Opinion: SA Public Transportation and VIA's airport routes

Submitted by Mark Tirpak on October 13, 2016 - 12:45am

Reader’s Note: San Antonio has a public transit connection to the airport that’s faster than Dallas light rail but doesn’t promote or support it. In this article, I am providing five more ideas for improving local transit services before the Tricentennial.

Much has been made about new downtown Dallas light rail connections with their airports – shaping the city nationally and globally as one worth visiting without the hassle of driving or renting a car, as well as making the case for suburban light rail expansion north with DFW airport as a main transit hub.

But did you know that San Antonio currently has a one ‘line’, multi-stop downtown-to-airport public transit service that beats Dallas airport light rail . . . at least, in terms of journey time and costs? I’m talking about VIA’s current  5 / 30 bus route, which VIA calls “McCullough” and “Rigsby” but that San Antonio should embrace and improve as our airport-downtown line – including with Smart City Initiative spending and other work in the next months in lead-up to the city’s 2018 Tricentennial.

Public Transportation Column

Sure, light rail would be great - City Council Member Ron Niremberg (D8) suggested we consider it with 2017 Bond proposals; but even cities with light rail maintain strong public bus links with their airports.

And with light rail apparently a 'non-starter' for our political leaders at this key moment for San Antonio decision-making and promotion, they could at least do what can be done right now – in time for SA300 and at a fraction of the cost of light rail (or airport parking construction) – to improve current VIA bus services to the airport.

In recent weeks, I have shared ideas about how to improve local transit services before SA300 and as informed by research and ridership. In preparing this article, I rode VIA’s bus 5 route from downtown to the airport and back on probably one the worst days of the season (thank you, Hurricane Matthew) – on a Friday at what could be considered a peak hour (1 p.m.) when numerous including international flights arrive at and depart the airport.

My journey was supported by an initial web-based search of airport ground transportation options – including taking the time to provide the City the feedback that the airport ground transportation web page does not currently provide a clear link to public transportation. Related, searching the airport website for the keywords “VIA” or “Public Transportation” or “Public Transit” yields nothing useful . . . although some scroll-over menus throughout the site provide a link to a public transportation page.  

Once located, the currently loosely linked airport public transportation web page offers, unhelpfully, that the VIA Bus 5 route runs “everyday[sic]” (one would hope so) and, untruthfully, that the bus 5 route reaches downtown in 30 minutes.  As scheduled and experienced, the VIA bus 5 route runs approximately every 20 minutes during the week (but with much longer gaps in service over weekends as currently scheduled), and it takes roughly 45 to 50 minutes to make the journey to and from downtown, using Travis Street between St. Mary’s and Navarro as a base.  

Comparatively, this is better than scheduled public transit downtown-to-airport journey times in Austin (bus), Houston (light rail and bus) and Dallas (light rail or light rail and shuttle bus). Also, a single VIA fare is lower than the cost in Dallas and Austin – but VIA fares are currently more awkward to manage, slowing services and hassling passengers.  

From my test run and perspective, much could be done to improve the VIA journey for visitors as well as regular 5 / 30 bus users – and demonstrate that San Antonio is truly a ‘smart’ city. Here’s my top five ideas for improving our existing public transit airport service in the coming months and in time for SA300:

1. Improve airport arrivals with VIA passengers in mind.

Beyond updating the airport website, vend VIA passes (including discounted single fare cards with free transfers) at airport arrivals, with the option of purchasing passes with credit cards or cash – either through an existing information desk or a vending machine.

Also, provide real-time information about VIA bus arrivals and departures inside airport arrivals as well as where riders board the bus. Provide ample signage promoting VIA and directing passengers to the boarding areas (see Figure 1ab).

As possible, also work to improve the seating available to waiting passengers (Savannah airport has rocking chairs outside for bus passengers) – with good views of real-time information as well as arriving and departing buses.

Currently, the airport website suggests that visitors buy paper bus passes in advance through VIA’s online store to be shipped to their homes before traveling to San Antonio (who does that?) – costing VIA extra in shipping and handling that is not recovered through the transaction.  Fare and pass sales at the airport could promote public transit use and help speed boarding. It could also provide a place to vend VIA souvenirs (and tricentennial collectibles) at the airport.

