Dreams of a Renegade Bus Rider

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Streetcars pass each other in downtown New Orleans. Photo by Scott Ball.

Streetcars pass each other in downtown New Orleans. Photo by Scott Ball.

I am a public transportation nerd. Something about a subway tunnel full of people surging in and out of their day or night gives me a rush of excitement, curiosity, and a vague sense of uneasiness in a tight crowd of strangers that keeps me on the edge of my very used, very public, and very plastic seat.

I’m the kind of guy that likes to keep every kitchen gadget on the counter and plugged in at all times, just in case I have a sudden need to grind coffee beans while simultaneously making toast and a Belgium waffle while my water is boiling. It’s about efficiency, it’s about multi-tasking and everything I might need is always there in case, I don’t know, I decide to create a breakfast masterpiece.

My public transportation lovefest began early, real early, like grade school early. The Alamodome was still new and shiny and the San Antonio Spurs were packing a full house at every home game. My father, a gigantic Spurs fan, took me along to games as often as his schedule allowed. To save time and money, we used VIA’s Park & Ride service.

We hopped on at Crossroads Mall and stepped off the bus at Sunset Station (now a ghost town) right outside the Alamodome.  Being on that bus with every seat filled with riders covered in black and silver and chanting “SPURS SPURS SPURS” (pre “Go Spurs Go” era) did something for me. It allowed me to get excited and feel the pulse of a true fan. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to start or finish a game. It was pure San Antonio magic.

After the glory days of the Park & Ride, I traveled to distant cities with structured transportation systems like San Francisco and New York City. I instantly fell in love in a much deeper and complex way, it was like the Park & Ride, but on steroids and all the time and for every possible occasion. So many people, so much energy, and an endless possibility of destinations.

When I came home from those trips (a know-it-all teenager) I felt like a public transportation pro. I knew how to get around a big city so San Antonio was mine to explore. I started to board the VIA bus instead of my school bus for a ride to middle school. The VIA bus driver dropped me off across the street in front of the taco stand, while the school bus driver dropped off students on campus. We were not allowed to leave campus, and it was a campus without any good tacos.

After the theory of commuting to school proved worthy and appetizing, it extended to trips to see friends who lived in other neighborhoods. This was more complicated: frequent late arrivals, serious pre-trip planning, and the constant feeling of, “Am I on the right bus?” The feeling of going to far, of crossing a line I wasn’t supposed to cross, led me to take a step back and get off the bus. There also was the lingering issue of deceiving my parents. If they found out I was hopping VIA rides, I’d probably be grounded for weeks.

As I grew older and started to drive, the bus system slowly receded from my life. Yet I often fantasized about the street cars of San Francisco, or the subways of New York City, and I wanted that kind of public interaction and movement back in my life.

When planning vacations I always make my number one, non-negotiable demand the availability of unique and reliable public transportation in my destination city. I’ve recently visited New Orleans, Vancouver, and Seattle, and never even considered renting a car.  I walk as little or as much as I want in such cities, and the rest just sort of falls into place.

The New Orleans RTA streetcar system. Photo by Scott Ball.

The New Orleans RTA streetcar system. Photo by Scott Ball.

As someone who performs the majority of my work in downtown San Antonio, lives in the up and coming neighborhood of Dignowity Hill in the near Eastside, and very rarely ventures outside Loop 410, public transportation means a lot to me. Still, I do own a white Toyota Corolla. It’s reliable, paid for, and my insurance rates and maintenance costs are low.

It makes sense to keep it. I wish it made just as much sense not to keep it. If public transit in our city was more frequent, more comfortable, and more reliable, I’d ditch the car.

A life where most of my travel is on a bike, walking or riding a bus gives me the perfect combination of exercise, mobility and freedom. Unfortunately, VIA’s bike racks only accommodate two bikes per bus, a reflection that planners see San Antonio as a city where cyclists don’t have to be taken seriously.

