We at KWBU News have been doing a bunch of stories about food insecurity in Waco lately and one of the things we keep coming back to is food deserts. Basically, there just aren’t any grocery stores in central Waco—you’ve pretty much got to have a car to get to one. Pretty much got to have a car…you could also ride the bus. So that had us thinking…what’s it like for people who ride the bus to the grocery store?
Jill: So we decided to have a race of sorts. Ryland and I started at the Waco Transit hub at 8th and Mary in downtown Waco and we saw how long it’d take to get to the closest grocery stores by bus. He went to the HEB by I-35 in Bellmead and I went to the HEB on Valley Mills.
Ryland: The second closest grocery store to central Waco is the HEB Plus up by I-35 in Bellmead. I had to take the TSTC/Bellmead bus on the way out and then after my shopping take a different bus back depending on how long it took—one of the East Waco buses. It’s kinda confusing and I’ll explain it in the story again, but there are two East Waco buses—an odd hour bus and an even hour bus—and, yeah, you take one or the other depending on how long you shop for.
So I took the bus to the HEB in Bellmead. And I have to say, the TSTC/Bellmead bus to HEB a true joy. There’s this awesome bus driver named Mary who everybody loves, everyone was chatting on the bus, it felt like a real community. One of the people I talked to was Anne Dugan—she just moved to Waco five months ago and she said she just rides the bus around town sometimes to see the sights. Today though, she was going grocery shopping.
"I just ride it to go shopping around," Dugan says. "Yeah I go get prescriptions and groceries and then I have like five or ten minutes and then I walk across. I like riding it because of Mary. No, she picks me up on the corner by my house. Yeah so I figure why drive, I just take the bus with Mary!"
Waco Transit has this unique thing that personally, I haven’t seen in any other town—the buses will stop for you if you wave them down. That’s absolutely unheard of in places like Chicago or Austin—cities that I'm most familiar with--buses stop exclusively at bus stops and you’d better be there on time or get left in the dust. So Anne, that lady I was just talking to, her house is right on a bus route and she gets picked up and dropped off. And to top it all off, she gets to ride around with the bus driver everybody loves, Mary.
I’ve gotta say, getting on off the bus at HEB in Bellmead was a little sketchy. The bus drops you off on Highway 84, on the wrong side of several lanes of traffic. There’s no sidewalk or crosswalk or stop sign or anything. So me and Anne and this lady you’re about to hear from Lolita and her little granddaughter Azoria had to scurry across the street to the median, wait for some more traffic to pass and scamper to the other side of the highway. Nobody was ever in danger, I was just surprised that this stop, which a lot of people use, wasn’t really marked off.
So. Here’s Lolita Heasley, she’s one of many people who were going to HEB and Walmart on the first of the month to pay her bills.
"I ride the bus, pay bills and everything every month," Heasley says. "I ride the bus just to go to HEB. I been doing it for years. I probably go in here and do what I gotta do here and then I go in that little mall thing and get stuff I need and then I go home. And what’s the route you take to get back? It depends on how long it takes me to do it."
And that issue—how long it takes you to get your errands done—gets kinda complicated when you factor in Waco’s bus schedule. I got off the bus at 9:27 in the morning. If I wanted to head back to town on the next bus, I would need to get on it at 9:41—that’s just fourteen minutes. Possibly enough time if you’re a Supermarket Sweep champ. If you miss that bus, you’ve gotta wait until 10:30. Certainly enough time, but possibly way too much time. And, if for some reason you miss that bus, you’ve gotta wait another hour for the next round of buses. That’s just how it goes when you only have one bus per hour on every route. So for me, I had a few groceries to buy—more than I could get in fourteen minutes, so I was left sitting around for a while.
It’s now 9:41, still waiting about another hour to go before the next bus ride. Just watched a grackle kill a grasshopper, strip it of its wings and legs and then feed it to another grackle. Life in Bellmead. Ryland Barton, signing out.
Needless to say, I had forgotten my book. So in order to get back into town I needed to take the East Waco bus back. There are two different East Waco buses—the odd hour bus and the even hour bus. Basically the bus runs one route in the odd hours and then pretty much the exact opposite route in the even hours. I met Bonnie Reed on the East Waco even hours bus. And she was not happy.
"This route sucks," Reed says. "Why does it suck? It goes one way, turns around and goes the other way goes right back the same way, comes back. This is just the worst route I’ve ever been on and I’ve been on lots of routes."
I’ve heard this complaint from a bunch of people who ride the East Waco bus. Since the route retraces its route every hour, if you live at the beginning or end of the route, it sometimes takes almost two hours for the bus to come by again.
"You gotta do your thing, wait an hour and if you’re not right there on that hour you’re gone, wait another hour," Reed says. "So to pay my bills takes me almost four hours to get back home. But I think god there is a bus I can’t walk too good, I’ve got COPD and I’ll just have to just deal with it."
Bonnie told me she doesn’t ever use the bus to go grocery shopping, which is tough for her because she doesn’t have a car and all the grocery stores are pretty far away from where she lives. She was just at HEB to pay bills today, so she didn’t have to carry anything along with. But when she does shop, she has to call her sister to drive her.
The conclusion I arrived at is that at least in Waco, cars are nearly essential if you want to get around in a timely fashion and want to do things like buy groceries or large items. But if you’re just getting around for stuff like a job or to pay your bills, it’s possible to ride the bus…if you plan ahead. It might seem obvious to say this, but it takes a lot longer to ride the bus than to drive. It took me over two hours to run a simple errand that would have taken me 15 minutes in a car. And it’s important to note that Waco’s bus routes can be pretty complicated and every now and then your bus will be late. This isn’t to say I expect buses to be just as easy or convenient as driving—but it’s important to realize that there are a lot of people out there who depend on this service, and it can be hard to rely on, especially if you need to get groceries.