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MONTGOMERY, Ala. — There’s no place Michael Harris won’t drive. He drops college students off at Auburn University at Montgomery, takes workers to the Hyundai plant and shuttles people to their doctor visits. Sometimes the rehab center in the next county calls him to pick up drug addicts and take them in for detox. At $90, he is much cheaper than an ambulance, and instead of being strapped to a gurney, his passengers ride shotgun in his Lincoln Navigator.
Harris has driven a taxi in Montgomery, Alabama for more than a decade. He and other cab drivers fill a void in the city, where many residents don’t own a car, and public buses arrive only once an hour and don’t run after 9 p.m. or on Sundays.
In Alabama, city and intercity buses played a huge role in the civil rights demonstrations of the 1950s and ’60s. In Montgomery, the state capital, city buses, which were the scene of grass-roots protest to end segregation on public transportation, are now a threadbare operation. Buses between cities in Alabama are infrequent, and trips can often take twice as long as in a car because of long layovers. Cities point to the fact that bus ridership has declined in recent decades, and advocates for better bus systems argue that there is little state or local money for public transportation. Alabama is one of only four states — the others are Arizona, Hawaii and Utah — that provide no state funds for public transportation.
With such limited funding, Kelvin Miller, who has been the general manager for the Montgomery Area Transit System (MATS) for nine years, said the city cannot improve bus service. “The money that we get from the federal government and the city is only enough to handle the service that we presently provide,” he said. Alabama's transportation committee did not respond to requests for comment.
For decades, Montgomery’s Greyhound station was in the heart of downtown, only a few blocks from the state Capitol. In May of 1961 the Freedom Riders, a group of civil rights activists who rode interstate buses through the South to protest segregation, arrived in Montgomery and were attacked by a mob of white protesters. The old station is now the Freedom Rides Museum, and the bus station was moved to the south side of Montgomery, a poor and predominately African-American neighborhood.
“I think a lot of it was trying to get that element out from downtown,” said Georgette Norman, a former director of the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery. “It’s just so blatant.
Now the Greyhound bus station in Montgomery sits off a six-lane highway on the south side of the city. Along the road are the bones of promised progress — a long-abandoned mall, a strip of fast-food joints, motels and vacant lots protected by caved-in chain-link fences.
There are no crosswalks or overpasses, so in order to get to the restaurants on the other side of the street, people must run across six lanes of traffic. “They need a catwalk bad,” Harris said, watching as two men tried to cross. He said that just this year, he has seen several people get hit by cars, most at night. “But in this side of town, they don’t want to spend no money.”
In the afternoons, Harris is one of a group of cab drivers who wait outside for buses from Birmingham, Atlanta and Nashville.
When the buses arrive, Harris, in a black cloth jacket and fedora with a frayed chicken feather tucked into the brim, holds a “taxi” sign as tired passengers pull bags from underneath the bus.
He has been doing this for more than a decade and said he can tell by the type of pants a person is wearing if he just got out of prison. He said a lot of people don’t have the money to pay for a cab, so he will often lower his rate to get more business.
That afternoon a passenger paid him $5 for a ride to the Arby’s across the street.
Stephen Stetson, a policy analyst at the Montgomery-based nonprofit Arise Citizens’ Policy Project said legislators and policymakers often assume that most Alabamians get a car when they turn 16.
“Because that was their experience, they assume incorrectly that that was the experience for most Alabamians,” he explained. “We don’t really appreciate how many people are struggling to hitch a ride, relying on family and friends.”
According to the 2014 American Communities Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau, of the 2 million Alabamians 16 or older who work, 40,000 do not have a car. Only a tiny percentage of workers — 0.4 percent — take the bus to their jobs. About 2 percent take a cab or walk.
Stetson added that those numbers are likely only part of the story, because there are almost no data in Alabama that measure the unmet transportation needs of citizens or the effect the lack of transportation has on the state’s economy.
For example, Hyundai, which employs about 3,000 full-time workers at its manufacturing plant in Montgomery, offers no shuttle or bus to get to work. According to the Robert Burns, the senior manager for public relations at Hyundai in Alabama, the company never considered a shuttle, since about 60 percent of workers live within 25 miles of the plant. Several cab drivers said they regularly take workers to the plant. Tina McManama, the vice president of marketing and communications for the Montgomery Chamber of Commerce, said businesses heading to Montgomery “never ask about transportation.”
The only such study Stetson has found was done by a graduate engineering student at the University of Alabama in Huntsville in 2002. The paper looked at two counties in northern Alabama that at the time had a dial-a-ride service through which residents had to schedule to be picked up hours — sometimes a day — in advance. According to the student’s research, the unmet transportation need in the two counties was 94 percent, even with the service, but there was no follow-up on its economic impact.
At least 15 of Alabama’s 67 counties have no public bus service. Instead, people rely on family members and friends, or they call a taxi.
Every day Harris takes an elderly woman lunch. She is about 70, he said, can’t drive and lives by herself, so she relies on him. He picks up whatever she wants and tacks on $15 for delivery.
“[Taxi service] has been one of the workarounds that people have come to rely on, but it’s not affordable,” Stetson said. He compared taxis to payday loans, which fill a financial void but are ultimately financially burdensome. “Really low-income people end up getting gouged by the [city’s] failure to provide a service that we all could use.”
Don Williamson is the president of the Alabama Hospital Association, and he previously served as the Alabama’s state health officer for 23 years. He said he saw a study in the 1980s that shocked him.
“The study analyzed what were the biggest problems in health care in rural Alabama,” he remembered. “And I would have said it was lack of physicians in rural communities. Turned out it wasn’t. It was a transportation deficiency.”
Williamson said he started to see this reflected in his patients and the health statistics in Alabama. Patients would miss appointments, and he would see them experience complications or even disabilities from diseases like hypertension or diabetes that could have been prevented with regular doctor visits.
“Let’s assume you’re a diabetic and you don’t have ready transportation. You may not keep your regular appointment with your physician to monitor your eyes or your feet, so when do you go to the doctor?” he asked. “You go to the doctor when you have a diabetic foot ulcer that’s severely infected, and now you have to deal with amputation or renal failure.”
A 2011 paper published by the American Diabetes Association showed that high rates of lower-extremity amputation, which is common among diabetics who are not regularly treated, was linked to where patients lived. High instances of amputations related to diabetes were clustered in pockets across the South, including rural areas of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas that have little to no access to transportation. According to the CDC, in 2013, 70 percent of adult diabetes patients in Alabama reported that they had their feet examined by a doctor, whereas in North Carolina, a state with a more developed transportation network, nearly 80 percent of patients received foot scans.
Donna Reeves has been driving cabs for 15 years. She has the gravelly voice of a longtime smoker and the brusque demeanor of a boxer. Reeves and her daughter-in-law are the only female cab drivers who wait outside the Greyhound station. Like Harris, Reeves takes people everywhere.
“We take kids to school. Their parents don’t have cars,” she said. There are four sets of kids, 10 and older, whom she shuttles to school and back every day.
Half her customers rely on her for daily trips to work. She said she charges a flat rate of $10 for less than 5 miles, so a lot of customers pay her $100 a week to take them to work and back. That adds up to about $5,000 for a year, and in Alabama the median annual income is $23,680, about $5,000 less than the national average.
“They say it’s a lot cheaper to take a cab than to buy a car, pay for insurance, do mechanical work. Just take a cab,” Reeves said matter-of-factly. “They depend on us. We get them where they need to be.”