Accessibility is arguably one of the biggest hallmarks of a major city. Cities with major international airports like Seattle, Atlanta and Denver seek to provide travelers with accessible transportation options that get them from the airport to downtown quickly and cheaply using public bus services, light rails, and medium rail trains.
Ranked as the seventh most populated city in the country, San Antonio attracts millions of national and international travelers each year. The distance from the San Antonio International Airport (SAT) and the downtown business core is about a 15-minute car ride, and the airport provides a variety of ground options to take travelers to their downtown hotels and convention centers.
“In addition to the shuttle service and taxis, SAT has VIA (Metropolitan Transit) service at the far west end of Terminal B that includes a direct option to downtown,” Aviation Director Frank Miller said on Monday. “We are committed to the needs of our customers and do our best to help guide them to their final destination.”
Travelers heading downtown can expect to pay about $30 one-way for hotel shuttles and taxis. For a $1.20, riders can travel downtown on VIA’s Route #5, which the airport promises “can get to beautiful downtown San Antonio in about 30 minutes,” dropping off passengers within two to three blocks of many major downtown hotels.
When asked if the bus usually takes half an hour to get downtown, Suvanna Castilla, a security worker at the airport laughed and shook her head.
“You’re not going to get from the airport to downtown in 30 minutes,” Castilla said matter-of-factly. “It just depends on the number of stops that day, but if there’s passengers with disabilities it will take longer.”
But Castilla, like many other airport employees, opts to use VIA rather than pay for an employee parking permit, which runs up to $30 a month. Due to ongoing renovations and construction, the airport requires many employees to park at off-site lots before catching a shuttle that takes them to the airport within 30 minutes.
Castilla lives in the Olmos Park area, which is a stop on the #5 route that takes her to work everyday. She enjoys the half-hour commute, which allows her to avoid traffic frustrations and gives her time to read and relax.
“I avoid using the bus to get downtown,” Castilla admitted. “There’s been times when the bus takes like 60 stops before getting downtown, like a stop on every street, it’s horrible.”
While the bus is by far the cheapest option, it’s not fast or consistent enough for those traveling on a deadline.
In 2014, VIA reported more than 505,500 riders used Route #5 for transportation. VIA has never surveyed passengers on Route #5 to determine who makes up the ridership, but the passengers on the bus can tell you that the number of residents far surpass the number of out-of-town travelers.
“I was born and raised in San Antonio,” Eddie Romero, a local rider on Route #5 said. “I grew up riding VIA, my mom often used it to get to work or to visit my grandparents. I would also use it after school and during Fiesta.”
Romero and his family recently moved from Canyon Lake to a new neighborhood in downtown San Antonio, and he realized that the VIA would be the best option for getting him from his home to his downtown job in less than half an hour.
“It’s super convenient and goes through quite a few different neighborhoods in the area before it gets to my stop downtown,” Romero added.
International airports throughout the county offer customers bus services similar to VIA, offering transportation to the center of downtown. The Denver International Airport (DIA) partners with the Regional Transportation District (RTD) to provide SkyRide, which specifically provides bus service to and from the airport.
SkyRide buses run from 3:30 a.m. to midnight, and offer a variety of fares and destinations, including a $11 one-way trip to downtown Denver, which takes between 40-45 minutes. While San Antonio’s airport is less than 10 miles from its urban core, Denver’s airport is 25 miles away from the center of downtown at Union Station – without traffic. Unlike VIA, which uses the same bus model for all routes including the McCullough line, SkyRide buses are specially equipped to carry passengers with luggage comfortably.
Local rider Lori Grant struggled to keep her luggage from rolling across the aisle, as she rode the VIA #5 from a downtown stop to the airport.
“I’m meeting a friend at the airport, and I’m not coming back for a few days so I brought my suitcase,” Grant said. Grant has lived in several other Texas cities including Austin and Laredo, but she says San Antonio’s VIA provides the best public transportation.
“I used to use the #5 everyday when I worked (at the airport),” Grant said. “It’s a pretty smooth ride. It’s easy if you get in the mindset. You can go almost any time of day. It’s gotten better in the last five years, now they have better transportation for a lot more people.”
Similar to San Antonio’s VIA services, Atlanta’s MARTA system transports both residents and travelers throughout the city, including the downtown area. However, MARTA uses a combination of rail stations and bus routes to help get riders from the airport to downtown Atlanta within 20 minutes. MARTA picks up passengers every 10 to 20 minutes from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m.
Seattle’s Link Light Rail service runs from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m., Monday through Saturday, and picks up passengers every 7.5 to 15 minutes. The trip from the airport to central downtown costs $3 and takes between 20 minutes to half an hour.
“We have four Link Light stops coming into downtown Seattle, but the retail core of downtown would be at the rail’s final stop at Westlake,” said Kimberly Reason, a spokesperson for Central Link. “As of April 2015, there have been more than 34,000 riders a week.”
After San Antonio voters approved a charter amendment during the May 9 City Election that requires a public vote on any future light rail of streetcar projects involving the City of San Antonio, a rail project for the airport would have a large public outreach hurdle to jump.
This year’s Seventh-day Adventist convention brought more than 65,000 global visitors to downtown San Antonio. Since last week, thousands of attendees have been arriving at the airport, but most of them are heading straight for taxis or shuttles for car rental services and and hotels – not the bus.
Tim Roosenberg, an Evangelical pastor based in Idaho, flew into San Antonio a few days earlier, renting a car to complete business in Austin before driving back to San Antonio for the convention.
Roosenberg said his hotel’s front desk recommended the VIA as a cheaper way to get from the airport to his hotel, otherwise he would have taken a taxi.
“I’d rather take the bus, it’s not worth the 20-something dollars a day to rent a car, I won’t even be here a full 10 days,” Roosenberg said.
“The shuttles make it a lot easier to get dropped off at the (hotel) lobby. That would be my guess why our group isn’t heavily using the buses,” Rosenberg added. “All I’m traveling with today is my grocery bag, so it’s not a pain to get my luggage around.”
Many local riders agree that the VIA system could stand to improve and expand their reach and their hours, but the people I spoke with on the bus didn’t think an entirely new system, like rail, was the answer.
“San Antonio still feels like a big small town,” Castilla said. “Everything is 20 minutes from everything already. VIA is a good system, it just needs some refining. We need more buses to handle more stops, and faster routes. But there’s no reason to make this whole other system when we already have one that works.”