Put the “Public” Back in Public Transportation

by on October 29, 2012 · 6 comments

in Civil Rights, Culture, Environment, Ocean Beach, San Diego

Sustainability 101: Put the Public Back in Public Transportation – Part 1

 With this first introductory segment on public transportation, I wanted to raise just a few points. The next segment will feature a few anecdotes I’ve been collecting. I hope that you, dear reader, will also chime in so I can include your experiences as well.

For those of you who know me, I don’t drive, and have never had a license. I am therefore dependent upon my feet, public transportation, and the goodness of others to get where I need to go. Since I live in OB, I can walk most places, but when I leave this walker’s paradise, I mostly rely on the bus and trolley.

Other riders have their reasons for using public transportation, such as the following:

  • Limited parking where they work or attend school
  • The cost of parking garages and lots
  • To avoid ever getting a parking ticket
  • The possibility of yet another parking ticket
  • Taking public transportation is easier as they don’t need to go very far
  • They don’t own a car
  • Their car is in the shop
  • Their car was stolen
  • Their roommates or family members have the car that day
  • They’re frugal and want to save on gas
  • It’s their contribution to a green environment
  • No money in the school budget for field trip transportation
  • They’re engaged in a comparative analysis between driving their own vehicle and public transportation
  • They take the bus or trolley part of the way, then ride their bike the rest of the way
  • They’re in a wheelchair and it’s less expensive to take the bus and trolley rather than the dial-a-ride
  • They’re training working dogs

And the list goes on. In other words, there is no one type of rider.

You’ll see people in suits with briefcases reading The Wall Street Journal sitting next to students hooked-up to their iPods, texting madly. You’ll see travelers with backpacks bursting at the seams along with tourists on their way to the airport, rolling luggage in tow. You’ll see mothers with their babies strapped to them along with fathers taking their kindergarteners to school. You’ll see people who have just been released from the hospital, the telltale bands on their wrists, along with others who may have had a few too many and are riding the bus rather than driving.

And you’ll hear them talking . . . talking . . . talking . . . a veritable United Nations of languages and dialects along with local slang and regional speak. You’ll also hear their phone conversations (whether you want to or not), listen to them scold their two year olds, coo to babies, groan about a detour, ask for directions, talk to themselves or to whomever else comprises the captive audience, gather for a before-school gab session and so forth.

And sometimes, there’s an exquisite silence. . .

Once upon a time (or at least this is how I remember it), all you needed was a quarter to ride the bus. Then, it was around 35 cents, then 50 cents, then 75 cents . . . on up to the current price of a one-way (no transfer options) of $2.25 followed by the current $5.00 for a day pass. By November 1, however, you need to have a bus card, or else you’ll be paying $7.00 for a day pass. That’s a $2.00 penalty.

Remember transfer slips? You could go all over San Diego and then back home again. While bus fare is nothing compared to owning and maintaining a car, it’s still getting expensive — and complicated, don’t you think?

Before I launch into a few thoughts (and yes, complaints) regarding our public transportation system, I wanted to say that it does appear MTS is attempting to streamline their services, to create more efficient connection times, and to maintain their safe driving record. I do applaud that.

However, for those of you who know me, you also know that I am constantly whining (sorry about that) about how long it takes to get from Point A to Point B. I work in Barrio Logan, and in order not to be late, I leave two hours before I need to be there. There have been some days when it’s taken 2.5+ hours to get there (or home) due to bus breakdowns, trolley breakdowns, construction detours, shoppers with rolling carts, travelers with backpacks and luggage, mothers with children in tow and strollers, people in wheelchairs (sometimes lining up and there’s only room for a few), private and public school students on field trips, individuals with their working dogs and on and on and on.

But this is life.

So, my current issue is the new card and fare system.  Last week, I purchased a new bus card with the “assistance” of a Trolley officer at the Old Town Trolley station. Since I had to purchase a new card (as my old one was being phased out), I paid for it along with three day passes. The Trolley officer explained that I could use those passes whenever I needed to ride the bus.

At the time, my understanding was that whenever I used the card, that day’s fare would be taken care of. Then the other day, when I climbed onto the 923 bus, the card wouldn’t work. I showed the driver my receipt, and he let me on. When I transferred to the 929, the same thing occurred. On the way back, however, the 929 bus driver explained (after examining my receipt), that when I loaded funds onto the card, they were for THREE CONSECUTIVE DAYS, beginning when I uploaded the card. The Trolley officer wasn’t so helpful after all, and DID NOT explain this to me. So basically, I threw away $15.00.

I wrote to MTS but haven’t heard back from them yet. I believe I deserve a refund, so I will write to them again. This is the second time I’ve asked for a refund from them. It’s interesting how they don’t respond to THESE emails, but they do to queries for basic info, which, I might add, is often only part of the story. The bus drivers know better in my humble opinion.

