There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Giving the bus a chance

This is the third week that I've been commuting between my home near Carmichael and an office in downtown Oakland. By far the toughest part of the commute has been the point from my house to the Amtrak station, a trip of less than 10 miles by car.

The Amtrak Capitol Corridor train I ride leaves Sacramento at 7:40 a.m. On most days, I have been rolling my teenage son out of bed by 6:30 a.m. and having him drive me to the Watt/I-80 light rail station. The trip takes just five minutes. It's about a 20-minute ride to Saint Rose. From there, it's a 10-minute walk to Amtrak. I arrive with plenty of time to stop by Starbucks and get a coffee. Better yet, if I miss the light rail train that leaves at 6:44 a.m., I can take the 6:59 and still make the Amtrak connection.

But I don't like having to take a car to light rail. It's just not transitarian enough. I do have an alternative, but I've been afraid to use it.

At 6:28 a.m., I can catch the No. 82 and get off at Sacramento State at 7 a.m. I then catch the No. 31 to the Amtrak station, which is scheduled to arrive at 7:31. Total walking: Less than 100 yards. Cost: Free, courtesy of my student pass from the Los Rios Community College District.

But what's kept me from using this option is my experience with the No. 82. There's just a nine-minute window between the time the No. 82 is scheduled to arrive at Sacramento State and the time the No. 31 is supposed to depart. If the No. 82 has to pick up and drop off a couple of wheelchair riders, it won't arrive on time. If I miss the No. 31, I can't just go to 65th Street and catch light rail. The next train doesn't arrive at Amtrak at until 7:40, assuming it's on time. I would most likely end up watching the back of the Amtrak train as it leaves the station.

Today I decided to give the bus a try.

The No. 82 arrived at my stop at 6:28. Three women were already on the bus. By the time the bus arrived at Sacramento State, every seat was taken and seven people were standing in the aisles.

The No. 82 pulled to a stop at Sacramento State at 7:03 -- three minutes late, but six minutes before the No. 31 was scheduled. About a dozen people boarded the No. 31 with me at 7:10 a.m., a minute behind schedule. Twenty minutes later while riding under the Downtown Plaza, I looked up from my book and realized I was the lone remaining rider.

The No. 31 pulled to the curb at the Amtrak station at 7:33 a.m. -- two minutes behind schedule, but seven minutes before the scheduled Amtrak departure.

So it can work, but can I depend on it? After the No. 31 arrived at the Amtrak station, I asked the driver whether he has much trouble keeping to his schedule. "I've never been later than 7:35," he said.

I'm going to do this again. I commute to Oakland four days a week. Maybe I'll let the kid sleep in two or three days.

I miss the bus and the time it allows for casual reading. And obviously RT has missed me as well. According to the monthly ridership statistics, bus ridership was down 3.1 percent in August compared to August of last year. But as General Manager Mike Wiley always points out, that decline is actually an increase when you take into account the fact that RT cut bus service overall by 5 percent in January. Light rail ridership, meanwhile, was up 8.19 percent above August of last year.

But an interesting mirror image appears when you compare August with the month before.

Bus ridership in August increased when compared to July -- 1,392,000 million riders compared with 1,388,300 -- while 114,500 fewer riders boarded light-rail trains. For the first time in several months, more people rode buses than rode light rail.

This raises an interesting question: If the price of gas drops below $3.50, how many more light rail riders will abandon their park-and-ride commute?


Sue said...

How did the bus as first leg go? I'm curious to know.

John said...

Today's bus ride was perfect. Plenty of time to read. Reasonable wait between buses.

The two hours I spend on Amtrak is officially work time and I do a lot of work in that time.

Once I get to Oakland I walk from the station to my office. It's exactly one mile. There's a bus that runs from the station to my office, but I love walking on Webster, Oakland's China town, and buying fresh produce on my way to work.

Mattie said...

You are far more relaxed than I am when it comes to making connections. I'd rather be a half-hour early than miss my bus/train by seconds.

cindyn said...

I've been taking that #31 at least once every other week for about a year, and I think the #82 has always met its deadline. Or, the passengers have started yelling, "Wait. Bus!" It's been full of students lately, but during the summer was quite empty.