Public transportation’s ups and downs

Hey folks!  Wanna do something that will save you money AND be good for the environment?  Want to not only shrink your carbon footprint and emissions, but also save gas, reduce wear-and-tear on your vehicle and just plain keep more cash in your pocket?  It can be done, and I’ve got a way to do it!

However, there are some caveats:

  • Your ride to work/the store/wherever will take twice as long.  At least.
  • You may also have to walk a block or two (or 14) to get to your ride, or to get from it to wherever you’re going.
  • It will be far less comfortable — for your ears, your nose, your stomach, your rear end and especially your lower back.  And if you want to stretch your legs, you’d better time it carefully.
  • You can’t eat or drink (or, if you have the addiction, smoke) while you’re doing this.  Sometimes, you can’t even cuss.
  • You’ll be sharing the time with people you might not want to — including the homeless, schizophrenics, longtime drug users (former and current) and just people who want to tell you all about their lives for long periods, whether you asked or not — in fact, whether you’ve even made eye contact with them or not.

Sound like fun to you?  If it does, welcome aboard a city bus!  Have a seat.

For the last two weeks, I was working in a temporary capacity with a consulting firm that was doing a usage study for the San Joaquin Regional Transit District (hereafter known as RTD), the bus utility here in Stockton.  My job was to ride  the buses for several hours at a clip, tracking how many riders got on and off the bus, where and when they did, and occasionally handing out surveys for the riders to fill out.  Not a complicated job — frankly, it was kind of boring — but a fairly taxing one nonetheless.

Why?  Because I had to ride the buses all that time.  Granted, I got a break whenever the drivers did, and since the drivers have a pretty solid union, there were plenty of rest periods.  (And there should be.  I find it tiring sometimes just to drive my 3500-pound Dodge Intrepid for a couple of hours — I couldn’t handle pushing a several-ton bus around all day, let alone non-stop!)  But at the end of the breaks, I had to get on the bus again for another hour.  And experience all of the things I listed above.

Some of you might think I was exaggerating with some of those points.  Trust me, I wasn’t.  First of all, none of the trips were in any way comfortable.  The seats on an RTD bus are hard plastic, with worn, unpadded patches of fabric of the kind usually associated with flophouse carpeting.  All the braking and stopping (are the brakes on these vehicles just not well-maintained, or has no one invented a system that will slow and stop a bus smoothly?) began doing a number on my back, hips and knees after a couple of days, as they had to adjust for every speed change at the rate of several a minute (on those unforgiving seats).  Not to mention what all that stopping ‘n starting does for you if you’re prone to motion sickness.  And I almost forgot … no seat belts.  If you have to make trips daily, what kind of shape are you going to be in after a few weeks?  (Hint: not optimal.)

Aside from your physical comfort, there are all the assaults on your personal comfort.  In Stockton, at least, it is a police violation to eat, drink, smoke or swear on a city bus!  That’s right, they can arrest you for downing a granola bar while riding.  Or dropping an F-bomb, which doesn’t hamstring me, but will affect the conversations of half the population.  Or playing your music too loud.  Now I understand there’s a good reason for all of these rules — after all, who wants to clean up everyone’s spills, or listen to others’ foul language or possibly-antisocial choices in tunes?  But it’s still a disadvantage over most other forms of transport, where you don’t have to curb your freedom in these ways.

And yes, your trip is going to take longer, regardless of where you’re going.  Remeber, I had to keep track of the times people got on and off the bus, so I have a good idea of how long a trip will take.  One of the most-used routes, number 51, runs from San Joaquin General Hospital (southwest of town) to the Downtown Transit Center (one of RTD’s main bases), past St. Joseph’s Hospital up to Weberstown and Sherwood Malls in north-central Stockton.  One way on the route-51 bus: 60-70 minutes, with a built-in 10-20 minute break at the DTC.  One way driving in my car: 25 minutes in rush-hour traffic, 20 otherwise.  A trip to the nearby city of Tracy, a 30-minute jaunt in my Dodge, becomes 90 minutes on RTD, goes through two other towns on the way and includes only four stops in Tracy proper, all in a line on the same street.  (Tracy, incidentally, is a sprawling burg with a population of over 75,000, so four stops in a line doesn’t cover much ground.  If you want to get to any other parts of town, you have to transfer from RTD to the TRACER local bus line, which will only add to the length of your trip.)  If time is money, then riding this bus system will cost you over and above the fares.

Now, given all these disadvantages, are you going to keep your car in the driveway and hop on the bus instead?  Yeah, probably not, unless you’re dedicated to reducing your pollution output above all other considerations.  So who ends up riding the buses?  You got it — the people who either have no other choices or whose only other choices are walking or bumming rides.  (I didn’t include bicycling, with reason; I used to bicycle all over town when I was younger and my knees were in better shape.  Later I discovered RTD — it was called SMART back then, and IMNVHO was better run then than it is now — but rarely used it for anything but out-of-town trips because biking actually got me places faster than the buses did.  Think about that one for a moment.)

So those are the majority of people you find on the bus.  Poor people who can’t afford cars.  Teenagers heading for school (and cutting up along the way), too young to drive.  Those who are so mentally ill that they aren’t allowed to drive.  Folks who’ve lost their licenses, often for DUI and other substance-abuse violations.  These groups are leavened somewhat by people with physical handicaps that keep them from operating a motor vehicle (like my wife, aka the Supermodel), senior citizens who can’t drive anymore and folks whose cars are in the shop that day.  But they’re a small minority.  Mostly it’s people who are either uncomfortable to be around socially, indifferent to their hygiene, or both.  And you’re trapped in a metal box with them, listening to all their conversations (unless you’ve got your iPod turned up so high to drown them out that you’re risking hearing damage), inhaling all their smells, for as long as you’re on the vehicle.  Every single time you get on the vehicle.  Day after day after day.