Well, some of them do. The others? Well, I’ve witnessed drivers not responding to questions — period! They just stare straight ahead as if no one is there. One of the nicer drivers told me that “headquarters” doesn’t want them to interact with riders, but unless they’re going to install robo-drivers, there’s interaction and interaction.

And I’m not the only one who has witnessed and/or experienced this scenario. Just imagine being a visitor to San Diego.  Add in second (or third) language issues, and the list goes on.

I realize that MTS is attempting to make the system more efficient, to do away with paper, and that’s a good thing, but I don’t believe the new guidelines are clear enough. I did not see this explained anywhere to my satisfaction, and while some people may think it’s a “no- brainer”, I beg to disagree. If it weren’t for the driver who took the time to explain this to me (and in exquisite detail), I would have thought my card was still good, and that it was just another fluke with the machine (which, I might add, is quite temperamental).

And yes, I have missed getting to where I need to go on several occasions due to machine malfunctions. . .

The delay in card activation is another issue. What if a rider doesn’t have any more money? Once we upload our card, shouldn’t it work automatically? There’s got to be some ap for that.  While I’ve witnessed the goodness of others on countless occasions, and I have seen drivers wave passengers in this predicament to a seat (myself included), many drivers will hold up the bus for the person to either A) Produce said funds, or B) Step off the bus.

If someone has already paid, why should they have to pay again? No doubt there are people who say they’ve uploaded their card, but haven’t, but I tend to believe that most people are honest.

Then there’s the matter of all those “trolley cops” at the stations. Is there an overabundance of criminal activity? If so, shouldn’t there be a sign posted to that effect? Are they in search of wanted felons? Does the motto “To protect and serve” apply to this population of officers, or are they really “just” there to make sure we pay?

It’s ironic, that when I’ve had to take the 35 bus home at night from the Old Town Trolley Station (which, I might add is not well-lit at night), there’s not a “trolley cop”or any other type of visible security agent in sight. I was informed that there is a security person in the booth, but that’s nowhere near where the buses park and load. Needless to say, while I have never been attacked at the Trolley Station at night, I don’t recommend being the lone person waiting an hour for a nighttime bus.

In closing, I think MTS needs to put the concern for the public back in public transportation. What about you?

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar judi Curry October 29, 2012 at 8:52 pm

Good beginning, Ter. I do not think that the MTS cares about its riders at all. Recently, due to construction that I am still unable to find, they moved the beginning of the 35 bus from Sunset Cliffs and Pt. Loma Ave to Del Mar and Cable. But…they blocked off Cable so they were still on Sunset Cliffs. I have two female students that must walk back to my house on dark, hardly lit streets, and yet when I drive from the beginning of the 35 to Newport, there is no evidence of construction except on side streets. One student fell shortly after getting off the bus because the lighting was poor and she could not see the hole in the sidewalk. Sometimes the connecting Green Line is early; sometimes it is late; and sometimes it doesn’t come at all. They eliminated the Blue Line but did not give any instructions how to get downtown, or, more importantly for my students, to Las Americas Outlet store. Ter – I can go on and on; no bus down here on Sunday; No way to get to the Cabrillo Monument on Sunday, etc.
Doesn’t seem to me that MTS listens to their riders at all.

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avatar dave rice October 29, 2012 at 11:05 pm

Advance tl;dr for anyone that’s been a Rag reader and heard this rant from me before: it’s largely a rehash of what I say whenever transit issues are presented.

Great intro piece, Terrie – I’ll be looking forward to more of your insights.

I’ll touch briefly on the story I’ve often repeated here over the years: when I had a regular desk job in Clairemont, I tried to map out a transit route to see if I could take MTS to work…it turned out that the 22 miles per day (my office was 11 miles from home) I traveled by car would’ve taken over 4 hours round trip, compared to 30-45 minutes. The cost would have been slightly higher than gas if I’d bought a monthly pass and didn’t use it for anything other than commuting, or nearly double the gas cost if I’d have bought day passes for roughly 22 work days per month (considering my compact Civic gets about 30 mpg and gas cost about $3 at the time). Since I still need my car for transporting my family, shopping, and other errands, I didn’t factor in savings from getting rid of it that would have been implausible for me.

What strikes me as most significant about the failure of people who have alternatives to using transit isn’t the cost, but the convenience – given rising gas prices there’s a chance that if I still had a “normal” job (instead of the three-trade amalgamation that sends me all over the county on a daily basis) I’d save money were I to re-work the numbers today – but not enough to justify sacrificing 15+ hours a week that I could be spending with my family.

