Christine Viña, Project Manager for Urban Design at VIA Metropolitan Transit
Interview location: Ácenar Restaurant in San Antonio (and several other stops)
In one word, she describes herself as “unpredictable.”
People Who Move People is a web series profiling individuals who have made an impact in public transit. The series has been initiated and funded by Atlanta-based RouteMatch Software. This article was originally posted on May 9, 2017.
San Antonio is in the middle of Fiesta, a two-week party, and the colorful city has mariachi music spilling out of every corner. Tomorrow is the Battle of Flowers parade — the second-largest parade in the nation — that honors the fallen patriots at the Alamo and commemorates the battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 1836, when Texas won its independence from Mexico.
I’m in San Antonio to meet Christine Viña, an architect and project manager at VIA Metropolitan Transit, the city’s main transit agency. I’m waiting for her in the boardroom at the VIA executive offices at “The Grand,” a renovated train station from 1907. I hear Christine coming before I see her, and it sounds like a hundred cymbals. “Yep,” she announces a moment before she walks through the door, “you’re going to interview the person wearing cowbells.”
Everything about Christine is bright. She’s wearing a hot pink blazer over a neon floral blouse, and a sparkling smile dominates her face. The source of the noise she’s making is a long blue-and-yellow ribbon necklace hung with dozens of medals and pins that clang against each other. One of the many Fiesta traditions, medal-collecting is popular and competitive. Christine shows off a couple of dozen — there’s one for Women in Transportation, the Arts County Council, and El Rey Fido, a Fiesta event.
Sitting down at the head of the boardroom table, Christine says, “One goal of this project is to get young people to consider a career in public transit, right?” I nod. “Well you need to speak with my coworker, Art.” Art, she tells me as she dials his number, is a charismatic young man, passionate about transit, and so convincing and articulate he “could sell ice to a snowman.” When Art picks up, he tells me over speakerphone that I’ve visited during the “best possible time” to see San Antonio.
For Fiesta, VIA is running special event service from park-n-rides throughout the city to various venues, and Art is excited to say they are partnering with Uber to get passengers from their homes to the park-n-rides and back again. “Otherwise, you’d get to the park-n-ride facility, but [after Fiesta] you’d have to drive to your home,” he says. “We know you’re going to go out and have fun, maybe drink a little bit. We don’t want you behind the wheel. The idea with partnering with Uber is just to get folks home safely.”
To plan the entire trip and schedule an Uber appointment, he suggests downloading the RideScout app. New Uber users will get a twenty-dollar credit. “It’s also getting our foot in their door,” he continues, “because ideally we would like to partner with them throughout the year to provide what we call the ‘first-mile, last-mile.’” He explains that VIA’s service area covers 1,300 square miles, and not everyone lives within reasonable walking distance (which is considered a quarter-mile) of a bus stop. An Uber driver, then, would close that gap from a person’s home to a transit center. “We’re hoping that this has some good use and feedback so that we can partner with them from now on,” says Art.
When I ask Art how he got into transit, he says it happened “by accident.” As a political science major at the University of Texas at San Antonio, Art was taking a course in urban planning when a professor recommended an internship at VIA, and he got hooked on transit. When he reflects further on his connection to transit, he realizes it might go all the way back to his childhood. “I was the kid that liked to play with Legos, and I’d create those little cities,” he says, “So I think I was always going to do something with city planning.”
“Why do you think public transit is an important component of urban planning?” I ask.
“I think it serves as a lifeline for many, many folks,” replies Art. “It’s not just a convenience. It’s actually a need. Especially in a city like ours, with a lower household income, you definitely see the effect you have on people.” He wants transit “to be seen as a utility and less as a social service ... we want people to see that VIA is as needed as electricity and water service.”
I ask, “What would you tell a young person considering a career in public transit?”
Christine interjects, “Because you know when you’re at a social event with cool people, and they say, ‘Oh, what do you do?’ and you say, ‘I work for VIA,’ you get this immediate expression on their face.”
