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I ditched my car, took the bus for a day

Alexandra Zayas took the bus from home to an interview, then to work, to another interview, back to work and then home. Best advice heard all day: “You have to know the schedule,” a man said.

MELISSA LYTTLE | Times

Alexandra Zayas took the bus from home to an interview, then to work, to another interview, back to work and then home. Best advice heard all day: “You have to know the schedule,” a man said.

ON THE BUS — If you asked for my CliffsNotes version of every city where I've lived or traveled, the best stories almost always involve public transportation.

I'll never forget the half-hour conversation I had on a Minneapolis train with a philosophy graduate on his way to work at an Ikea ball pit. Or the homeless man who kissed my cheek on a South Beach bus. Or the accordion player collecting tips as he filled the Paris metro with music.

After three years here, I know Tampa better than any city, even my hometown of Miami. But I've never experienced it from the worn seats of public transit.

I had been warned about our bare-bones bus system — mostly by people who have never used it. City Times' transportation issue gave me an excuse to see for myself.

By the end of the day, I'd know the truth: What does the city look like from inside the bus? Who will I meet along the way? And, of course:

Would I survive without a car?

• • •

I set out on foot one recent Friday for a day of cross-city work as a reporter. The sky was clear blue and the air was crisp. Armed with bus schedules from Google Transit, I sat across the street from the Bern's Steak House parking lot and soaked in the strange silence. No stereo. No cell phone on my ear. Just the cars whooshing along Howard Avenue.

Then, I saw it — the No. 4 bus. I stuck my hand in my back pocket and thumbed through $3. I was set.

"Day pass," I told the driver. "Local."

Smug at the thought that I'd totally just passed for a regular, I caught the bus driver staring at me. "You need another quarter."

There went my cover. I was outed as a transit tourist. I fumbled through my backpack, and the bus started to move. I finally found a quarter and tried to shove it in about three slots before I got it right. By this time, the bus had stopped again, and another man was in line behind me.

Humbled, I took my seat. With every stop, I was that much further from my car, that much more dependent on this system and the ticket in my pocket.

• • •

The bus rattled over the Platt Street bridge and into downtown. We rolled up to my stop at Marion and Zack streets at exactly 9:27 a.m. Perfect timing; my next bus was at 9:33.

I walked the two blocks north to Cass Street and sat at the stop. I stared at the old Floridan Hotel for a few minutes, and then checked my clock. It was 9:35. I panicked.

No buses had passed by, at least none labeled Route 2. I thought about the 83-year-old man who would be waiting for me to interview him at 10:30 a.m. on the banks of the Hillsborough River. I flagged down the next bus headed toward the Marion Transit Center.

I asked about my bus. The driver said he'd eventually stop across the street on his way to Nebraska Avenue — in half an hour. Apparently I had been standing on the wrong side of the road and let my bus fly right past me.

By the time I was actually on a bus on Nebraska Avenue, it was 10:10 a.m. I had been through the same stretch of downtown twice.

• • •

The bus was packed, but no one talked. A song blared on a woman's headset in back. All of us heard it.

A pregnant woman and her little girl stepped on. She sat across from me, and the little girl jumped onto her lap. The bus started to move.

"Agarrate," she told the girl. Hold on tight. The little hands wrapped around the pole. The mother kissed the back of the girl's head. I caught her eye, and she smiled at me.

This is nice, I thought. Mother and daughter got off the bus, and a drunk man plopped down on their seat, a plastic bag shielding a quart of Bud.

He stared down a woman as she got off the bus. "The older they come," he slurred, "the better they look." He looked at me for some sort of response.

I yanked the string to alert the driver. It was 10:33 a.m. Luckily this was my stop.

• • •

After the interview, 83-year-old Jack Griffin insisted on driving me to a stop on Broad Street. He didn't get why I was riding the bus all day. And he didn't want me standing in front of the Orange Motel on Kirby Street, where Google suggested I wait. I thanked him.

I took the last available bus seat, next to a large, eccentric man with a full beard. Halfway into the ride, my back started to hurt. I noticed I was leaning sideways, trying not to rub arms with him.

I felt guilty and straightened up. And when the seats started to empty, I didn't move.

• • •

The day progressed, and I relaxed. As I headed into West Tampa for an interview, I talked to Jerry Jentsch, a 66-year-old German retiree who stopped driving three years ago.

Jentsch, who collects Social Security, can't afford car insurance. He said the bus doesn't limit where he can go. Just this morning, he rode to a Wal-Mart in Citrus Park on the No. 7 bus he catches outside his complex. No transfers. No walking.

And I talked to Mark Weir, who moved here from New York three years ago. He has a car but prefers the bus, and thinks he saves $200 to $300 each month on gas.

• • •

Waiting for my last bus of the day, I struck up a conversation with a man playing Sudoku.

"The key to riding the bus is you have to know the schedule," he said. "You have to know where buses connect and cross each other. If you miss a bus, it'll cost you more than half an hour."

I know, I told him.

The bus dropped me off after a 15-minute ride and I walked back to my car, victorious. This whole bus thing wasn't too bad. I didn't get flattened by a car while trying to cross the street. I liked talking to strangers — most of them, at least. And Google said I saved more than $6.

Yes, I could survive without a car. But it'd definitely get old after a while. Like, in the rain. Or when I oversleep, which is every day.

Maybe I'd bus again, on leisure time. But definitely not tonight. I had plans to meet friends in St. Petersburg and didn't want to compute that commute. So I hopped into my car and took off.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or 226-3354.

A day on the bus
Journey Bus time Estimated car time
Hyde Park to

Seminole Heights
71 minutes 17 minutes.
Seminole Heights to downtown 52 minutes 11 minutes
Downtown to West Tampa 20 minutes 5 minutes
Downtown to Hyde Park 37 minutes 6 minutes.
Total time spent Bus: 3 hours Car: 39

minutes
Total cost Bus: $3.25 Car: $9.62

The system

The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit

32 local bus routes

13 express routes

2 in-town trolley routes, downtown

1 streetcar route (runs Ybor City and Channel District)

$6 day pass for all routes

$3.25 day pass for local routes

4:10 a.m.

earliest pickup

1:15 a.m. latest dropoff

40,500

approximate riders daily

7 percent rider increase

from last year

Recent route changes include the express bus from Carrollwood to downtown; the consolidation of routes from the USF area to the Westshore area; and elimination of the Hyde Park trolley.

To learn more about Hillsborough's transportation system, visit goHART.org or call (813) 254-4278.

I ditched my car, took the bus for a day 04/17/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 22, 2008 9:29am]

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