Illustration: Sarah Welch.

The Mobility Challenge: A Personal Essay

This post is accompanied by a pocket-sized zine, designed by Evan O’Neil and printed by Mystic Multiples on a risograph, that you will be able to find at Houston-area coffee shops and transit centers. We want you to share your story of the city with us by emailing rda@rice.edu or posting to social media with the hashtag #DesignHouston. Follow RDA at @RDAHouston on Twitter and Instagram.

The two kids and I depend on our Metro Q Cards and sturdy shoes.

We did have a car. The weekend before school starts, I am driving west on I-10 after retrieving my two children from summer in Alabama with their father. It’s been years since my air-conditioner worked, so I take the trip between sundown and dawn, windows down to stave off the August heat. Traffic is sparse, mostly semis and speeding pickups. The refineries loom along the way, their scaffolding bright with yellowed light, thick white smoke churning into the night air.

I’ve passed the first round of them and am surrounded by dark, mosquitoed fields when my old done-for Jeep starts to smoke. I pull off on the shoulder, at least 60 miles from Beaumont, before the Jeep bleeds out every last ounce of its transmission fluid. It wasn’t worth fixing the last several times I took it to the shop, and I’m a single parent on a graduate student stipend, so the most reasonable thing to do, when we get back to Houston?

The mobility challenge: we live in an apartment near NRG Stadium. My son goes to public high school in the Heights, my daughter elementary school in Eastwood. Both are magnet programs, and HISD magnet buses will pick up from neighborhood schools, but the kids’ start and finish times are roughly an hour apart. It doesn’t make sense for me to double to and from a neighborhood school twice a day when I have to be across the city at the University of Houston, where I work. The HISD magnet bus can pick my son up from my daughter’s school, and the timing works out, so we set out to find our best Metro routes.

At first, I set my map app settings to show the fastest routes, all of which require the most walking. We leave before dawn, walking sidewalks in the stadium’s fluorescent glow. Before 6 a.m., in this part of town, Houston’s infamous traffic doesn’t exist. We pass people sleeping in the grass or on the edges of parking lots. The three of us are never in fair moods before sunrise, and so the children bicker and whine as we walk. I shush them repeatedly in a stage whisper, implore them not to wake anyone up.

First try: We walk 30 minutes to take the Red Line from Fannin South to Downtown, where we get off at Central Station Main, transfer to take the Green Line to Eastwood, and then walk another 15 minutes to school. I then catch any number of buses back to the Eastwood Transit Center, where I can take a shuttle to UH. I arrive at my office around 8:15 a.m. — two and a half hours after leaving the house.

That afternoon, I shuttle back to the Eastwood TC and wait for a connecting bus — the 50, the 80, the 40, or the 41 — to take me into Eastwood. I could walk the 20 minutes, perhaps, but my shoulder smarts from the giant bag I lug with me when I teach. I’d rather sit under the metal roof and watch a pile of pigeons eat French fries, make faces at strollered babies, pretend I’m not paying attention to someone’s slick dance moves across the way.

The next morning we try something different. We walk 25 minutes to catch the 41 bus at Kirby and Main. Three people shuffle through the dirt for cigarette butts. One of the men starts rapidly scratching his arms. I overhear some muttered phrases and gather that they’re out of money, strategizing together, so I pull the kids closer and mouth to my son to put his phone away, resituate my bag’s strap across my chest, and lace my keys between my knuckles for the 15 minutes we wait. Once on the bus, my son nods out on his backpack, my daughter sleeps in my lap. I read for my classes, papers spread over her head as we travel north through the Med Center, Rice Village, and Montrose, then go back south and east through Downtown, EaDo, and leafy Eastwood. We get off the bus together, and I walk them to their respective landing spots.

After trying variations of other routes — some combination of the 84, the Red Line, the 004, the 40, and the 41 — we settle into our primary route. We catch the 84 in front of our apartment complex, where we usually wait with our neighbors, some in nursing uniforms, some in kitchen clothes, and we get off at the TMC TC, where the 41 is always already waiting across the carousel. This is important, because even though the ride on the bus might be longer, with only this one transfer there’s less room for error. Missing a connection by one minute can easily equal another 30 minutes of waiting, sometimes more. And the 41 stops right at my daughter’s school. After we’ve gotten used to our routine, I let her walk off the bus and wave as she crosses to school with the guard, which saves another 30 to 45 minutes of walking and waiting.

Still, the daily commute is 3 hours for my daughter, between 4 and 5 hours for me, and 6 hours for my son. One morning, we miss our bus and I open my Uber app, only to realize that with price surging it would cost me $126 to get her to school on time. We soon decide it’s time for my son to take his route alone, the 84 to the TMC TC, where he transfers to the 56 into the Heights. I know his route is attended by Metro employees, and his time on buses is more than halved. He enjoys his new freedom, as it means he can join his school’s German Club and go to after-school poetry slams without needing to rely on my availability. One Saturday, he takes the bus up the street to the gourmet donut shop. He comes home proud with his sack of treats for us, bought with his own money.

Settled in now, I don’t mind our trek so much, or this is what I tell myself, because I don’t have the luxury of being bothered by my circumstances. Every day, my daughter and I arrive bleary on the bus, and then we wake slowly with the city. We start with darkened windows which show only the brightest bulbs and our own reflected faces, but by the time we reach Downtown the day shows up, dawn glinting off so much glass and steel, people bustling along. Because the bulk of my work is writing and reading, I try to fold my productive hours into the loud hydraulic hums. I adjust my thoughts to the stops and starts, try to refocus after each jolt. I try not to think of my colleagues working in environments they can control, with comfortable desks in quiet, windowed rooms. In the evenings, we watch the landscape change from spraypainted murals to taffeta gowns in display windows.

I can’t help noticing how the inequities of the city itself show in the transit system’s design, how the redlining maps still shape the way public transit is arranged. I try not to envy the sleek cars I see weaving around the bus at rush hour. My daughter doesn’t hide her envy, though. Glaring at them, arms crossed, she grumbles, “I hate the bus.”

I sigh, say, “Hey. Maybe soon we can get some bikes.”

She whines she’s hungry, pointing to restaurants we can’t afford. She whines she doesn’t have enough time to do her homework once we’re finally home. I want to make excuses for her when the pink slips come for missed assignments, but instead I assure her teacher that we will try harder, do better.

By Georgia Pearle

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    2 Comments

    1. 1

      Great read on the bus ride to work this morning.
      I’m curious why you opted for the 41 over the 4, though. The travel time from TMC to the Eastwood area is about an hour compared to about half an hour on the 4. There’s the extra transfer for the three stops from the transit center up to school but like 6 different routes that can take you there with dozens of buses per hour. I have to believe it would be reliably shorter.
      I’m also interested in the comment about redlining maps shaping transit. The New Bus Network was drawn for today’s Houston, with more opportunities than ever to connect among different neighborhoods. Where do you see evidence of race-based design?


    2. 2

      James, thanks for the comment. Regarding the comment on redlining, you can see the persistent effect of systematic disinvestment and the cumulative impact of many decades of injustices most clearly in the Fifth Ward. The effect is a low density of residents and jobs. And without that density, and with huge infrastructural barriers of highways that were plowed through the neighborhood, Fifth Ward gets comparatively infrequent bus service. So, even though I trust that the bus reimagining was evidence-based and has a net positive impact on communities of color, it is reasonable to point out that the practices behind redlining continue to have an impact on transit service.