At 10:54 on a recent Monday morning, the bus plying Metro Area Express route number 45 pulled curbside at 1st Avenue and 19th Street in Bessemer. Situated at the edge of the city’s downtown business and commercial district, this is the last stop the 45 makes in Bessemer before turning northwestward onto U.S. Highway 11 and beginning the 13-mile inbound run to downtown Birmingham, with four scheduled stops along the way.
Each weekday, route 45 consists of two buses in continuous circulation throughout the day between Birmingham and Bessemer, with a total of 15 stops on each full circuit. The route’s day begins here at the 19th Street stop with the departure of the inbound 4:38 a.m. bus, and service to Bessemer terminates here each night at 10:18.
At the Birmingham-Jefferson Transit Authority’s Central Station, on Morris Avenue in downtown Birmingham, the first bus for Bessemer leaves at 5:30 a.m., and service on the 45 ends when the last inbound bus pulls in at 11:06 p.m. At each stop on the 45 route, as at most stops on the other 35 routes currently operated by the MAX system, the scheduled time between buses — the “headway,” in transit parlance — is one hour.
“If you’re transit-dependent, you build your life around the headways,” Butch Ferrell had said on the ride out to Bessemer. Born and raised in Ensley and Fairfield, Ferrell, 61, has been dependent on Birmingham’s bus system all of his life, owing to epileptic seizures that precluded his learning to drive or being able to work regularly. Since the late 1990s, he has been a vocal — and, he readily acknowledges, sometimes strident — advocate for the “transit-dependent,” he and his fellow citizens for whom Birmingham’s perennially inadequate transit system historically has provided a tenuous source of support, sustenance and connection to the community at large.
“If you miss your bus,” Ferrell had mused wryly, in response to a question posed as the 45 departed Central Station at 9:44. He had risen at 4:30 that morning to ensure that he had time to get downtown from his home near Five Points West for a regular 7:30 meeting. From the meeting, he’d walked the eight blocks to Central Station to talk about mass transit in Birmingham while riding the 45 — which serves a key transportation artery in BJCTA’s immediate and long-term plans for improving the current system and building a better one — to Bessemer and back.
“If you miss your bus,” Ferrell repeated, “well, there’s an hour out of your day at best. But what if that makes you an hour late to work, or causes you to miss a doctor’s appointment or a meeting? What if it costs you the opportunity for a job? Or what if you just miss your bus and have to sit in the hot sun or the freezing cold or the pouring rain and wait an hour for the next one?
“If you’re a person of low income, or limited income, and you depend on the bus, that’s the world you live in. That’s the real world.”
There had been 27 people on the bus out of Central Station, and a 12-block loop around the 3rd and 2nd Avenue North corridors to the east of 18th Street resulted in a net gain of six more before picking up the route westward toward Bessemer. The major stops along the way are Five Points West and Western Hills Mall; at the latter, the passenger count on board fell to 20 or so. That number remained steady through the interchange of riders entering and exiting at each stop, until the first stop on the Bessemer side of the arching railroad overpass that leads into town — 4th Avenue and 18th Street, where a dozen people had disembarked at 10:32.
From there, the 45 wound through an edge of downtown Bessemer and into the narrow streets of the Jonesboro neighborhood. Now, three stops and 22 minutes later, the bus was back downtown, taking on eight riders at 19th Street and 1st Avenue. Among these were three women — not elderly, but far from young — who had left the bus on its arrival in Bessemer, four blocks away. The difference now was that each was carrying several plastic shopping bags that seemed to be filled mostly with basic household items. Ferrell said hello as they passed in the aisle and then explained.
“They know the schedule,” he said. “They knew they had 20 minutes to get their stuff done and get back on the bus. Otherwise, they’d have to wait that extra hour. Like I said, if you don’t have alternative transportation, you build your life around not having to wait that extra hour.”
The benefits of mobility
In numerous cities in America and around the world, the presence of public transportation that is effective, efficient, accessible and affordable has been a generator and multiplier of both economic growth and social progress. According to the American Public Transportation Association, a leading national transportation advocacy group, investment of public dollars in transportation yields a four-to-one return in economic impact. Every $10 million in capital investment in public transportation adds $30 million in increased business sales. Proximity to and use of reliable, high-frequency public transportation impacts everything from traffic congestion to property values to air quality.
