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

Scott Ball

Scott Ball

Scott Ball is the Rivard Report's photo editor and a native San Antonian.