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why we drive

By enelson
Thursday, December 14th, 2006 at 8:35 pm in Transit vs. driving.


Many people could read this blog and conclude that I’m a car-hating transit advocate. As I sit here with my laptop 20 minutes into my 80 minute wait for a train home, I can testify to the contrary.

To start with, I drove every day last week and this Tuesday. A monthly Amtrak pass keeps me on the train. Every day I don’t use it, the more expensive per-ride it becomes. In this holiday month, I’m taking more than a week off work, so no monthly pass. I get a smaller discount with a 10-ride pass and I’m left with a day-to-day decision on whether to drive.

So there it is: I can pay $5.29 plus $1.50 per trip in tolls, plus whatever wear and tear and insurance I’m paying for my 70-minute drive, or more than $10 plus the aggravation of getting to and from the train station. Financially, I’d venture it’s a wash until gas prices go up again.

As I’ve said so many times, you can’t put a price on the psychic wear and tear one endures sitting in traffic or even driving at highway speeds, regardless of how amusing the radio banter might be. Even after all I’ve been through today, I cling to the belief that when the costs and benefits are tallied, it’s better to take transit IF, and this is a critical if, your connections are smooth, you can catch a ride home if you work late and you don’t add more than 50 percent to your commute time.

All this calculus goes out the window, however, on days like today.

Today I had an assignment in Fremont, so I stayed on the train past Oakland and continued until I met up with a photographer – who by job description came equipped with a car – who accompanied me on my expedition and dropped me at the Fremont BART station.

So far, so good.

Then came the transit challenge: At 11:10 a.m., how to get back to Oakland in time to catch a ride to a writing seminar in Walnut Creek that begins at 12:15? Whipping out my PDA with its handy BART Quick Planner software, I determine that the quickest I could get to 12th Street was 11:53 – way too late to ask my colleagues to wait if they wanted to show up on time. I could continue on to Walnut Creek, with BART’s convenient cross-platform transfer in Oakland. But that got me to the station in Walnut Creek one minute after the seminar started.

Ahhh, but I was prepared. I belong to a car-sharing outfit, and I called its automated reservation line. When I asked for cars in Oakland, it told me that it was having technical difficulty and I should call back later. By this point, I was already at the Coliseum, hoping to pick up a car at Lake Merritt.

So, I figured that if I continued to Walnut Creek, I could hop a cab, and that probably wouldn’t cost any more than the car rental, right?

It cost $11 and change. The car share, had it been feasible, would have cost $8.

So I learned something about writing, I rounded out a cramped carpool on the way back to Oakland and wrote a story about fighting locomotive pollution.

I left work confident that I could catch my train, even without the bicycle I left at home because of the rain.

That’s when I became more convinced to get back into my Honda Civic while getting a side lesson in the value of a unified, smart-card-based fare system for all of the area’s transit agencies.

I went to the bus stop, where I learned that the next bus to the Amtrak station was 25 minutes out. I scampered down to the BART station and realized that I only had 25 cents left on my flimsy paper farecard.

I fed the card and a $1 bill into the card machine and maniacally pressed the button as I heard the “8-car Richmond Train’’ announcement. It needed another 15 cents in order to spit the card out, so I quickly fed another dollar into the machine, ran through the gates and watched the train below pull away. The next one was eight minutes later, which was too late to connect with my Capitol Corridor train in Richmond.

Luckily, my new TransLink smart card worked on the AC Transit bus I then took to within two blocks of Jack London Square, where I got close enough to the moving Amtrak train to read the train number: Mine.

So here I sit, pining for the Great American Automobile. It’s a hassle, sure, but it’s one I can count on no matter how close I cut my schedule.

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14 Responses to “why we drive”

  1. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    Perhaps I am missing something, but if you are in Walnut Creek and need to catch a Capitol Corridor train, why not just hop on a CCCTA bus to Martinez?

