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Will Jacksonville Ever Meet the Challenge of Mass Transit?

“To be the Northeast Florida leader in providing effective,
coordinated and integrated multimodal transportation solutions.”
Mission Statement, JTA

I had a great job when I lived out west in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Traveling between Denver, my home base, and San Diego and San Francisco wasn’t a hardship, that’s for sure.

I was single with no family responsibilities, not even a pet, so life was good and I was on the road a lot. I’d fly out of Denver on Sunday and then work in one city and then the other for a couple of weeks, and then I’d head back home to check on the home office.

The amazing thing to me, Floridian that I am, was that I never had to rent a vehicle in the Bay area. I jumped on BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) at the airport, which took me within a block or even closer to my hotel. In the morning when it was time to go to the office in Oakland across the Bay, I’d join the throngs of people slipping tokens into the turnstiles and off we’d go. Business people with briefcases, shoppers, families, everyone surging around a geographic area over 200 miles long and 100 miles wide. No parking angst, no traffic snarls. It was a thing of beauty.

BART took us just about wherever we needed to go, all up and down the Bay area. Then, for shorter distances we could hop on the cable car or electric rail system. Taxis were plentiful and always available in a reasonable amount of time, meaning minutes, not “maybe in an hour” if you were lucky. Heck, even messengers on bicycles were available to make important deliveries around the city, darting in and out between all the other modes of transport people were hanging off or out of. Later, some of us would get together and travel to a great restaurant in another town around the Bay, and off we’d go again, BART ready take us. No one had to worry about having that extra glass of wine, since ‘ole BART was driving. I get nostalgic just thinking about it.

People who lived in the area told me that they had never owned a car. They didn’t need one. As a matter of fact, they said, it was more expensive to own one, considering parking, plus regular upkeep of a vehicle. The mass transit system had too many options, was cost effective, and could get them anywhere any time they needed to go. I checked it out again just now and they’re still right. Routes are extensive, trains (or whatever the form is that you need) run continuously for about 18 hours a day AND on weekends, and fares are reasonable. Why do it alone for more money when the city’s mass transportation system actually takes care of it for you?

Why, indeed. I returned to Florida in 1984, settling here in Jacksonville to be near family. I had an infant, no job, one car between two adults, and a desperate need to make a living. It wasn’t easy in a town with a bus system that is sketchy at best, no mass transit at all at that time, and hundreds of miles to traverse. And when is the last (or first) time you’ve seen someone standing on a curb downtown hailing a cab? Getting around this huge area to find work, shop, or recreate was then, and remains, a monumental headache.

Here’s what I know. If I decided to ditch my car and use the bus system here, I could catch a bus about 2 miles away from my house at the “nearest” bus stop and go directly downtown at 7:05 AM. Until last year, this bus stop had no cover at all. It was just a place on the ground, with a pole next to it marking the bus number. At least now there is a covered bench for about 4 people.

Several restaurants claim the parking areas on the other side of the hedges from this stop, so if I had to drive to the bus stop because it was pouring rain, where would I park my car? Plus, one of the reasons to use mass transit is to NOT use a car if you’re lucky enough to have one at all. Or someone else in the family might need to use it to get to work or go to the doctor’s office that isn’t anywhere near a bus route at all. According to the schedule listed on JTA’s website, I would arrive downtown at Rosa Parks/FCCJ Station at 7:36. Not bad, if it works that way. I think I’ll try it one day soon and let you know.

The schedules on the website are difficult to read and follow, especially if I needed to transfer from that station to go, say, to the airport. In that great job I had out west, I arrived at the airport and jumped on BART, which ran continuously, little wait time between one train and the next. The JTA bus system does offer service to and from the airport. Once an hour. Not very conducive to doing business in the 21st century, especially in a recession when every second has to be milked for a dollar.

