LYNX spokesman Matthew Friedman has a blunt assessment of Central Florida's attitude toward mass transit: "They hate it."
A more complex analysis goes like this: No one chooses to ride the bus. Almost universally, LYNX riders have no choice in the matter. They don't have a car or they don't have a license and they have to get to work. And given Central Florida's sprawling nature, the distance between where they live and where they work can be vast.
My two most recent vacations were in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., and in both cases I could get around fine without an automobile. There, and in major metropolitan areas around the world, bus and rail lines are a way of life. And perhaps because so many people use them, they tend to be efficient and easy to navigate.
Here mass transit is a necessary evil, something to take workers to their low-wage jobs. When we talk about high-minded projects, like commuter rail, it's not because we want to use them; we want other people to use them and get off our highway.
To say we're a car-dependent region understates the psychology at play. We prefer the I-4 rush hour to waiting at a bus stop. We'd rather pay tolls on clogged expressways than pay for a more effective means of moving people — i.e., light rail, which Orange County commissioners killed in 1999 despite the fact that the federal government offered up more than $200 million in construction costs.
There's a commuter-rail line on the horizon. If all goes to plan, the Florida Department of Transportation will start running trains along a 31-mile stretch of track — the first phase of an eventual 61-mile track — from DeBary to Orlando in 2009. But that rail is designed only to bring in commuters from the outlying suburbs to the urban core. There's no telling how many people would actually ride it, or how many would just hope that other people will ride it. After all, the commuter rail will only go 45 mph; minus a bad accident or the worst moments of rush hour, you can do better in a car.
For now the bus is all we've got. Which made me wonder: Could I live in Orlando without a car? Demographically speaking, I'm not like most LYNX riders: I'm white and middle-class. But there are similarities. I, like many of them, don't live near where I work. I work downtown, but I can't afford to live there. So instead, I brave a 20-minute commute from my house, near Ocoee in west Orange County. And, like everyone else, I have to eat and keep up whatever passes for a social life. I've never even ridden LYNX. I've always assumed it simply isn't possible to get around Orlando without a car.
The first precursor of LYNX, the Orlando Transit Company, popped up in 1931. It had five routes; four went throughout Orlando, one went to Winter Park. There was no bus station. Instead, the buses lined up along Pine Street until their departure times.
By 1971, the family that owned the Orlando Transit Company was considering making it a private bus service. Local officials responded by forming the Orange-Seminole-Osceola Transportation Authority in 1972. That May, Orlando Transit went private. OSOTA was now the only public transportation system, and boasted all of 23 buses and 17 employees.
OSOTA — renamed Tri County Transit in 1984 — grew but never took off. In 1990, Tri County painted its downtown station bright pink to attract riders, and offered free rides downtown. In 1992, it held a public contest to find a more appealing name; LYNX was the result.
In the late 1990s, LYNX began to pour its energy into light rail. In 1996 it received $2 million from the federal government — thanks in large part to Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, the region’s biggest mass-transit advocate — to plan a light-rail system. By 1997 it had created a rail corridor for Central Florida’s southern end, but not for the part north of Princeton Street because of bickering over where the line should go. By 1999, LYNX signed off on the Minimum Operable Segment, which would run from the Central Florida Parkway near Disney World to Livingston Street. The line’s starting point was later moved to Universal Boulevard, but all that became moot when the Orange County Commission, on a 4-3 vote, declined to fund the project.
Orlando Mayor Glenda Hood desperately tried to revive part of it, proposing a line that would run from the Belz Factory Outlet — which lay inside city limits — to downtown. That collapsed too.
A few years later, commuter rail emerged as a cheaper alternative to light rail. Again pushed by Mica, and again facing fights in Winter Park and Maitland over where it should go, commuter rail would offer a direct shot with just a few stops from DeBary to Orlando, and eventually from Orlando to the tourist sector. Last year, Gov. Jeb Bush stopped by the downtown bus station to announce the state’s support for the commuter-rail line, which should be up and running by 2009.
