The sky is a dark, deep blue, and the streetlights are still on, when 18-year-old Alex Ibe-Cumba starts walking to the bus stop. Most days, Ibe-Cumba is up by 5:45 a.m., swigging coffee by 6:15, and out the door by 6:30. The walk to her bus stop in front of a Food Giant in Tarrant takes half an hour, and Ibe-Cumba has it down to the minute.
If she gets to one corner and the streetlight has gone off, she should start running, because she is going to miss the bus. If she misses the 7:10 bus there won’t be another until noon, and her first class is at 9. Ibe-Cumba is a freshman at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, planning to double-major in Finance and Spanish. She lives with her parents on a quiet cul-de-sac in Tarrant; she takes the bus because it makes sense economically, and she is terrified of driving.
“A lot of times [my parents] say, ‘I warned you. You didn’t learn how to drive, we told you this was going to happen,’” Ibe-Cumba laughs. “I’m really stubborn, so at the end of the [first] week, my parents say, ‘Are you ok?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m fine, this is easy.’ Obviously it’s not.”
Ibe-Cumba’s bus, the 22 Tarrant, makes only five trips downtown during the day. Coming home, if she misses the last bus leaving downtown at 6 p.m., she’s stuck. A few days back a discussion with her advisor ran long, and she missed the 4 o’clock bus and had to wait two hours for the next one. Because of the schedule, Ibe-Cumba knows she can’t take the bus forever, that internships and jobs will necessitate that she learn how to drive. But until then she takes the bus, because she has to and sometimes because she wants to explore Birmingham.
A few weeks back, Ibe-Cumba noticed that the sign for the Lyric Theatre had finally been turned on. She texted her friends excitedly, but they didn’t understand her enthusiasm. “I understand, you’re not paying attention to it, but on the bus you can. It’s really cool to see the progress,” Ibe-Cumba says. “It’s kind of like you see one thing one way, and all of a sudden you’re in this new experience, and everything is new.” Back home she tacks her transit passes on a bulletin board in her bedroom next to old Taylor Swift concert tickets.
When Ibe-Cumba tells her classmates and neighbors that she takes the bus, they often respond, “You don’t look like the kind of person who takes the bus.” But she doesn’t feel like an anomaly.
So who takes the bus in Birmingham? According to a survey done by the Birmingham Jefferson County Transit Authority (BJCTA) in 2010, 10,557 people took a MAX bus daily — about 1 percent of the metro area. (In comparison, in the month of September 2013, about 7,000 people a day flew out of the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport.) More than half of bus riders are between 18 and 54. Sixty-three percent have one car at home, and 19 percent have two cars. Forty-one percent acknowledge that they could not get where they are going without the bus. Eighty-nine percent of people who take the bus are African-American.
There are many reasons that only 1 percent of the metro area takes the bus. Most buses only run once an hour; the DART (Downtown Area Roundabout Transit, a small, streetcar-styled bus) doesn’t start until 10 a.m.; many stops don’t have seating; none have schedules posted due to a city ordinance that doesn’t allow anything to be posted at stops; it barely runs on Saturdays and doesn’t at all on Sundays; it doesn’t go into many neighborhoods and cities.
And then there is the problem of perception: the buses are, to many, scary.
People don’t take the bus because “the service isn’t reliable,” says Councilwoman Kim Rafferty. Service is bad because there is no money. There is no money because municipalities think no one takes the bus. No one takes the bus because… And so the cycle continues, a snake eating its tail.
These problems are not new, but the possible solutions are.
A new generation of bus riders
Mark Dillavou’s involvement with the buses came as a result of natural curiosity. A few years ago, Dillavou lived down US 280. The 31-year-old says he tired of the commute to his then-job at UAB, so he moved downtown, where he started to notice buses on the streets. So he decided to take one. For his first attempt, he picked the 280 bus to the Summit.
“I downloaded the time tables. You have the weekday schedule and random bus stops are crossed out ’cause it skips over those at certain times. It just has a dash there. You don’t really know how many stops it’s skipping. I was confused. I probably looked at that time table every single day until the weekend rolled around just to make sure I was clear about when the bus was leaving and coming back to pick me up,” Dillavou admits.
“It really made me feel kind of stupid that I couldn’t figure this out. So clearly, if a casual person is thinking about riding the bus, and this is what they come up against, it’s not worth the bother.”
