You won’t believe my experience riding a Birmingham bus!

Malcolm Carmichael 1ComebackTown is published by David Sher to begin a discussion on a better Birmingham.

Today’s guest blogger is Malcolm Carmichael.  If you’d like to be a guest blogger, please click here.

A few months ago I discussed with some friends (all of us well over 65) how we might get around Birmingham if/when we could no longer drive.

“We’d take the bus,” one replied and we all laughed. None of us had ridden a public bus since the 1960’s.  We also didn’t seem to know anyone who rode the bus.

The members of my transportation discussion group all live in Mountain Brook or Vestavia.  “Let’s take some field trips,” I said. “Let’s catch the bus in our neighborhoods and go downtown for lunch.”

They looked at me as if I’d suggested we all get root canals.

“You go first,” one said. “Scout it out.” I hadn’t taken anyone up on a dare since the 1960’s but I readily accepted.

I asked some of my neighbors in Vestavia the location of the nearest bus stop.  They  told me they didn’t believe buses even came to Vestavia anymore.

I checked the Birmingham bus (Max Bus) site on the internet ( and discovered that Vestavia is indeed served by the HWY 31 South bus.  There are only two stops in Vestavia.  The inbound stop (headed downtown) is on Highway 31 North across the street from Walgreen’s Pharmacy and Goodyear Tires, approximately 100 feet from McDonald’s.  The outbound stop (headed to the Galleria) is nearby on Highway 31 South at the intersection with Kentucky Avenue and 50 feet from RiteAid.

I drove to both sites to check them out.  Each stop has decorative metal benches resting on patio style brick surfaces, bordered with three foot hedges.  There are small “It’s time to ride – Hwy 31” signs at the roadsides.  I had driven past these stops thousands of times in the last three years and never noticed them.  The old adage “out of sight, out of mind,” can also be reversed.  As far as bus stops are concerned, they were “out of mind, out of sight.”

I checked the bus schedules and decided to take the inbound HWY 31 South bus leaving Vestavia at 11:40 am and arriving downtown at Central Station at 12:05 pm.   The bus was scheduled to make stops around University Hospital before arriving at Central Station.

The Birmingham bus website recommended that riders arrive early for any scheduled stop.  The inbound stop was approximately one mile from my house and even though it felt like cheating I drove to the outbound stop across the highway and left my car there.  Crossing Highway 31 on foot was a bit hairy but I seated myself on one of the metal benches at the inbound stop around 11:30 am on Friday morning.  A couple was seated on the opposite bench and confirmed that it was the Hwy 31 inbound stop.

The bus arrived at 11:39 am and I boarded with the other two passengers.  The normal bus fare for adults is $1.25, but riders over 62 years of age pay 60 cents.  You must have exact change and I had it (2 quarters and a dime!).  The driver greeted us all and asked if we needed transfers.

I took my seat and counted the total passengers:  13 including myself.  The bus left the stop at 11:41 am, one minute off schedule.  The Max Bus seemed relatively new and was clean, quiet and cool.  The seats were comfortable and the upholstery brightly colored.

The bus drove down Highway 31, exited at Highland Avenue, headed down Highland and right on 20th Street South until we reached the vicinity of University Hospital.  It stopped three times around various medical facilities to discharge and pick up passengers.  A passenger in a wheelchair boarded at one stop and I watched the driver lower a lift for the chair and fold up seats at the front of the bus.  The passenger rolled his chair into the space; the driver secured it with belts and we were on our way.

The bus arrived at Central Station at 12:09 pm, approximately four minutes off schedule.  It had been a pleasant ride.

Central Station is currently housed in temporary quarters at the intersection of Morris Avenue and 16th Street North.  A permanent station building is under construction further up Morris Avenue.  The temporary station has indoor seating, a ticket office, restrooms, water fountains and vending machines.  Other seating is located near various bays outside and is covered.  The arrival and departure of the various buses are announced from a loudspeaker audible inside and outside the main building.