In November 2004, LYNX opened its new bus station on Livingston Street. The new station was finished in less than two years and came in $1 million under budget, according to LYNX documents. It required $170,000 in local government money.
The transit agency took its worst PR hit in November 2002, when WKMG-TV aired a “Problem Solvers” investigation “exposing” that LYNX officials drank and gambled while at a convention in Las Vegas, and a few may in fact have cut out of a meeting a few minutes early to hit the blackjack table.
It was hyperbolic, more sizzle than steak, but that didn’t stop the media’s and local officials’ hand-wringing from turning it into a major scandal, leading to the resignation of executive director Byron Brooks in December 2002.
One way to find out. For a week my car would stay parked in my driveway, no matter what. To get around, I'd have to hop a bus or bum rides, like a real LYNX rider.
My boss signed off on this experiment fully expecting me to cheat. I didn't. But I will say that now that the experiment is over, my car isn't for sale.
Monday, March 26
Taking the bus requires planning. You have to know when buses come, where they take you and where to get off to catch the next one. Fortunately, you can do your trip planning on LYNX's website, www.golynx.com, which I did. The 30 bus that would get me downtown came by my house between 9:10 a.m. and 9:24 a.m.
But as I left home I realized that I had no idea where the nearest bus stop was. There are LYNX stops everywhere, but I'd never noticed them before. I knew the bus stopped at the West Oaks Mall, but that's a mile from home.
Fortunately a former roommate of mine is carless and has spent many a day on the LYNX. He told me of a bus station a short walk away from my home, just across Colonial Drive. I walked, waited a few minutes, paid my $1.50 and hopped on the sparsely populated 30. That was easy.
Twenty-five minutes later, as the bus neared downtown, I realized I didn't know where to get off. The 30 runs along State Road 50 from Ocoee to the University of Central Florida area, so it won't drop me off at the downtown bus station (which, coincidentally, is right across Livingston Street from the Orlando Weekly office). Instead, I jumped out a block west of Hughey Avenue, and hiked.
I took the more-crowded 54 bus home. It runs from the downtown bus station down Old Winter Garden Road, and eventually, to my house. It was supposed to leave at 5 p.m., but departed 10 minutes late. Forty-five minutes later, the 54 dropped me off in front of a West Colonial Drive Target.
If all I needed were to get to work and back, the bus was entirely adequate. But, as I discovered, doing anything else meant negotiating Orlando's mass transit system.
Tuesday, March 27
I take the 54 to work today, and it's a better choice. It comes 15 minutes later (more sleep) and goes right to the bus station (less walking).
I had plans after work to visit a friend who lives in a gated subdivision near UCF. That was when I had a car. By bus it would take over an hour to get out there — the 13 bus, which heads to the UCF area, takes an hour and 15 minutes to get to the UCF superstop — and God only knows how far I'd need to walk to get to his house. Then there was the matter of figuring out which bus to take back to downtown to catch the bus I'd need to take to my house before the buses stopped running, which most of them do before midnight. No thanks.
So I ended up drinking with co-workers downtown. And I kept drinking, because every time I planned to leave, I realized that I'd waited too long to catch the once-an-hour 30 bus home. The stop was a good 15-minute walk, and if I missed the bus I damn sure didn't want to stand on the corner of Colonial Drive and Magnolia Avenue for another hour.
Eventually, I didn't have a choice. It was 10:45 p.m., and the last bus home left at 11:05 p.m. I made it to the stop with two minutes to spare. By the time we got to my neck of the woods, I was the only one left on the bus — there were only three to begin with — and the driver was nice enough to drop me in front of my street.
At least I didn't drive home drunk.
Wednesday, March 28
I'm hungover. And I can't find the $1.50 in exact change I'll need to board the 30 or 54 to work, and I'm in no mood to walk to the ATM by the Publix across the street, pull out money and then make change.
Screw the bus. My girlfriend has to go downtown, so I hitch a ride with her.
