ComebackTown 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 (www.bjcta.org) 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).