Little Miss Sunshine

Sunshine Bus

By Alexa Epitropoulos |

Photos by Sarah Williamson

I must be a strange sight as I walk along U.S. 1 wearing business attire and carrying my writing portfolio and resume. I’m searching for one of the multiple used car dealerships that line the intersection of King Street. As I spot a man waiting alone with a duffel bag at his side, I figure I must be in the right place.

“Are you here for the bus?” I ask him, somewhat apprehensively.

He answers affirmatively, saying he’s been at the stop for 15 minutes already and has tried to flag down two buses. He realized after the second passed that the one we were waiting for was not one of the white buses that cart residents around town, but a bright yellow, lemon-like contraption. It’s called the Sunshine Bus—and for today, it will be my ride.

We are headed for the same place, the Avenues Mall on the outskirts of Jacksonville. He is planning to meet his aunt, while I am hoping I can make the internship interview I scheduled for 11 a.m. that morning. It’s already ten past nine and, after two additional buses pass us, I’m almost completely sure public transportation is the worst idea I’ve had.

When the bus pulls up to the curb, it’s difficult to be completely relieved. The purple line, which goes back and forth from St. Augustine to Jacksonville several times a day, takes an hour and 10 minutes to drop travelers off in front of the Sears, where the buses bound for downtown Jacksonville may or may not be waiting.

On the way, the bus stops at almost every residential complex, store and popular intersection in the county. It also makes a stop to drop patrons off at the county courthouse and government buildings.

With each stop, I glance nervously at the time on my phone. As the bus creeps along, my chances of getting to the interview—and making a good impression—are diminishing rapidly.

As a college student without a car, transportation always comes down to the willingness of others—friends, Riding the busfamily, classmates. Paying the $1.00 fee for the Sunshine Bus so I can reach another bus that will hopefully take me to my destination represents independence, even if it is limited. At first, my trip to Jacksonville was a test of endurance, but, once I scheduled the interview, it had become necessary.

For the many who need public transportation, Florida can be an impossible venue. Each county has its own system of public transportation, which can vary wildly. In Flagler County, a bus will take residents to and from medical appointments, but does not operate on a regular schedule. Further south, in Volusia County, the Votran makes stops at grocery stores, malls and hospitals. St. Johns County is somewhere in between, operating on a regular schedule, but not on a schedule that allows residents to easily commute to work.

In fact, visiting the website for the Sunshine Bus can be intimidating. Figuring out what route to take, what time to be at a bus stop or where the bus stop is located is labor-intensive. Jacksonville Public Transit is even more confusing, with multiple bus systems named frustrating combinations of numbers and letters. The bus route map resembles an intricate spider web circumventing and traversing the metro area.

The confusing nature of public transportation forced me to question the feasibility of not having a car at all in north Florida. But it is also evident from the art student who boarded the bus at University of North Florida’s campus, the handicapped man that met us along U.S. 1, the visually impaired woman who spoke with the driver about a safe place to be dropped off, that there are many people who are forced to live without one.

In almost all cases, public transportation is a vehicle for the working poor and the disabled who either can’t afford transportation or are no longer able to drive. The individuals who do rely on the bus could be significant. According to an American Public Transportation Association report, 42,200 people rode the Jacksonville bus on an average weekday in 2012.

Almost 50,000 individuals ride the bus every day and I felt inconvenienced by one trip.

I found myself getting angry about my predicament as I sat on the metallic metro bus and the fact that I would be late for my interview set in, but maybe I should have been thinking about the people sitting next to me.

Where were they going? And how often was this bus their only option?

The bus ride from St. Augustine to Jacksonville was lengthy, but on time. Catching the next bus to Forsynth Street to the Jacksonville Business Journal took an additional hour, prompting exasperated phone calls and emails to the editor who expected my arrival 20 minutes before I finally entered his office.

When I arrived downtown and stepped down from the sardine can that had held me captive for the last hour of my trip, I felt accomplished. I was merely observing, though, peering into a world I knew I would probably never have to live in.

I was late to my interview, but did not suffer major consequences for it. I was accepted for the internship, perhaps, in part, because I explained my adventurous journalistic endeavor. Others who rely on the bus—and are late because of it—would probably not enjoy the same luxury.

Experiencing public transportation is one thing. Taking it to work, day after day, or relying on it to reach a doctor’s appointment or job interview is a different matter altogether. Once I left the bus, I knew I wouldn’t be boarding again to get home, but I was clearly one of the privileged few.

When I see a bus pass, when I see someone board the shiny, florescent vehicle I inhabited for the first period of my panicked journey, I’ll know a little about their plight.

I’ll know that the Sunshine Bus provides a good service for many, but for a price. I’ll also feel a bit of solidarity with each passenger—I have entered their world, if only for a brief time.

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