I am a pediatrician from New York City and I have spent the last month in the Rio Grande Valley with the elective “Community for Children” offered by Dr. Marsha Griffin of UTRGV’s School of Medicine.
Two other participants, also pediatricians, and I wanted to know how access to transportation affects access to health care. So, we decided to take a bus.
It was not a bad day to wait for the bus. It was sunny and it must have been in the 60s. Mother Nature was much kinder here than at home, in 20-degree weather on a February day in New York City. The weather did balance out the discomfort of walking 15 minutes from our extended-stay hotel to the bus stop on a route without sidewalks or working pedestrian traffic lights. The bus was running a bit late, but we called Valley Metro and they informed us of the time of expected arrival. Soon enough, we got on the bus and our adventure began.
We did not go into detail with the bus driver about why we were riding the bus. After all, a lifetime of public transportation ridership from the Bay Area to Barcelona to NYC had taught me to keep it brief; I had never exchanged more than a few words with a bus driver. We would try to fly under the radar and take in the experience. This was week three of four of working with the community organization Proyecto Azteca to improve access to medical care via public transportation. As pediatricians in training, we knew that patients’ social and economic circumstances greatly affect their health and medical treatment. And per our conversations with community members and clinics, we realized that cost of continuous access to a car is out of reach for some.
The bus came to a halt. The standing-room only bus soon emptied out. We were at the Harlingen Bus Terminal. Immediately, our bus driver, whom we would soon learn was John, gave us an enthusiastic and thorough breakdown of the Valley Metro bus system. We learned of all the different services provided, including the popular express line that traverses from Brownsville to McAllen. We learned of the different apps for our smartphones and of the changes in public transportation here over the years. The bus took off once more, and this time, we got a personalized tour of the area, peppered with personal anecdotes. In between his conversations with us, John greeted all of his regulars and caught up with them. It was evident that he cared greatly about his job and his riders. I came away in shock, realizing it had taken me decades of bus ridership and a trip to South Texas to meet a bus driver who sees his profession as a calling. As we got off the bus at our stop and took a selfie with John, he let us know that he would be leaving for San Antonio in two weeks to work at a bus company there. The new job would come with a big raise.
Unfortunately, high turnover is a common problem with the public transportation agencies in the Lower Rio Grande Valley area. In our meeting with leadership of Valley Metro and Brownsville Metro, they attributed this to limited funding. Despite financial challenges, the leadership is both passionate and savvy. What these transit agencies can provide on such a limited budget is truly astounding. In 2017, for example, Valley Metro spent less than $6 per resident of the area it serves on operating and capital expenses, while the NYC public transit service (MTA or Metropolitan Transit Authority), spent almost $1,300 per resident of the area it serves. In comparing other similarly rural areas, Kern County (where Bakersfield, CA is located) spent $14.25 per resident and Fresno County spent $190.12 per resident. While every region is different, the value of investing in public transportation is undeniable. Public transportation is more environmentally friendly and cheaper for the consumer. Per Valley Metro leadership, the current route connecting different UTRGV campuses has been a massive hit, very popular among the younger generation.
The ridership already exists, and there is potential for growth. Valley Metro and Brownsville Metro cannot keep up with the demand. Their buses designated to the On-Demand Service of rural counties have a de facto bus route already. Residents of certain communities, especially low-income housing such as colonias, look forward to the day where a bus route can stop by their community. Increased public transportation would open the door to increased independence: attending their medical appointments, picking up their grandchildren from school, improved employment and better access to food.
So, what is stopping public transportation from expanding in this area? Funding, plain and simple. This is a call to invest in the Lower Rio Grande Valley community by improving public transportation. What are you waiting for? Invest in your future.
Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows Dr. Keith Casey, Dr. Elsa Treffeisen, and Dr. Ellen McCormack, at the offices of Proyecto Azteca in San Juan, Texas.