Small signs attached to downtown bus stops advertise the “Holiday Blue Route,” VIA Metropolitan Transit’s seasonal service from the Pearl to the Blue Star and back, but a reporter's experience riding the Blue over several days and evenings suggests VIA will need more than bus stop signs to get the city riding.
The holiday route expands on the existing Blue Circulator Route, 305, which services downtown, Southtown and the Blue Star Arts Complex. The Holiday Blue is meant to serve as a “sneak preview” of the stops that VIA will add to the regular route in May 2016, after a series of public meetings planned for February and March.
The new route adds three temporary stops at Augusta Street, Brooklyn Avenue, and Broadway at the Pearl, but come May, the Blue will serve several additional destinations along the Museum Reach.
I boarded the Holiday Blue twice in the past week to speak with riders about the expanded service, but what I encountered was near-empty buses.
Wednesday, Dec. 2
I arrived at Grayson Street and Pearl Parkway (Bus Stop 54266) at 7:02 p.m.. Based on VIA's schedule of the bus arriving every 15 minutes, my driver was seven minutes late. The Holiday Blue is easy to spot with its exterior snowflake decals and the "Holiday Special" name on the electronic reader. The bus was empty, even though the nearby parking lot at the Pearl was packed. Perhaps people didn't know about the seasonal bus option.
Regular Blue Route service moves riders between popular shopping destinations and arts venues, including Rivercenter Mall, Tobin Center and La Villita, but the efficiency of the route sometimes depends on the customers, according to Rose Herrera, the first bus driver I spoke with. Customers with disabilities or loading bicycles on the exterior front rack require additional time to board and be comfortably seated.
It took several minutes for the bus’ wheelchair ramp to extend for a passenger at a stop near the Alamo (Bus Stop 91186) and a jammed joystick forced the passenger to wait several more minutes before she moving to the handicapped seating area. The driver lifted the seats to secure the wheelchair during the trip, and assure the passenger's comfort.
The bus passed by the Bluestar Complex at 7:30 p.m., before making a requested stop at a regular Blue stop. Several extra minutes were required to assist the wheelchair-bound passenger at the bus stop near her home. Herrera then looped around nearby streets in Southtown and headed back to the Pearl. The bus arrived at Josephine Street (Bus Stop 44679) at 8:11 p.m. on time, according to Herrera.
Herrera said she has driven more crowded buses since the service began, but she predicts the Red Circulator Route, 301, which takes riders from Hemisfair and River Center Mall to El Mercado, will be busier than the Blue.
"It'll be interesting to see how that turns out," said Herrera.
Saturday, Dec. 5
Since a weekday night yielded very few VIA riders to interview, I returned on the weekend, expecting busier bus lines. When I arrived at Josephine and Avenue B (Bus Stop 44679) at 9:33 p.m. on Saturday, the Pearl was filled with road closure signs and leftover traffic cones from the Tamales! festival earlier that day. The Blue is scheduled to run every 15 minutes, and I gave up after waiting a half hour until 10:03 p.m. I walked south to the Broadway and Pearl Parkway stop (Bus Stop 54266), where an empty bus picked me up. We picked up a single passenger at the next stop.
VIA rider John Arledge said he uses the normal bus routes to get to his job at the Menger Hotel each day, and has used the Blue Route a few times on the weekends.
"It's pretty much been on time so far, but it's still pretty new," Arledge said. "I only found out about it from one of the pamphlets I found on the bus while I was on my way to work. "
I disembarked a few minutes later at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts (Bus Stop 52101) and walked to the nearby Brooklynite. I began my wait for the bus at 10:29 p.m., at Brooklyn and the San Antonio River (Bus Stop 61977). Cars were parked where the bus should have stopped, and there was no sign of a bus coming at 11 p.m. Finally, I gave up waiting and took an Uber back to my car at the Pearl.
Just hours earlier on Saturday, VIA President & CEO Jeff Arndt had experienced something similar when he used the E-bus (which runs every 10 minutes) to move from St. Mary’s Street to a gala function downtown.
Arndt arrived at the stop at 6:22 p.m., but waited another 30 minutes before the bus showed.
“I had just missed the bus according to the schedule,” Arndt said during an interview on Tuesday, Dec. 8. “Finally, it arrived at 6:43 p.m.”
When Arndt boarded the bus, he asked the driver if the bus had skipped a trip, but was told the traffic at the Pearl, runners from the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon and several events on East Houston Street had led to gridlock downtown at different times throughout the day, and added an extra half hour to the trip.
City officials and organizations like SA2020 expect an additional one million people to move to San Antonio by 2040, which means more traffic and longer waiting times unless there is change.
“You realize none of those streets are going to get wider, this is not like the freeway system, it’s not like we can add another lane. The streets are as wide as those streets are going to be," Arndt said. “So the real issue becomes how do we ultimately manage the traffic? The late bus is really a symptom of a transportation problem."
The estimated marketing/promotions cost for VIA’s Holiday Special on the Blue Route is $35,000 to $38,000, which has been spent reaching residents via social media, television, pamphlets, VIA sponsored events and even from the bus drivers themselves. The new campaign ends on Jan.2, but the continuing campaign has already reached current and new riders, said VIA officials.
The City removed a diamond lane from downtown North St. Mary’s Street several years ago after traffic was deemed “too heavy.” A dedicated bus lane would help bus drivers keep on schedule, Arndt said.
“In our downtown there are so few options, how do you serve it and not bypass all of downtown? So we have to just try and muddle through,” Arndt said. “This kind of thing demonstrates the benefit of a Right of Way for at least high-design type transportation.”
Participating Holiday Blue Route buses are scheduled to run every 15 minutes, from 7 a.m.-11 p.m. on weekdays, and 9 a.m.-11 p.m. on weekends through Jan. 2. Click here to learn more about VIA’s routes and updates, and stay tuned for upcoming VIA bus efficiency updates.
Featured Photo: The special Holiday Blue Route will run from Nov. 27- Jan.2. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.