"Mark, do you need a ride?" the concerned driver asked. "Get in," he said, gesturing to the front seat of his large Suburban, a waft of cool air from his humming air conditioner tempting me to accept.
I had been standing at the bus stop on Kennedy Boulevard near the University of Tampa for the past 20 minutes watching as cars whizzed past when the driver stopped to offer me a ride. I was drenched in sweat, my face burned from the sun, a light dusting of road grit layered my mouth. I briefly considered accepting, but declined.
"No" I replied. "I am taking the bus." And with that the driver, whom I did not recognize, somewhat incredulously drove off to the relief of the line of cars piling up behind him. I had made a pledge earlier in the year to give up my car and rely on transit. That meant riding the bus while working in Tampa. I made the pledge for this grand experiment while on a plane flight on April 13, posting on Twitter the following:
4/13/17, 8:05 AM
Can you go carless in Tampa? I'm about to find out. Follow me as I plunge into the transit & rideshare abyss. More to follow
I had been gnawing on this idea for months. Indeed I tried to go carless while serving as a Hillsborough County commissioner, but it never quite worked out. I found that my meeting schedule — and need to move from point to point quickly and sweat-free — prohibited me from relying completely on the bus.
My tweet, which also posted to Facebook, was instantly picked up by my followers where I received 123 likes and a barrage of comments. I had set no time limit for this experiment and still ride today, or use rideshare and the accept the occasional lift from a friend while going about my business.
"There is no going back on this one," my wife texted me. And she was right. Like so many big decisions I have made throughout my life, this one was more like a plunge off a steep cliff without a parachute. I wanted to walk a mile in another man's shoes so to I could truly understand the plight of the bus rider in Tampa Bay. And believe me, I've walked miles, averaging two to four a day as I try to navigate the bus grid.
In Tampa Bay, whether you are taking the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART) or using the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA), you ride the bus only when you have no other choice. It was conceived that way, with funding levels so low that it only serves as the option of last resort, making our fleets the smallest in America. Even Cleveland, no disrespect intended, has a larger fleet of buses than HART and PSTA combined.
Another problem is that the system was never really considered by its own leaders as anything other than public housing on wheels. This point was stressed to me by a former HART director who expressed exasperation at my constant suggestions while serving on the HART board to upgrade services.
"Let me remind you that our primary mission is to serve the poor," he would retort as I pushed for WiFi, which we now have as a result of the dynamic leadership of HART director Katharine Eagan.
I also urged that we upgrade the fare box to rid ourselves of the 1950s-vintage system that gives no change and does not accept debit or smartphone apps for payment. Again I was rebuffed. "Too expensive," came the response, and besides, "Most poor people don't have smartphones." This too is changing as both the current HART and PSTA directors are working on a regional bus fare system called Flamingo Fares that touts "One Application. One Region. One Fare" and that should be up and running regionwide by early 2018.
My call for a GPS system was received with similar blank stares. We can't release that information, came the response from the old IT transit wizards. That too has changed, as new blood pushed through acceptance of the "One Bus Away" application, which is my constant companion as I check my stop to see when the next bus will arrive or how late it is running.
Our system was designed to carry just a segment of our population. And there is no doubt that the poor desperately need this service. Many cannot get to their jobs without the bus. I hear the frustration in the voices of those who ride it to work daily. I experience their pain, as a trip that would take 10 minutes by car stretches into a hour or more by bus.
Who willingly gives up that much time to ride the bus to work? We have created a system where the people who pay for the service don't use it, as the principal revenue stream is the property tax. This means that the advocates of transit are routinely outnumbered by people who have little empathy for the plight of those who must rely on the service to get to work, visit a doctor or go to the store.
My first week using the bus reminded me of my first week at Navy aviation officer candidate school, just without the screaming Marine drill instructors. I was dazed and confused as I sought to process this new way of life sans my car. Now I had the luxury of my iPhone and two iPads, but still found myself struggling to process the bus grid and determine when I should pull the cord that signaled to the driver I wanted to get off.
A recent Times article by Caitlin Johnston headlined "Even Transit Leaders Don't Rely on the Bus" reflects what I see each time I step on the bus. I see the working poor. I see single moms with small children. I see the person who works the cash register at Publix or Walgreens. I see nurses, construction workers, roofers and the young, predominantly minority rider.
Occasionally I have watched as befuddled tourists step on the bus only to realize that they are not in Kansas anymore — or for that matter any region that values transit. They are in Tampa Bay, a major tourist destination that generates a healthy portion of tax money from outside visitors with a transit system too anemic to properly serve the millions who travel here each year and would happily use what riders in Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Portland, Seattle, Denver, Charlotte or other metros have to offer.
What I don't see are professionals riding the bus. One day a rider admonished me for wearing a starched white shirt and tie, on my way to a luncheon where I was the speaker. I must have stood out because of my dress.
"If you want to help the people," he barked at me as he wedged past where I stood, "dress like them." I had been standing at the front of the bus as it slowly wound its way north from South Tampa to the university area, talking to an amazing bus driver, whose unofficial collateral duties include community ombudsman and at times psychological counselor. She told me of harrowing stories about people losing their jobs because they missed the bus, making them late for work, and her effort to encourage them to keep trying.
Riding the bus in Tampa Bay is stressful. Many stops are mere benches planted on a patch of crabgrass with no sidewalk nearby and cars racing precariously close to where you sit. Sometimes the stop is on the opposite side of a busy road, and your options are to race across a busy street to make your connection or miss the bus. Now imagine you're carrying bags of groceries, or in my case several weeks ago, my dry cleaning. I remember thinking about one of my favorite scenes in Young Frankenstein, "It could be worse. It could be raining," to the sound of the crack and boom of a regular-as-clockwork Tampa Bay summer downpour unleashed overhead.
Some suggest that it does not matter if we fund transit because no one uses it. They are wrong. The small fleets of HART and PSTA each carry more than 1 million trips every month. Transit is a boon to economic development and should be at the top of the priority list for those who control the purse strings in Tallahassee or Tampa Bay. Some might argue that it would be foolhardy to give more money to agencies that struggle to provide a simple bus system. I disagree.
Both agencies have worked hard to overcome declining budgets while improving their services and have begun to look beyond the confining walls of their agencies to unleash their full potential. PSTA's recent collaborative effort with Uber and HART's pilot project called HyperLINK with Transdev North America are two examples where both agencies have sought to collaborate with private operators, an absolute must if we are going to transform the transit experience for the millions of people who live in Tampa Bay and tens of millions who visit each year.
Ray Chiaramonte, director of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority, perhaps one of the most experienced and resilient transit leaders in Tampa Bay, put it best when he told me that "there is no silver bullet to our transit woes, just silver buckshot." What he means is that there is no one answer to our transit woes but many. Indeed TBARTA has deployed a very successful van pool program which now delivers thousands of people from home to work and back each day.
We must be willing to look beyond our public agencies to deploy the latest in new technologies emerging from Silicon Valley and Detroit. This means we must find ways to embrace rideshare and new autonomous technology while recognizing that in some locations fixed guideway, much like the 1.2-mile people mover that Tampa International Airport is deploying, will work.
To go from one of the worst transit systems to first we must adopt an all of the above approach and be willing to drop the old animosities, factionalism and distrust that has hampered us in the past. It means walking in the other person's shoes to understand their perspective. I do this by riding the bus.
I urge you to join me in shaping Tampa Bay's own unique solution.
Mark Sharpe is executive director of the Tampa Innovation Alliance — now known as !p Potential Unleashed — and a former Hillsborough County commissioner.