DAY 4: Confessions of a Public Transit Snob

I was a public transit snob most of my life. My excuse? I inherited bus blindness. 

My parents must have taken public transportation to work or school at some point in their lives, but it wasn’t on my watch. I copied what I saw.

In December 2016, METRO ridership topped 6.4 million. That includes local bus, light rail and the park & ride service.

We moved to Houston in the mid-1960s. METRO didn’t exist then, but HouTran buses carried maids to my new west Houston neighborhood to clean homes. If any of my friends or their parents rode the bus, I sure didn’t know about it. Park and ride—the bus service that might have attracted commuters from the suburbs—wasn’t in place.

Stephanie, who grew up in Lubbock, also suffered from bus blindness. She can’t recall ever seeing a city bus in her hometown.

One idea about bus non-ridership

I think a reason that many people don’t ride the bus is because they haven’t ridden the bus. And they haven’t ridden the bus because they don’t see the bus. Or, more accurately, they don’t see people in their tribe riding a bus or waiting at a bus stop. And until they do, they’ll default to the car in the garage.

Are there racial and class biases at work here? Undoubtedly.

Bus blindness isn’t limited to WOOFs (well-off old farts) like me. But curing bus blindness among my tribe is important to the overall success of public transit.

“We must also look to change culture of riding buses in Houston. Many people look at transit as only for the poor or hipsters.” — Mayor Sylvester Turner

“Because great public transportation systems are expensive, they only get fully funded when they’re used by both the well-to-do and the not-doing-so-well,” says Samuel Schwartz, in “Street Smart: The Rise of Cities and the Fall of Cars.” Schwartz is a transportation consultant and former New York City traffic commissioner.

In Bogotá, dedicated bus lanes help move traffic.

Enrique Peñalosa, the U.S.-born mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, takes it a step further. In his 2013 Ted Talk, he says,  “An advanced city is not one where even the poor use cars, but rather one where even the rich use public transport.”

I’d like to think that Houston is on the road to becoming an advanced city.

Photo credit: Houston Metro bus, parked on the edge of the Harris County justice center by Roy LuckTransMilenio – Heroes station by Jorge Loscar

 

10 comments

  1. When I lived in Washington, DC, after grad school, I took the bus to work all the time until I got a car. It was a generally pleasant experience, primarily because my route took me from a fairly affluent area to the sub-burbs. I actually met someone on the bus that I dated for a while.

    Then when we became a one car family and worked at opposite ends of the town, I took the bus and my wife took the car. Since we lived in a “gentrifying” neighborhood as the Washington Post liked to call it, my bus ride was quite an experience. The driver basically ignored any and all rules. By the time I boarded, I was in the back of the bus with folks smoking pot, drinking and doing all sorts of stuff that might get you arrested on a different bus line. I once witnessed a scam where two guys got on at one stop, did this dice gambling thing (one was the shill) where one of the two one money from the “house” guy, and then others began to play. After a couple of rounds with everyone who played losing, the guys hopped off the next stop leaving the losers behind.

    In Hawaii, which has the largest homeless population per capita in the U.S., there are basically a lot of crazy homeless people on the bus (I’m told) who get kicked out of their overnight shelters and with their bus pass, ride the bus all day.

    I don’t think I ever rode a bus growing up in Houston, not even a school bus as far as I can remember.

    1. I’m happy to say Houston has changed for the better since you lived here, Bill. (Please don’t take that personally.) Generally, our bus experiences have been good and people behave well. But I’ll watch out for dice games.

  2. Great post Paul. Yes…we are a spoiled population. And I think maybe I’m a lazy girl to not explore what you and Steph are doing. Maybe a bit of fright or uncertainty about safety or the unknown. Thinking about it. ,

    1. Good for you, Grace. Shout if you want some handholding. We’re off to Metro this week to get our official senior discount Q card. Not that you’re anywhere as old as we are 🙂

  3. I ride routes 70, 85, and 160s and most of my friends ask me why do I ride when I own a car. I love the idea of public transit and other forms of transportation. I believe many people just don’t know how to work the system and the tools METRO has provided the riders (like next bus texting and the TRIP app). Both the system overhaul and new tools now makes it easier than ever to ride. I’ve even been able to get some of my friends on board. I totally agree with you on how you need to see someone waiting for the bus to trigger the thought in your mind. I love what you two are doing and can’t wait to hear more.

    1. Thanks a bunch, Justin. Welcome to the journey. We’re on the 26, 40, 44 and 56 routes, mostly. We’re still discovering what METRO has to offer, and it’s impressive.

  4. I’m a regular bus and light rail rider and there are a few things to consider..
    The trains run regularly every six minutes..the buses at most every 15 min and traffic adds a lot of disruption.
    Most of the stops are not covered overhead and don’t even have a place to sit..given the weather in Texas, it’s not surprising that many people choose cars

  5. Paul
    Very interesting posts, will have to agree with Enrique Peñalosa and just remembered that when I lived in Switzerland (ages ago) many people used public transportation, trains basically. When living in Mexico also ride de bus in my teen years but never in Texas. Guess I will have to reconsider. Good luck with your car free experience.

    1. Thanks, Gabriela. The upcoming Super Bowl will bring a lot of people to Texas from other cities. It will be interesting to see how they use our public transit and what they think about it.

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