By Carolina Canizales

I was never lucky enough to have the choice between driving a car or riding the bus. As a Dreamer, I’m unable get a driver’s license, and even if I could, my economic situation leaves no room for a car purchase. At 22, I’ve been riding the bus for a dozen years and believe more San Antonians who do have choices should embrace this viable transportation alternative.

Once you get to know the VIA system, buses are your ticket. There’s a bus line for every destination. I’ve used the bus to get to school, to get to work, to visit friends, and to attend to events in all parts of the city. On the occasions when I’ve taken an unfamiliar route, a few minutes on Google Maps beforehand has clarified the path to my destination. It’s still hard for me to understand how so many people in San Antonio are unable to see mass transit as an engine for urban growth.

As a long-time rider I know many people see mass transit in a negative light. Let’s be honest: In San Antonio, the common mindset is that buses are for the poor, the homeless and blue-collar workers. The one truck-one driver mentality so prevalent in Texas hinders the drive toward sustainability in our city. Culture, ignorance and habit are preventing too many people from using a service that would make their lives easier and save them money.

Riding the bus isn’t just efficient. It’s also safe. In fact, VIA received the 2012 APTA Gold Award for Safety Excellence in May. The APTA also said VIA has the Best Overall Maintenance Team in North America and the Best Transit System in Texas. VIA also has one of the most affordable fares in the nation.

So what will it take to get more people out of their vehicles and on the bus at least once a week? Promise yourself you’ll give it a try. Your bus is on its way. Just use your cell phone to check in at your local stop and find out when the next bus will be there. Or go online and plan your route.

Carolina prefers to sit on the back of the bus. (Photo by Pamela Reséndiz.)

I first boarded a VIA bus in 2001 when I was 10 years old. It was a short ride from our home on Elizabeth Road to Cambridge Elementary School in Alamo Heights. My Mom would walk me to the bus stop and say hello to the bus driver. He made sure I got off at the same bus stop every day. I never got lost. In 2005, as a high school freshman I would take route number 9 or 10, which came every 30 minutes, to get to Alamo Heights High School. If I missed route 9, I would wait for route 10 and still arrive in time for my first class. I spent four years making the 15-minute commute by bus, which added up to 30 minutes a day or 2 1/2 hours a week. I put that time to good use, alternating between power naps and developing my critical thinking skills.

I didn’t get my driver’s license like everyone else as a big school junior. I remember being looked down at, asked by peers why I didn’t own a car. To my ’09 classmates, I became the weird kid that rode the bus. Luckily, my world was not so small or materialistic.I didn’t define myself in the same way. I knew riding the bus helped my mother, who raised my sister and me by cleaning people’s houses, save money.

Later, as a student enrolled at UTSA, my bus ride grew longer, 1 1/2 hours each way, with meant 15 hours of bus time each week. It shouldn’t take bus riders three times as long to get to school as students with vehicles, but it does, and it’s that kind of poor public service that turns people off to using public transit. Yes, if you use public transportation, you’re going to have to plan your schedule accordingly. I often wished that the bus would come more than once every half hour and that it would travel a more direct route to campus without requiring a transfer from one bus line to another. Still, looking back, I believe VIA was an asset to my college career.

Carolina’s favorite bus driver, Alfonso Martinez, on the 93 Express Route. (Photo by Carolina Canizales.)

On the bus I would catch up on my sleep and reading assignments. Bus time provided me with time and space to come up with many ideas for my honors thesis and various community projects. Spending 15 hours away every week on the bus did not prevent me from participating and holding leadership positions in student organizations. I attended UTSA as a full-time student every semester, and also found time to intern at El Universal Online in San Antonio.

I also made great friendships. Alfonso Martinez, my favorite bus driver, he always waited for me a few more minutes  when he noticed I was not on board. He’s also a Roadrunner at heart, so we often talked about UTSA football.

One of the nicest things after a tough day was running into my bus buddies. My American Politics professor, Dr. Rodolfo Rosales, has been riding the bus for 48 years. He even met his wife, Rose Rosales, former president of LULAC, on a bus. Rosales also has been using the Bike & Ride Facility since the early 90s. He refuses to buy a car.

“Cars are the epitome of capitalism, they isolate people from each other and are anti-social,” he said. “Cars kill 50,000 people a year, waste energy and harm the environment.”

Rosales’ view may strike some as radical, but he has a point. Rejecting mass transit in favor of driving alone in a car isolates us from community. Until people embrace mass transit, urban transportation solutions will elude us.

Carolina and her buddy Dr.Rosales showing off VIA bus passes. (Photo by Pamela Reséndiz.)

I often wonder how different life would be if I had a driver’s license and my own car. It would have been easier to socialize as a student, easier to have fun, without always depending on a ride every time. Yet the money I’ve saved has made a big difference. I saved $144 in gas costs every month for three years, or $1,700 a year. Insurance, maintenance and a parking permit at UTSA would have taken that number to $3,000 or more. A student bus pass gave me unlimited ride privileges for $35 a semester. My annual commute cost a token $70 a year.

Today, as a young professional, I have three options available for riding the bus. I can buy a single fare for $1.10, or $1.25 with a transfer.  I opted for a monthly pass, which costs $30.  Some employers offer transportation allowances, or the VIA corporate transit benefits for yearly plans or passes. My daily on the 14 Route from Austin Highway to downtown takes 25 minutes each way.

Councilman Diego Bernal

“If you can find a way to take the bus to go to school or to go to work, go ahead and take the bus,” said Diego M. Bernal, District One City Councilman. After a constituent’s suggestion, Bernal made a commitment to ride the bus one day every week. He parks at Crossroads Park & Ride, or the North Transit Center, and takes Route 2 every Wednesday to City Hall.

Bernal feels that public transportation is becoming a more important conversation in the city. Today, with the new services that VIA is implementing, more people seem willing to ride the bus. Personally, I have seen more professionals using the Express Route service, which has several nonstop routes designed to take people from Park and Ride locations to downtown. This service is a great convenience for commuters who want to avoid rush hour traffic and its worst manifestations, unsafe drivers and road rage.

“We have seen a rise on the numbers since we launched our express routes,”  said Andy Scheidt, Public Information Coordinator at VIA. “Hopefully, people will begin using this service as well as the rest of what VIA offers.”

Primo is VIA’s next innovation. These 60-foot long buses will be rolled out in December. I eagerly await the experience. Thanks to the generosity of The Rivard Report, I now have a bike. I will be using VIA’s Bike and Ride facility, which will save me time walking between bus stops. Just like Dr. Rosales, I hope to be putting my bike on the bus rack for many years to come.

Passengers and bikers boarding the bus on East Commerce Street. (Photo by Carolina Canizales.) Credit: Iris Dimmick / San Antonio Report

Coming next:  How to Ride the Bus, for those ready to try a first-ever bus ride.

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Carolina Carnizales, a former Rivard Report intern, graduated with honors from UTSA and now works in Washington D.C. in the national DREAM movement.