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you can’t get here from here

By enelson
Friday, November 30th, 2007 at 6:38 pm in 511, AC Transit, BART, Bicycling, Buses, Caltrain, Capitol Corridor (Amtrak), driving, Environment, tolls, Transit vs. driving.


As anyone who reads this blog should know, I love to complain about my long commute, about the 80-minute drive (in good traffic) and the 2 1/2-hour bike-train alternative.

If only I could have moved to Oakland or Berkeley, my life would be better, the lament goes.

But I recently learned that even people smack in the middle of the Bay Area can have an equally crappy commute, at least where public transit is concerned.

Lucinda, one of my colleagues here in Oakland, came up to me the other day and told me she could be asked to run another newspaper in our group while its editor was incapacitated. The San Mateo County Times is located in the city of that name, and by car, it’s less than a half-hour from her home in Alameda.

But she wasn’t too keen on paying the $20 in weekly tolls and sitting in daily bridge traffic on her way to work. Innocently, she asked if there was a better way to go.

Innocently, I accepted the challenge of finding her alternative mode.

My first step was to go to, where I plugged in her address and that of her temporary assignment.

To get to work by 10 a.m., the Trip Planner advised her to catch AC Transit bus 63 at 8:14 a.m., pay $1.75 and get off at the Fruitvale BART station five minutes later.

Then she would have six minutes to run a farecard through the gate and board BART to San Francisco. At 9:22 a.m., she’d arrive in Millbrae, $4.25 poorer.

As itineraries go, this one really gives the transit rider the full flavor of Bay Area’s public transportation, um, system.

At Millbrae’s multi-modal transit center, my transit-riding protégé would then have nine minutes to get to the platform in time to catch a southbound Caltrain. In seven minutes, she’d need to buy a $2.25 ticket before getting off at the San Mateo station.

Ok, so it’s a lot of changes, but if AC Transit is on time, we’re all the way to San Mateo by 9:38. Less than an hour for a triple-transit ride is not too shabby.

Ten minutes and $1.50 later, she’d be on her fourth leg of the journey, riding SamTrans Bus 250 to the corner of 4th and Delaware St. in San Mateo, a mere 4 1/2 blocks from the Times’ office on 9th St.

Let’s review: 1 hour, 46 minutes and $9.75 in fares.

Instead of paying $20 a week in tolls, she’s paying $19.50 a day in fares and easily costing herself two hours a day in extra commute time.

My first reaction when I saw the itinerary materialize was, nobody’s gonna make that many transfers just to get across the Bay. I ride my bike just so’s I can avoid the 5-minute AC Transit No. 98 ride to the Oakland Coliseum Amtrak. And trust me, the only thing good about the bike ride is that I can leave when I want to.

But my editor friend’s transit ordeal doesn’t end there. After we reporters file our stories and split, she has to stay around to make sure the stories are edited, the photos have captions and everything fits into its appointed space on each page. That could keep her at work until 8:30 p.m. on a busy night, so I had to figure out how that would work, transit-wise.

Before I tell you the results of that software algorithm, I’ll tell you the results I got from Randy Rentschler, spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. The MTC is now provoking a regionwide discussion on how to solve congestion and global warming by possibly bludgeoning solo drivers with fees and taxes.

All I had to say was, San Mateo to Alameda, and he said, “that would be brutal.”

If $9.75 and an hour and 45 minutes in the morning isn’t enough brutality, consider  my poor colleague’s trip home. suggested a mere three-tripper for a mere $8.60, SamTrans to downtown San Francisco, BART from Montgomery Street to Fruitvale, then a bus home. The problem is, you have to wait 45 minutes for the first bus, so the entire trip clocks in at two hours and five minutes.

Two hours plus. That’s supposed to be my lamentation, and I commute from the the Central Valley by bicycle and train.

I shared this with Rentschler, and he urged me to consider that if we newspaper people worked normal schedules, then the beauty of public transportation would shine through.

Ok, so I checked, which has this snazzy new Predict-A-Trip feature that allows you to look at typical speeds and driving times.

At the height of rush hour, at 8 a.m. or 8:30 a.m., the typical drive would be about 45 minutes; half the best transit time.

When I broke the bad news that she was stuck with the drive across the Bay, Lucinda remarked that it’s still much cheaper to drive. How, she wondered, are we going to convince people to do otherwise?

