The first 11 hours of riding Miami-Dade’s bus system had gone pretty well for Azhar Chougle and Richard Hankins, two transit advocates who had managed to make two round trips between Aventura and South Dade and cruised downtown on their way to Miami International Airport via South Beach.
But then came an ill-fated attempt to ride the 36 bus from Miami Springs to the Dolphin Mall. “So, we’re stranded,” Chougle, 28, said shortly after watching the westbound 36 pull away from the stop on a six-lane highway in Virginia Gardens. “We missed it by five seconds... Now the next bus is in one hour. So we need to find out what to do.”
It was a low point on the first half of a planned 24-hour marathon of riding county buses for the pair of 20-somethings from Transit Alliance Miami. The nonprofit is trying to champion modest improvements for the county’s bus system at a time when elected leaders are focusing on far pricier expansion projects, including a new rail line in North Dade.
The group’s latest bid to draw attention to the $228 million-a-year bus system was Friday’s marathon, a criss-cross of the county’s 96 bus routes that included brief ride-alongs with a few politicians. Chougle carried a selfie stick with him and a microphone for filming videos, which the group posted on Twitter throughout the day.
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“We’re at the airport station right now,” Hankins, 24, said during a video dispatch from the Miami Intermodal Center, the transit hub that serves MIA. “This is just about my favorite transit terminal. If you look, it’s very shaded. AKA: You don’t get wet.”
Along with the exposure, the Transit Alliance’s bus marathon seeks to build the case for a redesign of the entire system to eliminate poorly used routes and beef up popular ones. The administration of Mayor Carlos Gimenez agreed to pay $250,000 in matching funds toward the first phase of the group’s $500,000 “Better Bus” redesign project.
Friday’s midnight-to-midnight bus journey included interviews with passengers passing on gripes they have with the system. One complained about the “unfair fares” that come with passengers paying cash and not benefiting from the free transfers available automatically when using an electronic fare card. The county discontinued the paper transfers in 2009 and now requires electronic or pre-loaded cards for the free transfer from one bus route to another.
“We have encouraged transit riders to use an EASY Card or EASY Ticket to pay for their fares,” transit spokeswoman Karla Damian said in an email Friday. “For transit riders’ convenience, we now also have the EASY Pay Miami app, which allows passengers to pay their fare right from their smart phone.”
For Chougle, a pad of paper transfers issued to each bus driver seems like a simple fix for low-income passengers where credit cards aren’t always an easy option for electronic payments. “This whole experience is kind of enlightening to me that these things are addressable,” he said. “They’re fixable. They don’t cost a lot.”
Chougle made the statement around 8 a.m., with a bag of pastelitos in one hand and his cellphone-with-a-fuzzy-mic in the other as he and Hankins awaited the 120 bus to South Beach’s Lincoln Road. Joining them was Miami-Dade Commissioner Eileen Higgins, who made her regular bus commutes a part of her winning campaign for June’s District 5 special election.
They boarded one of the new accordion-buses, with room for 100 passengers, as the 60-foot vehicle rode one of the most popular routes in the county. Higgins said she’d like to see more extra-long buses for routes where overcrowding is a problem.
“They’ll get full and skip a stop,” Higgins said of regular-sized buses holding about 60 passengers. “Sometimes you have to wait for a second bus.”
When the trio exited the 120, Chougle and Hankins enjoyed a string of successes with Miami-Dade’s bus system on their way to the next stop. They wanted to take the 150 express to MIA, but weren’t entirely sure where to catch the bus. Miami-Dade’s Transit app guided them to the appropriate stop about a block away, then gave an accurate countdown to the bus’s arrival, using the vehicle’s onboard GPS system for tracking.
Inside the bus, Carmen Rivera, 82, was there with an oversized suitcase and good things to say. She was heading back to West Palm Beach after visiting a friend in the Beach, and planned to hop on Tri-Rail at the MIA station. “It costs me less than $5,” she said of the two-hour trip by rail and bus, factoring in senior discounts. “And it’s comfortable. You can relax and read.”
Sitting on a bench at the Omni bus depot in downtown Miami a few hours later, Tanya Smith had a much harsher view of her experiences with county buses. She was waiting for the M bus to take her to Miami Beach, but it was already about eight minutes late. “They need to have more express buses,” she said. “The wait times are extremely long.”
Instead of waiting an hour on the roadside in Virginia Gardens for the next 36 to the Dolphin Mall shortly before noon, Chougle and Hankins opted to walk about a mile to catch a bus to Flagler Street in Miami.
From there, they took a dig at the serpentine route of Miami’s free Flagami trolley (“Abstract art?” Hankins asked on Twitter. “Mythical sea creature?”), knocked the lack of shelters at a stop by Florida International University, then worked their way south. By the time the sun went down after 6 p.m., they were on the 34 heading to Florida City.
“You can’t understand what’s going on until you’re literally in it,” Chougle said. “The transit riders have known this for years. Nobody ever asks them.”