April 18--M. Evelina Galang lives only four miles away from her job at the University of Miami campus, yet sometimes traffic is so bad during rush hour on U.S. 1 and its intersecting avenues that it takes the creative writing program director an hour to get home.
As she sits in traffic, she can see the Metrorail trains whizzing by, but although she has taken public transportation in every major city where she has lived -- Manila, Chicago, New York, Washington D.C. -- Galang had never considered it an option in South Florida until now.
"There's a lack of trust," she says. "I've been living here for 11/2 years and I drive everywhere. In these other cities, you know it's [the train] coming, but here the perception is that you may be left stranded if a meeting or an event goes on too long."
But with gas prices on the rise and predicted to reach $5 a gallon this summer more people like Galang, who is spending about $45 every time she fills up her Honda, are reconsidering their transportation options. Metro-Dade Transit officials say the number of people boarding Metrorail trains increased by 7 percent from January 2010 to January 2011.
"Although we have not seen a direct correlation between rising gas prices and rising Metrorail ridership, we expect to see an increase in the use of public transportation in the upcoming months," said spokeswoman Irene D. Ferradaz .
Why don't more Miamians ride their $2 (each way) Metrorail and their free Metromover when filling up your gas tank can easily cost a commuter more than $250 a month these days and a monthly Metrorail pass with a parking permit is $110?
There are plenty of reasons, South Floridians say.
It's tough to trust a system that doesn't really deliver you home or at the doorstep of your destination. Unless you live within a reasonable distance of a Metrorail station or work near one, Metrorail doesn't get you where you need to be.
And even if you're willing to make a string of connections by bus, who wants to walk in hot or rainy weather?
But most of all, people in Florida are attached to their cars, which are like rolling offices stocked with everything from that extra sweater to deal with the office air conditioning to grooming kits in the glove compartment.
Yet commuters who ride the rails everyday to downtown Miami -- especially those who come from South Miami or Kendall -- give Metrorail high marks, despite recent cuts that widened the wait time for trains from six to 10 minutes.
For them, riding the rails has become an urban experience they actually enjoy.
"They've really improved," says Robertson Adams, a webmaster for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with offices in the Wachovia Building.
Adams has been riding daily the Metrorail from South Miami to the Government Center station for seven years. "It's a smarter way to get into town when you think of all the traffic out there, and parking in downtown Miami is really expensive," he says.
One recent major improvement: free Wi-Fi on the trains.
"Sometimes there are crises I can resolve sitting on the train. I can reset the Web service or publish something that is waiting. I can have a Skype conversation and chat with my co-workers," Adams says.
The reliability issue may be simply perception, the commuters say.
Metrorail's on-time performance for the first quarter of the current fiscal year was 96 percent, Ferradaz said.
The trains arrive every 10 minutes during weekday rush hours, every 15 minutes at midday, and every 30 minutes from about 7:30 until closing. Weekend service runs every 30 minutes.
Katherine Lopez, who lives in Palmetto Bay, takes a bus to the Dadeland South station and rides Metrorail to Government Center, where she transfers to the Metromover to reach her final destination, the College Bayside station and Miami Dade College's Wolfson Campus.
She rides with her school supplies in a backpack and carries a long board that she rides around downtown and campus courtyards to class.
The entire trip takes her about 40 minutes.
"It's convenient," the 18-year-old art student says of the rail system. "I use the college pass, which is $50 a month and you have unlimited rides on the bus and the Metrorail."
She likes it so much she rides the train to the Vizcaya station and visits a friend in Coconut Grove, and her board takes her the rest of the way.
She has a car, but it has mechanical problems and she'd rather not drive it anyway.
"I don't really like driving," she says. "I'd rather take the Metro. When I finish my AA, I do want to move to New York to do musical theater, so I think of going downtown as a training session."
Adams also enjoys the urban experience of riding the rails.
One Friday afternoon, a jazz combo from the New World School of the Arts serenaded riders. At Christmas, carolers were rehearsing on the train for a performance at the White House. Another time, a team of swimmers got on the train wearing only flip-flops, swim suits and towels.
"It's good way to connect with your community," says Adams, who only fills his gas tank once a month.
His only complaint: Metromover.
A season ticketholder to the Cleveland Orchestra's performances at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, he had parked the car in the Brickell area to have dinner before the show and planned to ride the Metromover to the Arsht station at Omni. But the train never showed up on time and he had to get back into his car, drive and repark near the Arsht.
"Metromover is the weak part of this," he says. "It doesn't come often enough or is predictable enough."
As for Galang, she became a convert to public transportation recently when she had to leave her car at a shop for service overnight.
Her computer on a roller bag, she took the train from the University station to Coconut Grove, two stops and a five-minute ride. At the Grove station, she took one of the buses "ready and waiting for us" for another two-stop ride to a stop two blocks from her home.
Roundtrip cost: $4.
"If everything were always like this, I would take public transportation," she says.
On the train, she watched the traffic piling up below and smiled.
"If it would only go to the beach..." she said.
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