That’s right: The bus you’ve been waiting for while holding your bike to load on the front? If it already has two bikes, you’ll just have to wait for the next bus. No riders allowed on board with bikes. Don’t even try convincing the driver to make an exception. Your plea will be met with a roar of an engine and a gust of exhaust. Better to just sit back and enjoy the unshaded bus stop for another half hour this hot summer. You can always walk your bike home if you have a flat and forgot to bring a spare tube.

When that happened to me and the driver closed the door in my face and drove off, I felt insulted and actually called VIA’s Customer Service line to complain and discuss the issue with a rationale person. Alas, that was three years ago and my call still hasn’t been returned.

Councilman Rey Saldaña removes his bicycle from the front rack of a VIA bus. Photo by Scott Ball.

Councilman Rey Saldaña removes his bicycle from the front rack of a VIA bus. Photo by Scott Ball.

Here is the VIA policy: “The bike racks on VIA buses hold two bicycles at a time. Space on the bike racks is available on a first-come, first-served basis, and bicycles are not allowed inside the buses. If you have a bicycle and the rack is full, then wait for the next bus.”

Efficiency 

I want to see a system that has more options, more frequent arrivals to each stop, and more timely to destinations.

Multi-Tasking 

When riding the bus I want to be able to check my email and work while riding. A major advantage for the transit rider over the vehicle driver is the option to get some work of leisure reading done on the ride. That means a good WiFi signal, and we can only hope the next generation of VIA buses will make such service universal.

Always There

I want to be able to get home after a long day ending at midnight.  I want the people who partake in alcohol to feel like they have a reliable way of getting home after the bars close.

I’m not here to say I have a grand plan for the future of transportation in San Antonio. But I am certain the current system is wholly inadequate for a city of San Antonio’s size and ambition. We need something better.

Transportation choice is the key ingredient missing in our city. It’s obvious to residents my age, and it must be immediately obvious to visiting Millennials. If San Antonio wants to move beyond cheap rhetoric about being a “great city” it better get busy devising some transportation options equal to what can be found in other cities of our size.

Of course, I’d love to see San Antonio commit to a comprehensive rail system, starting with downtown and extending outward, the kind of system where you don’t mind leaving your car at home and exploring the city on a weekend night, the kind of system that you would feel comfortable taking a family onboard, the kind of system that gets us where we need to be going without adding more traffic to our city, the kind of system that makes you want to give up your wheels.

 

*Featured /top image: Streetcars pass each other in downtown New Orleans.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

Related Stories:

Electric Trolley Pays a Quiet Visit to San Antonio

City’s First Sustainability Forum Draws a Crowd

Denver’s MallRide Could be San Antonio’s Broadway-Blue Star Express

Rey Saldaña Drops His Keys and Boards the Bus

Transportation Pieces Take Shape for VIA, Comprehensive Plan

26 thoughts on “Dreams of a Renegade Bus Rider

  1. I lived in Chicago for ten years before moving to SA. I never needed car. I used trains, subways, buses everywhere for everything in the city. When I go back to Portland Oregon on vacation I spend 7-10 days there and go everywhere on public transportation. In each city cars arent necessary because the scheduling of public transportation was excellent, frequent and reliable. We have a long way to go here in SA.

  2. I’ve been going to college in New York City for 3 years. The longer I’ve been here, the more hopeless I’ve felt about San Antonio. Public transit is one of the main reasons I’m not even considering coming back. I wish there were more forward thinking people like you, and that those who would benefit from a true public transit system could mobilize to get one made, but all I’ve seen in my time gone was a hard fought steer car plan killed dead in its tracks by a new mayor.

  3. In Portland, not only are there lots of options, I can purchase every kind of fare on a phone ap, while I wait at the stop. Also, unlike via they don’t change the routes and times every few months. Bus drivers in SA couldn’t even tell me how to get somewhere without looking in the latest schedule book. There is nothing systematic about our transit system.

