Birmingham transit – a trail of tears

When I married, moved to Birmingham, and returned to school, my original plan was to take the bus to and from my suburban apartment to the downtown UAB campus. I was a heavy transit user in Toronto, using the city buses and subway when my destination was too far to reach easily on my bike. In my inner west end neighbourhood, the bus ran every 15 minutes. It took 15 minutes to connect with the subway to the north. It took 5 minutes to get to the streetcar to the south. I could walk the mile to my local subway station through a beautiful park in 20 minutes.

Imagine my surprise when I started to check out the system and found out that the buses only ran once an hour. ONCE AN HOUR.

That was supremely sucky service. While the stop wasn’t far from my apartment, I had to be down there early in order to ensure that I was on time for the bus. This was a one shot deal, no second buses following within ten minutes, as they had were I grew up in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga (this was the early 80s, people). Or every twenty minutes, as they had when I worked in Lethbridge, Alberta, a small city of 75,000 on the southern Canadian prairie. To make things worse, because of 280 traffic, the outbound buses were frequently, late or, due to bus breakdowns, non-existent. During that first year in 2009, I spent more late afternoons than I care to count waiting two hours for a bus that never came before giving up and calling my husband, or phoning for a taxi.

Eventually, we broke down and bought a second car. We really didn’t want to, but it was the only way that I was going to have reliable transportation back and forth to campus, given that there were also no cycling paths or a safe cycling route.

Transit in Birmingham really sucks. What sucks worse is if you can’t drive or can’t afford the $5,000/year to run a car, you have to use it.

It wasn’t always that way.  With a serious public push, it doesn’t have to stay that way either. A little booklet “Birmingham Transit – A Trail of Tears” has the best story written to date as to how the city started in the 1970s with a decently good transit system, and then through neglect, and worse, political malice, ran it down until it was a barely functioning skeleton of its former glory. Worse, in 2004, the board of directors deliberately fired the last executive director, Mark Stanley, who dared to run the system well. Through it all, people who haven’t had any other choice have continued to use the system to get to work and school. The lack of a decent transit system has handicapped many in their climb out of rotten circumstances, as documented by the Birmingham Bus Riders at their website.

Now, the BJCTA has a new executive director, Ann August, who is tightening up the ship and redeploying what resources the system has for maximum effectiveness. The travel times and travel directions can be checked on Google maps. Code for Birmingham is helping rework the print maps and the transit guides and is assisting in designing a usable phone app. There are a lot of people who want to see the system improved and who will use it if it doesn’t suck. But the state and all the regional cities need to put some money in the pot in order to access matching US federal funds. That means that voters have to tell their state and city representatives that this matters.

The next time you hear someone complain about Hwy 280 or I-65 commute times, send them a link to that little booklet, and tell them that getting only 1 – 5% of people out of their cars and onto buses will open up the roads and make that afternoon drive suck a whole lot less. That they need to tell the state reps that, and be willing to spend a little on public transit. Along the way, those who don’t have cars will be able to get to jobs, shopping and appointments with reasonable efficiency. And hey – reduce the number who have to go on public assistance because they can’t get to available work.

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