“Oh yeah,” says Art. “They think I drive a bus.”
“Yes,” continues Christine. “So sometimes I play along with that and say, ‘I gotta go catch my route. I’ll be driving tonight.’ So if I tell them I’m an architect, then they’re doubly confused — Why is an architect working for a bus company?”
“You know, it’s gotten one of our coworkers out of a ticket,” says Art.
“That was me,” says Christine. “It’s gotten me out of a ticket.” She tells me that one night, driving home after work, she was pulled over for speeding. When the policewoman saw her VIA badge, she assumed she was a bus driver and didn’t want her to get in trouble with a ticket. “I didn’t lie,” says Christine, “but I didn’t correct her.”
“So that’s a benefit, Laura Lee,” concludes Art jokingly, getting back to the initial question. “I’d encourage young people to do an internship,” he says. “They’d be amazed by what they learn in those five months.”
While I am in town, I feel like I am Christine’s guest. She is an ambassador for VIA and San Antonio, where she moved twenty years ago from Washington, D.C. to become executive director of the Southtown Urban Main Street Project. She started working for VIA almost nine years ago, when she accepted the position in project management and urban design.
Our first destination is a VIA project on the west side of San Antonio. “Up until five years ago, the median income of many families was about five thousand dollars,” Christine tells me, stepping off the frequent service VIA bus, right outside the Guadalupe Cultural Center. Brightly painted murals cover neighborhood walls and buildings. A 40-foot votive candle made of ceramic tile, La Veladora of our Lady of Guadalupe, by Jesse Treviño, stands in the community’s center, sparkling in the sun.
A few years ago, Christine explains, she pitched the idea of a series of VIA bus stops to a committee of the city’s Housing and Culture and Creative Developments. In coordination with many local interests, the project would reflect the west side and serve as gathering places for the community. “It was the city’s project,” says Christine, “but we worked hand in hand.”
A team composed of a local artist, an architectural designer, and an engineer was selected as winner of a design competition to design the bus shelters. Christine and I walk to the first of the three bus shelters, which looks like a front porch. The frame of the structure is cast iron carved into patterns of leaves and vines, painted in green, purple, and orange. In all there are six seats, painted bright green, that look like old-fashioned porch gliders. From the street view, the roof is painted green, but standing underneath the shelter, the ceiling looks like the night sky.
“So for every one of these patterns,” says Christine, moving to the back of the shelter, “our safety and security folks had to make sure that you wouldn’t be able to cut your finger.” Poking her finger through the purple lattice, she runs it along the smooth edges. “For kids, and for the patron, everything is about safety,” she continues, elaborating on all the aspects they had to consider before art could effectively meet function.
“A bus stop is a very complicated design program,” she explains, “because of all the functional, safety, and sightline requirements.” The shelter had to provide shade at the right time of day. The waiting passengers had to be able to see an approaching bus, and the bus driver had to be able to see the passengers. Christine and the design team had to think about the lines that form when people board a bus, and ensure that the structure didn’t get in the way. “This is our ADA [Americans with Disabilities] spot for a wheelchair,” says Christine, pointing to an empty space next to the glider chair. “We’ve got to provide equal access. If you provide a shelter with a cover, you have to provide that for someone in a wheelchair.”
In my short time with Christine, I already understand that her eyes see the world differently — as a collection of details rather than one big structure. Where I see a bus stop or a building, she sees the individual pieces that make it up. She thinks about the experience for someone interacting with the final product. As an architect, she is always marrying aesthetic with function. She points to a trashcan in front of the stop. “When I first came to VIA, these were all black, and we would use these white trash can liners with masking tape,” she says, shaking her head in disapproval. “I was like, ‘Do you think we could at least get black liners and just tie them, so there’s not that visual contrast in the uneven white line?’”