As he traveled to other cities for work and started to compare their buses with Birmingham’s, Dillavou noticed one big thing was missing: a travel planner. He looked on the BJCTA website and for months was met with an empty box reading “Plan Your Trip Coming Soon!”
Dillavou is a software programmer and founder of local tech startup VIPAAR, so he decided to make his own trip planner. First, he needed data about stops, schedules, fares, etc. The Regional Planning Commission sent him some data. The BJCTA, Dillavou says, “had no [executive] director and was in chaos mode” and didn’t have any data available. Suddenly, Dillavou understood the information he needed for each stop simply didn’t exist.
“It made a big impression on me. I was really struggling to believe how they didn’t have the buses mapped out. How were they doing their planning if they weren’t tracking buses?” Dillavou sighs. “I think the reality is they hadn’t been. I think it’s the same routes from a bunch of years ago.”
Dr. Henry Ikwut-Ukwa, the BJCTA’s planning and development manager since April 2013, says the BJCTA does have information on where bus stops are — what they don’t know is where people actually get on and off the bus. They would like to do a total system and route overhaul in the future, but right now are working on “low-hanging fruit,” like making sure schedules match actual bus times.
So Dillavou started gathering data himself. He rode the buses and snapped photos of the blue bus stop poles with his iPhone. From his iPhone’s GPS data he could pin the stop on a growing map of routes. When he grew tired of taking the bus, he used Google Street View to virtually travel into neighborhoods and scope out stops. Finally, he built a trip planner.
Not all the bus lines are fully charted, but it’s the most comprehensive map to date. Dillavou says he has spoken to the transit authority about using it on their site – to take the place of the “Coming Soon” – but they are reticent to back data they haven’t approved. Dr. Ikwut-Ukwa says the transit authority is working with Dillavou’s data and will hopefully have a their trip planner ready in a year’s time.
But people in Birmingham have already found Dillavou’s trip planner. In fact, Ibe-Cumba used Dillavou’s app the first day she took the bus.
Plans for the region
According to Darrell Howard, the deputy director of planning at the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham (RPCGB), Dillavou is the type of person who may change the transit system in Birmingham.
“[This new generation is] coming to town. They are not like me.” Howard explains, “I found a job first and then went. They are like, ‘Birmingham has a cool music scene, parks, good nature.’ They come here and they find work or are creating work, and they start demanding amenities.” Like public transit. Both Dillavou and Howard stress that they believe this new generation, the Millennials, don’t want to drive to work anymore. They don’t want the trouble of owning a car.
For nearly a decade, Howard and the RPCGB have been working on new plans for how to develop transit across Jefferson and Shelby Counties. They have planned new bike paths and sidewalks. The RPCGB partnered with Georgia – because, he says, Alabama was not interested – to study a high-speed rail link between Atlanta and Birmingham.
They mapped HOV lanes and rapid bus transit down Interstate 65, US 11 and US 78. The centerpiece of the project is a rapid bus line running down 18th Street from Southside to the Civic Center. An online video shows a futuristic bus smoothly stopping at covered, glass stations. These projects are not yet funded, and Howard warns that getting funding in Alabama is going to be difficult.
“People always say, ‘We need to go get more money for transit.’ And that’s the first mistake, because it’s a non-starter in our region,” Howard says. “Whether we like to admit it or not, there are still places in our region, counties where folks don’t have paved roads. This is 2013. Getting those folks to say, ‘OK, I am willing to put in money for public transit when I don’t have a paved road’ is going to be extremely hard.” But when you talk about funding transit as part of an overall picture of economic growth, Howard says he thinks people will be more interested.
A recent paper by scholar Daniel Chatman at the University of California at Berkeley makes the logical argument that transit brings more people together in the same place, and from that agglomeration innovation and growth emerge. Across the 300 metropolitan areas studied, expanding transit service produced an average economic benefit of about $45 million a year, with the amounts ranging from $1.5 million to $1.8 billion depending on the size of the city.
Howard says that while neither the municipalities nor the region wants to pay for transit, “at the same time we have all this envy. We are envious of Dallas, we are envious of Denver, Portland and Charlotte, and those guys started small” with buses.
Birmingham’s envy might be understandable. A study published in July in the New York Times notes that where someone grows up is directly related to how high up they move socioeconomically. The study measured the rate at which children raised in the bottom level of a city’s economic strata rose to the top fifth. The reasons are vast and complicated, and include education, family and community involvement, as well as the layout of the metropolitan area.
