VIA Buses of Doom

The public service announcement comes on. Imagine it as a voice actress taking the seat next to you, and saying: “Thank you for choosing to ride VIA.”

That’s nice, you think. Plain-vanilla nice, but OK. What the voice actress lacks in professional gloss, she makes up for in politeness.

After a few minutes of silence between the two of you, the voice actress speaks again.

“For your safety and the safety of the VIA (bus) operator, cameras are installed on all VIA vehicles.” She also informs you ­­­plainclothes cops could be hiding in plain sight among the other riders, just waiting for the first little tremor of trouble.

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The VIA Primo Mayhemobile

She apparently wants to put you at ease. But you were already at ease. You were reading Tweets on your phone and eavesdropping on the lady behind you with all the drama about that asshole. Now, after this second PSA, you’re like, Huh?

You look up. Yup. There are the cameras. You look around for the cop, and catch the eye of the exhausted nurse in maroon scrubs. Probably not, you think.

A few more minutes pass, and you’ve gone back to the drama the lady’s narrating behind you. That guy really is an asshole. No joke. Why did she put up with that for so long?

Then the voice actress speaks again.

“Assaulting a VIA operator is a crime that can be prosecuted as a felony.”

Wow – there are so many things wrong with that sentence. But what bothers you most is its pointlessness. Its only discernible purpose is to spook anyone who’s about to punch, stab, or shoot the driver. Because of course anyone who’s about to punch, stab, or shoot the driver would stop at the sound of a cool, even voice explaining the legal consequences.

The message is clearly not intended to make anybody else on the bus feel safer.

You’re riding to work on the VIA Primo, the bus rapid transit line along Fredericksburg Road between the Medical Center and downtown. Started in December 2012, the service was supposed to attract people like you – professionals who’d never thought about riding the bus before. Part of the big BRT idea was to get these people to finally experience mass transit, to see that it’s not bad, and then who knows – maybe light rail and increased spending on our bus system wouldn’t seem so far-fetched. To reel them in, VIA offered Wi-Fi, more space than you’d get on a regular bus, frequent service, and speedy rides. Some of the seats – two rows facing each other near the midsection of the long, “articulated” (or “bendy”) buses – are even elevated so that they look kind of like thrones. You might be wrong about that, but maybe not.

None of that worked. You’re usually either the only one on the Primo who looks like they’re going to work in a downtown office, or you’re one of only two or three.

But VIA officials aren’t easily rattled. They won’t let failure stop them from doing the same thing elsewhere in San Antonio. At this very moment, they’re planning new bus rapid transit routes around the city.

Undoubtedly, this new service will launch with a beefy advertising and marketing budget, and therefore a lot of fanfare. That’ll initially attract a small crowd of higher-income, higher-education commuters.

But you really want to be there the first time the voice actress of doom sits next to them and hints that mayhem has a yearly bus pass and a lot of time on its hands. She might as well tell them the VIA bus fleet runs on compressed natural gas and the blood of drivers and innocent bystanders.

With their darkest fears about public transportation reinforced, you suspect the professionals will simply say nope and end the experiment. You have little faith in your tribe.

And you? You’re getting back into the habit of riding the bus because 1) you have a new job at City Hall, and it’s right on the Primo’s route; 2) you don’t want to pay a bunch of money for monthly parking; and 3) you tend to forget about your parking meters and therefore get a lot of tickets. You’re trying to reduce your financial footprint.

But those aren’t the reasons you originally took the bus. You started riding the Primo several years ago because you wanted to be a pioneer, one of the early-adopter professionals of San Antonio’s 2,000-year-old bus system. In other words, you didn’t want to be one of those cunt creatives prattling on about how San Antonio needs a real transit system, but who never sets foot on a bus.

You also had a gauzy notion that people from different classes should regularly share the same space, and sometimes make small talk, as they’re doing something as mundane as getting to work, home, the store, or wherever. You believe that without mass transit, whether it’s buses and trains or just buses, San Antonio will continue to bump along as the most economically segregated city in the country.

This is the kind of moment you believe is necessary for San Antonio to get better: Earlier this week, you watched a skinny guy in his forties lug two hampers of clean, folded laundry onto and off the bus. You remembered when you couldn’t afford a washer and dryer, and how much that sucked.

It’s only later that it occurs to you that you could’ve offered to help him with the hampers.

It’s even later than that when you wonder what the skinny guy thinks when the voice actress of doom speaks to him.

Well, it’s a start.