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A newcomer’s view of Tampa from Bus No. 1

Where I grew up, riding the bus wouldn’t merit a column. But in Florida, using public transit is a journey in itself.
The HART Transit Center in downtown Tampa, unlike many of Hillsborough County’s bus stops, boasts benches and shelter galore.
The HART Transit Center in downtown Tampa, unlike many of Hillsborough County’s bus stops, boasts benches and shelter galore. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Aug. 9|Updated Aug. 10

TAMPA — My car, like me, has been struggling to adapt to the Florida heat. The air conditioning conked out recently and, though driving with the windows down served me well enough, a warning on my dash let me know it was time for a trip to the mechanic.

I dropped her off and waved goodbye and later began to plan my route home from the office. I live 4.6 miles north of our downtown Tampa newsroom. Ten minutes by car.

I opened Google Maps, which announced I’d be home in 46 minutes if I took bus route No.1. I could save a minute or two by switching buses halfway.

I opted for simplicity. Plus, taking the No. 1 felt fitting for my first ride since moving here from the Northeast. I left the office at 4:48 p.m., slipping out of the cool and into the late afternoon heat.

That it had taken me eight weeks to hop on a bus is a fact I find embarrassing. In part, because I write about transportation.

But also because I was raised on equal parts public transit, foot and car. Riding the bus was commonplace, and pleasant. It is not something that merits a newspaper column. I took the Tube to high school. I moved to the United States for college. I learned how to drive last year, my junior year.

Now I stepped onto E Tyler Street at the corner of N Florida. A truck ran the red light and I was reminded that Tampa Bay is one of the deadliest places in America to be a pedestrian.

At 4:54 p.m., I heard the first crack of afternoon thunder. My rain jacket was in my car, I realized. I walked on.

At 4:57 p.m., I arrived at the Marion Transit Center, which, unlike many of Hillsborough County’s bus stops, boasts benches and shelter galore. Clumps of people hid from the rain, lashing now, and I eyed my fading phone battery.

As lightning streaked the sky, a man took a drag from his cigarette and a woman tried to keep the books she was holding dry.

This is the first stop on the No. 1′s 10-mile route. The bus sat waiting. At 5:03 p.m., the doors swung open and a trail of rain-battered people hopped on. I paid the $2 fare with an app.

At 5:05 p.m., right on time, the doors closed and the operator shifted into drive.

We plowed through the pouring grayness. We drove past a bus stop that didn’t have a shelter and past a stop that did.

By 5:14 p.m., the rain had eased. We passed the vintage and coffee shops of South Seminole Heights.

There were seven of us on board as we lumbered along traffic-choked Florida Avenue. Many wore uniforms emblazoned with the names of fast-food restaurants and utility companies. The bus was tidy but for a scrunched-up Coca-Cola can and receipt on the floor.

At 5:23 p.m., I stepped off the bus and into the early evening sunshine.

A glimpse of transportation reporter Olivia George's journey home via public transit and on foot.
A glimpse of transportation reporter Olivia George's journey home via public transit and on foot. [ Olivia George ]
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I crossed the five-lane road, the crosswalk blocked with a car trying to turn right, and continued on foot along E Hillsborough.

I was two blocks away before the bus crawled into action once more, resuming its journey across Tampa to the University Area Transit Center amid the rush-hour traffic.

At 5:30 p.m., I crossed the Hillsborough River to the soundtrack of horns blaring and engines revving. Most cars seemed to contain one passenger, and as the traffic inched on I thought of the empty bus seats.

I continued on the rain-rinsed sidewalk, in good condition but offering no shade except for the occasional overgrown shrub.

A few minutes later, I came to the low-slung, yellow house at the top of my street, a dozen peacocks squawking on the front lawn.

At 5:38 p.m., I stepped into my home, my phone on 6%. It occurred to me this was perhaps the first time I’d arrived on foot — except when returning from a run or dog walk — since I moved here in June.

When I went to the supermarket, I drove. To see friends, I drove. To work, I drove.

In Sun Belt cities, transit has always struggled to compete with the car. Nationwide, the bus started to lose ground decades ago as Americans bought cars, suburbanized and spread out.

And here in Hillsborough County, home to one of the most underfunded transit agencies in the nation for an area of its size, luring commuters onto the bus when they can otherwise drive has been near-impossible when it can mean opting into delays and bare-bones routes.

Since I arrived in Tampa, many have shared with me a similar sentiment: You take the bus if you need to, not because you want to.

I want to — and for the time being, I need to. In the morning, I will return to the bus stop, with comfier shoes and an umbrella.

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