There is a Zyp Bikeshare rental stand at Central Station.  There is also a  map of Birmingham bike trails posted near the Zyp stand.  The station is only three blocks from Railroad Park.  It struck me that somebody had engaged in some sensible planning with the location and equipping of Central Station.

It was time for lunch and I walked five easy blocks to Sol’s Sandwich Shop & Deli to eat.  I started with the Pimento melt and finished with bread pudding and thoroughly enjoyed every bite.  I had a leisurely stroll back to Central Station.  The outbound bus home was due to leave at 1:35 pm.  It arrived early and several of us passengers boarded immediately.  The bus left on time and tracked in reverse the same route traveled inbound earlier.  For most of the trip home there were approximately 12 passengers including me.

The scheduled arrival time in Vestavia was 1:55 pm.  We arrived on time and I was the only passenger getting off.  No one boarded.  It was the easiest round trip downtown in my life.

I reported on my field trip to my friends and we agreed we’d next try the 280 Limited Stop bus from the Summit to Central Station.  We also plan to branch out and try other routes.  I have wondered since Max Bus Friday how much of this city is invisible simply because it’s “out of mind.”

Malcolm Carmichael is a retired lawyer who grew up in Birmingham and returned to live here with his wife at the end of 2012.  They have two married daughters and three grandchildren.”

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David Sher is Co-Founder of AmSher Compassionate Collections.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

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7 thoughts on “You won’t believe my experience riding a Birmingham bus!”

  1. I really wish more people would give our public transit system a chance. When I moved here 13 years ago, the first things I heard by Birmingham’s own citizens was: downtown is dangerous, the buses aren’t usable, and avoid 280. Only one of those three are true.

    I ride the bus weekly by choice, and have found them to be very reliable. Between the bus system and a bicycle, my family has been able to almost completely stop using a car (we still need it to visit family in Trussville who won’t participate in the BJCTA). If they service your area and you can plan your trips, then the system is very usable. This includes a lot of people who could augment some of their trips by public transit instead of personal car. But our culture and idea about riding the bus has to change first, as most people don’t even consider it a viable option.

    That said, there are massive issues with the structure of the public transit system. Due to the way the legislature has set up the BJCTA (Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority), they are very limited in how they can provide service. There is no dedicated funding and $0 comes from the state for public transit, not even from gas tax! On top of that, the BJCTA is ONLY allowed to service Jefferson County and is only allowed to provide “service hours” based on the amount each participating municipality wants to pay. This is a completely outdated and broken model, and it doesn’t allow the BJCTA to use their resource to build optimized routes. On top of that, when a municipality drops out, which is about to happen with Fairfield, then the BJCTA is no longer allowed to service that municipality. But routes are not confined to single municipality, every route crosses borders. So now the 41, 45, and 5 lines that all go through Fairfield, have less funding, aren’t allowed to service Fairfield, and will cause reduced service in Bessemer, Ensley, and Midfield. And the BJCTA has no power to stop this!

    Maybe someday the citizens of this city will decide that mobility for everyone is important, and something worth investing in.

  2. Hmmm. Well, I am genuinely happy that Mr. Carmichael had an enjoyable trip on the Hwy 31 bus from Vestavia to Downtown and back. The Hwy 31 is one of the routes that was fortunate enough to be equipped with a new bus for the fleet Ann August Brown secured for the system during her too short tenure at BJCTA. My beloved and I have taken this bus numerous times, to go to the Library in the Woods, to go to the movies, to go the mall. There is no stop for the library, so it is a hike. I wonder why not? The Hwy 31 bus route is a pleasant trip, for the most part. Before the new buses, however, this bus has been historically overcrowded. Lots of people take this bus to work and shop at the Galleria. What remains invisible are the people who HAVE to take the bus, not for pleasure, but to work. This bus only runs a few times a day, and there is ONE bus for this route. This limits and thwarts people from viable employment because the time it takes to get there if you transfer from other areas is so long, your life gets eaten away with wearing. Wearing is a real problem for the bus riders in Birmingham, wearing us down, slowly over time, with the inadequacy and hardship. This blog, while true for Mr. Carmichael, is very revealing about what wealthy people CHOOSE not to see. I invite Mr. Carmichael to take the bus from my side of town sometime, or the 17 on the east side. A tale of two cities, indeed.