  4. My understanding is that fold-up bikes can be carried into the bus. I called VIA re this and that was what I was told by the one person I spoke with. I have not tried to board a VIA bus with my fold-up bike yet. Has anyone had experience with carrying on a fold-up?

  5. Great article to hopefully speed up our way of public transportation and shine a very large light on an issue that is pertinent to succeeding as a larger city. Our downtown has always been a playground, albeit it certainly is becoming more exciting and is continually expanding at a faster rate, so it would only make sense that public transit would be more available. We NEED this! I love San Antonio and I cannot wait to see this change whether it be trolleys or street cars, or whatever, we need something and fast! Please and thank you!

    • Don’t let the rabid anti-rail propagandists fool you, Joel. Men like Randal O’Toole will do practically anything to keep people from believing that “mass transit…works” (at least any type which requires its own infrastructure).

      For that matter, the “Reason Foundation” is anything but.

      I visited the link you provided and I watched their show. Even at five minutes, it was a struggle; but, I made it through to the end.

      Now, for a fact check:

      1. Their use of the phrase “old technology” to describe street railway services isn’t quite fair, since automobiles (and buses) have been around the block a few times, themselves – and the myriad advancements in streetcar passenger comfort, propulsion systems, energy efficiency and safety features are well documented.

      2. The presumed overarching superiority of motor vehicles cannot be supported by empirical data. Yes, it can be argued that many people prefer using their own automobiles for every trip, but that may simply indicate their lack of knowledge regarding possible alternatives. After all, by definition, autocentrism demands absolute allegiance; therefore, it tends to drown out competing messages.

      3. It is certainly possible that “you can walk faster” than a streetcar can travel, provided your trip doesn’t cover too many city blocks. Of course, within an urban area, one can easily travel faster by streetcar than by driving, once the realities of parking are considered.

      This is one of the many reasons why a comprehensive streetcar system can be such a boon to a city’s downtown! Simply put, there are several inherent drawbacks to the use of automobiles for short urban trips – which helps explain why it’s rarely done. If you’re driving downtown, you tend to park once, take care of your business at a single location, then leave. Any additional shops, cafes or entertainment venues will either be within easy walking distance, or they’ll remain off limits. When using mass transit, it’s easy to make several independent stops within a relatively short distance. In fact, the slower, more comfortable streetcar actually encourages this sort of activity!

      4. Dallas did NOT unilaterally “cut bus service” when their new light rail transit system began operations. This is an old canard, soundly disproved numerous times.

      Dallas is my hometown and I was living there when DART’s light rail network opened. Furthermore, I was employed at DART during the time of their first “buildout” (service expansion). The majority of changes in bus service have involved either the elimination of long distance runs (deemed superfluous due to the faster and more comfortable trains operating along parallel routes) or the reconfiguration of local lines, which allowed direct connections to be made at the several train stations. In turn, this dramatically increased the number of locations one could reach within the metropolitan region – all for a single fare.

      5. The Reason Foundation’s hateful use of demographics in an attempt to drive a wedge between innocent members of our society was beyond the pale (or it would have been, had I not considered the source). Among those interviewed, the “core enthusiasts” were both young, white and easy-going, while the three standing in opposition against streetcar service were older, black and angry.

      “A horrible decision and I think it’s just a waste of money.”

      “You got buses, you got cabs, you got bicycles; it’s really unnecessary!”

      “I don’t know if it’s just for the white folks – and I’m not being prejudiced – it’s just that, what is it good for?!”

      Yep; we have buses, cabs, bicycles and anything else that’s able to use the roadway network we’ve already decided to design, build and maintain for private automobiles…and THAT, my friends, is the basic point!

      You see, it really doesn’t MATTER if various forms of rail-based passenger transport are more fuel efficient or kinder to our environment or less expensive to operate. It doesn’t even matter if they’re more comfortable to ride or convenient to use or possess a proven superiority in overall marketability.