After work, I meet a friend for dinner. Again, downtown, because she has a car and I don't, so we're meeting up some place to which I can walk. When we're done, I have the choice of either waiting 45 minutes for the next bus or begging her for a ride. I beg. She obliges.
Thursday, March 29
Today I learned to hate LYNX.
I had to go to the Orange County Convention Center to cover the joint speeches of former Presidents Bush and Clinton, and I had to be there by 8:30 a.m. to get my credentials. Getting there was easy enough, even though I had to wake up at 6:30 a.m.
“You can’t have a thriving community without a quality mass transportation system,” says LYNX spokesman Matt Friedman. “You can’t get folks to and from work.”
That, indeed, is LYNX’s primary focus. It’s why the International Drive circulator cuts out during the middle of the day — workers are dropped off in the morning and don’t need a return trip until the afternoon. It’s why, starting next month, LYNX will start a public-private partnership with Disney to run a direct bus route to the Mouse late into the night. Disney is the area’s biggest employer, after all, but many of its workers aren’t exactly well-paid.
Because LYNX is so worker-driven, its customers see the bus as a necessity. “Folks rely on public transportation,” Friedman says. “That’s not something folks down here appreciate or enjoy.”
As with everything, the main problem is money. LYNX doesn’t have enough to do the things it wants to do. Since new CEO Linda Watson — who was out of town and could not be reached for an interview — came aboard in June 2004, the agency has emphasized increasing the frequency of its bus routes (having the most popular ones come every 15 minutes, instead of every half-hour) and making sure more of the buses come on time, which Friedman says they do about 75 percent of the time. But LYNX would need to add at least nine buses a year, at $350,000 or more each, to keep up with the area’s growth.
Adding routes is an expensive proposition. Once the north-south commuter-rail line becomes a reality, LYNX will be tasked with taking people from bus stops or park-and-ride lots to train stations and back. That’s a lot of new routes, and there’s no telling where the money will come from, if it comes at all.
LYNX, like many government agencies, is anxiously watching the property-tax debate in Tallahassee. If local government budgets get slashed, its budget will too. That’s because the local bus system doesn’t have the dedicated funding source it so desperately wants. Instead, every year it has to go to local governments and beg. That being the case, there’s no set budget from year to year, which makes fiscal planning more difficult.
But there is one thing Friedman is certain about. As the region becomes more populous, and as downtown becomes more urbanized, mass transit will be ingrained deeper into the region’s fabric. Maybe then LYNX will get the funding it desires.
Until then, it won’t be easy. Friedman admits the agency doesn’t have a sterling reputation: “`LYNX has` a really bad public perception.”
A lot of that is fallout from the Las Vegas trip. But more important is the fact that many of us — those who have no need to ever set foot on a bus in this town — don’t know or care how important real mass transit actually is. That’s what LYNX wants to remedy.
“The big thing is, people love having their cars,” Friedman says. “They don’t want to sit in traffic, but they don’t want to give us a chance.”
I took the 54 downtown, then hopped on the 38, or the International Drive circulator — coincidentally, I'm sure, it's the nicest and best-maintained of all the buses I encountered — that took me directly to the convention center, on I-4, in 20 minutes.
Getting back downtown was an entirely different animal. For some inscrutable reason, the I-Drive circulator stops running between 9:20 a.m. and 2 p.m., exactly when I need it. So, according to schedules and routes I've printed out, I have to take the 42 bus toward the airport, get off at Orange Avenue and catch the 11 bus downtown. It looked pretty simple, even if it was a 90-minute trip back.
But it wasn't. I waited at the 42 bus stop for a half-hour, and started thinking the bus wasn't coming. As it turned out, I'd made a rookie mistake, assuming that because I got dropped off on one side of the street earlier in the morning, I should take the bus back from the other side. When the 42 came, I found out it was going the wrong way.
Damn. I walked across the street and waited at the bus stop for the 42 headed in the opposite direction, which would come in a half-hour. Lo and behold, I thought I'd caught a break 10 minutes into my wait. In the distance, I saw an 8 bus headed my way, its digital banner announcing that it was headed downtown. I double-checked my stop to make sure I was on the 8 line — I was — stood up and waited for the 8 bus to get me.
