chicago area, using public transportation was second nature,” she says, “Whether it was taking the train into the city to visit my Dad at his office (or to see a Cubs game) or hopping on the bus to get from one end of Michigan Avenue to the other, public transportation made navigating the Windy City a breeze!”
But for car-owning families in the Southeast, public transit just isn’t “a thing.”
However, at least in my relatively urban neighborhood, teens who can’t drive or don’t have a car do have a choice. They could ride a bus.
But as our study of public transit and health and human services transportation showed, the majority of Greenville County teens live in more sparsely populated suburban areas far from public transportation. Those without a car or a ride will find themselves stuck at home.
It’s disappointing for a teen to miss a movie or lunch with a friend because they couldn’t get a ride. But consider the opportunities that so many students without any transportation miss.
Summer volunteering, which is often the first building block of a teenager’s resume.
Summer enrichment, whether it’s a theatre camp or music lesson or team sport.
Summer employment, which can boost a teen’s income, financial literacy, and later employability.
Summer freedom – the sense that there is a world beyond one’s home and neighborhood, a world that he or she can navigate without the help of mom or dad.
In our community, Momentum Bike Clubs are side-stepping the absence of robust public transit in low-wealth neighborhoods by connecting middle schoolers with biking. These kids are pedaling all over Greenville County, seeing mountains and farmland they never knew were just a few miles from their homes.
But wouldn’t it be great if these kids – and teens all over – could put their bikes on the front of a bus and go even farther? It’s part of what MDC calls the “infrastructure of opportunity” for the next generation.
As a mom, I for one would be delighted to stay in the hammock (ha ha!) instead of firing up the family shuttle yet again.
Fortunately, my daughter has come around and sees the benefit of riding in the air conditioned bus to go places when I can’t (or won’t) take her. I just wish that were possible for more kids (and their parent chauffeurs).
Imagine that you’ve worked for months – possibly years – to earn your GED, and finally you’ve been awarded this credential to put yourself on a path to financial stability.
And imagine that you’ve been offered a job, your first job with a wage that might allow you to make ends meet. You got the job because of your GED, a good reference from a mentor at the GED program, and the positive impression you made on the manager.
And the fact that you have a car. You had to be able to check the box on the application that says you have your own transportation.
But now, on your first day of work, that car – with 200,000 miles on it, a broken AC, and lots of duct tape holding it together – won’t start.
Your bridge from poverty to stability is letting you down again.
We often equate car ownership with mobility, but considering that the spectrum of cars ranges from brand new Cadillacs to ancient clunkers and car owners include both millionaires and paupers, it makes sense that “car ownership” isn’t a binary proxy for connectivity.
Our transportation study of Greenville County, SC showed that while 75% of the 3,500 plus survey respondents owned a car, a quarter of them were at times unable to drive it because they couldn’t afford repairs or gasoline. Of those unable to drive, half said they were stuck a few times a month or more.
I don’t know of many employers who would allow an employee to keep a job when regularly missing work that often.
The 2010 Census reported that only 8% of Greenville County households did not own a vehicle. But considering that 15.4% of Greenville County residents were living in poverty and that about half of Americans have insufficient savings to cover a minor emergency, it’s likely that many more people find themselves practically without transportation. Like the mythological Tantalus, condemned for eternity to live in water up to his neck and beneath a fruit tree just out of reach, these folks reside in a county full of economic prosperity but with a broken down car parked in their yard.
Deborah McKetty, President and CEO of CommunityWorks, Inc. sees this firsthand. CommunityWorks is a Community Development Credit Union in Greenville whose mission is empowering low wealth families and communities. She says, “We are one of the least mobile communities in the nation, with only 27% of the working-age population having access to transit. We see this growing problem on a daily basis, as our clients and many low-wealth families throughout Greenville continually struggle to access educational and employment opportunities without transportation. Without the means to access these services, low-families cannot achieve upward mobility”.
We cannot ignore how critical transportation is to moving people out of poverty. If we lack a robust public transportation system – whether fixed route buses serving all shifts, work shuttles, ride shares, vanpools or other solutions – we must find ways to connect workers to jobs. The costs to society for unemployment insurance, SNAP benefits, and charitable support are high (not to mention the impact on the recipient’s morale).
