Some of you may remember my article in the Rivard Report, “Where I Live: Deco District (Jefferson)”. It was about reverse culture shock upon returning to San Antonio last autumn after a 20-year absence.
I didn’t have a car for the first two months. San Antonio is a big city – the seventh largest in the US – too big to cover on foot and too expensive to take taxis everywhere. By necessity I became a regular bus rider.
As an environmentalist, I’d wanted to use public transportation for some time but didn’t have the compelling need until then. So, with no other choice for the time being, I was riding the bus.
Fortunately San Antonio’s VIA Metropolitan Transit ranks high among all urban transit systems when measuring the relationship between bus service and job and worker location, according to a recent Brookings Institute study. Its buses are new and clean, its drivers courteous and competent — at least in my experience. Most buses are equipped with hydraulic lifts that lower and raise the entire bus to make it easier for the mobility-impaired. Every bus has devices to strap wheelchairs into place securely and bicycle racks on the front. Special commuter buses have luxurious individual upholstered seats and wi-fi.
Besides the regular buses, VIA also has downtown “streetcars” (old-fashioned, smaller buses that look like trollies, but with regular wheels) that run on tourist routes, but also service locals living and working in the downtown area.
Bus stops are generally clean and decorative, and an increasing number are offer some shade cover and are lighted at night. Some of the older ones are quite picturesque, such as a faux bois stop in Southtown (among others in Alamo Heights) and the artsy stop at the Blue Star Complex.
However, riding the bus has not been all rosy. Some of the bus stops lack seats and covers to protect riders from the heat and rain (these are especially important for senior citizens). I spoke with Gary Glasscock, VIA’s vice president of maintenance, about this recently and he assured me that his department is focusing on making improvements. Regular riders who are not satisfied with the quality or maintenance of their bus stop should make themselves heard by contacting VIA management or speaking to their City Council representative.
Regular riders can tell you about other discomforts, such as the periodic ridership at night of intoxicated passengers. This can be disconcerting to people like me who have lived sheltered lives. Drinking on the bus is prohibited, and on one occasion, I witnessed a driver enforce the rule with immediate effect.
Those concerns aside, there are broader implications of riding the bus. As an environmentalist, I wonder if riding the bus improves or worsens our air quality. I also had an opportunity to meet with Priscilla Ingle, VIA’s vice president of public affairs. Ingle and Glasscock shared with me what VIA is doing to make their buses and their operations environmentally friendly.
Half of the aging diesel fleet — 106 buses built before 2003 — have been retrofitted with diesel emissions traps and filters at a cost exceeding $25,000 per bus. Unfortunately, the vendor moved to Mexico halfway through the conversion project and is no longer compliant with U.S. standards. VIA’s modern diesel fleet of 393 buses all have traps.
VIA is actively moving into other forms of more environmentally friendly fuel use. Downtown “streetcars” run on propane, and the Viatrans paratransit fleet soon will be converted to all-propane. VIA currently operates 30 diesel-electric hybrid buses and four that run on compressed natural gas.
You may have heard about the new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Primo articulated buses. They will be running between downtown and the Medical Center/UTSA along Fredericksburg Road, and all run on compressed natural gas. I’ve seen them on a dry run, and they are an exciting sight.
Three all-electric buses will begin operating downtown in December. The charging station will be at the Robert Thompson Transit Station at the Alamodome. This is an experiment with the Federal Transportation Agency and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. These vehicles will be true zero-emitters because their electricity is coming from CPS Energy’s Windtricity program – a voluntary renewable-energy purchase option. Residential customers and businesses can sign up for Windtricity as well – it’s only slightly more expensive than conventional electricity. VIA plans a big rollout event to mark the arrival of the city’s first all-electric mass transit vehicles.
VIA also is installing solar at its five transit centers and some of its 550+ bus shelters.
I asked Ingle about the possibility of free downtown circulator services similar to what exists in several other cities. She had just returned from a national transportation meeting in Seattle, and noted that Seattle and Portland are both eliminating shuttles because they are not cost-effective.