    In my view, public transportation that meets the needs of the grassroots people of the community is a basic human right in the 21st century.

    Let me offer an alternative experience. I take the bus right now because I have no car. I have no car because I live with a disablitlity and I work for myself, so my income fluctuates and is not able to handle a car note or repairs, insurance, etc. I would love a car, a VW Routan to be exact, so I can take my children out and enjoy the day, not be exhausted by the time we get there. But we do go out on the bus, and it is always an “adventure.”  I take the bus from my home in Smithfield, East Thomas, from the top of Dynamite Hill. We go to the store, the doctor, out to eat, sometimes to a film at the Edge. It takes about one to three hours to get to where I need to go and the same back. That is two to six hours just to get from point A to point B. The bus I take is the 18 Fountain Heights, which turns into the 12 Highland at Central. This bus will take me to the easiest and only grocery store to get to from my house, the Piggly Wiggly on Clairmont. This store is expensive but it is the most “convenient.” To get to Aldi’s, which is more affordable, is a process involving at least two buses, and a four hours. Too long. Too much of my precious divine life sucked up with trying to get some fresh food to eat. We no longer catch the 280 to WholeFoods, which was a real treat, because the outbound stop was removed. In order to get there, we must go past WholeFoods to the Summit, and transfer to the inbound bus. There is a stop on the incoming side, but there is no shelter, no bench. I may forgo Whole Foods and go to Trader Joe’s at the Summit. I have yet to go on that “adventureThis whole situation is so unfair, unjust and dehumanizing.This is what I see because this is what I know, and what I live. 

    We see what we want to see.

  3. I’m glad you enjoyed your bus ride! The new Intermodal station, scheduled to open in December, will be a meeting point for the city bus routes, Greyhound, Amtrack, and Megabus. It will also have a sky bridge to Railroad Park!

    And be on the lookout for announcements from the Transit Authority about the public input meetings on the new routes. There will be several from June to December. Be sure to come tell them if you want more stops or routes.

  4. Do report, Malcolm, if your downtown luncheon party actually occurs. Perhaps an artist could be invited to record it for posterity. As lovely as your essay is, I doubt if anyone will be willing to give up his own narcissistic wheels for public transportation. Alas.*

  5. *I’ve been riding our local transit systems for 63 years and our current tiny unfunded system is not nearly capable of meeting ordinary basic needs of just the dependent bus riders without a permanent funding source.As you’re reading about the ongoing shrinkage in services,as with Fairfield,that has been the only direction since the creation of MAX in 1972.It is great to have you experiment with the toy of MAX but without funding this vital lifeblood for many will continue to disappear.

  6. In the last several years I have
    vacationed in London, Paris and Berlin. I was inspired by the use of
    alternative transportation in these large cities and their suburbs.
    This included buses, subways, metro rail and scooters/motorcycles.

    I lived in a suburb east of Birmingham
    off of I-20. I worked in Hoover in 12 hour shifts, 7 AM to 7 PM. I
    decided to research bus schedules and the expense of traveling
    versus my small truck. The problem was the bus routes and schedules.
    They do not run 24 hours as they do in major cities. I could not
    drive to the closest or alternative bus stops and get to work at 7
    AM. I could not leave my office at 7 PM and get back to my vehicle
    that evening for the drive the rest of the way home. The bus system
    in Birmingham is not set up to encourage public transportation for
    the metro area.

    I did end up using alternative
    transportation. I bought a scooter (it ended up being traded for a
    motorcycle) and use it in fair weather days. My fuel costs are
    reduced, my emissions output is reduced, easier parking, enjoyable
    ride! Our laws here for two wheel transportation have not progressed
    to the point they are in major cities, but it is doable and

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