If the city is spread out over a wide area and there is little connectivity between the suburbs and the city, the poor neighborhoods and the affluent, where people can afford to live and where they work, the poorer population struggles, and will likely fail to make more money than their parents. Birmingham fits such a description, and so does its lack of upward mobility.
In Birmingham, only 5.5 percent of children raised in poverty manage to make it into the top-fifth economic percentile, meaning they earn around $70,000 by age 30. In comparison, citizens of Fresno, California, which has a metropolitan population comparable to Birmingham and ranked fifth out of 100 metropolitan areas in the Brookings Institution’s study of cities’ access to transit and employment (where the Birmingham-Hoover metro area ranked 94th) fares somewhat better: 8.7 percent of children beginning in poverty end up in the top fifth.
In Howard’s plans, the bus line down 18th will connect to BJCTA’s current bus routes and to rapid buses driving into Birmingham from the highways around the city. Howard says the BJCTA’s new executive director shares his regional vision, and like most people involved in transit in Birmingham, he’s excited by BJCTA’s hiring of its new executive director, Ann Dawson-August.
Rethinking the bus
It wasn’t a logical career move for August to come to Birmingham.
The BJCTA’s turmoil is known nationwide, August says. When colleagues at her old job with the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA) heard she was moving to the BJCTA, they said to her, “”You have a good reputation — why would you go there and ruin it?’” August is the Transit Authority’s first female, African-American executive director. She says she came to Alabama “to give back to a community who fought so much and gave so much to help me be where I am at.”
When she arrived, August said the BJCTA was in complete disarray, so she started to work from the inside out. She changed out old software and computers. She hired a planning director and paid staff to ride the buses and document when and where riders get off and on — information the BJCTA has never had. But August’s main goal is to build back confidence in the system and convince Birmingham that buses are a reliable, attractive form of transportation.
Over the years, municipalities like Hoover, Mountain Brook, Irondale and Homewood have cut service, because the governments question how many people actually ride the bus. August points to Hoover. “Hoover is dealing with a school bus situation. So they might say, ‘Well, we’ll pull $75,000 [from the money budgeted for the BJCTA].’”
Then, August says, the Transit Authority has to cut service hours. “[The municipalities say] ‘Ok, that’s fine.’ But it’s not fine to the passengers.” Once bus service is cut down to seven trips a day, as in the case of Hoover, the municipalities’ belief becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: few people can ride the bus to work or school.
The first step in breaking this cycle, August says, is convincing people in the community and business owners that the bus is a viable option. “In order to get them back, we have to make the municipalities understand that you will have people in your area that are willing to use the bus. We have to survey the community and businesses and ask, ‘If we had bus service from here to here, where do you want to go?’”
August says that other cities have done the same. Take Charlotte, North Carolina, a city that over the past decade has exploded with economic growth. “In Charlotte, they had a referendum so that people could vote whether they want to spend more money or not on public transit. Not the mayor or city council,” August says. “The first time [they held a referendum] it failed. The second time it went out, it passed. And the reason it passed is that people started thinking differently.”
August believes that the same can be true of Birmingham and hopes to hold a referendum in a year’s time.
In the meantime, she is working on possible stable options for funding, like a hotel accommodation fee, a “green fee” for golfers, or a tax on rental cars. August has met with the head of the Alabama Department of Transportation and plans to go to Montgomery to talk about transit and how it can encourage job growth in the region.
But she knows the fight to change perceptions is going to be difficult. “I think people look at transportation and say if you don’t have a car, you haven’t achieved. But that’s not the case.” August says that the segregation of transportation is more deep-rooted in Birmingham than cities like Nashville.
“When you look at society and young people, the color barriers are disappearing for them. It’s the older people that we have to really look at and say, has it really changed for you? Because if the state is saying that they cannot fund [public transit] — then why, when other states are funding it? Don’t be groundhogs; come up out of the hole and see the different changes that are taking place.”
August says she thinks about the bus riders, the majority of whom are middle-aged, African-American women who take the bus either because they don’t know how to drive, don’t want to drive or want to save money. “It’s about what we can do, so that the people behind us will be set, so they don’t have to go through what we are going through now in terms of trying to make things better.”
The 50 Cherokee Bend
Everyone at Central Station knows the women who ride the number 50 Cherokee Bend. Darrell Howard knows the bus and its nickname “The 50 Maids.” Mark Dillavou knows the bus — he has been unable to map it, since it makes one trip into Mountain Brook at 8:30 a.m. and returns only at 3 p.m.
