After finishing his shift at a Southtown restaurant, Anthony Longoria walks a mile and a half to catch a bus downtown. It’s late, so he walks quickly, knowing that missing the bus could have major consequences. He hops on the 204 bus, which leaves at 11:30 p.m. and takes him up San Pedro Avenue to the North Star Transit Center near North Star Mall, a 25-minute ride. Then he has another 3 miles to walk home. When he gets there, it’s usually around 1 a.m.
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At 26, he’s young and fit, but the long commute is grueling, especially after a busy night working at Bamboo, where he does a little bit of everything and makes $11 an hour. He can’t afford a car and depends on VIA Metropolitan Transit for transportation, in particular the late-night bus service known as the “downtown lineup.”
Longoria is one of approximately 1,200 people, many of them shift workers at downtown hotels and restaurants, who depend on the lineup service every night. They took about 450,000 trips on the lineup routes in fiscal year 2019, according to VIA. VIA stops its regular service on all buses by 11:45 p.m. – excluding Prímo high-frequency routes, which run until 1 a.m. – and the downtown lineup has served these late-night riders since the 1970s.
Longoria’s two-hour nightly commute highlights the challenges of living in a city where residents without personal vehicles must rely on a bus system that often does not connect them with jobs efficiently. VIA also struggles to provide comprehensive and frequent service with its limited funding; the transit agency has been underfunded for decades compared with its counterparts in Austin, Dallas, and Houston.
“We have some big problems in inequality and equity that you can see when you look at poverty,” said former VIA board Chair Rey Saldaña. “We think transportation has a big part to play in putting an ax to this big problem.”
Last Bus Out of Downtown
The lineup consists of 20 buses that idle near Travis Park every night. The buses leave at 10:30 p.m., 11:30 p.m., and 12:30 a.m., taking passengers on truncated versions of regular routes. The buses then return downtown to pick up the next group of passengers.
“The downtown lineup was created to do as much as possible with limited funding,” said Kammy Horne, senior vice president of development at VIA.
“We’re … covering the most geography that we can, with limited funding. And we also look at the usage … to make sure that we’re really serving as many riders as possible with the amount of money that we have.”
Without those lineup routes, many workers would not have a way home, Horne said.
“The [downtown] employers rely on the service,” Horne said. “So it’s very, very beneficial to San Antonio, the overall economy, and especially in the downtown area.”
Longoria’s Daily Commute
Longoria’s morning commute to work takes about an hour and a half, he said. He gets on the 602 bus, which stops right outside his apartment. He transfers onto the 3, and then onto the 43, which drops him off right in front of the restaurant.
Longoria lives 13 miles from Bamboo. If he drove, his commute would be 15 to 30 minutes each way.
Though his trip to work takes more than an hour, it’s still better than his trip back home because he gets to sit the whole time, Longoria said. At work, he rarely gets a break and almost never sits down. After work, he has to hustle to get to Travis Park at night before the bus leaves; otherwise he must wait an hour for the next one.
“If I miss the 11:30 bus, then I have to wait a whole hour to the 12:30 lineup just to go home,” Longoria said. “And from there, to the North Star Transit Center, I have to walk and usually I get home like around 1:45, 2 in the morning, but by the time I go to sleep, it’s late.”
Longoria unwinds on the bus by watching anime; some of his favorites include One Punch Man and Avatar: The Last Airbender. He occupies himself on his walk home by listening to music and singing out loud, but it can get lonely, he said.
At times he worries about his safety, especially when walking by a certain convenience store. The store was robbed in recent months, and one of his friends was jumped by a mugger near that same corner. But he still has to get home.
“I am empty-handed,” he said. “I have no way of protecting myself. [But] one way or another, there’s no way around the situation.”
Even though much of his commute time is spent walking, Longoria still spends more than $60 a month on bus tickets, buying a 24-hour bus pass each day.
Longoria estimates his two-week paychecks average about $700, which puts his annual income slightly above the 2020 federal poverty threshold for a household of two. He takes on as many extra hours at work as he can, Longoria said, but it’s still not enough to purchase a personal vehicle. He hopes instead to move closer to downtown to make his late-night commute easier. Saving is difficult, though – he’s only able to set aside about $200 from each paycheck.
“Besides the bus tickets and stuff, I spend $400 or $500 on rent,” Longoria said. “Then plus my phone is $40, then whatever I need for hygiene, food – so like almost like a whole two-weeks’ check, pretty much.”
Longoria also pays about $150 a week in child support for his 2-year-old daughter, Korra, who lives with her mother.
“My daughter, she’s really joyful,” Longoria said. “She loves that Peppa Pig. And her favorite song is ‘Baby Shark’ and I forget what song by J. Lo. She gets all happy about it.”
Longoria has worked at Bamboo for less than a year. He previously worked as a cook at a now-defunct Buffalo wings restaurant that closed in December 2018, and he said he looked for a new job specifically accessible by bus. But “accessible” is a nebulous term – when Longoria hurt his ankle a few months ago, he still had to walk the same route home.
“I had to walk on my ankle,” he said. “There was no way around it. Just so I could get paid and have my hours, despite an injury. It’s bad you know, ’cause it took a while for my ankle just to heal. Once I come home, it would just be like really swollen, and I had to [elevate] it. … It was bad.”
Though Longoria acknowledges the lineup helps him get part of the way home, the current system could be improved to help riders, he said.
“I wish VIA would reconsider running the lineups on the regular routes, because that would help a lot of people like me,” he said. “It takes a toll. It takes a toll on me and other people.”
The downtown lineup service costs VIA about $2.8 million to operate each year, Horne said. That’s about 1.3 percent of the fixed bus route operating budget, which was $217 million in fiscal year 2019.
Horne said one of VIA’s main priorities in VIA Reimagined, its 10-year strategic plan, is for expanded service that would include more late-night routes. The transit agency doesn’t know exactly which routes will be improved or when, but that initiative would be funded in part by reallocating a one-eighth cent sales tax, a decision that City leaders could put before voters in November. VIA estimates that reallocating that revenue toward transit would provide another $36 million to $40 million per year.
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“Because we run a transportation system that connects people to services, jobs, health care, groceries … our job over the next 10 years is to connect a disconnected city,” Saldaña said.
Despite San Antonio’s sprawling size, VIA has less funding than transit services in other major metropolitan areas of Texas. Only one-half cent of sales tax revenue goes toward transit in San Antonio, while agencies in Austin, Dallas, and Houston get a full cent.
“We really do our absolute best to serve as many people as effectively, as efficiently as possible to get to the most areas as possible,” Horne said.
With limited options, Longoria is resigned to keep working, walking, and going home more exhausted from his commute than if he could simply ride the whole way home.
“I feel like we should have better transportation than how the lineup works now,” Longoria said.
“It’s not enough, no. It’s not.”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the North Star Transit Center was across the street from the North Star Mall. They are separated by a non-drivable road.