In addition, VIA and other drivers should be instructed to not idle their vehicles at the airport, including to help improve passenger waiting and boarding conditions. My particular VIA bus idled for approximately three minutes upon arrival (within an acceptable range per city ordinance), but it might have idled for nine if it had arrived on time. Idling concerns could be eliminated VIA service improved by using VIA’s ARC electric buses for the airport route - which would also help promote to visitors our 'smart' renewable energy policy. 

2. Improve North Star Transit Center for airport passengers.

Currently, the areas where VIA’s bus 5 route picks up and drops off passengers at North Star Transit Center are uncovered – no awnings where riders  board or de-board.  There is also no real-time information for waiting passengers as well as no international iconography (airplane symbols) suggesting that North Star Transit Center provides an airport connection. Graphics should be added to stress the role of the transit center in serving the airport.

There is also apparently no incentive currently to purchase fares in advance at North Star Transit Center – as on my bus two passengers in a row slowly counted out pocket change to pay their fares, delaying services.  VIA should attempt to address this with ticketing approaches that support and reward fare pre-purchases (such as vending single fare paper tickets including a transfer at a discount at the transit center).  As bilingual announcements en route stressed, paying fares on board delays VIA services.

On my particular VIA bus route 5, only three passengers rode from North Star Transit Center to the San Antonio International Airport and only one passenger boarded at the airport (a worker with a VIA swipe pass). There’s opportunity to improve the VIA bus 5 route – as well as the eleven other routes using North Star Transit Center – by providing free shuttle vans between the transit center and the airport, as done at the Los Angeles airportDallas Love Field and other airports. This could be achieved by extending the City’s fare free SAT parking lot vans and running vans every five to ten minutes during airport hours. As designed, North Star Transit Center could also accommodate some ride hailing as well as other pick-up and drop-off on property, which, along with free shuttle vans, could help address growing ground transportation congestion issues at the airport.

In addition, VIA buses and shuttle vans should be given signal priority entering and exiting North Star Transit Center; my particular bus had a long wait exiting. Also, nothing from the exterior suggests café or retail offerings at North Star Transit Center. Retail including a café could help improve ridership as well as support airport travelers and other passengers. VIA could assist visitors with signage and sidewalk markings in finding their way to North Star Mall and the world’s largest cowboy boots – a popular tourism site and another way to promote VIA use by visitors.

3. Improve VIA Route 5 and Route 30 airport buses.

The VIA bus that I rode to the airport and back was clearly no VIVAVia CNG powered bus or VIA renewable energy powered electric bus. The older diesel bus I rode ran loud and struggled with start-stop traffic, and the roof and windows leaked badly in the rain – puddling the floors and causing some seats to be unusable. No advertising on the bus, inside or out, promoted the airport or airlines, and the bus lacked airplane iconography suggesting its role in serving the San Antonio airport.. 

My particular bus had space for what could be converted to luggage racks towards the front of the bus with additional metalwork to support larger bags. Regardless, I was able to accommodate a bag in my lap without interfering with the seat next to me.

In addition, real-time signage and audio information on my bus did not provide a countdown to arrival at the airport or North Star Transit Center.  On the return, I noted that audio recordings did not announce our arrival 'downtown' or key hotel stop (El Tropicano, Indigo, Havana etc.) or destinations such as the RiverWalk. Real-time audio and visual information on board could better support visitors as well as regular bus users.

4. Improve VIA Route 5 /30 waiting and naming.

I started my journey at the recently revitalized Travis Park (paid for, in part, by Southwest Airlines, although not promoted or advertised at bus stops there) – which proved to be one of the worst public transit waiting experiences I have had anywhere.  

A modern awning (constructed in the last two years by VIA) on Navarro leaked horribly and showed signs of rapid deterioration (see Figure 2). The lack of any screening or enclosure and landscaping to the back of the tall awning creates a ‘splash zone’ for waiting passengers from rain runoff (see Figure 3). On rainy days, passengers are forced to stand on pebblecrete benches close to the rear of the awning (see Figure 4) to avoid being splashed worse by passing traffic.  