Maybe I’m only speaking for myself here.  I’m not Mr. Sociable in the best of circumstances, so I’m not interested in conversations with total strangers, especially not if they’re telling me the intimate secrets of their lives, unasked for.  (I am, once again, not exaggerating; this happened to me at least twice every day of the RTD study.  And not responding didn’t deter them either.)  Maybe I’m just sorely lacking in compassion or the fruit of the Holy Spirit.  But it strikes me that I’m not so different from most people in this regard.  If I have the choice of making a daily commute in my personal vehicle, with soft seats, air conditioning and stereo that I control, minimal noise and good brakes, or on the bus system with none of those creature comforts and double the travel time, I’m taking my car, okay?  And I’d bet you are too, regardless of your personality, view of human nature or spiritual condition.

I’m not against public transportation as a concept, you understand.  A few years ago, I spent a week working in the San Jose area, and riding from Stockton to San Jose and back via the Altamont Commuter Express (ACE) train.  Totally different animal from RTD.  For one, it’s a train, so the ride was a lot smoother.  But even beyond that, it was a more pleasant experience.  The seats on ACE are comfortably padded with room to stretch my longer-than-average legs.  The cars are well-lit and carpeted.  There are tables you can sit at if you want to spread your stuff out a bit.  You can eat your breakfast and drink your coffee or OJ while riding.  It took two hours to get from here to San Jose, maybe a little less than commuting in rush-hour traffic would have.  And the cost was about $16 for a round trip, not a lot more than I would’ve blown on gas.  (It’s a bit higher now, around $20, I think.)  I enjoyed ACE thoroughly, as did my wife and kids when they used it for a day trip to see my in-laws earlier this year.  So I’m not against public transportation — I’m against lousy public transportation.

How many of RTD’s problems are fixable?  Not sure.  They could certainly find a way to improve the seat comfort, the lighting, the ventilation and (I hope) the braking, though they may have to raise the fares to pay for it all.  They’re trying to improve the speed — one of the routes is now an “express” line between some of the most common stops.  They could loosen the restrictions on food and drink (as it is, those rules are only sporadically enforced).  And RTD is working on reducing its own pollution levels: I think about half their buses right now are diesel-electric hybrids.  But by and large, the bus system will still be used heavily by the people whose best or only choice for transport is the bus system — and these are not necessarily people everyone wants to hang around with on a regular basis.  That can’t be helped.

So while I’m glad there’s a bus system available here in town, I’d just as soon pass on using it if I don’t have to.  If riding on RTD was as comfortable, relaxing and efficient as riding on ACE (or BART, which I’ve used in the past, or San Francisco’s MUNI system, about which I hear good things), I wouldn’t mind.  But until that happens … well, I’ve got a Dodge and I’m not afraid to use it.

(Postscript: I welcome your experiences with public transportation, as my own sample size is too small to be representative — please do comment below.)

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2 Responses to Public transportation’s ups and downs

  1. dhelmer says:

    Ray,

    You just *knew* I’d have to comment on this one, didn’t you? :) Actually, though, I don’t see anything here that I would disagree with. Although I ride public transit here in Sacramento (RT) regularly, and I haven’t ridden Stockton’s public transit in ages, I’ll in fact agree with you: With a few exceptions, public transportation in America is generally pretty awful–certainly compared with Europe or Japan.

    For the benefit of readers, I’m an old college friend of Ray’s, and for the past few years have chronicled the ups and downs of Sacramento Regional Transit in a local ‘zine that I write. At times in my ‘zine I tend to be a bit of an over-zealous cheerleader for public transit, because I think we need more people to ride it and improve the system. But I fully recognize that, for the past few decades in the U.S., public transit wasn’t really intended (by governments and city planners) as a viable alternative means of transportation for everyone; rather, it’s more or less a minimal alternative means of transportation for the poor, seniors, the disabled & others without cars.

    In the past couple of decades or so, with a greater awareness of environmental impacts of cars and the benefits of reducing traffic congestion, a number of cities have tried to make the transition to an upgraded public transit system, which would allow “lifestyle riders”–people who have cars but choose at times to take transit–to be able to use the system, particularly for commuting. (Stockton’s system clearly doesn’t sound like it’s anywhere near this, by the way.) The one area where I think attempts at such an upgrade have been successful in Sacramento, is the light-rail line to Folsom. Even though the line is single-tracked for the last 1.5 miles, and light-rail trains only go all the way to the Folsom stations every half hour, and even though service to Folsom *ends* at about 7:30 p.m., it has still succeeded in getting significant numbers of commuters to take light-rail from Folsom to downtown Sacramento. Last summer, when the gas prices went up to $4.50 a gallon, I saw with my own eyes that the morning trains from Folsom were packed.

    This sort of shows the halfway commitment many local governments give to public transit. As I’ve argued in my ‘zine, there is good evidence (from other cities, in the U.S. and elsewhere) that the public will take public transit in significant numbers, if it’s:

    (1) Reliable;
    (2) Convenient;
    (3) Safe; and
    (4) Affordable.

    I have more I could comment about this issue, but I don’t want to take up any more space than I have already. And Ray–nice work, taking a little job with Stockton’s RTD and using your experience to explain to readers what’s wrong with your local public transit system. Thanks.

  2. […] admit there are a couple of asterisks attached to that statement.  I did a three-week temp job riding public transportation for a consulting firm.  I’ve also done a little freelance wordsmithing (business letters and the like) for a […]

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