Azhar Chougle and Richard Hankins are embarking on a marathon even more masochistic than the standard 26.2-mile run. They will ride Miami-Dade County’s labyrinthine bus system for 24 hours straight.
It’s the Transit Alliance Bus Marathon, rolling from 12:01 a.m. to 11:59 p.m. Friday. If you encounter two bleary-eyed men who want to interview you about what it’s like to be a bus passenger, go ahead and vent — but show them mercy.
“We will try to get to all corners, from Aventura in the north to Florida City in the south and as far west as possible,” said Chougle, director of Transit Alliance, a non-profit organization advocating for better public transit in Miami. “We’ll sample the workhorse routes, the normal routes and some that are so confusing and bizarre that they are difficult to find.
“While it’s wonderful to have such a huge bus system, we’re fighting to fix it and make it more useful and efficient by examining why it doesn’t work for a lot of people.”
Chougle does not own a car and uses buses regularly. Hankins, a Transit Alliance researcher, spent 180 hours riding routes, talking to passengers and logging user data last summer. The duo will transmit their experience live at www.transitalliance.miami/marathon and on Twitter at @transitmia. They encourage anyone to join in with feedback by tweeting to @transitmia with #BusMarathon. County Commissioners Daniella Levine Cava and Eileen Higgins and Miami City Commissioner Ken Russell will accompany them on portions of the marathon.
The objective is to redesign the entire route network in two years through the Better Bus Project. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez has committed $250,000 to the project and Transit Alliance is raising matching funds.
“One route we want to explore is the infamous Flagami Trolley route, which is the Mission: Impossible component of this journey,” Chougle said. He was referring to a route that looks like a complex geometry problem, starting in northwest Miami-Dade and winding up somewhere near Tamiami Canal Road, southeast of the Palmetto Expressway-Dolphin Expressway exchange. “Where do I get this thing? Where does it go? We want to figure that out.”
The organization’s study of the sprawling system turned up many other maze-like routes to nowhere that, when viewed on a map, resemble “the most creative form of abstract art to emerge from Miami,” Chougle said.
Earlier this year, Transit Alliance released a five-part series titled “Where’s My Bus?” that took a deep dive into the state of the bus system. Bus ridership plunged to 58 million in 2017 from 78 million in 2013. The county has responded with repeated service cuts which continue to hurt ridership, rather than addressing its many issues. Those include an average wait time of 35 minutes, ineffective route planning, a lack of dedicated lanes, network fragmentation caused by free trolleys and an aging fleet prone to breakdowns.
Transit Alliance proposed four solutions; a community-driven overhaul of the loopy network was pinpointed as the fastest way to improve the system. Updating and streamlining the network will provide better service on the corridors with highest demand, improve reliability and attract riders who want alternatives to driving in Miami’s worsening traffic.
Chougle and Hankins will start on the county’s overnight routes: the 500 Midnight Owl that follows Metrorail, the S on Miami Beach, the 3 on Biscayne Boulevard and the 11 on Flagler Street. At 8 a.m. they plan to meet Higgins at Government Center and go to Miami Beach. At the 5 p.m. rush hour, they’ll meet Levine Cava at the Dadeland South Metrorail station and take the South Dade Busway to Florida City.
“People may not realize that everyone in Miami-Dade County is connected to the bus – either you use it or someone you work with uses it or someone you depend on uses it,” Chougle said. “Bus riders are an incredibly diverse group of people. They know the real issues and what changes will benefit the community. We want to hear their suggestions. What’s going right? What’s going wrong?”
Chougle said he has prepared for this marathon by meditating and drinking energizing tea.
“We won’t be taking a three-hour lunch break like some bus routes do,” he said. “We will try not to get lost.”