The Travis Park stop (serving fifteen VIA routes – more than North Star Transit Center currently) is key for improvement, including due to its role in connecting regional buses (Greyhound, Megabus and Omnibus – see Figure 5) with the airport, an important service offered by an increasing list of US airports. The lack of a bathroom along with VIA real-time information and off-board fare vending at Travis Park ultimately hurts VIA ridership and provides waiting passengers as well as other park-goers fairly inhumane conditions.

Along the VIA bus 5 route north of Travis Park, there’s a mish-mash of VIA stop design styles, with older shelters seemingly providing passengers the greatest comfort and protection from the elements – as exemplified by the southbound VIA stop just north of Olmos Circle and at Cypress and McCullough. Unlike other stops, these older shelters at least have the capacity (fixtures) for passenger lighting.  

Newer VIA stops look modern but they provide very little actual protection or comfort for passengers and should likely be abandoned for designs with more substantial (and curved) awnings and enclosure as supported with shade producing and rainwater collecting landscaping. Regardless, no stop along the airport route currently provides real-time information where people board the bus - a key concern for airport travelers.

Related, there is no iconography at stops along the route to suggest this is an airport service.  More critically, none of the stops are currently supported by advertising – airline or travel-related or otherwise, which could help fund improved – even ‘smart’ –  bus waiting areas along the route, including per the work of Clearchannel Outdoor in other cities.

On my particular VIA bus route 5  journey, much boarding and de-boarding occurred at stops south of Hildebrand in both directions, with the bus more or less functioning as an express route between Basse and Rampart. Sidewalk and bus waiting conditions along the northbound side of McCullough at Rampart (near Ridgeview Elementary School) are currently deplorable, with many passengers choosing to wait at the southbound stop and running across the street to catch the northbound bus, delaying service and possibly endangering passengers.

Noticeably, too, the VIA 5 bus route was given no signal priority at key intersections including Oblate, Basse, Hildebrand and Elmira, slowing services to SAT as well as to downtown. What I witnessed suggests not only the need for more frequent VIA route bus 5 service but the need for key stop improvements – particularly to assist with movement south of Hildebrand and north of Oblate along McCullough.

Related, VIA route 30 bus service with improved stops could be run as the renamed 5 airport-downtown service. At least as far south and east as the Institute of Texan Cultures / Hemisfair stop on Cesar Chavez, but ideally as far east as Rigsby and Walters to support downtown hotels orientated to Hemisfair and Southtown as well as an emerging Airbnb/neighborhood tourism cluster on Rigsby near Hackberry. 'Downtown' does not end at La Villita.    

5. Support a renamed VIA Bus Route 5 / 30 with B-Cycle where appropriate (and noting emerging Airbnb / neighborhood tourism clusters en route).

As previously supported by Bexar County and suggested with past VIA planning, B-Cycle-VIA integration makes sense, including for increased advertising revenue for both services. For example, a single B-Cycle station near the intersection of Rigsby and Hackberry would help link the airport bus route and an emerging Airbnb / neighborhood tourism cluster on Rigsby (as well as LyftFund’s LiftOff space and Little Red Barn Steakhouse on Hackberry) with the expanded B-Cycle network including the Mission Reach (see Figure 6).

Related, a B-Cycle stations near VIA airport stops on McCullough just south of Hildebrand and north of Ashby would expand and promote the network and support active Airbnb / neighborhood tourism clusters there as well as improved neighborhood connections with Brackenridge Park and downtown.

With SA300 and major 2017-2022 Bond decisions just around the corner, the question remains: are San Antonio’s leaders and planners serious about improving local transit services  – in quick, cost-effective and sensible ways that support current users as well as acknowledge and embrace new tourism (and relocation) travel patterns that ‘smart’ and globally connected cities like Dallas profit from? Or will they continue to ignore public transit-bikeshare-Airbnb-airport synergies that have redefined the American tourism / relocation landscape since 2008 and are already reshaping San Antonio?


Mark Tirpak is an urban planner and researcher as well as contributing author of:
Healthy Urban Development Checklist (2010) and Rethinking Life at the Margins: The Assemblage of Contexts, Subjects, and Politics (2016).