Some emergency assistance programs in Greenville County can help with car repairs or gas for those moving from job training to employment. Organizations such as United Ministries and CommunityWorks Carolina help residents accrue emergency savings for car repairs to avoid being without transportation or connect them with low interest credit for a car purchase.
But a robust public transit can serve everyone. It makes it possible for someone to affordably get to and from work for the long term, and the lower costs to use public transit can allow them to save money for a car of their own or for repairs.
So the next time you see an old car barely making it down the street, say a prayer for the person driving it, because that car is a lifeline. And consider how we as a community can do better.
Yesterday, I asked my third grade son, who buys his meal in the cafeteria at Sterling School every day, what he chose to eat for lunch.
“I got the hummus plate,” he replied.
“The hummus plate?” I asked, surprised. “How was it?”
He shrugged. “It was pretty good.”
I don’t want to misrepresent my son as someone with a wildly adventurous palate. This is a kid who begs me to purchase the bright variety packs of cereals when we go to the grocery store and who is easily wooed by a fast food joint based on what movie character is hawking it on Nickelodeon. I do believe he’s less picky than most children; however, he will let me know when “too many things are touching” in a casserole I’ve made or if nose-plugging is necessary for vegetables that are “weird.”
So the fact that he will eat a hummus plate without fanfare (as well as carrot-ginger soup, veggie quesadillas, and enchilada pie) is a big victory for me.
And thousands of parents in Greenville County’s 51 elementary schools are having the same victories each day.
It’s been widely reported that Greenville County Schools Food and Nutrition Services has developed Culinary Creations menus in its elementary cafeterias. Funded by the Piedmont Health Foundation, along with Blue Cross Blue Shield of SC, Greenville Women Giving, and others, Greenville County Schools’ food service workers participated in culinary training at Greenville Tech’s Culinary Institute of the Carolinas. This has enabled them to offer fresh salads, scratch made soups, whole grains, local produce, and vegetarian entrees each and every day. And thanks to the culinary training, the food is attractively presented and nicely seasoned.
Critics have speculated that students just won’t eat the healthier menu items, suggesting that kids like only corn dogs and chicken nuggets. However, sales show that many students have more adventurous taste preferences than grownups give them credit for. In fact, at most schools, sales have held steady or increased with the new Culinary Creations items.
A blog by Patrick Mustain on ScientificAmerican.com describes both the research and health imperatives behind testing assumptions about what kids will and won’t eat (It Is Not True that Kids Won’t Eat Healthy Food: Why the New USDA School Guidelines Are Very Necessary). Mustian writes, “A number of studies show that neophobia (the fear of trying new foods) can be unlearned through exposure to a variety of novel foods, even just visual exposure. However, in the current food environment, many children are offered, or have an option to seek out, hyper-palatable, energy dense, nutritionally lacking foods. This lack of exposure to a variety of novel foods keeps their level of pickiness high. Picky eating is (generally) not an inherent trait, they are simply responding naturally to an environment that has never challenged their palate.”
To his point, it is noteworthy that some of the strongest lunchroom participation trends in Greenville County are in those schools with the highest Free and Reduced lunch rates. These are the students who eat school lunch because their families are less able to afford sending a lunch packed at home. In other words, they have no choice other than to eat whatever is served at school, be it a corn dog or, as is the case in Greenville County, a veggie burger and salad. And by and large, the students are eating these healthy foods. Cafeterias are finding that, across the district, there is not more food waste than before the menu changes were implemented (in other words, kids have always thrown away some of their lunch because they are full, spent too much time talking to friends to eat, or they just don’t want a particular item on the tray).
This is significant – it means that those children whoaren’t given the opportunity to be picky (“my daughter doesn’t like what’s on the menu today, so I’m going to pack her a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and chips”) will find things that they can, in fact, eat. And when those things are fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins – especially for kids who are from food-poor homes – it’s a big deal from a public health perspective.
Do these kids love everything they try? No. I wish my son had loved the school hummus plate, as I do, and perhaps he won’t order it again. But maybe he will give it another chance. Because his school has been a few steps ahead of the new USDA guidelines, he’ll be able to test this and lots of other tasty, healthy foods the whole school year long. I just need to stay out of the way and let him do it.
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