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Critical Mass Transit

Jonathan Postal

Miami Beach resident Jeff Bradley is legally blind. The 53-year-old freelance writer is among the thousands who, through necessity, rely on public transit to get around Miami-Dade County. "I drove a car until 1985, when I lost my peripheral vision," Bradley says. "I live on the Beach because it's easier to get a bus between here and downtown Miami. If I have to get to Kendall or somewhere west, forget about it. That would take me a whole day."

Bradley's love-hate relationship with the Miami-Dade Transit Agency began in 1995, when he gave up Manhattan skyscrapers for the condo canyon along Collins Avenue. "Buses were old and ratty," he says of the Metrobuses he rode nearly a decade ago. "Seats were covered in water from leaky bus roofs. It was abysmal. But they've gotten new buses on the Beach. That's a good thing."

Some problems persist. "Some of these bus drivers need classes in public relations," Bradley opines. He adds that buses serving Miami Beach run late or don't show up at all. According to public records, Bradley has complained to Miami-Dade Transit on several occasions, most recently on June 9 via the transit agency's Website. "On Tuesday, June 8 at precisely 1:08 p.m., a southbound K bus passed me at 41st Street and Sheridan Road, Miami Beach, presumably because I wasn't precisely at the bus stop, but I was running towards it waving my arms," Bradley wrote. He pounded on the side of the bus, but the bus driver ignored him. "I understand bus drivers get a lot of grief, but he's a public servant for Pete's sake," Bradley fumes later. "There is no reason for such callous behavior."

Bradley is not alone in his feelings. On an average day, Miami-Dade Transit fields dozens of phone calls and e-mails from irate transit users who gripe about late or no-show buses, not to mention rude bus drivers. Recently, New Times pored over hundreds of those complaints; interviewed dozens of transit users to gauge how the Metrobus system is working; and spent a week riding on Metrobus to experience life as a bus dependent.


Bruce Clapp, a slight, freckled, middle-age man with salt-and-pepper hair, is sitting inside a dilapidated metal bus shelter at NE 28th Street and Biscayne Boulevard. It is a quarter to noon and the heat is unbearable. The shelter looks as if it belongs on a street corner in Baghdad. Glass shards glitter on the sidewalk. Someone has stolen the electric meter from the shelter, rendering it lightless at night. Clapp waits for a southbound 3 or a 16 to take him downtown to Flagler Street and North Miami Avenue.

Clapp, age 56 and suffering from a chronic liver disorder, says he sometimes waits up to two hours for a bus to pick him up. He has a particularly jaundiced view of the system: "The bus drivers do whatever the hell they want. If they know you and they don't like you, they won't stop for you."

The transit agency, Clapp says, should hire more supervisors and adopt a zero-tolerance policy with drivers who mistreat the public. "If a bus driver gets one complaint, they should be fired!" Clapp says. "And some of these drivers need to lose weight. They're too fat."

Claudia Domenig, a 33-year-old Austrian researcher, lives on Miami Beach and uses the M to get to the University of Miami medical school campus at Jackson Memorial Hospital, located on NW Twelfth Avenue and Sixteenth Street. On November 19, 2003, Domenig says, she got on an M operated by a driver in a "foul mood." After her trip ended, she recalls, she was e-mailing a complaint to Miami-Dade Transit about the driver's abusive language toward a passenger in a wheelchair.

The passenger, Domenig says, had simply asked the driver if his safety harness was secured properly. "The driver tells the man in the wheelchair: öFuck you bitch! Fuck you!' And the man didn't do anything. I reported it to the transit agency, but I never heard back from anyone, of course."

Wencesla Rodriguez, a 56-year-old transit rider, never had a problem using her monthly transit pass until she crossed paths with a militant bus driver in Miami Beach. On October 29, 2003, Rodriguez recalls, she boarded the H at Eleventh Street and Washington Avenue. The driver demanded she show some identification to go with the pass, she says, then kicked her off the bus. "I've bought a monthly bus pass for the last five years and no one has ever asked me for an ID," Rodriguez declares. "I got off the bus in tears."

Theo Karantalis, a 42-year-old airport employee with multiple sclerosis, has filed complaints on several occasions since 2003 about the drivers on his bus routes. His first complaint was against a bus driver moving the Airport Owl too fast for Karantalis's liking. "This guy liked to step on the gas, so I told him to slow down," Karantalis says. "The driver told me to pipe down and mind my own business."