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18 Responses to “you can’t get here from here”

  1. david vartanoff Says:

    Even if the loathsome tranz slink were functional, AND the various stations easier to navigate, Rentschler is correct. The off hour, or off majority route services are abysmal. Course, I want to knoiw if Lucinda will be working @ a desk with a computer, and if so, exactly what can she accomplish by being there in the office that she cannot do by phone, computer, etc?

  2. Mike on Bike Says:

    Apparently her car costs nothing to run?

    Your time comparison looks fair, and the number of transfers is ridiculous.

    But your cost comparison assumes that her sole driving expense is bridge tolls.

    The typical figure I’ve seen to operate a car is 33 to 50 cents/mile, factoring all the expenses. That’s about $18 to $28 per day for the round trip from Alameda to San Mateo.

  3. Brian T Says:

    Not that it would make much of a difference, your future Peninsula
    colleague would actually need $1.50 each way for AC Transit with the
    Bus-to-BART transfer. But then she would have to shuffle one more
    thing just to save 50 cents round trip.

  4. Aaron Priven Says:

    It’s hard to do a commute via public transit in a development environment where it is assumed that everybody would drive. Whoever decided that the Times would be located at 4th and Delaware (probably the same person who decided the Tribune would be located out by the Coliseum) assumed everybody would drive and never considered the possibilities. It’s up to the planning and zoning boards of Bay Area cities to encourage business development around transit centers, since it’s clear that employers — with a few notable exceptions — don’t take this into consideration.

  5. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Aaron, you really jabbed a nerve among myself and my colleagues, not just here in the Bay Area, but all over the nation. Newspapers, which have traditionally made themselves central to their cities physically as well as psychically and politically, have been cutting their expenses by moving to office and even industrial parks. I’ve even heard that our competition in the City by the Bay is looking at real estate outside of downtown. The SMTC offices, which I confess I’ve never visited, have always been, well, in San Mateo. Publishers love more suburban papers because they have better ad revenue, readership and you don’t have to apologize for your location. The CC Times’ longtime home is a $12 cab ride from the nearest BART station.

    The problem with great locations is they naturally become expensive. Build up a fantastic transit hub, and a hot company that’s selling the next big thing and needs to attract talent will pay a premium to be located there. It seems that we hacks are a dime-a-dozen, so we’ll go wherever the work is.

    The business climate for newspapers has been gloomy for years, and lately Craigslist and the boom in Web news consumption has been killing us (good for trees, bad for my mortgage payments). We In any case, we’re one of the companies that looks for the real estate deals, and I fear such will never be in a transit-oriented development.

    To be fair, we Tribbies did a lot better than our sunlight-deprived colleagues elsewhere. Our new digs are on the 9th floor of a modern office building, from which I can see the BART station, Amtrak Station, Nimitz Freeway and Oakland International Airport. They’re all close, and I can bike to any of them in 10 minutes. But on foot, you gotta wait for a bus to get to BART. With daily deadlines, one rarely has the luxury of time for that. That leaves the car for work trips, even those to places where it’s a pain to park, like downtown SF, Oakland or Berkeley. When we were downtown, those were nearly all BART trips. Now our company is paying $5-15 extra in expenses each trip so we can park.

  6. Guy Span Says:

    You are essentially correct about the miserable times to get from Alameda to San Mateo. But you are wrong about the fares. Tucked into an obscure corner of many BART stations is a transfer machine that dishes out a discount for BART to AC Transit. It also provides you with the following mornings bus ride to BART discount. Whoop-de-doo it’s a $0.50 davings per day.

    But the trip planner is an idiot’s tool and they recently hired a new fool to take the fall for its complete failure (you can look this up). This poor soul will be blamed for all that is ill with the trip planner and the problems are legion. In short – don’t try to use it. I placed myself near the Alameda Ferry Terminal, told the planner I wanted to go to the Ferry Bldg. and got directed to AC Transit to BART. That’s insane.

    For your friend who is trying to go from Oakland/Alameda to San Mateo, might I recommend AC Transit to a Transbay Bus (Free connection). Transbay to the urine filled Transbay Terminal ($3.50) and SamTrans to destination (another $3.00 since I haven’t been able to find a transfer rate). But the total is only $6.50 and I would use each service’s schedule to calculate trip time.

    Not liked by MTC, here is link to a story on the trip planner…

    Guy Span

  7. South Bay Resident Says:

    I think that your colleague’s experience is typical. I’ve found that a good rule of thumb for most transit trips is take the slowest possible driving time, double it and you have the transit time. If you look at census data, you will find that this is true nationwide as well – the people who use transit spend much longer times commuting than those who drive despite having much shorter distance commutes. It is also the case that the metropolitan areas that have the highest transit use tend to have the longest average travel time.

