Thursday, September 18, 2014

Riding the Bus to McAllen

This morning, my oldest and I took the Valley Metro bus from Mission to McAllen. I was headed to 10th and Trenton; she was headed to +The University of Texas-Pan American (UTPA). I thought I had blogged about riding the bus before; but, I don't see any evidence. It must have been put on +Google+ or on Facebook somewhere. This must have been about 2 or 3 years back when I worked in Edinburg.

The result of the previous bus riding was that I couldn't do it long-term. I was spending way too much time doing nothing during the ride, and it takes 2 hours to get from Mission to Edinburg without changing buses. The Valley Metro bus meanders through Mission, goes to the McAllen bus depot, then meanders through Pharr before ending up in Edinburg. The return trip involves equal meandering.

I tried using that time to do work, read, or whatever; but, batteries only get you so far. My batteries would be drained by the time I got to work. In addition, it was eating up my data plan.

This time around, I found that my experience getting to work in north McAllen still took me about 2 hours; but, it wasn't spent on one bus. There is a bus transfer involved, getting off the Valley Metro #20 and hopping on the McAllen Metro #2 or #3. They both take roughly the same route, but will deposit you on opposite sides of the street.

The advantage this time around is that there is Wi-Fi at the McAllen bus terminal and some spots along the route. Also, while waiting for my bus transfer, I could eat breakfast at the +SUBWAY Restaurants franchise at the depot.

My daughter was fortunate that there is now a bus, the Metro Connect Green Line, that eliminates the Pharr meandering. It takes her straight to the University, or straight-ish rather. There is an unpredictable stop at the McAllen Library. She was supposed to take the bus to the library after school, where her mother could pick her up after work; but, the bus didn't stop there as it did on the way to school. So, we had to pick her up at the bus depot in the afternoon.

The bus ride itself is not unpleasant. Most of the passengers aren't a gloomy lot. They will spark up a conversation to make the time pass on their journey. I think the biggest problem is that a 15 minute drive takes 2 hours.

McAllen does a great job of running buses every hour on the hour. The predictability makes it so that you can work something out. The only time it becomes an all-or-nothing event is if your stop is at the far end of the loop where the bus turns around. If you miss the bus, you can't cross the street and grab the next one. But, you can avoid that by being on time.

I don't want to be harsh on Valley Metro because they are doing rather well considering that they are serving most of the communities in the RGV. In addition, they are rather predictable even though they offer the additional service of detouring from their main routes for certain situations. However, the problem today is the same problem I had a couple years ago when I tried taking the bus to work in Edinburg. That problem is that it's asking too much from one route.

I get on the bus at 6:30. If I were to miss it, I could walk a couple blocks and catch it, the same bus, at around 6:45. Or, my wife could drop me off a little before 7 as she drops off my daughter at school at another stop to catch the same bus less than a mile away. Valley Metro is making one bus do the job of several. That bus has to meander through town to provide service to the entire community before moving on to the next.

Again, one can't be harsh on Valley Metro because the bus does get full and there is indeed a need they meet. But, if you miss the bus at any of its meanderings, you're going to wait 2 hours for the next one.

While we're on the subject of two hours, referring to the 2 hour commute, it doesn't matter how I jigger the schedule, somehow it always ends up taking me 2 hours to get from Mission to my ultimate destination in McAllen, or the reverse. If you add it up, that's four hours of commute per day. That's half a work day every day. That's twenty hours per week, a part-time job.

So, why bother riding the bus?

I think this is a personal question in some regards. It will vary from person to person. For some people, the bus is their only reliable option in which they aren't imposing on the kindness of others. For some people, . . ., well, they're damned hipsters. They want to save the planet and live simply. In short, your mileage may vary from mine.

In my case, my family is a one-vehicle family. There are certain challenges that result from two people juggling the need for one vehicle. Having two vehicles creates a cash outflow we would rather avoid, that is to say fuel, insurance, taxes, maintenance, and other expenses.

A bus option facilitates the morning commute and custody of the vehicle. In addition, I am almost too happy to give up having to drive. I now have a Kindle that affords me plenty of reading and battery life so that I can spend time reading improving books and other materials when I would have otherwise been driving.

In the afternoon, it is easier for Mrs. Mata to pick me up at work and then go pick up our children. But, even if she or I had some other after work commitment, having a bus option to go home would be helpful for the rare occasion.

And, I think that is what describes our situation. Riding the bus is an option that helps us out of scheduling dilemmas. I'll write about personal multimodal transport later, as I'm considering other options that do not involve buying another car; but, let's stick to bus riding today.

I have lived in Austin, Texas a few times in my life. I had a vehicle most of those times, which I hardly used because their bus system is well developed. I really enjoyed the freedom of hopping on and off a transport without regard to parking, gas, traffic, or other matters that a driver endures.

I find myself wanting the bus system in the Rio Grande Valley to resemble that +Capital Metro experience. We aren't there yet. Our bus systems need more riders to grow to that level. Yet, the time commitment is a detractor from the casual rider like myself who enjoys the practice of good public transport.

Ideally, I would like buses every half hour. But, I realize that it means a big capital investment and tons of politics given that our communities are a collection of fragmented fiefdoms. I think McAllen will most likely grow their public transport on their own. I think Valley Metro needs the most help through increased ridership. Valley Metro is in that chicken and egg situation where they need more riders to justify greater investment; but, they need more investment to attract more riders. The two hour thing is just murder when it comes to using their buses. That really is the biggest detractor. I think, at the very least, they could have hourly buses for communities surrounding McAllen, specifically Mission, Edinburg, and Pharr, so that the schedules mesh better.

I will continue to ride the bus in the mornings despite the two hour commitment, thanks to McAllen's Public WiFi service.

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