Many of you may be wondering, as I was, if the imminent departure of VIA’s CEO Keith Parker will have a significant effect on operations. Ingle stated that VIA operates on a five-year plan and will continue to follow the plan. In other words, don’t expect any short-term changes, at least none visible from your bus seat.
Moving forward, VIA’s board has approved a long-term plan, SmartWaySA, that looks ahead to 2035. You can review the plan at the SmartWaySA website. (Sneak peak: there may be light rail in our future.) Citizens will have additional opportunities to give VIA your input at open houses to be scheduled in January and February. San Antonio voters rejected a light rail initiative on the ballot in 2000 by a crushing 70-30%. The city has grown significantly since then, and its transportation needs have become more visibly acute. Many urban planners argue that light rail is essential for a successful city.
In the meantime, VIA will continue efforts to attract new riders and expand its service. A remarkably high percentage of professionals in San Antonio seemingly have never boarded the bus and do not know how to use the system. VIA has video instructions, broken down into four parts in English and Spanish. There is no reason to be intimidated. Drivers generally are very helpful answering questions and arranging transfers.
My senior citizen status makes me eligible for a Senior Discount Bus Pass. One of the first things I did after arriving here was to visit one of the VIA Customer Service Centers to get my pass.
This entitles me to ride during non-peak hours (9:00 am – 3:00 pm) for $.25 plus $.07 if I need a transfer. Peak fares are half off. And it’s totally free on the weekends.
To help plan your trip, all of VIA’s bus schedules are on their website, as is a Personal Trip Planner using Google Maps. And if you zoom in enough in Google Maps, you can see little bus icons showing the bus stops. Clicking on one of these icons triggers a pop-up window that lists all the bus routes at that stop. You can also get to the icons directly on Google Maps without going through the VIA website:
If you are disabled, request a VIAtrans paratransit mini-bus to provide you with door-to-door service. Click here to determine whether you qualify for the service.
Beyond the inherent environmental benefits of riding the bus, there is the monetary reward. The Alamo Area Council of Governments sponsors an on-line program called NuRide to encourage people to use more environmentally friendly modes of transportation. It seems to have been designed to establish car pools for commuting employees and has various corporate sponsors for this, but anyone can use the program. Many restaurants and shops are sponsors and offer rewards for participating.
If you take the time to record trips you make by walking, car-pooling, bicycling, and of course bus riding, you earn points for each kind of trip. You can save frequent trips so you don’t have to re-enter them from scratch every time. It also calculates the pounds of carbon dioxide emissions saved in comparison to driving cars with no passengers. And if you want to find a car-pool partner, it can help you do that, too.
So far, in the short time I’ve been here, I’ve received several coupons for $5.00 off grocery purchases at H-E-B and a free burrito at Chipotle. And there are many more unused points to cash in. Because of my senior discount, I’ve earned more in rewards than I’ve spent in bus fares, many times over! What’s not to like?
I love NuRide because it provides material incentives for people to be friendlier to the environment. It is one of the most creative programs I’ve seen in a long time.
According to the website, there are 6,227 NuRide members in San Antonio, and they have taken 1,833,459 greener trips and redeemed $528,219 in rewards since August 2008. On a national level, more than 17 million greener trips have saved more than 179,000 tons of carbon emissions. NuRide appears to be softening our carbon footprint.
Now that I have a car, I only take the bus for trips that are not time-sensitive. I nearly always take it to downtown and by-pass the problem of parking altogether. And the extra walking back and forth to the bus stop is good for me too.
The question of whether or not taking the bus is less polluting than driving still remains unanswered. Mr. Glasscock and I are working on it. You’ll see it more fully explored in my next article, “Air Quality: San Antonio on the Brink”. Stay tuned.
Dr. Betty Dabney is retired from the faculties of Texas A&M’s School of Rural Public Health and the University of Maryland School of Public Health. She has also worked for the Maryland Department of the Environment, for Fortune 50 companies, and has been an independent consultant in environmental health. She was on the Maryland Governor’s Commission for Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities. In her spare time she is a fine-art photographer: bettydabney.com.