ComebackTown is published by David Sher to begin a discussion on a better Birmingham.
Today’s guest blogger is Mike Mahon. If you’d like to be a guest blogger, please click here.
My name is Mike Mahon.
My wife and I live in Homewood.
I grew up in the Birmingham area, graduated from the University of Virginia, and work as an investment banker in downtown Birmingham.
I’m an ordinary guy—but a recent improvement to my day-to-day routine has been raising a surprising amount of curiosity from people.
I ride a MAX bus back and forth to work.
In April, 2016 I read a guest blog post by Malcolm Carmichael about his enjoyable bus trip from Vestavia to Downtown. It got me to consider my own bus ridership – or lack thereof. I had never ridden a bus in Birmingham. Not even considered it, which is odd. I use public transit other places. Why not here?
You’re probably cycling through the same excuses I used, most notably that I own a car. However, a bus passes through my Homewood neighborhood 30 times each weekday (15 times in each direction). From my Downtown office I can see buses going in every direction all day. After an initial period of curiosity, I got an opportunity when my car went into the shop.
Instead of renting or borrowing another car, I hopped on the bus. It was great! It was more enjoyable, just as fast, and less expensive.
I’ve had my car back for months and still choose to commute by bus for several reasons …
First, it’s more enjoyable
The bus is social. Drivers are friendly and a lot of the same people are on the bus every day. Many people greet each other and joke around. Buses are clean, comfortable, convenient, and uncrowded. They have free WiFi. Riding is a relaxing break between work and home. On the bus there’s no traffic stress or rushing around; it’s a nice change of pace and a more enjoyable ride.
Second, it’s just as fast
I had a strong misconception that the bus would be slow. Turns out taking the bus is as fast as driving for me, both about 20 minutes door to door. During rush hour the bus is actually faster. The car is capable of moving faster but gets delayed by highway congestion, construction, accidents, and parking.
The bus is a straight shot on surface streets. It picks up near my home, takes a direct route by Vulcan and through UAB, and then drops off right in front of my Downtown office. In my experience, buses generally run on time at convenient times all day.
I’d also note that travel time by bus is much faster than Google Maps estimates for my route. While there are 18 convenient stops between my home and office, buses only actually stop when someone wants to get on/off and Google doesn’t seem to account for this.
Third, it’s less expensive
According to AAA, the average sedan costs $0.57 per mile to drive (including all costs like gas, maintenance, insurance, depreciation, registration, etc.). My car commute is 11 miles round trip on the highway, so that costs about $6.27. Riding the bus is $1.25 each way, or you can get a monthly pass for $44 and commute for $2.00 round trip (less for seniors, disabled, and students).
Transportation is the number two spending category for the average American, behind only housing. The average American spends more money just getting around than they spend on food, or healthcare, or education, you name it. The US is the largest economy in the world, but 57% of adults surveyed don’t have enough cash on hand to handle a $500 surprise expense.
Cars leap out as an expensive mode of transport and a spring of surprise expenses.
Finally, there are civic benefits, which include:
- Improving air quality
- Easing road congestion
- Connecting the community
- Reducing traffic accidents
- Slowing infrastructure wear and tear
- Raising real estate values
- Advancing energy independence
To incentivize these civic benefits, CommuteSmart will actually pay you $1 a day to commute any way other than driving alone. CommuteSmart can help you figure out your bus route or help arrange carpools, van pools, bike groups, etc. Since a common reason people give for not trying a new commute option is the fear of being stranded at work in an emergency, CommuteSmart provides free taxi rides home in the event of an emergency or unscheduled overtime.
As the future of transportation evolves with the advent of Uber/Lyft, the regional bus system seems to me like an increasingly useful part of a city’s transportation portfolio. MAX is adding significant resources to serve riders going forward. The new Central Station just opened as a sleek hub that feels like the new Birmingham airport. Most exciting to me, MAX is testing an app that has real time bus tracking so you can see the bus on its way to your stop, just like you can see your ride on its way with Uber/Lyft.
MAX won’t be perfect for everyone, but more people could benefit from choosing to ride. I counted 100 cars on my bus route and 87 were single occupant vehicles. According to a 2013 study, there are 427,121 people in Metro Birmingham who commute by driving alone (86% of all commuters in the metro area). Assuming an average vehicle cost of $25,000 that’s over $10.6 billion of local wealth that is being used inefficiently, not to mention all those extra operating costs people pay to drive alone (gas, repairs, insurance, etc.).
With advances in technology, I’ll be surprised if we’re still doing this in 20 years. Even today there are better alternatives. For me it took a simple change of mindset to see my options. The biggest hurdle was just trying the bus once. After investing a few minutes online to figure out the route, the bus experience has been great and has kept me riding as a better alternative to the car. If the bus doesn’t work for you, there are always other options to driving alone.
I second Malcolm Carmichael’s post. Find the closest bus stop to where you live and work (or play and pray). Ride once and see if it’s a good option. Visit MAX online at maxtransit.org. To explore other commuting options, visit CommuteSmart at commutesmart.org/birmingham.
Mike Mahon lives in Homewood and works Downtown as an investment banker with FHL Capital Corporation. In the community, Mike has co-founded the Friends of Red Mountain Park, the Rotaract Club of Birmingham, and the Rotaract Foundation.
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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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