When I came up with the idea for this series, I knew I needed a real challenge.
Thousands of people ride public transit every day in Houston; average weekday ridership in May 2017, according to Metro data, was 278,428. Some folks are on transit for just a couple of minutes, some for a few hours. If I was really going to experience public transit, I needed to experience how people who don’t live inside the 610 loop feel about the system that often works against them.
My first thought was to head up to my childhood home in Tomball, but when I plugged the respective pick-up and drop-off locations into Google Maps — the app that has been in my corner since the first bus ride — it told me a route was non-existent. Metro’s Trip Planner tool wasn’t any more helpful. The routes don’t go that far north yet. I investigated further and scoured Metro’s site for route maps. No dice. A route home didn’t exist.
So, I looked up the next best thing: grandma’s place. And there it was! A route that lead me literally to the front door of her apartment complex. The only issue? I’d take me at least an hour and a half to get there.
Grandma lives in Near Northwest, an area off West Little York and Antoine Drive near Highway 290, while I live right outside the 610 loop by NRG Stadium. (Side note: #Finish290, please.) The usual 20-minute drive had quadrupled just because I changed my mode of transportation.
Getting to her house is always a bit of a timing game with traffic, regardless of travel mode. Most of the time, I go in the middle of the week right after I get off work because I’m already halfway there. On the weekends, I wait until Sundays because traffic is usually lighter.
I decided to make this trek on a Thursday morning that also happened to coincide with National Dump the Pump day, a one-day initiative to encourage public transit use. All of Metro’s buses, light rail trains and Park and Rides were free in honor of the day so I saved $3. Like most of this series, I planned out my rides according to what time I needed to be at my destination. I wanted to be at Grandma’s by 10 a.m., which would give me approximately an hour to eat and catch up before I had to hop on the 85 and be back at work at 1 p.m.
I trekked out of my apartment at 8:05 to catch my 8:13 bus. I decided on the walk over that on the way to Grandma’s that I would try and get there as fast as I could, regardless of the amount of transfers I had to make. On the trip back, I’d go for the least amount of transfers. My 8:13 bus got there at 8:17 and I was off to my first transfer at the South Fannin Transit Center.
I had used the light rail earlier in the week to get home from work and I learned transferring was pretty self-explanatory: just follow the crowd. Only half my bus got off at the transit center and that group promptly split into two, one to the light rail on the left, the other to the one on the right. I followed the group on the right and got onto a nearly-empty rail.
Uh oh, is this right?
I sat. I waited. I looked around at the two men I’d followed on. From the looks of it, they were wearing the same uniform and, I assumed, worked together. I made eye contact with one of the men, who looked eerily similar to the brutish man I stood with on my bus ride home earlier in the week. He quickly glanced away, probably not wanting to deal with the weird girl on the train who kept looking around trying to figure out if she was going to have to go through the embarrassment of being lost and alone.
At 8:29 a.m., the rail started moving in the right direction. I had 10 stops until my next transfer, the Hermann Park/Rice University stop. This intersection is notorious for not being pedestrian friendly — a Rice University professor died after she was struck by a light rail while riding her bike to work earlier this year. Metro reacted to this and research was done to try and prevent these types of incidents from happening, but that did nothing to relieve the uneasiness in my chest. But I had to finish my task. I looked both ways — four times — and crossed the street to my next destination: a sheltered bus stop for the 56.
A co-worker of mine uses this bus to get to and from work and she said she’d liked most of her experiences riding it, so I felt confident there weren’t going to be any issues. I looked at my watch. 8:48 a.m. I’d been on the road for 48 minutes and could practically still see my apartment. Nervousness in the pit of my stomach started to settle in.
The 56 rolled up at 8:51 a.m. and I was off to the corner of Washington and Studemont, an intersection that I was familiar with thanks to the restaurants along the Washington Corridor. I’d never paid attention, however, to the bus stops in that area before, so when I got off the 56 to transfer to the 85, I wasn’t sure where the stop would be. I realized I had to cross Washington, a street booming with speeding cars and uneven roads. The nervousness set in again as I pressed a button to activate the crosswalk signal.
I waited a minute, then two. Finally, the walk light was on. I waited a second then walked two steps before a brown Nissan Versa honked at me. I stopped.
The driver — who ironically drove a car the same color, make and model as mine — gave me a look that said “what the hell are you doing?!” She was trying to turn in front of me even though I had the right of way. I hadn’t realized crossing the street made me a target.
I stumbled back to the corner of Washington and Studemont.
By that time, I didn’t have enough time to cross the intersection safely. I didn’t want to cross at all.
Two minutes later, I crossed the street and sat in one of the two shelters provided. A reoccurring thing I’d noticed from my public transit travels were the conditions of the stops in accordance to the area around them. The stop closest to my apartment, for example, has no bench or shelter, just a trash can. That stop probably doesn’t get much traffic, according to Metro’s Bus Shelter Program, which requires stops to score at least 35 “points” in order to qualify for a shelter. Points include daily boardings, transfer points and proximity to a light rail system and major activity centers.
I sat next to an older man with bright blue eyes. He smiled at me but looked past me; he just wanted to get on the 85 and get to his destination, wherever that might be.
I spent 10 minutes at that bus stop, thinking about impatient car drivers. I noticed three different cars honking at each other because they weren’t driving fast enough or because they started slowing down at a yellow light. Ridiculous. There are much more important things in the world.
Or maybe I was just thinking that because my life flashed before my eyes trying to cross a street.
At 9:18 a.m., the 85 rolled up and the blue-eyed man and I got on. I grabbed a window seat and stuck some earbuds in. Off to Grandma’s.
The transit centers around Houston are hubs of activity. The two that I encountered on my travels, the TMC and Northwest Transit Centers, had hoards of people getting on and off busses, waiting for their transfers. At 9:33 a.m., the Northwest Transit Center was buzzing. I saw a woman helping her sister and grandmother get to the dentist’s office get on my bus, as well as a man in a mobile scooter greet the driver as if they’d known each other for years. I even encountered people my age, in their early twenties, that seem like they were seasoned public transit pros.
As the bus pulled away from the transit center, I thought back on my other rides. I realized I never felt unsafe. I always thought I was going to get that uneasiness you get whenever you’re doing something you’ve never done before, but that just wasn’t the case. Up until this point, the five rides I took were (of course) different. But each had their own pros and cons, as well as an overarching thread: for the people I saw, public transit was a way of life despite the fact that so many Houstonians have never even experienced it.
The bus made its way down Hempstead Road before turning onto Antoine Drive, the street where I spent the first three years of my life. Stop after stop, people shuffled in and out of the bus. Most didn’t know it was Dump the Pump Day and tried to tap their Q cards. Every single person I saw do that looked grateful when the driver told them it was free for the day. I couldn’t agree more.
The bus pulled up to my stop, across the street from the apartment complex where my grandparents have lived most of my life. I crossed the street and, as I was calling Grandma to open the gate, saw Grandpa standing outside, walking one of their three dogs.
“Hey!” I called out. “Open the gate!”
“Why are you on foot?” he said.
“I took the bus!”
“What?” he said as he handed me the gate key.
I looked at my watch. 10:01 a.m. Two hours since I had left my apartment.
I hugged Grandma, who gave me the same reaction her husband did at me riding the bus, and sat down at the kitchen table to a plate of empanadillas and a Pepsi.
I was home. It was worth it. It always is.