    I remember years ago, returning from Davis, I caught a bus to Martinez, where I was to catch a valley train to Oakland. When the announcement came that the valley train was late, I caught a CCCTA bus to BART, and got to downtown Oakland about 20 minutes before I would have arrived on the train if it had been on time.

  2. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Bruce, you skipped the part where I caught a ride back to Oakland with colleagues. If you blink, you’ll miss me. I did once research the possibility of commuting to a different job in Walnut Creek, which did involve taking the bus you speak of, as well as another bus, arrgh. It was waiting for a bus that wasn’t coming soon enough that proved to be my downfall last night. Thank heaven I have my car parked at Pleasant Hill right now.

  3. transit-dependent Says:

    I don’t know why anyone would think you’re a car-hating transit advocate. You spend most of this blog thinking of ways to waste our precious transit money. Speaking of waste, nice piece on McNerney today. Why do our politicians suggest fantastically expensive, redundant BART expansions, and never, say, BART to Grand Lake?

  4. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    I did read that you caught a ride to Oakland. I still do not understand why you did that, instead of getting off where you could get to Martinez.

    Beyond that, you have run into the real problem with transit: It does not run often enough. I would prefer if instead of the Capitol trains, we had a decent bus service that ran every hour or even more often. I would save a lot more time if I could come and go when I wanted, instead of having to wait until there are enough passengers to fill up a train, even if the bus were slower. It would undoubtedly be cheaper, too.

  5. South Bay Resident Says:


    One of the effects of the nearly $1 billion that have been spent on the capitols was to replace a private, cheaper to ride, profitable bus service that ran from Sacramento to Oakland and San Jose with a money-loosing train. It would have been far more efficient to subsidize Greyhound’s service (or start a state-run service) than to build the Capitols. For the money ($20 million per year) used to cover the Capitol Corridor’s operating losses, you could run a free commuter bus between Oakland and Sac 18 hours per day every 15 mins or alternatively, you could run free bus service along the whole corridor every 30 mins, which is twice as good as what the CCJPA provides. If you charged fares, you could probably run even more frequently.

    The capital could have provided an HOV lane from Sac to the Carquenez bridge (a faster routing than through Martinez that already has an HOV lane for part of its length) and on 880 from Oakland to Santa Clara county. Ask yourself if this would have moved more than the 2000 people (4000 trips) per day that the Capitol Corridor moves.

    As a side note, I don’t always favor buses and roads over rail. If you have enough trip density on a corridor, rail can be the only tool that works, but there are very few corridors that have that kind of trip density and most of these already have rail and we’re not allowing many areas to increase in density to a level that would support more rail.

  6. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Bruce, I work in Oakland. When I caught that ride, I still had several hours of writing to do before going home.

    And SBR, I don’t doubt what you say about better frequency and cost with a bus service. The question is, who would run such a bus service and who would ride it. I’ve never seen a commuter bus service that runs beyond strict peak-service hours. Not everybody works those kinds of hours. I know I don’t. People like trains. They don’t like buses. Trains you can get up and move around in, pick your bathroom, but breakfast and coffee. To get people out of their cars, you need to woo them. Buses don’t do that very well while stopping and starting on I-80. And you mention the future, when rail might make more sense. Isn’t it better to get the thing established, so that when that situation develops, people will just have to make the switch?

    I will agree with you that the CC isn’t very efficient. One of the things riders seem to covet is an extra empty seat upon which to park their stuff. I don’t think it will be long before thos seats are full, however, and the whole thing will be more cost-effective. Will it make a profit? I doubt it ever will. Will it be worth its subsidy? I think your argument is as valid as those of Corridor backers.

    One way to gather evidence for your side is to compare the efficiencies of bus lines from Vacaville, where the train does not stop, to that of the Corridor.