Every morning around 8 o’clock, the women slowly line up to get on the bus. Most have been taking this particular bus up and over Red Mountain for more than 15 years. Most are in their 60s. Two women, Ella and Ruby (who only wanted their first names used) are in their 80s.
“Good morning, y’all!” Ella shouts as she makes her way to a raised seat in the back. Those already seated answer in a chorus, “Good morning!” About 15 women and three or four men take this bus. The women work as housekeepers in Mountain Brook; the men — except for Stan, who works at a local restaurant — are yardmen. As the driver pulls away, he will often ask, “We got everybody?” This same group has been riding together for decades, and they look out for each other, holding the bus if they see someone running for the door.
The women know what the 50 is: a shuttle to take them to their jobs and bring them back again to Birmingham. Elnora Shearer is 69 and was raised in Birmingham. When she was little, her mother would take her on the bus downtown to eat lunch and go shopping. Shearer never learned to drive.
In 1967, she moved to Los Angeles. In L.A,, Shearer would take the bus to Santa Monica, Orange County and Disneyland. Shearer’s sister passed away in 1981, and she moved back to help take care of her nephews. The first thing she thought about was the bus. “I told myself when I decided to move back, ‘You needed to have been driving.’”
Shearer bought a house in West End because it was on a bus route. Every morning, she gets up around 5:30. She caches the 1 South Bessemer a little after 7 and gets downtown by 8. Then she gets on the 50 to go over the mountain to work. Shearer gets to work around 9. If she drove, the whole trip would take 20 minutes.
Shearer refuses to ask for rides. “I am just so used to taking the bus with the other ladies. I mean, once you have been around 20 or 30 years, it’s like missing family,” she explains, “So, [my daughters] don’t like that I have to take the bus, and I don’t like to have to ask them to take me anywhere. I want to be independent.”
Some women on the bus have cars, and others don’t. Some can drive, others can’t. But even the ones with cars choose to take the bus, because it makes more sense economically.
Many women, like Loretta Curry, 65, say they would like to go to the Galleria on weekends, walk around, meet people, get lunch. But there is only sporadic bus service on Saturdays and no service on Sundays, so she stays home.
For years, Shearer says, instead of a bus, the transit authority sent a van along the number 50’s route. The van had a driver’s and passenger’s seat up front and two rows of benches in the back. When it first showed up, the women rushed to get a seat, worried there wouldn’t be enough room. Shearer says there wasn’t. The eldest were given seats, and everyone else sat on the floor in the back of the van. Many women, like Shearer, refused.
It angered her. One day she was listening to WATV-AM, and they were interviewing someone from BJCTA. So Shearer called into the radio station.
“I said, ‘Why do you send this van over to Mountain Brook? You know who rides that bus — housekeepers and yardmen — and I think we are being snubbed for that reason,’” Shearer remembers saying. “I felt like they did it to us ‘cause they think that we are less than other people. And I just felt like that was wrong. What I do does not define who I am. That’s my job; that’s not me.”
Shearer doesn’t know what effect she had, but since then, she hasn’t seen the van.
Like many of the women on the bus, Shearer doesn’t expect much to change. Ive Gresham, 66, says she trusts the bus to get her where she needs to go, but she isn’t holding out for any improvements. “You know they always say it’s going to get worse before it gets better, but it’s not going to get better. It’s just not,” Gresham says with a laugh. “We just have to make do with what it is and see it for what it is.”
As the bus makes a loop around Birmingham, the women share their breakfast and gossip. Some rest with their eyes closed. At one turn, a grasshopper jumps through an open window onto someone’s lap. There are screams and giggles. A conversation begins about childhood, and how they used to catch grasshoppers and lightning bugs when they were young. We crest Red Mountain and follow Montclair down into Mountain Brook. One by one, the women yell goodbye to each other and get off the bus.
Someday in the next few years, Shearer says she will finally retire and stop taking the number 50. “We are becoming less and less every year. It’s like we are going to be extinct after a while,” she jokes. Most of the women say their sons and daughters don’t take the bus. They drive or catch a ride with someone. Shearer took her grandson on the bus once. It was fun, she says, but only because he didn’t actually have to go anywhere.
This year, as Birmingham celebrates 50 years’ distance from the deep scars of segregation, the city takes a moment to look back and consider the changes wrought by half a century. But on the bus, some mornings it’s easy to forget what decade it is.