I sold my car a month ago. I sold it for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being that I feel pretty comfortable with public transportation. Even though I’ve had a car since I was 16 years old, I’m an Atlanta transplant, and Atlanta has a successful rail system and a pretty expansive bus system (called MARTA) that compliments the rail stops nicely – so many people who do have vehicles still use public transportation fairly regularly. When I made the decision to go carless, I knew Austin’s public transportation system was not perfect, but I also know that the more people who use it, the more quickly and comprehensively the necessary growth will occur. Since the rail isn’t fully functional yet, I’ve been using only the Dillo and the buses (and my walkin’ shoes!). My experience thus far can be summed up in two words: Walking and Waiting.
Walking (and the Dillo). I’m lucky. I live and work in downtown Austin, so for most of my day to day needs, such as groceries and drug store items, I’ll simply walk to the downtown Austin CVS on 6th and Congress or take the Dillo to Whole Foods on Lamar. Since I can do this once every couple of days, I don’t have to buy too much at one time and my purchases aren’t too much to carry. I’m very lucky that I a) don’t have to buy for a large family, b) live and work in downtown Austin and I have some options that are fairly convenient to me. Lots of people outside of the urban Austin core do not have the Dillo and often do not have many (if any) neighborhood services close by. Walking is great for me, but only because I can schedule my errands to where I don’t have to be in too much of a time crunch and to where it’s acceptable if I get a little sweaty and less presentable. For those who don’t have nearby living/working situations, and have to arrive at work in heels with the expectation of looking clean and fresh, and with the expectation of being on time….well, walking may not always be an attractive option. That’s where our bus system should come in.
Waiting. I like the actual busses themselves. They are clean, air-conditioned, and many have wi-fi available. The problems I’ve experienced come more from time considerations and the bus-stops. Although I find the stop locations fairly acceptable in terms of getting to the places I need to go (at least in Central/East Austin), the unfortunate reality is that they only come around each stop about once an hour (Atlanta is on a 15-20 minute schedule. Although I realize Atlanta is a much larger city, I just have to point this out because it seems to make all the difference in the world). And since the schedules aren’t exact with the actual bus arrivals, it’s very easy to miss your scheduled bus and be forced to wait an additional hour to ride. And God help you if you have to transfer buses, because for every transfer, your travel time and your chances of missing your scheduled bus seem to multiply exponentionally. And while I recognize that the bus-stops need to be sleek and discreet in terms of their look and feel in order to blend in with their surroundings, I think EVERY bus stop should have at least one covered bench. Standing in the heat of the day (or the rain or any other inclement weather) for an hour or MORE waiting for your bus is NO FUN and certainly would deter those who have other options at their disposable.
I can’t wait until the rail is up and running, because I know the public transportation options will increase dramatically, even with the comparatively limited route the rail will travel. I don’t think rail is going to eliminate the need for a strong bus system in Austin, however, and the reality is that the only way we’re going to see improvement and progress is to increase ridership so that officials know that this really is an important issue for each and every demographic in the city. And public transit is important to everyone, at least that’s what everybody keeps saying. I hear a lot of urbanites talking the talk, but I don’t see many of them walking the walk (or riding the bus).