  7. South Bay Resident Says:


    People have done careful studies about transportation mode choice. What they show is that people are attracted to the attributes of a transit system, not the mode. If you provide fast, comfortable bus service, people will ride it. With the amount spent on the CC, you could have provided the infrastructure (HOV lanes) to make the buses run faster plus improved the roads. When the CC started, Greyhound had something like 10 daily round trips from Sac to Oakland and made a profit at it. The main effect of the Capitol Corridor hasn’t been to move more people, it has been to replace an inexpensive mode that didn’t require any subsidy with one that requires lavish subsidies. The main reason we have such congestion problems in the bay area isn’t due to lack of resources, its due to their poor allocation.

    Also, if you want examples of frequent, all day, express bus service I suggest you look at the Highway 17 express bus (which is, incidentally, partially subsidized by the CCJPA) or if you want to look farther away, New Jersey transit operates both express bus service and commuter rail service into NYC. Many of their lines run all day and they provide an interesting comparison between a well run bus service and a well run rail run rail service. The fares on both are about the same as is the average length of the trip and the trip time. The amount of subsidy and level of use is different. The buses run fuller than the trains and the bus service requires a $0.60/passenger subsidy while the rail service requires a $3.00/passenger subsidy.

  8. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    Well, silly me! I thought that your trouble catching the Capitol train was due to something related to the rest of the story, rather than simply because you decided to wait too long. In fact, it could have occurred any other day. A good writer would have foreseen that someone would have connected these incidents, rather than treating them as the separate events they were.

    I agree whether service is by train or bus is irrelevant to most people. Studies have shown that people want frequent service, and smaller vehicles that come more often are more frequent than most rail service. A couple of years ago, I went to the MTC awards event, where the grand prize winner was the “Baby Bullet” peninsula service. I ran into a friend of mine and told him that what they should have done with that service was to tear out the tracks and run high-speed buses every few minutes. With its own right-of-way, 60 seat buses could run every 5 minutes, giving a capacity of 720 seats per hour each direction, which would compare quite favorably with the trains. Local buses could use the same right-of-way during the interim time, taking passengers from the streets and intermediate stops to the express stops, which would make the service available to even more riders. Reducing the headways from 60 minutes to 5 minutes would shave 55 minutes off the average time for the trip, since waiting time constitutes a long portion of every transit trip. If there is a problem with the right-of-way, the service could detour, which would mean only a slight delay, not like the ridiculous service delays rail is subject to.

    Then we should go and tear out the rails on BART, and run buses on its right-of-way. With hybrid buses, that is now feasible even through the tunnels. It would provide more frequent and usable service at lower cost. Maybe once again, we would have profitable transbay service, like we did on both AC Transit and Greyhound before BART came along.

  9. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Bruce, I’ll agree with you on three points:
    Yes, I’m no Hemingway, yes, I missed that train because I waited too long and yes, I have more than once missed one train and thought how nice it would be if a bus came along sooner than 85 minutes later to scoop me up and take me home.
    My point, which you might have grasped had I learned how to write, was that my car doesn’t care if I leave a little late. It’s there when I need it. Sure, I brought my tribulations upon myself, but I don’t think that I’m so different from most of the people the great transportation planners of this nation are trying to lure out of their cars. Maybe going your way, with buses instead of trains would do that more effectively. Los Angeles’ Orange Line busway is succeeding better than anyone had imagined. I think we have a long way to go before we get the suburbanites to ride buses to work, however. First, trains are more attractive to them as an alternative. Second, as the population grows, trains could have the capacity to move more people into the urban core.

  10. Dandy Says:

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  11. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    It may be nicer to be able to walk around and use the toilet and cafe cars on the Capitol trains. However, if they were replaced by buses running every 15 minutes, I could get off at an intermediate station, use the amenities, catch the next bus, and still lose less time than I lose from the infrequency of service on the trains. As for BART, I prefer something that I can use without the risk of hearing loss. Whether trains are more attractive than buses seems to be a case of publicity, rather than anything else. More people in the Bay Area ride buses, rather than trains. In fact, the most heavily used transit corridor, with more riders than any freeway or rail route, is Geary Boulevard in San Francisco, a bus corridor. Whenever I do the calculations, there seems to be almost no difference between the capacity of buses and rail. The additional passengers that each train can carry is no greater than that which can be accommodated by the additional buses that can use a route.

