Camille Landry is a writer, activist, and social justice advocate who lives in Oklahoma City. This post is part of our “Neglected Oklahoma” series, which tells the stories of Oklahomans in situations where the basic necessities of life are hard to come by. These are real people and their stories are true (names have been changed to protect privacy).
Shereen Hickman is proud of her independence. She has always believed that there is nothing she can’t do – even if she has to work harder at it than other people. She has had a seizure disorder since infancy. She studied hard, got good grades in school, and left her home in a small town in eastern Oklahoma to attend the University of Oklahoma. She moved to Oklahoma City and found a good job.
People with seizure disorders have to go a full year without a seizure in order to get a driver’s license. Shereen hasn’t been able to meet that criterion. She cannot drive and is totally dependent upon public transportation or getting a ride with someone in order to get around.
“I found a job on a bus route that ran near my home,” she reports, “but it is hard to get to other places. I have to ask friends or family for a ride. Bus service is very limited in OKC.”
“I had to change to a doctor who was on a bus route.” “It’s too bad I can’t be the designated driver when I go out,” she jokes, “because I can’t drink … but then I can’t drive, either!”
Six months ago Shereen lost her job after her employer reorganized and laid people off. “No problem,” she thought. “I’ve always had a job. I’ll find another one soon.” She watched literally dozens of job prospects fall through due to lack of transportation.
Buses start running around 6:30 am. If you have to be at work at 7 or 7:30, you’re out of luck. Buses run in an area bound by SW 74th, I-35, NW 63rd and Meridian. “Buses zig and zag through neighborhoods. That’s good if your destination is one of the places that Metro Transit has decided to service. It’s awful for everybody else.”
A lack of sidewalks is another hazard in Oklahoma City. “Even if I could walk a mile or two, there’s usually no sidewalk. You have to walk in the street with traffic zooming by at 40 or 50 mph, or slog through weeds, holes, mosquitoes, mud and mess, rain, snow, sleet, or 100-degree temperatures.”
Buses stop running around 6:30 pm. On Saturdays they run on a reduced schedule and they don’t run at all on Sundays or holidays. A door-to-door service that sends a van to pick up and drop off passengers with physical limitations, but those vans run on a first-come, first-served basis. “You never know when you’ll be bumped in favor of someone who called a minute before you did.” Metro-Links, the transit authority’s service that provides rides in the evenings and on Sundays, serves a limited area. Shereen lives outside the Metro-Link service area – and many jobs are also beyond its limits.
When she is able to catch a bus, service is fairly reliable – although buses are often late and it’s easy to miss your transfer. The drivers are polite, she says, and helpful to passengers who need assistance. The buses are clean and safe but most bus stops lack shelters to keep riders out of the rain or snow.
Shereen recently turned down a job because it would take almost two hours to get there and she’d be chronically late because the earliest available bus wouldn’t get her there on time. Another job required working evenings and Saturdays – times when no buses are running. “Heck, I can’t even get to a lot of interviews on the bus.”
She wanted to enroll in courses to upgrade her skills but bus service to campus is scanty. “I learn much better in a classroom setting, she said, “but I can’t get there.” She’s trying online classes next semester.
Shereen has almost exhausted her savings and worries about losing her home. “Lack of good public transportation is standing between me and survival,” Shereen states.
Shereen is not alone. Ninety percent of OKC bus riders are transit-dependent, according to Rick Cain, administrator for the Central Oklahoma Transportation & Parking Authority, meaning that they have no other reliable form of transportation. For these individuals, lack of transportation is a major obstacle to getting and keeping a job, going to school, or taking care of other needs. And as bad as public transit is in Oklahoma City, most other communities are even worse. Many Oklahoma municipalities have no public transportation whatsoever.
“I don’t want a handout,” Shereen says. I’ve always stood on my own two feet, but these transportation issues have cut me off at the knees.”