“When I'm out running early in the morning, I can see 'em leaned over in their seats, hoods over their heads, maybe resting their eyes before getting to work. There're usually only a few on board at that hour.”
That was just my dad giving an observation of crack-of-dawn commuters on San Antonio's VIA Metropolitan Transit, an extensive system of buses that traverse many, but not all, parts of the city. I mean, living relatively near downtown myself, I see a fair amount of these buses on the road, and I use them from time to time, mainly to get to the bars and back without driving. I must say, it is useful for that.
But if you don't use the service much, or ever, you may wonder why such a transportation system exists. It isn't exactly a small one. VIA has around ninety buses, including an express service, “PRIMO”, that will get you downtown in a few minutes from certain parts of the city in a larger, more comfortable bus with free Wi-Fi. Anyway, take a look at this system map:
Yes, the streets and routes are tiny in this picture, but as you can see, these buses do go to a lot of places around town. I'm willing to bet, however, that, if you have a reliable set of wheels, you rarely, if ever, set foot in these things. I mean, why would you? It's pretty much a guarantee that you can get where you need to go more quickly in a car. That kinna seals it.
Nonetheless, having lived in San Antonio for about six months, I realized there were parts of town I still hadn't seen. Recently, I discussed with family and friends how small we allow our worlds to be. We get up, go to work, go to the gym, go to church, hang out with friends at such and such place, and come home. Unless we purposefully branch out, our lives sort of take this polygon shape around town, mapping out our typical, limited commute to work and recreational spots. It typically doesn't go further (or farther?) than that.
And that's why I wanted to spend a day traversing areas of San Antonio I hadn't explored, and never thought to, while using VIA to do so. I took this little journey with a few questions in mind: How comfortable is the bus? How long does it take? Who takes it? Where exactly does it go? How do people get along on the bus? Among others. So I woke up last Saturday with the plan already in mind to ride the autobus from my house in Southtown (just...well...south of downtown) to a book club I attend each week. Let me show you the route, highlighted MS Paint style:
I apologize for the low quality, but I just wanted to show how far I went. It's 5.6 miles. That trip took about twenty-five minutes. In a car, it would have been about ten. Add the fact that I had to walk several blocks from the bus stop to the coffee shop, and you really need to set a good chunk of time to get to your destination.
So finally arriving at this cafe, I grabbed some coffee and mapped out where exactly I wanted to go in the afternoon (Yes, it was a book club of one that day.). I didn't have much desire to check out more high-income parts of town, so I opted to tour the eastern and southern areas, cutting through downtown to end up a few blocks west of my parents' house, which is just north of the center.
Again, it's quite difficult, or impossible, to see exactly what streets, etc. I intended to travel, but let me break it down to you as best I can. Basically, I utilized three routes. The first one was bus #20, which took me eastbound from Ashby Place and North St. Mary's Street, eventually heading south on a long, vertical road called New Braunfels Avenue and ending at the southeast end of that map. The next one was bus #515, which took me east to west on a south side road aptly called Southcross Boulevard. After that, I was to take bus #51, which traveled in a northeastern direction, mainly on a diagonal thoroughfare called Nogalitos Street. When I hit downtown, I planned to head north on Blanco Road on bus #2, getting off at Hildebrand Avenue.
Now, as you can see, my little route doesn't cover that much of the city, but I really just wanted to be on the bus for an extended amount of time and see some unknown parts of town. In that sense, I'd say mission accomplished. So how was it?
Interesting. Definitely interesting. You notice a lot when you're not driving. Most notably, I'd say, you see how the city changes from block to block, which is true for a lot of cities, especially when you're not in the suburbs.
For instance, it wasn't uncommon to go from this:
Or from this:
All within a short amount of time. Neighboring blocks are like apples and oranges, and, somehow, the two don't really seem to mix. Now, while I was on that first bus, the riders were pretty sparse (at least at midday) but that changed once we started heading south on New Braunfels. It filled up quite quickly, in fact. Furthermore, you notice in this more eastern part of town that much of San Antonio's relatively small African American population lives around here. Interestingly, when I got off that bus and starting heading west, there wasn't a black person in sight.
And you notice another pattern that was prevalent just about everywhere I went.
Church's Chicken, Family Dollar, EZ Pawn, repeat. These establishments were in constant rotation no matter what part of town I was busing through. They greatly outnumbered grocery stores.
Which got me thinking about my own working class neighborhood. I hope we've established the fact that there's a substantial portion of the city's population that uses the bus out of necessity. Now, say I wanted to go to the grocery store from my house at this very moment.
It would take twenty-four minutes to get there. That's one way. Imagine grabbing your bags, walking to the bus stop for the twenty-four minute trip, grocery shopping, and lugging your bags for the twenty-four minute ride back home. How long would that take? An hour and a half? Perhaps more? Now, faced with the question of whether to make that trek or just grab some snacks or a taco around the corner, which would you choose?
I enjoyed the bus atmosphere. On the whole, it had a friendly feel, with courteous drivers and nice, appreciative passengers. I like public transportation because it kind of puts everyone on the same level. You're all riding in that big, rolling vessel together, just trying to get home or get to work.
Only problem is, that same level is not exactly a high one. There's no way around it. It's a service reserved for the poor and very few who choose not to drive. I've never seen a clearer symbol of San Antonio's class divide than VIA, and my only question is: Why? Why have we chosen over the years to close ourselves off in our cars and even in our own neighborhoods? To be honest, I don't even think it's intentional. It just happened, but who/what is to blame? Infrastructure? Crime rates? Lifestyles?
Perhaps a combination of the three, but we're gonna have to seriously question how we live. Public transportation options around the US are lacking and generally unappealing to most people. In fact, about one in every three users of mass transit in this country are in New York City and its suburbs. One in three. That's 33% of the nation's mass transit commuters in one city of about 8.4 million.
And it's no surprise. Such things aren't even encouraged by the state. Don't you love those commercials that say, “Police are cracking down on drinking and driving?" Hmmm. That's all well and good, but, pray tell, how else am I supposed to get there? You don't seem to be helping.
Even reasonable proposals by national leaders have prompted public backlash. In the midst of an energy crisis in 1979, President Jimmy Carter put the American lifestyle into question in what came to be known as his “malaise” speech:
"Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning...I'm asking you for your good and for your nation's security to take no unnecessary trips, to use carpools or public transportation whenever you can, to park your car one extra day per week, to obey the speed limit, and to set your thermostats to save fuel."
Not everyone loved these requests, but the man had the guts to point out America's rate of consumption, which was and is substantial. It shouldn't simply be our “right” to use up resources at will, regardless of gas prices. What good does such a mentality even do us? As President Carter said, it doesn't satisfy our longing for meaning.
Of course, if I were suggesting I'm anti-car, I'd be a hypocrite, 'cause I got one sitting in front of the house that I use plenty. Nonetheless, things are never set in stone. Consider the state of things and the choices you make. It won't hurt.