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, April 2, 2009

The Bus: Back to the future

The wife is back on the bus. Her cancer treatment -- which began with chemotherapy last July, followed by surgery in November and again in December and then six weeks of radiation therapy -- concluded at the end of last month.

Now we are back to the comfy routine that pits my sunny, early-morning enthusiasm against the wife's efforts to steal one more minute wrapped in the warmth of her bed.

"You have to get up now," I say.

"In a minute," the muffled voice from deep beneath the comforter replies.

Rinse, repeat.

Eventually, I drive the wife to the Watt and Whitney stop. The alternative -- taking the No. 82 that goes by the house -- adds about a half-hour to the trip. It's a long trip, in any event. The wife's bus meanders along Watt and through La Riviera to the Starfire light rail station on Folsom Boulevard, where the wife gets off to catch the train to Rancho Cordova. At the Mather Field light rail stop, the wife boards another bus to her office. In the evening, she reverses the process.

Last month, Sacramento Regional Transit reported bus ridership had declined slightly in February while the combined ridership was slightly above the year before. Here are the stats:

Sacramento Regional Transit February Ridership
I predict she will single-handedly boost those numbers when the April stats come out in May. The wife's return counts as six trips a day -- four bus, two rail.

But even that may not be enough. The difference on the wife's route between today and when she last regularly rode the No. 80-84 line last year in July is stark. Where she always had to share a seat, she now finds vacant seats.

Derek pointed out the other day, "I am now parking at the Florin station where I haven't been able to since I first started riding two years ago."

I, myself, am proof that the economic downturn has cut ridership. But the service change Derek mentioned -- running two-car trains earlier in the evening -- and other changes are taking their toll.

Last night, I got out of class early and had an opportunity to take the bus home. My class normally gets out after 10 p.m. and the No. 82 stops running before 9 p.m.

Waiting at the stop was one of my favorite No. 82 drivers. We had an opportunity to chat and one of things that he brought up was the willingness of Sacramento riders to accept RT's excuse for bus service.

The fact that I can ride the bus to school Wednesday evening but must call the wife or the kid to pick me up is just one example.

In other cities where the driver has worked and lived, the people wouldn't put up with it. They'd let management know about their displeasure.

That willingness of riders to accept the existing service without objection does not bode well for the district's plans to roll out a vision of a future where transit can be a choice for nearly everyone. It's hard, really hard, to accept the vision when the reality of today's service is so stark. And it's only harder for people on the outside -- people for whom leaving their car at home is not an option -- to see how much they could benefit if RT's master plan were built.

The price in dollars to get from today's service to RT's masterful future is really very small compared to the benefits everyone would receive. The real obstacle is the leap of faith required to believe such a future so different from today could come to pass.

1 comment:

The Derek said...

I have noticed that people tend to accept the poor service, but it's not like the Sacramento region has been well known for keeping road infrastructure on pace with population growth either. You basically have the choice of driving on underfunded roads or riding underfunded transit. The fact that people don't complain is not a good thing. I remember the days of going home from school an ending up transferring to the first two car Meadowview train of the day at 6:15 at 16th street. People mumbled and grumbled how they cut the trains too early, but I was probably the only one that actually took the time to send RT an email saying "Hey! look, your current practices are chasing away riders". Sadly I was right, and I'm now lucky to see a 4 car train on the blue line after 5:15 or so, even though ridership doesn't warrant such early cuts. What I don't understand is why RT doesn't cut one car at a time (1 at Watt/I-80, and 1 at Meadowview). It seems that as soon as all four cars aren't needed, they cut to two, even if that means leaving people behind at the stations. The reason I feel a lot of the ridership in the evening has been lost is because during peak rush hour it is still standing room only, but after about 5:30 there are almost no cars left in the parking lot. A year ago I would get to the station at 6:30 and it would still be about 25% full.