In order to ever hope to entice people who don’t rely on transit to use it voluntarily, MTS has to develop and implement a system that’s at least plausibly competitive with the automobile as far as effectiveness. One of the huge draws that caused me to relocate my family from the East County suburbs to Ocean Beach about the time my daughter started kindergarten was the idea of a walkable community, and we’ve benefited immensely from that – some of my kid’s best friends used to live on our block, and even though they’ve moved they’re still within a five-minute bike ride of our house. If we want to go out to eat, or to the farmer’s market or the beach, we’re within a few blocks’ walk. Where I grew up, you didn’t leave your house unless it was in a car.

But I’d like to be able to go to the Children’s Museum, or to a Padres game, or to visit our friends Downtown or in Golden Hill or North Park without a car (and maybe enjoy a few adult beverages without debating with my wife who has to abstain for the night). The fact that the timing of a simple journey can be expanded by many multiples (and place one at risk of being stranded if a conversation is too intense to cut short) kills it for me.

In my early twenties I used to travel with much more frequency than I do now. And I learned to use the transit systems in New York, Boston, DC, Atlanta, San Francisco, and even Phoenix while exploring the country. All of these places had two things in common that San Diego lacks: extended transit operating hours and short connection times.

These two cut average trip times in half (at least), and encouraged a vast and healthy ridership. If we could get core routes that would run from 5 a.m. until 2 a.m. and offer service every 5-10 minutes during peak times and at no greater an interval than 15-20 minutes off-peak (I believe that under current circumstances you can wait as long as an hour if you miss a bus and it’s not during a peak commute), public enthusiasm for our transit system would rival that of other parts of the country where transit really works.

It’s a chicken/egg issue: do we not invest in transit because demand doesn’t yet exist, or do we acknowledge that demand doesn’t exist because an effective product has yet to be built?

Shameless self-promotional plug: I’ll be speaking with an individual that’s pushing for transit-first policies, as well as an infrastructure official that explains why such policies may not be plausible, in a Reader article that hits newsstands Wednesday…

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avatar RB October 30, 2012 at 6:55 am

IMO, buses need to have longer routes, even if this reduces their frequency. The speed of the buses even with stops and the time on a bus is not the problem. It is the number of transfers that dramatically increases commute times. Also, I believe that the buses are being used to feed the trolley ridership rather than serve the riders and reduce commute times.

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avatar Citizen Cane October 30, 2012 at 12:16 pm

Speaking of longer routes…back when they had letters instead of numbers…the O Bus went from Hill Street in Sunset Cliffs all the way to San Ysidro without transfers. It served students going to Point Loma or City College, people working downtown, sailors going to yhr base in National City, or people that simply wanted to walk across the border for lunch in Tiajuana. Those were primitive times. We didn’t have computers and PDF bus route maps, but we had grasp of common sense.

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avatar JEC October 30, 2012 at 11:10 am

MTS may be trying to make the system more efficient – but within certain limits. A question was put to mayoral candidates Filner and DeMaio concerning the one single thing – policy or action that could improve public transportation in San Diego. My answer – reverse the MTS policy direction and make the auto redundant. In 1974, on the heels of BART’s tremendous success, MTS was lobbied by big oil, big auto and AAA. On a motion made by Jim Mills, seconded by Leon Williams the MTS board adopted a policy that MTS was to supplant the car, not replace it. Since then system design and operation has been very limited and as such provides very limited service making a private vehicle necessary. Try catching a trolley at midnight; try catching a bus to the airport.

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avatar Terrie Leigh Relf October 30, 2012 at 8:28 pm

Thank you for all your comments!

Judi: I wonder what The City would say to your student falling and hurting herself. . .and the lights. . .etc. I know that there are streets I avoid in the dark for that very reason. . .because I can’t remember where the tree limbs are, the cracks, the holes, the breaches, etc.

Looking forward to reading your piece in The Reader, Dave, and hope I can come up with some insights.

RB: I’ve been experimenting with a new route to-and-from work, and let’s just say I usually have to run in order to catch the next bus and/or trolley. . .If I make it, my time has been cut a bit, but running with a book bag is difficult . . .then, of course I think of the fact that we shouldn’t have to run to catch a bus with transfers. When I take the 923 to the 929 in the morning, if the 923 isn’t late, then it’s a few minute wait. If it’s late, then it’s now a 12 minute wait, I think. Coming home, thought, the connection doesn’t work at all, so it’s either wait 30 minutes (and then some, usually) or take the 929 to the Green Line then to the 35.

Citizen Cane: I remember when buses took us directly. I teach at National down in South Bay this month, and after bus-trolley-bus-bus, it’s about a two mile walk through a sparse industrial area. . .Needless to say, there’s no way home. Fortunately, I only had to do that once when I taught there last time. . .That goodness of others prevailed. . .

JEC: This definitely sounds familiar. . .

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