      No; trains take money which would otherwise be available to build more roads (without those bad ol’ tolls, naturally) and encourage more driving and make our air more polluted and force more oil production and keep more people isolated from each other.

      There’s a foundational reason why the Reason Foundation is so scared of the possibility that our society might (re)embrace passenger trains as a transportation alternative – and it isn’t because of “big government.” After all, it’s big government that underwrites the autocentric lifestyle they so enthusiastically endorse!

      They’re scared because they know streetcars and light rail vehicles and regional rail services and commuter trains and conventional intercity runs and high-speed corridors would all be tremendously successful, if they were only given a fair chance to succeed.

      Garl B. Latham

  6. Every time the streetcar debate comes up it gets shut down. Mass transit is one of the hallmarks of America’s major cities, and given that San Antonio is quickly growing into one of America’s largest cities, it’s time for us to consider the options.

  7. While I feel that a reliable and efficient transportation system is vital to our growing city – I think that it’s important to note that not ALL public transportation riders are the same. There needs to be an equally reliable system for those that are elderly or disabled.

  8. here is the thing, this is more of a big town rather than a city. You want it to be like a city but town peoples cry of large activities….How about make use of what you have and once we are at a place of afforability than maybe start the upscale….downtown is small that you can walk everywhere…. Via is our main trans but the sad part is Via is unreliable on time. How many bus transfers do we need to get to half way across town? We are all about creating something bigger and better but the sad part…San Antonio is a small town Income not a big city income…. weren’t we just complaining of gentrification….. Are we focusing this as a five mile radius of downtown only? People need to learn to walk, its soo much faster… I love this town but sadly we are not being ideal as to what this town capable of…. its capable of so much more but people are jumping waayy too far ahead… small businesses are keeping things small, not because they can’t afford big, but San Antonio spends small…but we surely love to waste… You want trans? Tell Via quit being so cheap and add more bus route and be on time…

  9. I am not sure if everyone is aware but I think SA can benefit alot from the infrastructure built in trans-millenio in Bogota Colombia.

  10. Did you know that VIA gives drivers the autonomy to simply SKIRT scheduled stops if they are behind schedule?! What kind of public transit is THAT?! My daughter–a UIW student–was left stranded at a stop in front of her university one fall afternoon as she tried to make her way to her part time job. That was the LAST time any of us will try VIA! Unconscionable!!!!!!

  11. By global standards, VIA’s current bus integration with bicycles is pretty amazing – but I feel Scott’s pain with much of the above (including being the one with the third bicycle)!

    Along with various service qualities that need to be addressed (the quality of the waiting experience, certainty that buses are coming, frequency of service, hours of operation, fare structure and approach, duration of journeys, etc), there is the question of enhanced bike integration.

    San Antonio could make it a requirement that taxis in the City include bike racks (or savvy taxi companies here could start adding them on their own). Not sure about the demand but I have seen bike racks standard on taxis in other cities. Something for Uber drivers to consider, too (where / if allowed)?

    Electric trolley folks can hopefully offer front bicycle racks – particularly, if this becomes an option pursued by VIA for enhanced neighborhood service?

    It’s also an important consideration for LSTAR I35 commuter rail to Austin- where / if bikes will be allowed on board – and a possible strong point of difference with regional buses including Greyhound currently (no bikes unless boxed and a substantial fee for bringing one).

    Obviously, more protected / separated and connected paths in San Antonio (ahem, 3 miles of Alazan Creek trail from Woodlawn Lake to Apache and San Pedro and the UNESCO missions) would support bicyclists and others. Bike share helps too, where there are stations and with affordable membership.

    One of the reasons I switched to skateboarding in my late 30s (no tricks here) was to allow much easier integration with various forms of transit. But if you’re too tired to ride your bike home or dressed up to ride your bike in (you can skateboard in a suit with a shoulder bag), it would be great to have more transit options for your bike.

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