Photo courtesy of Metro

A longtime public transit rider describes what it was like to use Metro again for the first time in more than a year.

It had been 13 months since I rode on a bus or a train. Ironically — or, to be more accurate, dangerously — the last time I rode on a public transit vehicle was a New York City subway from Manhattan to Brooklyn and back on March 11, 2020 — the week New York shut down amid a huge surge in COVID-19 cases. Since then, I’ve never gotten sick or tested positive (and, working at Rice University, I’ve been tested perhaps a dozen times.) But I still did not want to get on a bus or a train.

Houston Metro has been pretty hard-hit by the pandemic, just like most transit agencies. Revenue is down, service has been cut and ridership is way down. Every day or two, I get an email from Metro delineating the latest COVID-19 outbreak among drivers and transit police. I admire Metro for being so up-front about all this, but I admit it discouraged me from riding the bus again.

The most important factor that led me back onto the bus, of course, was being fully vaccinated. That increased my comfort level a lot. And I was a little surprised when my wife, also fully vaccinated, expressed no concern about me riding the bus again. But, then again, she’s a public school teacher who’s been going to work every day for this entire school year.

Almost as important, however, was the rapidly increasing cost of Uber and Lyft in Houston since Gov. Greg Abbott opened Texas back up a month ago.

I’ve been going to the office twice a week since last August (except for a brief post-holiday period when Rice shut down almost completely when the infection rate went up). In lieu of the bus, I’ve taken Uber. With the exception of a spike or two along the way, service has been pretty normal: I’ve waited 3–5 minutes for an Uber and the cost has generally been $9–10. (I’m lucky to live and work near job centers where Ubers hang out — downtown Houston and the Texas Medical Center.) The price is pretty high, but since I wasn’t going to work every day, I was willing to pay it.

Since Abbott opened Texas up again, though, things have changed on both Uber and Lyft — perhaps because riders are coming back faster than drivers. Wait times have increased to 10–15 minutes, annoying but tolerable. More importantly, the price has skyrocketed, usually to around $15–17 per ride. As I contemplate going to work three days a week instead of two (people are drifting back to my office and, in any event, my productivity at home had gone down), I could no longer justify using ride-hailing services exclusively when the bus costs $1.25 a ride.

So, I devised a plan: On Monday, April 12 — I would Uber to work in the morning and take the bus home. This was partly a logistical decision. My bus, Route 56, travels between Greenspoint and the Medical Center. (It’s known jokingly as “the Ph.D. bus” because you often see graduate students from Rice and the Med Center working on their journal articles on the bus.) I’m lucky that service is still good, with headways having been cut only from 15 to 20 minutes. But traveling south from Greenspoint — 17 miles away, near IAH — the 56 often falls behind schedule and it’s hard to time my trip to the bus stop correctly in the morning because I get on the tail end of the route. In the afternoon, I get on near the beginning of the route, so it’s almost always on time.

Anyway, the ride-hailing situation on Monday morning was the worst I had ever seen. First, I ordered an Uber, but it was well over $20, so I canceled it and switched to Lyft’s express service, which was cheaper. But the Lyft wait was almost a half-hour, so I switched back to Uber — and the luxury Uber service was cheaper ($26) than the regular Uber-X ride. So, I rode to work in style — feeling very important all by myself in the back of a gigantic Chevy Suburban — but I was more determined than ever to take the bus home. My pocketbook demanded it.

All day I worried — not about safety, but about logistics, which reminded me that riding public transit requires understanding the landscape and careful planning. (This is why travel training is so important in nurturing public transit ridership; I remember that when my mother, age 80, gave up driving, I had to ride the bus with her several times until she was comfortable with how things worked and felt confident doing it on her own.)

First, I worried, as I often do, about timing my trip to the bus stop so I didn’t have to wait a long time for the bus, an important consideration given Houston’s persistent heat and humidity. (Shortly before the pandemic, our office had moved to a new building and I had never navigated my way to the bus stop from the new place.) Then, as a visually impaired person, I worried — as I always do — about crossing busy Main Street to get from the campus to the bus stop. I also worried about whether there would be room for me on the bus since the Metro website claimed that capacity had been cut in half — with seats blocked off — and you wouldn’t be let on if there was no room. (Buses coming out of the Medical Center in the afternoon were pretty full before the pandemic.) Finally, I worried that my plastic Metro Q card wouldn’t work, since it had been sitting in my wallet, unused, for a year.

All those fears came to naught. I timed the route to the bus stop well — it’s not as far as I thought. I crossed Main Street at Cambridge Street — a heavy pedestrian crossing where motorists usually know people are crossing the street. (Plus, it was rush hour, which always slows the traffic on Main Street in the Med Center.) I waited a few minutes for the bus, which was fine. My Q card worked, although when I got on the bus I forgot where the Q-card reader was — no peripheral vision — and the driver had to point it out to me.

There were five people on the bus and no seats were blocked off. We were pretty spread out and — as required by Metro — all wearing masks. I didn’t worry about my safety.

As a bonus, traffic wasn’t as bad as it used to be and I got home more quickly than I thought I would.

For $1.25 as opposed to $26, the trip was definitely worth it. I don’t know about anybody else, but I’m back on the bus.

 

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