The bus driver stared at me as I dropped my 12-pack of water and six grocery bags on the floor. He opened his mouth, then closed it. A smirk.
"You've never ridden a bus before, have you?"
"Uh, not really," I said as I unlocked my phone, showing him the mobile ticket I'd purchased an hour earlier.
I grabbed my bags and took a seat. The driver chuckled.
"Oh, honey, don't worry. I've seen people do worse."
As a native Houstonian, my foray into using public transit has been long and slow. Growing up in Tomball, the land of no public transportation, it was nearly impossible to get anywhere without a car. The only time I remember using anything approaching the realm of public transit was when my mom’s car broke down and she called a taxi.
Up until this point, I've never ridden a bus.
Even after I moved into the city, I thought: Why bother with public transit? I already spend money on gas and tires, why would I spend more money on a Q card? It wasn’t until I moved to Miami for a summer that I realized public transportation is vital to a healthy and successful city.
While Miami’s transit system isn’t the most robust in the country, to me, it was different. I saw people using it everyday. And every time I used it, I only saw the growing potential of the public transit system back home in Houston. Houston's transit ridership actually went up in 2016, one of only two major cities to make such gains. While that is thanks in part to a revamped bus system and burgeoning lightrail network, I had no idea because I never paid attention. I always had a car I could rely on.
Houston is thought of as a car city, even with growing indications that citizens want that to change. So, I challenged myself.
I am going to complete five different tasks using only public transit. The tasks? Going grocery shopping, traveling to and from work (on time!), going out with friends, heading to one of Houston's many green spaces and the grand finale: travelling from my apartment right outside Loop 610 to my grandmother’s place in Near Northwest (because I can’t get to my parent’s house using public transit. It doesn’t go that far north).
My first observation: transit can involve an awful lot of walking and waiting.
Walking because I live about half a mile from the nearest bus stop, and waiting because I ended up standing in the Houston humidity for 30 minutes. This particular stop’s only amenity is the shade it gets from a large tree. There wasn’t a shelter, nor a bench. It was uncomfortable. I wondered what would've happened if it had been raining.
The standard Metro bus stop sign didn't really help much to a newbie bus rider like me. It typically has the number of the bus or busses that stop there, as well as the name of the route. Unlike light-rail stops, they don't have unique names, so if you're not paying attention it can get a little tricky. (I encountered two "Westridge St @ Hearth Dr" stops on my way to Fiesta.) It seemed more common around big streets like Main and Kirby.
The ride to the grocery store itself went smoothly. I hopped on the 84 — I’d become real acquainted with this bus quickly — and after nine stops, I pressed the red ‘stop’ button on the yellow pole and crossed the street to Fiesta.
Now, as a young adult living by herself, I’d say I’m pretty frugal with my groceries. Admittedly, I probably eat out more than I should and I decided this week would be the week to change that.
Except that I forgot about this challenge and cursed myself when I walked out of Fiesta $40 poorer and six grocery bags and a case of water heavier.
Between thoughts of whether I could return my groceries and get a refund back and bail on this series altogether, I decided to stick it out and walk the five minutes back to the bus stop, got back on the 84 (with wild looks to the other two passengers already on the bus) and rode back home.
It takes seven minutes to walk from my bus stop to the door of my apartment. I know this partially because I Googled it, and partially because I walked the same distance the day before in five. It took me 17 minutes to walk the half-mile back to my apartment. In the same amount of time, I could’ve driven back from Fiesta and had my groceries put away.
Here's the thing: I actually liked the walk. It gave me a little time to think, and ushering the case of water from my right hand to my left hand gave me a free arm workout.
But what I thought most about was all the time I didn’t spend looking for parking, all the gas I saved, how I helped my city by contributing to its transit system — one that is so overlooked by many natives — and how actually using the system is beneficial to not only myself and the city, but to all the citizens who don’t have access to those amenities often take for granted here, like a car.
If I can manage six bags of groceries and a case of water, I'm pretty sure I can manage the rest of this challenge.
Read the next installment of this series here.