  12. K. Lichten Says:

    For me, the bus/train debate comes down to a couple issues aside from schedule:

    1. Space/general comfort (goes to trains for pretty much any Bay Area service, with the possible exception of certrain transbay or touring-style bus services)
    2. Motion sickness (typically based on diesel fumes, driving style, and traffic conditions) (buses and trains will be tied on a good day and with a good bus driver, otherwise, goes to trains)
    3. Dependability (on the Capitol Corridor there is the tradeoff on track delays vs. freeway traffic jams).

    Separately, there’s a cumulative capacity benefit to removing commuters from freeways, whether they are in buses or cars, and putting them on trains.

    Maybe in the Bay Area, all things would be equal if one has a comfortable bus service (that seems less the case somewhere like LA, where train/bus usage seems to reflect a strong class divide). But where is such a service to be found?

    Separately, no matter the mode, transportation options are hostage to local land use planning decisions. It’s unusual for any of the post-WWII densities to be high enough to support rail, let alone any sort of meaningful bus service. Bay Area congestion may be due in part to poor allocation of resources, as South Bay Resident suggests, but regardless of that, congestion is intrinsic to local control of land use within a regional transportation planning framework. Although some cities (e.g., Hayward, San Jose) have quite modest densification efforts, the existing build-out and Bay Area topography pretty much ensure congestion unless other options are developed.


  13. Capricious Commuter Says:

    K., I hear you about the motion/fumes issue. At least on the Corridor, I can avoid the car behind the engine on days when the front door isn’t sealed properly and passengers are gaggin on the diesel exhaust. In buses, there’s no escape.

    I’m not sure that I agree that sprawl is the enemy of rail, however. I think one lives off the other. The Cap Corridor’s uninterrupted growth, even with the dot-com economic debacle, can be logically traced to the Central Valley’s building boom. The more cars pile onto I-80, the more alluring rail becomes. Never mind the delays, the long, winding route around Hercules a and Richmond. If you don’t want to sit in your car, fuming in Fairfield or Pinole or Berkeley, the train provides a cozy safety valve for sprawl monkeys.

    On the other hand, areas closer to the urban core, unlike the Central Valley, are channeled into valleys and shoreline that make for workable transit corridors, regardless of whether you want busways, light rail, or $100,000-a-mile BART extensions. LA has mountains and valleys too, but the valleys, especially the San Fernando Valley and Inland Empire, are much wider than Bay Area valleys, which encouraged single-family development from foothill to foothill, and endless bus rides for the unwheeled proles.

  14. K. Lichten Says:


    The point about the LA region vs. SF is interesting–and that at some point, sprawl will support rail service, too. It might be worth noting that the types and quality of rail service will differ, though. If we had higher densities, we might see much more than ACE or the Capitol Corridor’s slow “regional” style train service (i.e., as compared to an inter-city or express service). Rather, we might see different types of rail–light rail overlaid by regional rail, etc.

    Within the sprawlier parts of the Bay Area, it seems that rail transit is dependent on people having cars to get to the rail. That pretty much seems to be how BART works. Here, I am thinking (for example), of the Windemere and Gale Ranch subdivisions in San Ramon. There is a dedicated light rail corridor ROW going up the main street that separates Windemere and Gale Ranch. However, the design densities for those projects are not high enough to support light rail, let alone provide a place where one can walk to the store for groceries, kids can walk to school, or that kind of thing. It’s very odd (to me, anyway), that San Ramon chose this sort of development plan even as the project was moving forward in the 80s and 90s–and as congestion problems continued to be broadly obvious. On the plus side, perhaps the ROW, if used for transit, may someday be a dedicated bus corridor, regional train (e.g., BART or BART feeder) extension with big parking structures, or something similar.


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