    The real question of your colleague is does taking transit pay off for her economically. She has a choice of spending $19.50 and spending roughly 3:30 per day commuting or to spend $32 per day and only commuting for 1:30. So, transit pays economically if she makes $6.25/hour or less after taxes. I expect if she used monthly pases, transfers and so on, she could get the cost of transit down to where it pays off at a wage of, say $8 or $9/hour, but this is, hopefully, less than she makes unless the newspaper is paying its editors less than its janitors.

  8. EB to Pen Commuter Says:

    This article points out a number of key dynamics that confound the average Bay Area Commuter, especially those who seek not to drive when possible and still have a life (meaning, limited hours on the Bus) and a bank account (Meaning, not living in insanely priced housing) As a guy who gets from the East Bay to Northern San
    Mateo County every work day, a couple observations she might find useful.

    First, the operational:

    511 – will not help you in San Mateo. I suspect the programming on that thing was killer 3 years ago, but it ain’t now. Use it only for bootleg text files of SamtTrans Bus schedules for your handheld. (Oh, and buy a handheld)

    Timing -Never time BART from the EB to a SamTrans bus or Caltrain. They are not coordinated. Samtrans and caltrain will almost always be within 2 minutes of on time, if not exactly. BART will almost always be 4-10 minutes late by the time you hit Millbrae. If its 15, you’ve missed caltrain, see you in an hour. The moral here? Unless BART is the final leg save a walk or bike ride, don’t include it in your trip.

    There is an AC transit bus that runs from I believe Hayward into San Mateo. BART south from downtown Oakland to that bus might be more useful. Not sure if it will go close to 3rd and Delaware, but might save a leg of travel.

    And now, the editorializing:
    This is a conundrum that comes from living AND working in non-transit oriented areas. Its the nice (I’m guessing) single family home neighborhood in Alameda and the 1.5 hour commute, a smaller place someplace more sensible, or a job closer to home. Thats what your elected leaders are offering you, upon direction of their constituents. It isn’t going to change unless you and a few thousand like you start saying “no thanks” when offered the job….

  9. Nathan Landau Says:

    Well, she could cut the trip time somewhat and the cost slightly (to $9) by using the AC Transit Transbay O bus to Transbay Terminal, Muni Metro light rail to Caltrain (you could actually walk this part and save $1.50, though it would take a bit more time), and Caltrain directly to San Mateo, which stops at 2nd St., giving her a nice brisk walk to 9th St. Depending on exactly when she wants to do that and where she’s starting from, that could get it down to about 90 minutes.

    Aaron’s point is very well taken. There’s hardly a transit system in the world can perform well on this kind of trip. It’s not an appropriate basis on which to judge It’s a suburb to suburb trip that passes through two transit hubs–Oakland and San Francisco (I realize that neither Alameda or San Mateo are Leave It To Beaver suburbs, but they are not central cities either). You might be able to do this kind of thing easily in Paris, where the citywide population density is equal to Manhattan’s, but that’s hardly in the cards for the Bay Area. Until where people live and where people work have some rational relationship, this kind of thing will continue to be a problem.

  10. Rob Urfer Says:

    A better route for commuters to San Mateo would be the AC Transit route “M” from Hayward Bart going across the San Mateo Bridge.

  11. Fellow victim Says:

    Somehow, after having spent some time in Toronto, and heard how much better other subways were, I thought that the Bay Area would at least have had decent public transportation. Currently, I live in Fremont, work in Santa Clara/Sunnyvale. And, drop my 1 y/o daughter off at daycare in Fremont in the morning. It’s about 20 miles each way.

    Public transportation:
    Trying to find a bus that actually goes there, it’s two buses to San Jose, then Caltrain. At least $9.50/trip. 1:45 or 2:00+. And sometimes I do work late (10:00 or later). Don’t really want to be on public trans at midnight in this area.. Oh, and I believe BART now charges $1 parking in Fremont (makes it $20 even per day), it’s the OPPOSITE direction from day care (or I’d have to park on the street all day somewhere). Not to mention that finding parking at BART in Fremont after 7:30 is nearly impossible. Toronto at least offers one good discounts for buying monthly passes (used to be 20-30%, IIRC). Oh, would I have to pay for my daughter to be on the bus? Add another $5 to that.