Only it didn't. Perhaps the driver didn't see me. Perhaps I misunderstood how this bus stop worked. But the 8 bus cruised by without even slowing down.
The 42 bus — the right one — came by about 20 minutes later, and stopped. The next hour seemed like an eternity. The bus wove slowly throughout the tourist sector, including multiple stops at the Florida Mall, on its way to the airport. It was packed with tourists and hospitality workers.
I sat on the 42 for an hour as it headed toward my transfer. Because of my problems finding the right 42, I'd missed the transfer and would have to wait 45 more minutes for the next one. And I was out of money.
I gave up and called my boss, who happened to be in the area. He picked me up, and I finally got back to the office after 1 p.m., a full two hours after I sat down at the first 42 bus stop.
I had a 3 p.m. appointment near Colonial Drive and Ferncreek Avenue scheduled before I knew about my little experiment. It's normally a five-minute drive. On the bus I had to leave the office at 2:30 p.m., walk to my new favorite intersection, Colonial and Magnolia, and hop the 28 bus. I jumped out a block east of Ferncreek Avenue, and made the appointment a few minutes after 4 p.m.
I left an hour later, walked to the nearest bus stop and waited for the next bus to come along. And I kept waiting. I was standing on one of the city's busiest streets, but that doesn't mean you don't have to wait 40 minutes in the blistering sun to catch a bus. Finally, a bus came, and I was back to my favorite intersection. A brisk walk later, I was at the office, a few minutes before 5 p.m.
If I were headed straight home, I'd have boarded the 54 and been done with the day. But I wasn't. Some friends were coming over, but I'd previously arranged to pick one of them up at his work — he's carless too — in south Orlando. To get down there, I needed a car. I called my girlfriend, who, despite the fact that she was visiting her family in Orange City, drove downtown, picked me up, then picked up my friend and took us to my house. Sweet girl, that one.
Friday, March 30
In fiscal year 2005, LYNX had almost 25 million riders, up 3.1 percent from the year before. It serves 1.83 million people. Who are they?
“The typical LYNX work-trip rider earns $350 a week and is employed in a retail or service industry job as a cashier/sales clerk or laborer.” That comes from a 2002 report from the University of Central Florida’s Center for Business and Economic Research titled “The Economic Importance of LYNX to Central Florida.” It gives statistics not only on who rides the bus, but how they use the LYNX system.
Other facts: 14 percent of the riders earn less than $200 a week, and many of them are seniors.
About a quarter of riders use LYNX to go to school. Sixty percent use the bus to get to work. Another 60 percent of riders use the bus for shopping trips. A quarter of those trips are to discount superstores like Wal-Mart. About 20 percent go to grocery stores, and many of the rest to local shopping malls.
In 2003, LYNX conducted its own ridership survey, which found that “LYNX ridership does skew younger and to members of minority groups.” Thirty-six percent are black, and 17 percent are Hispanic. Thirty-four percent are white.
Sixty-eight percent of those surveyed were employed. Twenty-three percent are students, and 20 percent are unemployed and not in school. Fifty-eight percent are registered to vote and 43 percent reported owning a cell phone.
Among LYNX riders who are employed, 89 percent use the bus to get to work. Fifty-seven percent of LYNX riders couldn’t get to work without the bus. Sixty-eight percent of students who ride the bus couldn’t get to school without it, the report says.
Almost 70 percent of riders use the bus five or more times a week. Twenty-five percent have depended on LYNX for 10 or more years. The average rider has used the bus for five and a half years. Only half live within a quarter-mile of the nearest bus stop. Twenty-two percent live more than a mile from the nearest stop. Though LYNX serves the tourist corridor, only 5 percent of its riders are visitors.