If I lived on the Westside and worked near the Avenues Mall, I could catch a bus at 5:48 AM, which would take me downtown, where I would transfer to another bus at 6:50, with a scheduled arrival time of 7:47. But then I would need to get from the Mall to my office in one of the surrounding business centers. How? And what if the bus is late? I’d be late for my 8 AM start time, with my boss chewing me out and maybe writing me up.

Every day... until he fires me.

An effective mass transit system with multiple modes of transportation forming a network across the metropolitan area is a necessity not only for growth, but also for sustaining our city. We had an opportunity to make it so in previous decades and settled for less than that. We’re all to blame for this, taxpayers and short-sighted politicians alike, and now it’s probably too late.

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ABOUT DEBORAH HANSEN: Deborah Hansen writes about education and family. Her latest book is “Broken Strings: Wisdom for Divorced and Separated Families.”    She has lived on the First Coast for over 20 years and is a former member of the Jacksonville Ethics Commission.

7 Responses »

  1. Nice account of transit out West. Even with the population density that it has it is deficit plagued. With urban/suburban sprawl, providing the level of transit the writer experienced in SF would be cost prohibitive especially when taxpayers provide 80 cents of every dollar it costs to provide public transit.

  2. I think it does ultimately come down to a question of population density and the desire of the local population to make the switch.

    Think back to when Governor Scott was being harshly attacked for not jumping on big Federal dollars to build high speed rail in South Florida. Let's say we'd taken the money and built this super-train from Orlando to Tampa... and then what?

    Riders get on in Tampa, presumably driving to their train station since Tampa's transit system isn't that much better than Jacksonville. And then they get off in Orlando and have no car.

    Now, Orlando does have a half-way decent transit system if your target is to get to a theme park... but beyond that, what can you do? I guess you could call a cab and have it take you somewhere.. but how much will that cost?

    Ultimately, how much faster is it than just hopping in your own car and driving from Tampa to Orlando and going straight to you destination? Comically, it might wind up being slower and more expensive than just driving yourself.

    I'm all for developing public transit in Jacksonville, but it's got to make sense. Building better bus stations should be a priority and I strongly, strongly disagree with the City Council's efforts to fight building bus shelters because of the advertising they might carry on them.

    So what?

    Is it better to have hard working people standing out in the sun and the rain next to a stick in the ground than to have - horror of horrors - an ad for Burger King or Lady Footlocker on a public bus shelter?

  3. I lived in Orlando for four years and it has a fantastic public transit service. You can reach nearly any part of the city in less than an hour (and in less than two transfers!), the buses were air conditioned and clean, and student and low-income passes made the fare affordable for everyone. Even though people might think that Jacksonville's sprawl makes public transportation difficult, Orlando seems to manage just fine.

    Jacksonville has a long way to go with transport in general. The roads here are shamefully in disrepair. Why isn't anyone at work trying to repair these bus stops and roads? With so many out of work, it seems as though you wouldn't need Burger King or Lady Footlocker to fund such projects. I'm sure the citizens of Jacksonville would be grateful for a working public transport system that drives on good roads, and the jobs that would create, even if it came from public money or volunteer efforts.

  4. Maybe a better role model would be Edmonton, Alberta, a Canadian city I visited last week. Edmonton is basically a low-density, car-oriented city- but it has about twice as many bus routes as Jacksonville, and many of them run every 15 minutes.

  5. The headline of this story indicates a destructive relationship at work. Jacksonville need not meet the challenge of mass transit. Mass transit must find a way to meet the challenge of Jacksonville. And I know all the arguments...population density, transit oriented development, etc. The problem is that these notions do not conform to the values of a majority of the people in our community. Jacksonville is not and never will be Orlando, San Francisco, Denver or Edmonton. I for one am okay with Jacksonville being Jacksonville.

    If a bus got me comfortably and economically from where I am to where I want to be, I would ride it. But it doesn't, so I don't. I have other options. Rather than try to make the world conform to a bus route, why don't we try to improve the options so all people have a choice?

  6. The answer to your headline question is: "No." :-(