    Driving: On a good day (i.e. after hours), it’s a 25 minute trip home. On a bad day, 45 minutes-55 minutes. To work, at most an hour, since I skip the 880-AutoMall/Mission logjam due to dropping off my daughter. Cost? Well, my car gets around 19-20 mpg in stop/go traffic, so 2 gallons/day = $8 (premium gas, rounding up). 40 miles @ 0.50 c/mile = $20, so total (rounding up) = $28 vs $25 public trans.

    Benefits of driving:
    a) work is across from Costco, so I can do shopping at lunch, save time over a separate trip.
    b) I often drive if 3 or 4 of us go out for lunch at work
    c) I arrive/leave when I want, stop somewhere after work, etc.
    d) I can carry my daughter’s stuff, she’s buckled in, etc. No worries about her picking something yummy off the floor of a bus, or holding her the whole time because I didn’t get a seat, people stepping on her, etc
    e) HUGE saving in time to spend with my family. On average, 75-80 minutes per day on the road vs. 200+.

    Benefits of public transportation:
    a) feel good that I’m supporting some badly designed, badly underfunded pet project of some politician who probably wants more of my taxes

    I’m sure I’m not the only one, but it’s insane how hard it is to get from the East bay to the South bay (driving too, but especially public trans). SF to San Jose is easy in comparison..

    Until it’s half the price and convenient, I’ll keep driving.

  12. e Says:

    Unfortunately this problem is not easily solvable.

    Businesses choose to locate far from transit centers, pushing the costs of commuting from themselves to their employees.

    Individuals have to make choices to live close to transit stops and take location into account when getting a job if they want to be able to commute by transit. The transit systems should not be responsible for supporting location and land use choices that make transit difficult.

  13. Mike on Bike Says:

    Re: Fremont to Sunnyvale. How about the ACE train from Centerville with one of the ACE shuttles from Great America?

  14. Rosanne Says:

    I also want to encourage you to write about the transit that actually works. The ACE train from Pleasanton to Great America. The shuttles are waiting when the train arrives and go to most of the major work centers. Also the light rail is right upstairs from the train station at Great America. At $9.45 per day (less if you get the Communter Checks that many companies provide) it is both cheaper and faster than driving on most days. This train starts in Stockton, then Lathrop. Tracy, Livermore, Pleasanton, Fremont, Great America, and downtown San Jose. Even a connection to the airport.

  15. EB to Pen Commuter Says:

    Quick shout out to Eric: I think this article is driving discussion because it started from the actual (potential) commuting experience of your colleague.

    Nathan said it best:
    Until where people live and where people work have some rational relationship, this kind of thing will continue to be a problem.

  16. Mike Jones Says:

    These Journey Planners (like 511) while clever have a tendency to make transit trips look longer than might otherwise be perceived- if only in their honest unbiased calculations. Ask for a 08:30 departure, and the bus is 09:00 then there’s an additional 30 minutes, added to your trip time. They also ruthlessly add on walking times- generous walking times. Truth is that we sometime don’t perceive these additions, but even if your stop is nearby it can be easily another 20-30 minutes added. These aren’t miss-representations, but it is interesting that when compared to car trip planners it is assumed that your car is immediately available and, of course, there is free instant parking at your destination.

  17. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Man, people! I’ve been busy and I come back and this looks like the Raiders Blog. I have to write another story right now, so I’ll have to read them all later. But I will comment on the idea of either living or working in a convenient location. That’s a fine idea, and my hat goes off to anyone who can do it. As for me, I’m a trailing spouse so I just about always end up living someplace inconvenient to work. This time, I lucked out in the sense that we settled down in a place with a train station, so I have an alternative to driving, which I’ve never had before. My previous lives have involved suburb-to-suburb commutes as well as LA to LA commutes perpendicular to long-distance rail. Had my son applied to the right major and gotten into Cal, I’d have been able to make a case for getting a place in the Bay Area, and I’d have much less to complain about. When I heard about the construction workers from Fresno living in trailers during the workweek, the wheels started turning …

  18. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Ok, I’m done and I’d like to thank everybody, especially Roseanne, for reminding us that there are transit trips that DO work. In fact, this very morning I found myself checking train status as I slogged down I-680 through Pleasant Hill, wondering if it was possible that the Capitol Corridor would , for once, beat me to Oakland. It was 35 minutes late. The ACE train has the advantage of competing with I-580, which has to be the worst commute in the area after the Bay Bridge approach. All we need are upgrades for both rail lines, eliminating bottlenecks and hairpin curves, and we’ll be all set.

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