Get On The Bus

County Government

BY PAUL CARAGIULO SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY JAN 5, 2019

I find myself now and then in an arcade, where I immediately head to the driving games. I Iove them. This is a bit strange considering I don't care for driving in reality. So I was intrigued by the idea using our transit system (Sarasota County Area Transit) to move around whenever possible for a few weeks.

If you are not familiar with SCAT, it is a $30.1-million operation, of which about 80 percent is subsidized from the general fund, including your tax dollars. If your property value is $250,000, you pay approximately $51 a year for SCAT. For FY2018, the system reported a fixed ridership of just under 6,000 per day. If that seems low, it is. As for the significant subsidy, it would be more palatable if more people used the service, though large subsidies are the norm for transit systems.

In 2016, the county completed a Comprehensive Operational Analysis. The basic gist is the county does a great job running a not-so-great system. County officials consistently express their desire to increase ridership. That goal will be at the forefront as discussion towards potential privatization continues. Who is best equipped to increase ridership? Who can utilize innovation, technology and implement integration with ever-popular ride-sharing to provide the best product, the public sector or a private enterprise? This conversation needs to be had. Honestly.

So on day one, I checked the Google Maps App, which provides route and schedule information. As directed I headed on foot to the intersection of Siesta Drive and Osprey Avenue to pick up the #5 northbound. I waited, $1.25 in hand but it never came. Since there are several stops on Osprey, I started walking north figuring I could catch one on the way; standing still for more than 10 minutes is not in the cards for me. I made the 2.2 miles downtown on foot without seeing a bus. There was clearly a glitch with the app. I called SCAT to let someone know and it was updated (#5 was changed to #40).

My trip home was more successful, and not having to park my F-150 downtown was a real incentive (I love my truck, but wish it had bow thrusters). I actually got on a bus this time on Ringling and in minutes was let off on Siesta Drive by Westfield Mall. As I exited, I thought, well, that was easy. As I started to walk home, approaching U.S. 41, that's where the main challenge presented itself. I realized it's not about the bus ride. It's getting on and off the bus, the pedestrian environment. Our major intersections and thoroughfares are not friendly to pedestrians—at all.

The next morning, the thought of busy intersections as I stared back at my car keys provided a real disincentive. Crossing U.S. 41 was like walking in front of the starting line at Daytona. This goes for Fruitville and Bee Ridge as well. However, at least these roads have sidewalks. On U.S. 41 between Stickney Point and Sarasota Square, where few crossings exist, I found myself dashing across the road from one drainage ditch to the other, an activity I often curse others for doing while I drive. That’s why the project FDOT is doing from Stickney to Blackburn Point is a good thing for pedestrians, lighting, crosswalks, sidewalks etc.

On smaller roads like Osprey, though busy, it is a different experience. It's pleasant. Maybe one option is to get creative with alignments. Our community has a sensible road network to work with, so that seems possible.

There is essentially no problem with the service once you get on. Some routes are busy, some not. As one might expect, the busiest route is #17, which travels up and down U.S. 41.

The buses are new, clean, on time and the drivers are without exception friendly, courteous and professional. My fellow riders were pleasant enough and the buses even have wi-fi. So how do we get more people to use it, especially those who own cars? If you want a transit system to be successful, you cannot rely solely on those for whom the bus is their only option. There is real potential, provided transit-friendly infrastructure is part of the plan. More riders means new routes and more frequency on existing routes. That will benefit everyone. 

For now, open Google Maps, tap the transit icon and give it a chance. It may work for you.

Paul Caragiulo is a former Sarasota County Commissioner and Sarasota City Commissioner.

 

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