From Bike to Bus and Back Again

November 12, 2013

Paulo Michelini recently obtained his MBA from Loyola University in Chicago. He’s currently serving as an AmeriCorps member at AIDS Alabama and plans to attend medical school in the fall.
 
Every weekday morning I wake up between 5:30 and 6 a.m. I drink my morning coffee, eat my morning meal and take my morning shower. Then, when I am ready, around 6:45 a.m., I leave my house in Southside. But, rather than getting in my car, which I don’t have, or getting a ride from someone, which at this hour would be difficult, I get on my bicycle and ride one and half miles to Central Station. This takes me about five minutes. It is then, however, that my commute has truly begun; because, once at Central Station I wait for the 7 a.m. bus that will drop me off two blocks away from my service site in Ensley. After I place my bike on the front rack and step on, I am warmly greeted by William, the bus driver, and Pam, Mom and Pop, the regulars who took an interest in my presence on the morning commute. In all honesty, it is not difficult to understand why the sight of me would be curious; as a young, shaggy-haired, dress-shirt-wearing, bicycle-riding, white dude, I am the minority among bus riders. During this 30 minute bus ride I do two things: read my book and listen to the regulars’ conversation next to me. This particular bus at this particular time is never busy, so doing both is easy. My journey every weekday takes an average of 35 minutes, and I love it. I would not have it any other way.
 
Having come from Chicago, a flat city with a respectable public transportation system, I was accustomed to utilizing my bicycle, the “El,” or the bus as reliable options for getting around the city. Once I moved to Birmingham and told people that I planned on doing the same, I constantly received a doubtable and skeptical, “Ok. Good luck.” Surely this was to be expected. I researched my public transportation options before moving and realized that, well… there is only one option, BJCTA Max. In addition, I learned that relative to its geographical and population size, Birmingham does not rank very high at all for the quality of its mass transit system. The Brookings Institution, an independent nonprofit research think tank, ranked Birmingham 90th out of 100 cities in regard to job accessibility via mass transit. Needless to say, this was not a good start to my plan. And, I won’t I even mention the reports about bicycle friendliness (i.e. number of bike lanes, bike racks, urban bicycle culture, etc.). So, with this in mind, I did not answer the above comment naively with, “What? Is it really that bad?” Instead, I simply said that I would try it out for a while to see for myself. And, I am glad I did.
 
Riding the BJCTA Max has been an affordable, reliable and convenient-enough option for me. Today, two months into my service, I use my bike and the bus to get around Birmingham and discover a city that is still very new to me. I use them to go get groceries, to go visit friends and to reach volunteering sites outside of my primary service assignment. The system, however, is far from perfect. While it may work for me, because of my scenario and my personal lifestyle and characteristics, it still cannot be considered a legitimate option on which citizens can rely. The primary issue is timing. At their most frequent times of the day, buses run every 30 minutes (compare this to Chicago, where buses run every 10 minutes). This requires me to plan my travel around the bus schedule, which should not be the case if we want to incentivize the public to use it. Secondly, and the only other issue that I will discuss here, is ridership. This is directed as much toward City of Birmingham and its BJCTA-accessed suburbs as it is to the public. Infrequent ridership inhibits the system from developing, while this problem is rooted in an uninformed public. I have found that the majority of people skeptical of the system have actually never ridden the bus or know anything about it.
 
So, for me the system works. I pay $36 dollars for a monthly student pass to ride it at least 50 times each month (regular monthly passes are $40). I arrive at my destinations on time, but with much-needed prior planning. And, I can use it in conjunction with my bicycle to make my travel flexible. There is still much improvement needed for Birmingham’s public transit system, but I believe that the benefits of making such improvements greatly outweigh the detriments. To be successful, it will require much community interest and involvement working together with local governments. I have hope.
 
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