(Editor's Note: This is the ninth in a two-week series exploring existing infrastructure and future needs in the Cleveland and Bradley County community.)
Shortly before 2 p.m. Thursday, passengers queued on a sidewalk outside the Cleveland Urban Area Transit System’s central bus depot in downtown Cleveland.
Some carried backpacks, one pushed a rolling walker. All were bound for different destinations along the same route of a public transit system that is a must for some, a convenience for others.
A man in his 20s, who identified himself only as Tony, listened to music through his ear buds while waiting to board the bus. He smiled as he removed them when he was asked by a Cleveland Daily Banner reporter about the bus ride.
“It gets you where you need to go,” he shrugged. “It depends on where I'm going.”
Tony said he rides the bus between one to five times a week, usually depending on the weather.
“Most of the time I ride my bike,” he said. “But it has been really cold lately.”
As the passengers waited, the driver helped a disabled passenger board the bus via a lift. After settling into the driver’s seat, the bus driver then signaled for the other passengers to climb aboard.
Some of them were elderly, some were middle-aged and some under 30. They flashed either their route passes or dropped money into the fare box as they filed into the vehicle and selected their seats.
Two passengers who sat together, a male and female couple, spoke quietly to each other.
Most were silent, lost in thought as the bus pushed away from the depot for its hourlong ride along CUATS' Red Route, which stretched from the depot to the Walmart Supercenter on Treasury Drive.
Every seat was filled. The only sounds were Blanco Brown’s hit song “The Git Up,” which played on the radio over the hum of the bus' engine.
It was 2:02 p.m.
What is CUATS?
The Cleveland Urban Area Transit System, known as CUATS, is operated by the Southeast Tennessee Human Resource Agency and offers public bus service throughout the city of Cleveland and select parts of Bradley County outside the city limits.
It is located on 165 Edwards St. in downtown Cleveland.
Ted Smith, CUATS’ operations manager, told the Banner that ridership has grown since 2011.
“It’s been a steady increase,” he said. “A lot of people have found out about us.”
In 2011, Smith said 83,000 passengers were transported on CUATS' buses. Last year, that number grew to 144,000.
He said Cleveland residents have become more aware of the convenience of the transit system’s five routes, which run from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.
“A lot are elderly or disabled passengers,” he said. “It’s convenient for them.”
The prices are inexpensive, with regular fare costing $1. For passengers age 65 and older, CUATS offers a reduced fare costing 50 cents. The reduced fare is also available to persons with disabilities or those presenting a Medicare Card.
For students, the fare is 75 cents. Children under 4 ride free.
There are also monthly passes, as well as a day pass. The monthly pass for regular fare customers costs $20, with reduced fare customers paying $10. A day pass costs just $2.
It’s a bargain when compared to rates charged by car services such as Uber, which would cost approximately $7.57 for a ride from the depot to the Walmart on Treasury Drive, a popular destination for many of CUATS’ Red Route customers.
According to the Cleveland Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, CUATS has been operating since 2005.
As well as a fixed-route system, the agency also offers a paratransit system, which provides curb-to-curb service for ADA-eligible passengers who have a disability that makes them unable to use the regular routes.
Paratransit passengers must call 48 hours in advance to schedule pickup and drop-off times, according to an MPO document.
"Outside the urbanized area, curb-to-curb paratransit service is provided by the Southeast Tennessee Human Resource Agency, which provides public transportation within Bradley, McMinn and seven other counties in Southeast Tennessee," according to the MPO.
Additionally, "in Bradley County and the portion of McMinn County that lies within the MPO, SETHRA’s service is provided on a demand-response basis, meaning riders contact the agency in advance for an appointment."
Rides are scheduled on a first-come, first-served basis. In addition, reservations for local trips are required.
Making the rounds
The bus zig-zagged its way through South Cleveland’s narrow streets, picking up passengers, while dropping off others as it made its way to Walmart.
After arriving in front of the store, a male passenger climbed on board, followed by other passengers clutching shopping bags.
Identifying himself as Jason, the passenger said he had ridden the same bus earlier to visit the store. Although he had been there for an hour, he returned from his visit empty-handed.
“I didn’t see anything I wanted,” he laughed.
A Wildwood resident, Jason said he often walks along the bus route for exercise.
“Sometimes I will walk to get where I want to go,” he said. “When I get tired, I’ll get on the bus.”
Jason, who said he lives about a block away from the bus route, said the transit system is timely and dependable.
“It’s pretty consistent,” he said.
Public transportation a growing need
Chris Kleehammer, executive director for the Southeast Tennessee Human Resource Agency, which oversees CUATS’s operations, told the Banner that public transit ridership has increased in all of Tennessee’s 95 counties.
He attributed the increase to the state’s aging population, as well as young people.
“Many are Baby Boomers and many are also younger people who are choosing not to get cars,” he said.
There are also additional reasons more Tennesseans are choosing to use public transit, according to the Tennessee Public Transportation Association.
The association’s website states that “public transportation benefits every segment of Tennessee, including individuals, families, businesses, industries and communities” by:
• Reducing congestion and pollution.
• Saving energy.
• Improving air quality.
• Contributing to economic development and job creation.
• Encouraging healthy lifestyles.
• Providing transportation to jobs, schools, and medical appointments.
• Allowing seniors, those with disabilities and those without other means of transportation to remain independent.
• Providing personal mobility and freedom to people from every walk of life.
The TPTA also reported that nationwide “from 1995 through 2011, public transportation ridership increased by 34% — a growth rate higher than the 17% increase in U.S. population and higher than the 22% growth in the use of the nation’s highways over the same period.
Kleehammer said he expects the trend will continue.
Back home again
As the bus made its way back to the depot, one by one, passengers signaled to be dropped off.
Jason, the Walmart customer, also motioned to the driver that his stop was coming up.
When the bus stopped, the passenger doors swung open and Jason rose from his seat.
He looked back and gestured toward the CUATS bus driver.
“He’s a good driver,” Jason said before exiting and disappearing from view as the bus continued on its journey.
Minutes later, the bus arrived back at the depot. It was 2:55. The route time had lasted just under an hour.
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