Gradually, her pleas for a more attractive trashcan were heard. Now this trashcan in front of the Urban Porch project is green, with a green trash bag. “We’re doing a really good job,” she says, adding that if transit agencies want to capture “choice riders,” these little things that influence a passenger experience are significant. “If we’re trying to convert people to being transit riders, the environment in which you wait is so important,” she says.
We walk a few blocks to another Urban Porch bus shelter. “This one is my favorite,” says Christine. I can see why. A lavender porch swing is inviting me to take a seat. “The fact that we were able to get a swing was a real coup,” says Christine proudly. I sit down on the comfortable three-seat swing, and Christine takes my picture. Next to the swing, there are two more glider seats, and the shelter has the same latticed design with a new color, turquoise. “From a safety perspective, we were allowed about six inches on the pendulum,” she says, swinging her hand back and forth and explaining that any more than that might be a risk for an older person taking a seat. The people who run the theater around the corner have told Christine that they see community members gathering at the Urban Porch not only to catch a bus but to catch up with friends. Christine is smiling as she recalls the conversation.
“My goal was to change the public realm of transit,” she says, “to change the perception of how we look at a bus stop.”
We ride a bus back to Centro Plaza for our next bus. While we are waiting in the plaza, Christine tells me about the ground. “All around the perimeter, the pavers are permanently set, but in the middle, it’s pervious pavers,” she says. I ask what she means. “When we have rain, the water seeps down into a huge 20,000 gallon cistern.” The cistern has a pump that provides water to the trees and landscape. “It’s very sustainable,” she says.
Our Primo bus, a 60-foot transit vehicle that looks like an accordion, is pulling up to the station, and we run to hop on. Along the way, Christine tells me that we are heading to the near east side, to a one-block stretch called Ellis Alley, which was the first settlement of freed slaves in San Antonio. In the heyday of Ellis Alley — from the late-18th to early-19th centuries — 25 narrow, rectangular “shotgun” houses were crowded on the street, forming a tight-knit community of African Americans.
We get off the bus at Chestnut Street, where the last of the houses stand. “So this is all VIA’s property,” she says. “These homes were very dilapidated. This was the last vestige of the African-American neighborhood on the east side.” One of the rehabbed buildings is the VIA Customer Information Center, and another building, which is painted bright pink, is rented out to a dentist.
Christine stops in front of a cream-colored stucco building. “So this building houses SAGE, which is San Antonio for Growth on the East Side, a non-profit that works to support businesses on the East Side,” she explains. Two years ago, she says, the building was “literally on the ground ... it took us about four years to get the money, get the support, to do the rehabilitation on these three buildings. Very costly, but very important,” she continues, “because the more cost-efficient response would be just to tear it down.” Largely as a result of her efforts to restore the Ellis Alley Enclave, VIA won a Texas Preservation Award.
We are both getting hungry, and we are in the mood for Tex-Mex. Christine suggests a place called Ácenar, owned by a local businesswoman whom she respects. We sit under an umbrella at a table outside next to the famous River Walk of San Antonio. A barge floats by, carrying a group of tourists on a dinner cruise. Christine tells me that, as president of the local chapter for the American Institute of Architects, “we partnered with the City, to host a design competition for a new barge.” By the bicentennial in 2018, the winner will be floating in the San Antonio River.
The restaurant is filled with people wearing flower crowns and medals, sipping frozen margaritas, eager for more Fiesta celebrations and tomorrow’s parade. We order chips and guacamole, which the waiter prepares tableside in a traditional stone molcajete bowl. “Mild, medium, or spicy?” asks the waiter, his hand hovering over the chilies.
“Mild,” Christine answers for both of us, accurately adding, “We’re wimps.”
I had read about a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant that VIA received, and I ask Christine how she thought to apply for it. She tells me she didn’t. “It was actually a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio College of Architecture,” she says. “His name is Taeg Nishimoto, an artist and architect originally from Japan — a tremendous mind.” Independent from the Urban Porch Project, the NEA grant was for the Our Town program, which, according to the NEA website, “Supports creative placemaking projects that help to transform communities into lively, beautiful, and resilient places with the arts at their core.”
