A Call to Better Transit
VIA Metropolitan Transit is set to release free wireless internet on its entire fleet of buses next week, and they certainly want you to know about it. It is an accomplishment, indeed, to equip all 450 of its buses with wi-fi, though I’ve been told that service on an existing smartphone would probably still offer better surfing speeds than VIA’s service.
For all the splash that VIA is attempting to make with its wi-fi rollout, concerns linger about the basics that the transit agency seems yet to have perfected. In my own experience, for example, bus service has been lackluster at best. Throughout the last year, I have seen the system struggle with reliability, technical challenges, and poor driver etiquette.
Prior to moving to San Antonio I have used public transportation systems in Austin and College Station, Texas; Washington, DC; Rhode Island; and on visits to cities across the U.S., Europe, and Japan. The best systems, unsurprisingly, were in Europe and Japan, with the New York City and the Washington, DC services close behind. San Antonio, on the other hand, is wrought with issues that I believe can be fixed with careful planning and more effective management—not just the estimated $6 million* it cost to connect their buses to the web (*the estimate is based on the cost to equip San Diego’s bus fleet with wi-fi; VIA has not released the cost to have its service installed).
For most of my first year in town, I rode the route 94 bus, which offers express service from UTSA/The Rim to downtown San Antonio. VIA’s fleet of express buses are the most comfortable by far, and express service is exactly that: I averaged about 22 minutes from the University Park & Ride to City Hall and only a few minutes longer for the return trip, impressive for the 15-mile route. Unfortunately, there were many occasions when the 94 bus would run far behind schedule for arrival—even at 6:00 in the morning—and would often fail to show up altogether. I cannot even remember the number of times our group settled for a different bus route just to avoid waiting the extra 30 minutes for the next scheduled bus.
Since moving closer to downtown a month ago, the problems with bus reliability have ballooned. Nearly every bus I’ve taken has shown up after its scheduled time, with a northbound route 46 bus once showing up 25 minutes late (the bus only runs every half-hour). When I asked the driver if it was typical for the bus to run behind schedule, her excuse was unexpected: “I usually run late during the first week of the month because people are riding to pick up their checks.” Does this mean that whenever a bus has more passengers than usual, we can expect it to take 83 percent more time to reach our destination?
Because VIA’s bus schedules seem to be little more than suggestions, I have found that I rely heavily on its SMS/text service to find out how far away my bus actually is. It is fairly simple to use, requiring phone users to text a five-digit number to VIA in return for the arrival times of the next six scheduled buses. In theory, it is an effective service but, as I’ve learned, your mileage may vary. In many instances, the GPS unit installed on the bus is not functioning, resulting in no data coming through the text service. In other cases, the number of minutes shown until a bus arrives can be way off the mark—especially if the bus is moving through downtown. I’ve even had buses arrive at a stop minutes ahead of the reported time, causing me to miss it.
Perhaps the most preventable problem with VIA’s service lies with its drivers. While most drivers certainly do their jobs well, a few I’ve witnessed have a tendency to be rude, defensive, and inconsiderate. Once, after the 94 bus nearly left a dozen passengers waiting at the park-and-ride platform, the driver proceeded to argue with passengers about why they should have walked over to where she had stopped behind another bus—even though she stopped in an unpaved area beyond the platform. Last week I tried waving down a driver for not stopping, and because I was not close enough to the “flag” for her liking, she shook her head at me and kept driving. And just yesterday I witnessed who appeared to be a student from San Antonio College run at full speed to catch the route 3 (a skip-service bus), just to have it drive off as she reached the front door.
Aside from problems with reliability, technology, and lack of driver sympathy, VIA’s system also suffers from other issues that need to be addressed. Its bus pairing, for instance, is incredibly complicated from a user standpoint. There is no apparent logic to why a bus would have the number 2 north of downtown, but continue as route 34 south of downtown, or why routes 36 and 90 are the same bus. Similarly, if a frequent route is paired with a less-frequent route (as is the case with routes 3 and 46), southbound passengers are dumped downtown to wait for another bus, making travel planning even more challenging. Worse, drivers sometimes change their digital displays at the wrong location, leaving passengers who are waiting for the route 4 wondering why a route 20 bus has shown up instead.
Another challenge to be addressed is the location of bus stops. I have heard transit folks debate the merits of near-side stops versus far-side stops (for the uninitiated, it simply refers to whether a bus stop is located before an intersection or after one). Usually the arguments have to do with traffic flow optimization, which I personally believe is a terrible way to decide where transit users should become pedestrians. A prime example of this failure occurs at the intersection of Pleasanton Road and SW Military Highway on San Antonio’s south side. VIA is planning to turn SW Military into one of its next PRIMO routes, a less-than-BRT system, and has at one point considered placing its new westbound stop at the northwest corner of the intersection. Considering that the primary destination at this intersection, an H-E-B grocery store, is at the northeast corner, a far-side stop placement seems completely ridiculous (see photo). Why should a bus rider that is carrying groceries be expected to cross a dangerous intersection to catch an “enhanced” bus, all in the name of right-turning vehicles who would likely be in conflict with those very same grocery-hauling pedestrians anyway?
The intersection of San Pedro and Hildebrand avenues, a couple miles north of downtown, is also problematic from a transit user point-of-view. It is a fairly compact intersection, with four lanes heading east-west along Hildebrand and four lanes with a center turn lane running north-south along San Pedro. For passengers like me who get off the bus at the northeast corner of the intersection but want to get to the southwest corner, traversing this intersection has taken more than 3 minutes—an eternity when traffic whizzes by at 40 miles per hour in 100-degree heat. Partly to blame, here, is that traffic in each direction on Hildebrand gets its own signal due to the fact it has no dedicated turn lane. Shortening the cycle times for all traffic would certainly help pedestrians, although a dedicated pedestrian cycle would be ideal, considering more than 400 people get on and off the buses that serve this intersection daily.
The two intersections I’ve mentioned so far actually feature sidewalks, but countless other bus stops seemingly dump passengers onto very precarious locations. One troublesome stop is one I experienced yesterday evening in Alamo Heights just west of the intersection of Austin Highway and N New Braunfels Avenue (see photo). This section of Austin Highway not only lacks sidewalks, but heading northeast on Austin Highway I found that a guard rail actually prevented me from getting to the intersection, forcing me to either walk in traffic or jaywalk to the other side of Austin Highway. Not an ideal situation, to say the least.
I could continue down the list of problems VIA needs to fix but, in reality, the first thing that any transit agency needs is to require its leadership to actually use the bus system. A CEO that gets into his car to go to work each day can’t possibly understand the trials of someone who commutes via transit each day. Jeffrey Arndt may occasionally worry whether his car will start in the morning, but he probably won’t face a biting dog on the way to his garage, nor will he have to stand next to a freight train in the heat or get splashed by cars driving through puddles. Likewise, a Board of Trustees who does not use its own system cannot empathize with a concerned public when their role is to defend VIA at all costs.
In 2011, Houston Metro’s president and CEO changed its policy, requiring senior managers to ride public transit 40 times per month. And I think that Metro’s George Greanias said it best: “I know of no business where you can be successful without using your own product and believing in it.”
So this is a call to Jeffrey Arndt, Keith Hom, Hope Andrade, Steve Allison, and the rest of VIA Metropolitan Transit’s Board and Executive Leadership Team. Do you believe enough in your product to use it and improve it?