Last fall, photographer Vincent Lawson and I rode the WAVE buses in Mobile for months getting to know the riders and their stories (Grace, Gratitude and Family on the Public Buses in Mobile). Using public transportation was hard then, but it is even harder now. The Mobile City Council recently cut over $700,000 in funding for the WAVE, so the transportation company cut but back its service, eliminating the Prichard route and changing others.
The funding cut was more than an adjustment in the city budget. It hurt real people who depend on the bus to get to work, school and medical appointments. The changes made long rides longer and a simple route difficult.
The bus is the lifeline saving riders from homelessness, hunger, unemployment, isolation and getting further behind. Funding and support for public transportation may have dropped, but the needs have not.
We rode the bus again this week to see how the changes affect riders and what it is like to ride the bus in July.
We started at 9 a.m. at the WAVE stop on Dauphin and Bayou streets. It was already 84 degrees with strong sun, so it felt like 97. Other riders sat on the edge of a concrete planter in the shade of the tall grass and a palm tree.
“I live in Whistler and the buses don’t run up there any more,” says a man sitting with his bike. “They used to run to the Prichard hub and turn around and come back. It came by my house and I could walk out of the door and catch it. Now all of us have to get around the best we can.”
He rides his bike three miles from Whistler, across a bridge, to the bus stop. He puts the bike on a rack on the front of the bus and climbs aboard the rest of the way to work. Then does the same thing going home. He works six days a week and gets up at 3 a.m. to leave his house by 5.
“I am kind of slow and it takes me a while,” he says. “People who don’t have a bike walk miles to get to the bus stop and we leave earlier to get to the bus. It takes me 30 minutes to ride to the bus stop. I will leave work about 2 today and I am going to be sho’ nuff hot and sweaty. I get wet when it rains and I got soaking wet yesterday when the bottom fell out.”
Most stops have no cover and no place to sit. “It doesn’t make the bus come any quicker when it rains,” he says. “The bus will leave you if you are standing across the street under the shade and can’t get here in time. They have to keep on schedule.”
Kamika took the bus to Coastal Clinical Research, Inc., at Springhill Medical Center to be paid up to $350 to get a vaccine for the common cold. Last week she received $100 to get the meningitis vaccine. She no longer gets food stamps because she can’t find a job working 20 hours a week, so she gets money any way she can. She passes out fliers for the clinical trials and tells other people about the program that tests how a new medicine or treatment works in humans. She gets angry when she talks about the longer waits and how bus service should run like it does in Atlanta.
The Dauphin Street bus used to stop at Walmart and Bel Air Mall, but route changes made the Atlanta Bread Company to the west the final stop. Riders get off and wait for the crosstown bus to take them the rest of the way. The sidewalk along the parking lot of the Atlanta Bread Company is now a transfer hub, but there is no sign, no bench, or cover. We waited 25 minutes for the crosstown bus with the heat index climbing to 99. An elderly woman used an umbrella for a cane until she opened it for shade.
Standing under a tree, we met the other riders.
Bianca has two children, ages 2 and 3, and they go to Walmart three or four times a week because she can only carry a few bags home with her kids. “I only get what I can carry, then have to go back and go back,” she says. “It takes an hour to get there and an hour to get back. It is hot, but the kids are good and they know the situation. If I didn’t have the bus, I would have to walk.”
Jennae takes the bus to work because her ex-husband got the car in the divorce. “I have no transportation, so I walk or ride the bus everywhere I go. I stayed late at work last week and missed the bus so I had to walk a couple of miles home. Service can be unpredictable so I try to be at the stop 15 minutes early so I don’t have to walk home. It is a scary walk in a lightning storm and we have had a lot of those lately in Mobile.”
Danny Holt has to stand under the tree. He has had HIV for 24 years and stays out of the direct heat and sun because of his medication. “I don’t have a car and have to take two different buses to the hospital and then walk a couple of blocks because the bus doesn’t stop close to the hospital. If my appointment is at 10, I have to leave at 8. The changes have made riding the bus hard on us.
“I wouldn’t ride if I didn’t have to.”
The crosstown bus is a short drive to Walmart and we get off at Bel Air Mall and wait for the Broad Street bus to take us back downtown. It felt like 102 as Sam Keyes waited on the bus with bags of meat, milk and frozen vegetables.
“A trip to Walmart now takes three hours,” he says. “It takes longer to get there with the transfer and the extra waits and I have less time to shop. Before the route change, I had an hour to shop, now I only have 30 minutes to get what I need before I have to catch the bus. I can’t buy things that will melt.”
The changes are confusing and inconvenient and have forced some people to find alternatives, even if it costs more money. Paying other people for a ride can cost $15 to $20, much more than the $1.25 to ride the bus.
Tammy works at Belk and sometimes has to walk to work on Saturdays. “It takes 45 minutes to walk to work. If I didn’t have the bus, I would have to pay someone to take me. Some people charge $15-20 to drive you. That is a couple of hours of pay for me.”
“The changes to the bus routes made it harder for some people to get to the bus,” says Angela, who takes the bus to the mall. “Some have to pay a person to drive them to the bus stop. Gas is high and people don’t take you for free. It’s all about a dollar.
“A lot of the stops don’t have benches any more. The Walgreens on Government needs a bench. Old people come out with prescriptions and have to stand in the heat a long time.”
The Southern Rambler’s benefit, “A Ramblin’ Night at the Steeple,” on Saturday, August 27 at 7 p.m., is raising money for benches (each bench costs $850) on the bus route. It features Shawn Mullins, The Mulligan Brothers and Eric Erdman, and this is the first music event at The Steeple on St. Francis. VIP tickets are $100 and include VIP seating, Shawn Mullins’ latest CD, My Stupid Heart, and a meet-and-greet with Shawn. Tickets are available at TheSouthernRambler.com.
Donations can also be made through a YouCaring page: YouCaring.com/BuyABench
I don’t know the answer to public transportation, how to fix it, fund it or make it a service that will benefit Mobile. But I know the stories of some of the riders — moms taking their young kids to the health clinic or a man going to the hospital for chemo. People who can’t drive, don’t have a car or can’t afford to fix the one they have.They are doing all they can to survive a life much harder than mine. They are people worth caring about and are more than just unseen faces behind ads on buses rolling through town. Our benefit won’t make riding the bus easier, provide shelter from the rain, or even raise enough money to put a bench at every stop, but the few we put out will make a difference to a rider who needs rest. It’s a start.