 

In another incident, a driver lost his temper when Karantalis was too slow to load his bicycle onto the bike rack. "The guy yells at me: öYou pulled this shit on me the other day, now hurry it up!'"

This past June, Karantalis claims, the driver of the 37 forced him to remove his bicycle from the rack and get off the bus, insisting the bus was not a bike-carrying route. "I take the 37 every day and never had a problem using the bike racks!" Karantalis exclaims. "The driver told me he had no time for conversation as he was running late."


Carlos Rubi lived in Miami for seven years before relocating to Los Angeles two months ago. The 36-year-old advertising executive brags about the bus service in the City of Angels. "It's the complete opposite of Miami," Rubi gloats. "The buses actually show up on time and stop when you tell them to.

"You waste a lot of time waiting for a bus in Miami," he continues. "I used to take the 3, and it would always run at least 40 minutes late in the evenings."

Oscar Vera, Rubi's former roommate, still lives in Miami, near Biscayne Boulevard and NE 33rd Street. Vera uses the 3 bus to get to his job at Aventura Mall, where he is a manager at Zara, a women's clothing store. Vera says he usually treks to the bus stop two hours before his 2:00 p.m. shift. "One day I got to the bus stop at 11:30 a.m.," Vera recalls, seething. "It's 1:20 p.m. and still no bus. So I call a friend to drive me to work. When we're by 65th Street and Biscayne Boulevard, I see not one, but four buses heading north to Aventura Mall. That's just wrong."

Vera says the wait is no better on the way home. "If you miss the bus at 10:55 p.m., you have to wait until 12:30 a.m. for the next one," Vera grumbles. "You know how many S buses going to Miami Beach come by during the time I'm waiting for the 3? Five or six! I could understand if this was Colombia or Argentina, but c'mon now."

Stephanie Hammer, a 38-year-old operations manager for financial services firm Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, uses Metrobus to get to the Coconut Grove Metrorail station, where she takes the southbound train to get to Morgan Stanley's office at 1111 Brickell Ave. Hammer, who lives in Allapattah, regularly rides the 7, 11, 24, or 27, but she claims that none of the routes show up on time. "On Flagler, it's horrendous," Hammer gripes. "You'll sit for a whole hour and then three buses pull up at the same time. That is just terrible service."

At the end of her work day, a late bus can cost Hammer money as well as stress and inconvenience. If she doesn't pick up her daughter from day care by 6:00 p.m., Hammer says, she has to pay a ten-dollar fine for every fifteen minutes she is late. "The 27 is supposed to be at the Metrorail station at 5:04 p.m., 5:19 p.m., and 5:34 p.m.," Hammer explains. "Any one of those buses will get me to day care on time. But sometimes the buses aren't showing up until 5:50 p.m., which doesn't help me."

For Barry Robinson, late and no-show buses are causing him problems with his new employer in Doral. Robinson, who moved to Miami in February, has to catch two Metrobuses and Metrorail to get to his job. "I was reprimanded by my boss because I was late to my job on three different days within a two-week period because of a Metrobus that never showed up," Robinson grouses. "At this point I'm leery about investing sixty dollars for another monthly transit pass. I need to get a car."


Metrobus drivers are no different than other drivers in Miami-Dade County. They cut you off. They speed through school zones. They run you off the road to change lanes. They gab relentlessly on the cell phone instead of focusing on the road. And they cause accidents that could be easily avoided.

According to Miami-Dade Transit statistics, bus drivers have been responsible for 1473 collisions with other vehicles since 2002. The numbers don't include accidents with stationary objects such as telephone poles and concrete walls. But not all hazardous situations are caused by accidents. Many complain that aggressive drivers use the buses as instruments of intimidation.

 

Last March 3, Alejandro Delgado, a county employee, says he was almost clipped by a Metrobus while trying to walk across the intersection of NW Seventeenth Street and Ninth Avenue. Delgado was in the crosswalk when a bus barreled toward him. "The bus driver was making a right at the intersection," Delgado recalls. "He sees me, blows his horn, and made his turn at a pretty fast speed. I had to back up so that he wouldn't run me over. The driver was laughing at me, too."