Professor Nishimoto’s idea was to organize a symposium on the integration of public art, public transit, and public space. The university, with VIA and the city as partners, created a semester-long classroom studio exploring “how public space in an urban setting that houses public transit can be a form of public art,” explains Christine.
In one project, grad students spread out a map of San Antonio and designed sculptures that reflected the diverse personalities of the city’s neighborhoods. “They were exploring what makes up San Antonio,” says Christine. Students had “models and presentations for us to design bus shelters,” which aligned with neighborhood themes. Lectures and presentations were open to the public. From the symposium, VIA developed their Art-in-Transit Program, which Christine directs, and offers the opportunity for artists to integrate works of art at transit stops and larger transit facilities.
In her passion for improving the look and feel of transit facilities, Christine doesn’t lose sight of the practical demands. “Planning in a transit agency is very demanding because it’s time sensitive,” she says. “Whereas in other professions, being ten minutes late may not be an issue, being ten minutes late to someone whose job depends on it could be the difference in their economic lifeline. They could be fired for being late.” One challenge of working in transit, as Christine sees it, is to make sure operations run according to schedule day-to-day, “then balancing that with strategic planning—being able to think 20, 30, 40 years ahead. What is the community going to demand, and how are we going to function in the community?”
To Christine, it’s obvious that land use and transit go hand in hand. I ask what she means. “There’s a saying in real estate, related to housing affordability,” she says. “You drive until you qualify, meaning the farther out you go, the less expensive the housing. What that’s done in our communities is have those that can least afford it live the furthest out, so they’re spending a greater percentage of their household income on transportation. So if you can get people to move closer in, into more compactly designed communities, then you have the option of, say, a two-car household being able to give up a car, in favor of access to more transit.”
Her challenge in San Antonio, she says, is that they don’t have a light rail system. To attract developers to invest in transit-oriented development around buses can be a hard sell. “A bus is perceived as being very flexible and able to move and so when you’re looking at investors, they want something a little more permanent,” which couldn’t one day change its route and render the property irrelevant. She’s hoping that their new Primo service, with much more permanent stations, will help start changing that perception and bring developers on board. “We’re hopefully going to have our first transit-oriented development in a small suburban city,” she says. “If there’s an opportunity to live, work, and play in a very concentrated area, it allows you much less time spent on transportation. Therefore, you might have a higher quality of life and much more time to yourself and your family.”
After dinner and a return trip to Centro Plaza, Christine offers — then insists on — giving me a ride back to my hotel, after which she will return to the office to finish work. Streets are crowded and loud, with a nearby music venue blasting reggaeton. Christine taps her hand on the steering wheel in rhythm with the song. “To me,” she says, “If you’re going to have the driving bass beat, I want it to be disco. I’ll always be a disco queen.”
When I ask about Christine’s favorite thing about San Antonio, she cites the International Accordion Festival. She explains that groups come from all over the world to showcase “a total gamut of style, whether it’s Zydeco, Tejano, Klezmer, Irish ...” She tells me that her mother put herself through school playing the accordion in a band. “She hates it, but I still love it,” says Christine. Additionally, she likes the diversity and small-town feel of San Antonio, which she attributes to being a one-team city. Everyone rallies around the Spurs.
By the end of our six-hour interview, I conclude that Christine is as bubbly and likeable as she is knowledgeable about urban design and transit. “I’m glad that I’m working for an agency that supports sustainable options for all people,” she says. “At some point in the future, your transportation choice will have many more consequences associated with it. You see that now, with cities that have congestion pricing — where you have to make the decision if driving is really worth it.” She goes back to the passenger that depends on transit for mobility, who, because of VIA, can have “a meaningful job in life because they can get to work,” she says. “I just think — okay, if they couldn’t take that bus, had no transportation option, and they had to be publically supported, isn’t that costing us all a lot more?”