It also impacts the mobility of the population, Scott Douglas notes. Douglas is executive director of Greater Birmingham Ministries, a nonprofit that provides direct services for low-income individuals and families, and also advocates on behalf of various issues related to poverty and social justice, including improved mass transit.
“If you want to combat poverty at the grassroots level, you can’t overestimate the importance of mobility,” says Douglas. “There is an overarching demand for access to all areas of community life — education, recreation, health and human services, as well as transportation.
“If we can define quality transportation around the idea of providing alternatives for low-income people,” Douglas continues, “we are going to find that people will take advantage of those alternatives. If we as a community will make that investment in our future, and provide low-income people with access to the bread and roses of civic life, it’s going to benefit everybody. Maybe in a shorter time than we might think.”
From a planning standpoint, even the best efforts over the years to make quantum improvements in mass transit have fallen far short — mostly for lack of broad or sustained support from local governments, the Alabama Legislature and other key political power brokers, or the public at large. The benefits of better transit — and more transportation options — are apparent to most segments of the community, yet even the smallest indicators of progress remain hard-won.
“There are a lot of things that need to happen to put us in a position where mass transit is a viable option,” says Charles Ball, executive director of the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham. “But we should be motivated to address those things, because of the economic benefit to the community. Good transit allows all residents to participate in your economy.”
Ball notes that the average car owner spends an estimated $10,000 annually (including fuel costs) to operate their vehicle. That’s a considerable expense in a county where somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000 people — including at least 25,000 families — live in households that bring in less than twice that amount in a given year.
“If you don’t have a car in this community, you’re in an awful position,” Ball says. “If you have an income of $15,000 or $20,000 and you’re trying to get a better job, or keep the job you’ve got, or go to college or get yourself some vocational training — well, you’re up against it if you don’t have a car. We’re placing a stumbling block in the way of those individuals, and limiting ourselves as a community.”
For Ann Dawson-August, eliminating the lack of adequate mass transit as a stumbling block for Birminghamians attempting to rise out of poverty is only the beginning. She envisions a system that is regional in scope, used by a broad cross-section of citizens to move efficiently from one place to another.
Like Ball, August is realistic about the challenges to realizing that vision. Consequently, since her arrival as executive director of MAX in January 2013, her approach can best be described as a nuts-and-bolts recreation of the bus system: restructuring routes for efficiency; instituting standards to measure, evaluate and improve on-the-road performance and service to riders; replacing an aging, ailing and outdated fleet of gas-burning buses with new compressed natural gas vehicles, lowering fuel and maintenance costs and substantially reducing the system’s carbon footprint; improved training and retention of bus drivers and other key employees; identifying ways to help meet specific needs of low-income passengers, including Birmingham’s substantial homeless population.
All of these things, August says, are necessary groundwork for building and growing a strong transit system. The incremental changes in the system over the past two years have taken place within a larger framework of planning and execution — another necessity she has come to appreciate during a career spent in transportation, including the 11 years as director of the Santee Wateree Regional Transportation Authority in South Carolina that preceded her hiring at MAX.
“MAX is on the upswing,” she asserts. “We’re taking those baby steps to get where we need to be for the economic benefits of investing in transit to become really apparent. Planning is critical to that, building demand and using that to create and leverage economic opportunities. But first, you just have to move people effectively. If you’re not doing that, it doesn’t matter what else you do or what your intentions are, you’re not going to have a good system.”
According to an internal analysis conducted in 2011, 60 percent of MAX’s ridership can be categorized as low-income. That has been a key factor not only in the way routes have been restructured, but also in the criteria by which individual routes are evaluated and prioritized.
“Don’t use the same standard to judge all routes,” declares Henry Ikwut-Ukwa. The manager of planning and development for MAX, “Dr. Henry,” as colleagues and associates call him, served in essentially the same capacity with Atlanta’s MARTA system before August brought him to Birmingham. His statement about the proper approach to measuring the effectiveness of routes was a mantra there, he says — and that approach has led to demonstrable improvements geared toward the majority of riders.
