VIA, there may be a better way
Lately I’ve been using VIA to get around downtown and points close to downtown. Even though gas prices are falling, it just makes sense to leverage the bus and trolley system when I can. When things fall in place, it’s one of the best experiences in many ways. You get outside, you don’t have to worry about parking or fighting traffic, and you have a sense of doing the right thing. But when things aren’t lined up it can be a big hassle. Trolleys can be few and far between at times, walking up to a bus stop without knowing the schedule can result in standing or sitting in the hot sun for a long time. There must be a better way.
Downtown Trolleys and Fares
This past weekend I decided to take the trolley and bus to my destination, a location north of downtown and accessible to several bus routes, albeit a couple of blocks away from the address to the east and west. Walking a couple of blocks isn’t all that bad and probably something I need to do more of. I had mapped out the time when my bus would be leaving downtown and planned accordingly, expecting to take the trolley down to the cross-street intersection. Walking out of the door I saw the trolley sitting at the back side of Milam Park, which they usually do (frustrating but you get used to it).
As the trolley pulled up to my stop a family of tourists joined me getting on the trolley. That’s when the madness occurred. With five adults and a child I could already tell the fare negotiation would be a challenge. You see, for a simple ride on VIA it costs $1.10 (that dime is the kicker). If you have exact change or near to it, not a problem. If you want change, forget it and that’s what stymies most tourists, usually armed with $10s and $20s. They also have a problem with the fare machine, expecting to just hand the money to the operator. No such dice on a VIA bus or trolley. Five minutes later and we were on our way.
That seems to be the norm for trolleys downtown, as I found out talking to residents and folks that work downtown. Most of us buy monthly passes and just jump on and off the bus when we need to. What makes transit downtown even worse are tourists trying to ride the Yellow Trolley which runs on the same routes as the major east/west bus lines. They just don’t get the fact there are differences. Through an Express Bus in there and you’ve got chaos (the fare is much more expensive and has limited stops).
One Day Pass Sales
So what are some possible solutions? Suggestions came pouring in to my Facebook page. One makes a lot of sense and would be the easiest solution to deal with, provided there were some changes with VIA. For tourists who plan to use downtown transportation, VIA sells a $4 One Day pass. Four trips on VIA and you’ve paid for the thing. That’s what tourists do in most major cities. The trouble in San Antonio is figuring out where to buy the pass. Yes, you can buy them at the VIA downtown office but try finding it. Trolley drivers are supposed to sell them but I have yet to test that method.
What makes more sense would be for hotels downtown to sell the pass to tourists visiting the city. In fact, they should offer them at a discount to their guests to encourage buying them. Calling four major hotels downtown I found out none offer the pass for sell and a couple didn’t know where they could be bought. If the hotels don’t want to sell them, why not have VIA kiosks spread around downtown where they could be purchased along with the three day passes.
Getting back to my saga, we finally got underway and were heading down Houston Street. As we started to pull up to Houston and Navarro I saw the bus I had planned to take pulling away from the stop without me. Now the question was when would the next bus arrive or should I go for a Plan B? If you’ve been to a stop you’ll find a phone number you can call to get the arrival time of the next bus. The trouble is the phone tree on the voice prompt takes so long the next bus sometimes arrives by the time you find out or, if there are more buses, it’s more trouble than it’s worth.
Some bus stops have instituted LED signs from Next Bus which tracks VIA buses by GPS and provides the expected arrival time at the stop. Interestingly enough, several transit companies around the country have implemented the system and provide information on their websites and, more importantly, through mobile phones. Not so for VIA. You can’t find it on their website and mobile application? That would be a start that could help a LOT.
But why stop there? With most smartphones capable of using QR code readers you could mount a QR code for each stop on the sign at the VIA bus stop. After all, each stop has a unique number. From there, just shoot the QR code with your mobile phone and a mobile web page comes back with the buses scheduled to arrive at that stop in the next 30 minutes. That would be a tremendous help for riders, many of which are getting smart phones these days.
While I would expect VIA to contract for such a service, many entrepreneurial mobile developers here in San Antonio could develop such an application provided VIA had an API, much like the Chicago Transit Authority did, for gathering the information to display. With such an API building out the application is almost a piece of cake and could be a part of a coding contest sponsored by VIA, like the Apps for Democracy contest sponsored yearly by the District of Columbia. For just a small investment of $50,000 VIA could have their application developed and maybe a few more on the side. It could also spur technology innovation at area colleges and universities.
Yes, there may be a better way. The challenge will be for VIA to put streetcars aside for a while and focus on the small stuff that makes riding the bus enjoyable or a pain.