Last February, Meagan Randall, program director for the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce, claims she was forced into oncoming traffic by a bus driver who pulled into her lane on Collins Avenue between Seventeenth Street and Lincoln Road. "I beeped my horn at him, but he just ignored me," Randall says. "I was shaken by the bus driver's lack of attention."

Bay Harbor Islands resident Raymond Lechler was riding his bicycle on the right-hand shoulder of 96th Street and Collins Avenue on October 28, 2003, when a T almost knocked him over. "The bus driver made no attempt to go around me," Lechler says. "When I caught up to the bus, the driver proceeded to yell profanities and give me the finger."

On September 25, 2003, Rafael Ortiz was driving his black Lexus GS300 on Collins Avenue and 71st Street in Miami Beach when the driver of an S blocked him from changing lanes. "He was speeding up to stop me from getting into his lane," Ortiz says. "I end up on the far left lane and the bus pulls up on my passenger side. The driver starts screaming at me. I've seen many cases of road rage in my life and I did not want to be the victim of one, so I sped off."

Ortiz says when he parked his car, he noticed the bus heading toward him. He crossed the street and watched the bus driver stop the Metrobus right next to his Lexus. "He gets out to look inside my car," Ortiz continues. "He then spits and punches the windshield. The county needs to conduct background checks on these drivers before letting them loose on the streets. This guy is endangering people's lives, including mine."


Miami-Dade Transit director Roosevelt Bradley (no relation to bus rider Jeff Bradley) says Miami-Dade Transit is trying to solve some of its obvious problems. "The people are expecting and demanding quality service from MDTA," Bradley says. "If we find out that a bus driver mistreats a customer, we will take action and that person won't be working for MDTA. That is how strongly I feel about it."

Miami-Dade's citizenry, beset by single-occupant car-caused congestion approaching Third World levels, feel strongly about the issue as well. On November 2, 2002, residents put their faith in local government and approved the People's Transportation Plan, an ambitious $17.9 billion public works project to improve streets, sidewalks, and traffic lights throughout the county; expand Metrorail by 88 miles; and most of all, pay for an immediate overhaul of the county's decrepit Metrobus system.

Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas led a successful campaign to win support for the plan. Penelas and Co. enticed voters with promises of citizen oversight over billions of dollars in public funds and 24-hour transit service with new and improved bus routes. Other components of the plan included free rides for county residents 65 and older, as well as the purchase of several hundred community circulators, minibuses that run in neighborhoods where public transit has been virtually nonexistent.

By a two-to-one margin, residents voted to tax themselves an additional half-cent on the local sales tax, which today stands at seven percent.

Bradley insists Miami-Dade Transit has made some improvements. For example, he says, buses are being outfitted with video surveillance cameras that can record up to 72 hours of footage. He predicts 9000 new bus signs will be erected throughout Miami-Dade by the end of 2005. The large, circular, green-and-blue reflective signs include route schedules and maps in three different languages: English, Kreyol, and Spanish. Plans also call for roughly 3000 new bus shelters to be installed throughout unincorporated Miami-Dade in the next two years.

"If people encounter a problem on a Metrobus, I want them to call me. If you ride the bus system, and you've been mistreated, or you see someone being mistreated by a bus operator, let me know," Bradley says.


One morning in July, the southbound 3 stops at NE 28th Street and Biscayne Boulevard. Two mothers with their children take up the entire front row of seats on the bus. About six or seven people standing in the aisle rock back and forth every time the bus jerks to a stop. Ricardo, a bald, dark-skinned man who is missing some of his bottom front teeth, grumbles something about kicking Miami Police Chief John Timoney's ass a couple of decades ago when Miami's top cop was a police rookie in New York. "Check it out!" Ricardo tells me.

 

Behind the wheel is a petite black woman in her mid-30s. At every stop, she showers people with a radiant smile. Angela P. Jones has been driving Metrobuses for the past twelve years. Her regular routes are the 3 and the 16, which travel between downtown Miami, Aventura, and North Miami Beach. Jones shows no sign of stress or contempt. "I try to be nice to people even though they scream, cuss at you," Jones says. "Sometimes they even spit on you. People just seem ready to brawl whenever you don't show up at the exact time they get to the bus stop. I just go with the flow."