“Our first challenge is making sure that low-income residents have a dependable way to travel,” Ikwut-Ukwa says. “That in itself is a significant step forward. Part of the standards we have implemented is the designation of some routes as ‘lifeline’ routes, where we know we are primarily serving people who have no other transportation choice for getting out to jobs, classes, medical facilities, grocery stores and so on.
“For those who depend on transit, this is an urgent matter. If the bus system stopped running for just one day, it would affect the lives of many of those people substantially. It really is a lifeline.”
Even as the restructured route system is making the service more efficient and reliable — currently, 95 percent of arrivals and departures systemwide are on time, as measured against transit industry standards — the need for more buses, expanded routes and much shorter headway times becomes increasingly apparent. The headway issue, as Butch Ferrell points out, is a critical one not only for low-income riders, but also to have any hope of enticing other riders onto the system.
“People aren’t going to ride these once-every-60-minutes buses on a regular basis unless they have to,” Ferrell says. That observation is not lost on MAX’s management. Ikwut-Ukwa readily acknowledges that one-hour bus frequency is “at the outside of the area where you can even say that you are operating a fixed-route service.”
“We are working on bringing down the headways on all routes,” director August says. “We need to get down to 30 minutes on as many routes as possible, and then work on getting to 10 or 15 minutes. When you have that kind of frequency, people don’t even have to look at a bus schedule to know they can get where they want to go.”
Creating demand — and building on it
Meanwhile, MAX’s planning efforts are focused on several ongoing and upcoming initiatives. These include construction of Birmingham’s new multi-modal transit hub on Morris, which will provide a centralized link to options from AmTrak to taxi service to bicycle racks, in addition to MAX buses. The agency also is working to create freestanding “super stops” at key locations where numerous routes intersect, and to develop partnerships with key providers to enhance access to healthcare and other essential services for low-income riders.
More immediately, MAX is about a month away from launching a Google-based cell phone application that will allow riders to track the location of specific buses on their routes. August sees the new app as a potential game-changer in the general public’s perceptions of the bus system — or at least as an integral component of a game-changing strategy.
“We have reached a point in our society where almost everyone has a cell phone,” August says. “They have become an essential part of life, and the app gives us a great point of connection to virtually anyone who uses our system. It will take away some of the frustration riders feel when they’re trying to coordinate their day. It’s a way for you to help yourself and help us at the same time.”
For the longer term, MAX is working with the Regional Planning Commission on a study of the U.S. 11/Bessemer Superhighway corridor that is the backbone of the 45 route. The study’s purpose is to find ways to make use of highly traveled transit arteries both to generate expansion of the system and stimulate sustainable economic opportunity for the community in general and for currently lower-income areas in particular.
“This is where the issues of transit, poverty and economic development come together,” says BJCTA board member Adam Snyder. “In the forward-thinking, innovative communities that Birmingham wants to pattern itself after, economic development is driven by transit and other alternative forms of transportation. With the 45 route, we’re already on the threshold of creating a demand-based corridor to support that strategy. We have grand visions, but we’re getting there by going from one point to the next.”
In that “grand vision,” the perfect accompaniment to a revitalized east-west corridor between Birmingham and Bessemer is development of a north-south artery that connects the booming business and commercial concerns along U.S. Highway 280 to downtown Birmingham. For them, this is another type of “lifeline,” in the form of increased access to prospective employees and customers who live in Birmingham or surrounding suburbs both north and south of Red Mountain — the broad economic benefit that complements the investment of financial and human resources in improvements that increase access to economic opportunity for bus-dependent riders. In Henry Ikwut-Ukwe’s view, that is the perfect balance.
“If we are able to pull that off,” he says, “it opens up a whole new conversation about how we travel in this community. Among other things, it begins the real conversation about rail service.
“That’s a big thing. But if Birmingham is going to succeed as a community, it needs big things. Small things will not lift us. Our goal is having a comprehensive system that serves everybody in the region in the ways they need to be served. If that idea is not put forward and talked about, then nothing will happen.”
