Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Waiting for a bus in the summer heat or pouring rain, especially when the wait could exceed 30 minutes at some stops, is one reason people choose not to ride the bus. Since 2014, VIA Metropolitan Transit has worked to increase the number of shelters at stops its ridership uses frequently.
Officials celebrated the 1,000th modern bus stop shelter Wednesday at a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the intersection of Hays and North Mittman streets on the city's Eastside. The new "Next-Gen" shelters, complete with covered seating, solar-powered lighting, sidewalks, an art element, and ADA improvements, bring the total number of sheltered stops to more than 2,200 out of 7,200 total stops in the system.
About 95 percent of boardings throughout VIA's system now take place from sheltered locations, said Jeff Arndt, VIA president and CEO, which is "unheard of" for a service area of its size: 1,226 square miles. Riders take more than 40 million trips on VIA buses per year, he added.
Not all stops have the ridership to justify a shelter; about 95 percent of boardings come from just 30 percent of VIA bus stops, Arndt said. "There's a lot of stops that not a lot of people use."
To be considered for a shelter, a stop must see at least 15 riders per day or be near certain land uses and amenities – such as a school, park, or housing facility – that VIA could leverage into more riders, Arndt said.
The 1,000th shelter is located right next to the Wheatley Park Senior Living facility, nearing its completion in February 2018. The 80-unit San Antonio Housing Authority project is part of the East Meadows site, formerly known as Wheatley Courts. VIA officials hope the shelter amenities will encourage those and area residents to ride the bus.
Sheltered stops won't result in a sharp increase in ridership in an area, Arndt said, but "when you get to the numbers of shelters we have, I think most people – whether they ride the bus or not – have noticed them. ... That communicates to the public that if you try the bus, there is a place for you to wait out of the sun and rain."
Josie Rios stood at the corner of North New Braunfels Avenue and East Crockett Street waiting for her bus at an unsheltered stop after the press conference.
She told the Rivard Report that she doesn't necessarily avoid stops that don't have shelter, but wishes more of them had it – especially for people traveling with children.
The bigger issue for many riders or potential riders is frequency of service, Arndt said. "The city's commitment to help[ing] us fund improved frequency of service is another piece of that whole picture."
VIA operates with half as much funding from sales tax than other public transportation entities of similar size. City Council approved a fiscal year 2018 budget that increases funding to cut hour-long wait times between buses in some parts of the city in half. If approved in the 2019 budget, VIA could cut wait times even further on some routes.
"We're hoping you're going to have to wait a shorter time and at a nice location," Arndt said, adding that more than 200 additional shelters are in the works for next year.
Each Next-Gen shelter features an art element that reflects the surrounding community. Images of St. Philip's College graduates from 1952 adorn a translucent roof panel on the 1,000th stop.
The shelter is both symbolic and literal in its goal to "connect community to opportunity," said Mordecai Brownlee, vice president of student success at St. Philip’s College.
The new shelters are part of VIA's ongoing $12.4 million passenger amenities program.
"In keeping with VIA’s ongoing commitment to support local, small, and minority-owned businesses, nearly all of the contracts awarded for VIA’s Passenger Amenities Program went to locally-owned businesses and/or certified [disadvantaged business enterprises or small business enterprises]," according to a press release.
Regional companies did about 92 percent of the work on the new shelters, Arndt said. "We're delighted when local sales tax dollars are spent with local businesses."