In a day when retailers, manufacturers and other purveyors of goods or services are promoting their product to reveal new customers, it’s apparent to some that our VIA Metropolitan Transit is doing none of that, or, if anything, it is coming late to the dance. Yes, in the last few years VIA has rolled out its Primo line, a high-end “accordion-style” bus that plies a route, among others, from the Medical Center to downtown, as well as their hybrid express service which traverses the city on our highways. However, it would appear they’ve left the average rider holding onto older bus models. And while San Antonio continues to be the largest city in the country without commuter rail, our attempt at light rail, hatched in a strange way over a less then meaningful route, went south when citizen opposition recently resulted in an overwhelming “no” vote, short-circuited afterward by the San Antonio mayor and Bexar County judge.
In an attempt, I presume, to convey the notion that VIA is, in fact, trying to reach out to new customers, Jeffrey Arndt, the president of VIA Metropolitan Transit, announced at a recent luncheon I attended the installation or upgrading of 1000 bus stops on VIA’s large system of 91 bus routes rolling throughout San Antonio and Bexar County. To which I say, why has it taken so long? And further, is what VIA has planned really enough, given what they’ve been operating with for many years as the city and county continue to grow in population by as much as 35—40,000 residents each year?
I often find myself driving into areas I’m not overly familiar with and often as not finding VIA has already gotten there, though oftentimes only with numbered plaques on top of poles they call bus stops announcing a bus route. Such is the case on Blanco Road between Bitters and Churchill Estates Blvd. There, heading south, one will find four poles, er, stops within a .07 mile distance. And those four stops, lacking seating for the most part, sadly, seem representative of what VIA has been using as stops throughout its system for many years, part and parcel of the entire company’s shortcomings, albeit coverage throughout the City and County seem sufficient if not overly so. With some imagination, however, an example can be made of these stops, as Mr. Arndt has suggested they will do, to promote VIA among its ridership and other citizens and to better accommodate its daily patrons.
I had attended another luncheon some 3 years ago at which Mr. Arndt spoke, giving a “layout” of VIA’s network. At the time, I believe in 2012, they had 441 buses covering an area of 1,226 square miles with 91 routes (in 2011, VIA carried 44,625,113 riders.) The system is in operation 7 days a week, 21 hours a day, “the largest of all bus systems in the United States,” exclaimed Mr. Arndt, which, in part, begs another question that will be answered at a future date. Will there be other means of transportation in future years, meshing with buses and giving residents a more flexible and complete system? Frankly, I doubt Mr. Arndt is in a position at this time to answer that question.
Mr. Arndt continued, saying the cost per passenger of this system was approximately $2.60, the most underfunded in Texas, which I’m sure has a profound effect on the lack of legitimate bus stops in use in San Antonio.
Bus stops here presently come in a variety of sizes and shapes. Just ride around our city to see four or five common styles: the no bench look (though hopefully abutting a grassy slope or stone wall); the one concrete bench; the two concrete bench; or the three-sided open-air look. However, in a city where temperature can go from the low 20s in winter to the low 100s in summer, with precipitation a more common phenomenon in the last few years, the preponderance of stops are merely that, a place where a bus stops.
In Salt Lake City, for example, “shelters” built around multiple seats are commonplace at bus stops, generally 3 or 4 sides of plexiglass which keep weather elements out. And electronic signs, available on VIA’s higher end Primo lines, announce arrival and departure time of buses. Most “inside” shelters greatly enhance a rider’s transportation experience by providing service information, a safe waiting area and protection during inclement weather. They generally have a map and schedule of bus routes. Some also contain a QR code which can be scanned with a smartphone to provide real-time bus arrival and departure information.
In San Francisco, USB charger outlets and Wi-Fi coverage, when connected to the bus stops, allow passengers to follow the course of the bus their waiting for, helpful in knowing when it will come to their station, are par for the course.
In addition, many city transit companies have upgraded their buses to include fold down seats, opening space to accommodate suitcases, etc., increased legroom and Wi-Fi equipment to allow riders the advantage of computer use while en route.
So, Mr. Arndt’s promise of an upgrade to VIA’s bus stops, and I trust its overall bus experience, seems a timely effort, but just the tip of the iceberg, I hope. Let us hope it all actually does come to pass, so when we say “the bus stops here,” VIA is making an important stop to pick up important riders, San Antonio and Bexar County residents.