Get on the bus

Published: Sunday, January 27, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 25, 2013 at 5:07 p.m.

After hearing the mayor praise Gainesville's bus system Wednesday in his State of the City speech, I gave it a try.

I had never been on a Regional Transit System bus before, although I'm a fan of mass transit. Before moving to Gainesville, I lived in Pittsburgh and rode the bus or my bike nearly every day.

But I've been a slave to my car since I've lived in Gainesville, in part because covering breaking news doesn't work so well if you have to wait for a bus. I've also heard some horror stories about the buses here, so I was expecting my first experience to be a bad one.

The speech was at the Hippodrome Theatre, so I went to a nearby stop by the Hampton Inn. I took a bus to the University of Florida campus and then transferred to another bus to reach the Sun offices on Southwest 13th Street.

I made it there in about 20 minutes. I considered it a pretty positive experience, but one bus driver told me that other routes don't run as smoothly. Route 75, which runs between the Oaks Mall and Butler Plaza, is apparently often late.

RTS spokesman Chip Skinner conceded there are challenges with that route, as well as Route 11 between downtown and Eastside Meadows. A number of wheelchair passengers using those buses can mean extra time is needed for them to get aboard, he said.

RTS had a record ridership of more than 10.7 million passengers in the last fiscal year. Santa Fe College recently joined UF in paying for unlimited bus rides for students through their fees.

The biggest challenge for RTS going forward seems to be attracting more professionals to use the bus. That's the idea behind bus rapid transit, which could include features such as more frequent buses, dedicated lanes and signal technology that allows buses to spend less time at lights.

Public meetings are being held in the coming months about where such a system would work best. With the possibility of a transportation tax being on the 2014 ballot, it's important for the community to provide input.

For some, having an effective bus system is a lot more important than a silly test like I conducted. I met one such person during my ride. She was a younger woman taking a bus to Shands. In September, she gave birth to a baby that was more than three months premature.

The baby was 1 pound, 4 ounces at birth and had added more than 3 pounds since then, but was still in the hospital. She took a 25-minute bus ride each way to see her child.

So as Gainesville considers changes to its bus system, I hope people keep in mind that it's a significant issue for many people. It can make the difference for them being able to get to jobs and some of the most important responsibilities you can imagine.

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