As of a 2005 survey, 49 percent of LYNX riders reported not having a car. The percentage of black riders had increased to 39 percent, and the percentage of Hispanics rose to 23 percent. Only half of LYNX riders have a driver’s license. Thirty-one percent of respondents earned less than $10,000 a year.
In the survey, LYNX’s service gets good marks. More than half rate its on-time performance as “excellent” or “good.” LYNX’s routing got even better scores: 70 percent said it was “excellent” or “good.”
LYNX’s budget this year is just over $107 million. Thirty-four percent, or about $36 million, of that comes from Orange County; 18.5 percent, or more than $19 million, comes from the fare box. The state and federal governments kick in just over $11 million each. The city of Orlando pays more than $5 million. Advertising on the sides of buses and other local governments make up most of the rest.
LYNX’s fleet size has grown considerably through the years, from 102 buses in 1991 to 238 in 2006. But almost half of those buses should be retired. According to the Federal Transit Administration guidelines, buses should be sidelined when the odometer cracks 500,000 miles. One hundred nine of LYNX’s buses have already exceeded that benchmark, including 31 that have more than 700,000 miles.
But those buses can’t be retired, because compared to other cities, LYNX doesn’t have nearly enough vehicles on the road as it is. Las Vegas’ bus system serves 1.71 million people, more than 100,000 less than LYNX, yet it has 145 more buses. Salt Lake City’s bus system only serves 1.03 million people, but it has 384 buses. San Antonio’s system serves 1.89 million people, a little more than Orlando’s, and it has nearly twice the number of buses, at 450.
It's only been five days and I'm done with LYNX. It's fine for getting between points A and B, but inadequate if you need to deviate from that plan at all. My girlfriend drove me to work again. She was working a double that night, which meant she probably wouldn't be done until midnight. I asked if I could borrow her car. She agreed, on the condition that I pick her up when she called.
A friend was in town from San Francisco, and I was supposed to meet him at Spatz, a pool hall off Fairbanks Avenue, at 6:30 that evening. I got there about 7:30 p.m., which presumably left me plenty of time for carousing. Or not. My girlfriend got out at 9:30 p.m. After picking her up and driving home, going back to Winter Park wasn't an option.
Saturday, March 31
The beautiful thing about weekends is you don't have to take the bus anywhere. So I slept in and watched television.
I did, however, go to the grocery store. There's a Publix just across the street from me, so this shouldn't have been a big deal. But lugging eight grocery bags is still a pain in the ass.
That night, I was headed to a show off Forsyth Road in Winter Park. I wouldn't be leaving until the place closed, so taking the bus home wasn't possible. My girlfriend was closing that night, so she dropped me off before she headed downtown at 10 p.m.
Then came another problem. A friend was supposed to meet me at the bar, but didn't have a ride. So I scrambled around the bar until I found another friend nice enough to let me borrow her car so I could drive to Maitland and get him.
I also had to get him home, which would be problematic because we planned on being plastered. Luckily, my roommate came out to the bar and drove both of us home. I got back to the house around 3:30 a.m.
Sunday, April 1
The last day of my experiment, and it couldn't come soon enough. I had bowling league at 9 p.m., and before that I slept. Once again, my girlfriend agreed to drive me — if this carless thing lasted any longer I'm pretty sure she'd dump me — provided I paid for her drinks at the bowling alley.
We got back to the house after 1 a.m. My car was where it had been for seven days now. Only when I awoke, I'd get to drive it. Thank God.
You can exist in Orlando without a car. Lots of people do it. And many of those people live on the region's outskirts, because that's where they can afford to rent. It becomes a sort of Catch-22: You live on the outskirts because you can't afford to live closer, then you take the bus because you can't afford a car. But the farther out you go, the less practical the bus system becomes, the more difficult it becomes to simply call a cab or hitch a ride with a friend.
Perhaps it's the result of decades of poor planning. Perhaps it's the result of city leadership so focused on tourism and unfettered development that it neglected the needs of those residents. Perhaps it's what you get when you reject paying taxes.
In any case, LYNX is firstname.lastname@example.org