Councilors get firsthand experience of Tulsa Transit system
BY BRIAN BARBER World Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 24, 2012
10/24/12 at 7:10 AM
Read continuing coverage of Tulsa’s City Council.
Five city councilors were dropped off in north Tulsa's Suburban Acres neighborhood Tuesday with a mission - take a Tulsa Transit bus to Gateway Market to buy groceries and make their way back.
It's something many residents must do as a part of their daily lives to feed their families, but it was a first for Councilors Phil Lakin, Karen Gilbert, Skip Steele, Jeannie Cue and David Patrick.
As the two-and-a-half-hour roundtrip unfolded, councilors encountered people who are completely reliant on the bus system for work, errands and school and who had the same suggestions for improvements - cut the wait time between buses and extend the service hours.
"This is really what we need to hear and experience from a rider's perspective in order to make better, more informed decisions going forward," Lakin said.
"It's one thing to sit at the council table making budget allocations related to public transportation, but an experience like this brings it into focus that all of this affect's people's lives."
The council last month asked Tulsa Transit officials to prepare a plan for study that would shrink the bus system's coverage area to provide more timely service at the current funding level.
Tulsa Transit General Manager Bill Cartwright told the Tulsa World that the plan will be presented to councilors in the next few weeks.
The agency's budget is now about $18.5 million, with $7.9 million coming from the city and the rest from state and federal governments.
Funding cuts and increased expenses over the last decade have reduced the number of service hours by 27 percent - from 213,630 in 2002 to 155,472 this year.
The average wait time between buses is about 55 minutes, with sparse service Saturdays and no service Sundays.
Two of the councilors on Tuesday's trip, Lakin and Cue, said they had ridden a Tulsa bus before but never on a regular basis. The others had never ridden a Tulsa bus.
The scenario created was one where councilors pretended they were parents who looked in their pantries and discovered they didn't have any food for when their children got home.
Without the help of Tulsa Transit officials, a council aide used the trip planner on the agency's website to map out a route and the required bus transfers to get from Suburban Acres at 47th Street North and Elwood Avenue to Gateway Market at 1601 N. Peoria Ave.
They were to load up on groceries and make their way back to the neighborhood where they started.
"We really wanted this to be a situation where we walked a mile in another person's shoes," Lakin said.
Cartwright, after finding out councilors were planning to ride the bus, suggested a more efficient route to take than the one chosen, but they decided to ignore his recommendation.
"No one else would get that kind of treatment," Lakin said, "and we wanted to experience this like anyone else would."
On the first stretch of the trip, councilors joined five passengers, including Gayla Wiggins and Shannon Shells, who must leave the Turley Residential Center at least two hours before work to make it on time.
The two parted ways at the downtown Denver Avenue bus station for Wiggins to transfer to a bus headed east to her job at Comfort Suites near 21st Street and Garnett Road and for Shells to take a bus to the Sand Springs Church's Chicken.
By the time they get off work, the buses aren't running, and someone from the residential center must come pick them up.
"It just takes so long to get anywhere," Wiggins said. "But there's nothing I can do about it. I have to work. I don't have a car."
When councilors exited at Pine Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard to make a transfer, the bus was full, with standing room only.
From there, councilors waited about 40 minutes or so for a bus that ended up being about 12 minutes late to ride down the street to Gateway Market. Some councilors considered just walking when the bus wasn't on time but decided that would defeat the purpose.
Once at the grocery store, councilors had about half an hour of shopping time before they had to catch the next bus.
Lakin picked up a gallon of ice cream, among several items, while Gilbert bought a half gallon of milk and other provisions. Steel purchased a bag of grapes.
Back on the bus headed to the downtown station before transferring to another route to Suburban Acres, councilors met Precious Miller, who looks at the councilors' groceries curiously.
Miller is a daily bus rider and said she has to be careful what she buys to make sure it won't melt before she gets home.
"Ice cream, huh?" she asks Lakin, shaking her head. "You learn the more time you ride what you can and can't buy, and it can't be more than you can carry."
Steele said it's obvious that Tulsa's bus system is inferior but questions whether there will ever be enough money to fix it.
"I think of it from a business perspective in that it doesn't pay for itself, so why have it?" he asked. "But then you meet the people who depend on it and you have to change your way of thinking."
Patrick said he wasn't surprised by the time investment bus riders make to get to where they need to go.
But, Patrick said, he was shocked by how many people related stories about being able to get to work but having no way home because the service has stopped.
"It's one thing to ride the bus for two hours to get to work and another thing to walk home four hours in the dark," he said.
A lot of Cue's constituents in her west Tulsa district rely on the system.
"I think the council needs to do a better job of looking out for the people who need the bus to survive," she said.
"There's a lot of people who aren't as fortunate as you and I."
Councilors, trying to make small gains, supplied Tulsa Transit with an extra $306,000 this fiscal year to add buses on six of the city's busiest routes - cutting those wait times to about 47 minutes.
Council Chairman G.T. Bynum has taken public transportation in Tulsa and in cities all over the world but did not go on Tuesday's trip.
He spearheaded the request for the study to possibly shrink the system to make it more effective.
"It's important that we look at all of our options, rather than blindly throwing money at something trying to make it better," he said.
"We've operated for years under the assumption that coverage is more important than frequency. I think we need to understand what it would look like if we emphasized frequency over coverage."
Original Print Headline: The view from Tulsa Transit
Brian Barber 918-581-8322
Tulsa City Councilors Skip Steele (left), Phil Lakin (center), council aide John Fothergill (upper right) and David Patrick (right) ride a public bus Tuesday. The councilors boarded the Tulsa Transit buses for a rider's perspective of the system. MATT BARNARD/Tulsa World
Tulsa City Councilors Phil Lakin, Jeannie Cue (center)and Karen Gilbert share a bag of cookies while waiting for a public bus Tuesday. MATT BARNARD/ Tulsa World
Tulsa City councilor aide John Fothergill (left) boards a public bus with councilors Jeannie Cue, Phil Lakin, Skip Steele and Karen Gilbert. MATT BARNARD/ Tulsa World