Jones pulls into the downtown Miami bus terminal near the Stephen P. Clark Government Center, where people can transfer to Metrorail or other buses traveling to Miami Beach, Coral Gables, West Miami, and other areas of Miami-Dade County. At least four buses are in the terminal, including the C, which travels to Miami Beach via the MacArthur Causeway. The C driver is arguing with a potbellied teenager wearing round eyeglasses. The driver doesn't want to allow the teen to board, though after consulting with a supervisor, he does. "Yesterday this kid was cussing out elderly folk on my bus," the driver says. "I told him to stop, but he wouldn't listen to me."

He has been driving buses for eight years. William, who declined to give his last name, says the salary offsets the public abuse and the stress. "J-O-B, baby," William quips. "That's all I need. But it's rough, man. People want you to be on time every day. Sometimes you can't help being late because of traffic."

Later in the day, the westbound K, headed for downtown Miami, pulls up to the curb at Eighth Street and Washington Avenue in Miami Beach. The K's driver is Herardo San Juan, a lanky Cuban who has been operating public buses for seventeen years. In three years he can retire with his full pension. "People sometimes bring their personal problems on the bus," San Juan says. "So you learn to give people the benefit of the doubt. But I've learned to keep my mouth shut because arguing with the customers is not going to make a difference."


At 8:41 on another July morning, two buses approach the intersection of West 68th Street and West 28th Avenue in Hialeah, near one of the designated bus stops for the Hialeah Gardens Connection.

With his right thumb, the driver of the first bus points me to the bus behind his. The electronic sign on the second bus isn't working, so a large 282 is stenciled in black marker onto a piece of paper pasted to the windshield.

I wave to the bus in an attempt to stop it. The driver sees me, yet keeps going. "Hey!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" I yelp. As if my voice-cracking beagle squeal was going to stop her.

By luck, she comes to a halt about a quarter of the block down from the designated bus stop to let off a passenger. I run. Get on. Out of breath and pissed off, I ask her: "Why didn't you stop?!"

"That's not the designated bus stop," she retorts.

A bit later, Ms. Congeniality arrives at the Wal-Mart off the Okeechobee Road exit of the Palmetto Expressway. In a great feat of wisdom by the Miami-Dade Transit Agency, both the southbound and northbound 282 share this same stop. A crowd gazes at the bus, perplexed by the paper sign. Maybe some people are headed south to the Metrorail station, maybe not. Who knows?

We'll never know because the bus driver didn't stop to inform the people waiting at Wal-Mart which direction she was headed. "I'm only supposed to stop if they signal me to stop," she snorts. "Y'all people who ride the bus don't understand that we have to follow rules and regulations. Y'all just want us to do what y'all want us to do. When you become a bus driver, you can do whatever you want."

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Since 2002, Miami-Dade Transit has fired three bus drivers as a result of customer complaints. Another 21 bus drivers have been suspended from work, while 32 operators have received written reprimands.

Miami-Dade County employs 1479 full-time and part-time bus drivers. Of those, 1332 are black, 491 are Hispanic, and the remainder are white, Asian, or Indian. Almost half of the black drivers (633) are women between the ages of 21 and 60. Since the People's Transportation Plan was approved, the transit agency has hired 639 new bus drivers, who earn a starting salary of $13.14 an hour. The average Miami-Dade bus operator earns $17.50 an hour.

 

Miami-Dade Transit has 834 buses in its fleet. The county has purchased 170 buses in the two years since voters approved the PTP. Most of the new buses were put on routes serving Miami International Airport and tourist destination Miami Beach. For example, the J Metrobus route has the luxury of new buses equipped with passenger reading lights and overhead compartments for people to store their belongings. The transit agency plans to buy up to 341 more minibuses and replace 700 regular buses by 2008.

The agency operates buses that are eighteen years old and have logged more than a million service miles. Transit director Roosevelt Bradley predicts the county will have a state-of-the-art fleet consisting of more than 1200 buses by 2008.

As of today, Miami-Dade Transit operates 99 bus routes including ten new ones: the 99, the Coconut Grove Circulator, the Little Havana Circulator, the Sweetwater Circulator, the Flagami Connection, the Coral Gables Connection, the Hialeah Gardens Connection, the Little Haiti Connection, the Coral Way Max, and the Midnight Owl.

According to a draft analysis of Miami-Dade Transit users, 60 percent of bus riders are female; 86 percent are black or Hispanic, and the remainder are categorized as nonwhite Hispanic or other. About 77 percent of all transit users have an annual household income of $40,000 or less, and 40 percent are either unemployed or retired.


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