“Far from done…”
Increasingly, the prevailing notion of a comprehensive transportation system for Birmingham includes walking trails, bicycle lanes, bike-share programs and other incentives to encourage the use of alternative forms of transportation. While commonly viewed as “quality of life” issues of greater utility to middle- and upper-income residents, the economic impact of improving access to alternative transportation for low-income people is gaining in recognition.
“Walking trails are the best buy in public health,” says Wendy Jackson. “Walkable — and bike-able — communities are healthy communities, and healthy communities attract sustainable economic growth. We are trying to incorporate that knowledge into our community strategy for economic and community development. In urban planning and development discussions, it should be a part of every conversation: When walking is an option, more people walk.”
Jackson is executive director of the Freshwater Land Trust, a nonprofit that acquires and preserves land for conservation purposes. In addition, FLT is managing the development of the Red Rock Ridge and Valley Trail System, a countywide network of trails connecting existing parks and neighborhoods to designated green spaces. Research shows that the availability of walking trails — including sidewalks — affects public health by not only increasing residents’ access to medical care, but also by providing the health benefits of walking regularly.
Jackson says that in implementing the Red Rock system — a process that has been expedited by two major federal grants — priority status for specific projects was given to those areas identified as having significant public health disparities. As a result, trail projects have been implemented in Smithfield and Ensley (a third, in Pratt City, was implemented as part of the recovery from the devastating tornadoes that struck Birmingham and Jefferson County in April of 2011).
In the process, the city of Birmingham has adopted the Red Rock system as part of its comprehensive plan that is intended to guide the city’s development in coming years. Coupled with increasing private support for parks, trails and green space in general, Jackson says that growing public demand and support for such things give Birmingham a unique opportunity to define itself.
“When I talk about ‘walkability’ and its benefits to the community, I’m really talking about several things that go hand-in-hand with mass transit,” Jackson says. “Sidewalks, bike lanes, public bike racks at street level and on buses — all of these are necessary components in the transportation picture, and they’re all related. We’re having some success, but we’re far from done with the hard work.”
Riding the bus
As a lifelong rider of the Birmingham bus system, Butch Ferrell has seen the system at its best — “long ago,” he chuckled a little ruefully, as that Monday morning 45 from Bessemer neared its terminus in downtown Birmingham — and its worst, of which he said in the same sardonic tone, “there’s a good many examples of that.”
Asked to grade the system as it presently operates on an “A”-to-“F” scale, Ferrell didn’t hesitate in assigning it a “D.” But he was also quick to note that even that less-than-sterling assessment represents improvement. He was highly complementary of August, saying that “she’s on [the riders’] side,” but incredulous that MAX will ever get the funding commitments from local or state government that will be necessary to propel the system anywhere near an “A” rating from anyone.
“Ann has the goodness in her to understand what it takes to do this job well, and to get it done,” Ferrell said. “The question is, can she do it? She’s clearly capable, but my concern is that she’ll burn out by continually running into the same brick walls that have stopped others.”
In the meantime, Ferrell said as the 45 pulled back into the slip it had departed exactly one hour and 59 minutes before — it was running on time — he would keep talking, keep walking, keep riding. He and other transit-dependent riders have “taken a lot of knocks” over the years, he said, to the point that he frets that a ridership that has “never known anything but bad” from the bus system doesn’t give any thought that it can ever be better.
“Look around you,” Ferrell urged on exiting the bus at Central Station. “Do you see the people sitting here, waiting for their bus? These are regular riders, and they have become so demoralized that they can’t see any hope. I think there is hope, but we have to get past the stereotype that most people in this community have of buses and bus riders. We have to change some mindsets and that’s hard to do.
“Right now, the general citizenry barely knows that public transit exists,” said Ferrell, heading off to catch another bus to make an appointment with his doctor at the Kirklin Clinic. “They travel in their cars, and they see people burning up or freezing at bus stops, and it’s like looking at life on another planet. They’re glad it’s not them. We need them to understand how they would be helped by better transit, that every person that gets on a bus helps every other person in the community.”