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Solimar Research

Joel Ellinwood: Transit Tales

Oct 9, 2008

One of my personal commitments during the last year or so to a more sustainable future is to take the train and transit whenever I travel if time and routes permit.

At planning conferences during last year, eco-celebrity speakers Ed Begley, Jr. ("Living with Ed" on cable TV and a book with the same title) and Chris Balish ("How to Live Well Without Owning a Car") promoted their more eco-friendly life styles. My own experience demonstrates the danger in minimizing the difficulties of this choice for newbies like me and the work we as planners face to make transit a real option that a less committed person would try more than once a truly sustainable lifestyle choice. None of this is news for the folks whose economic status makes transit-dependence a necessity.

The Amtrak San Joaquin has been a terrific option for business travel from Sacramento to Fresno. I work on the way and nap on the way home, neither of which is recommended while driving. If I miss the connection in Sacramento, I can drive to Stockton and catch the train there. The Amtrak station is in downtown Fresno near major public buildings, so even if I have a lot of boxes and files, it isn't any worse than the walk from the parking garage. The downsides are the lack of Internet access on the train and the unpredictable delays resulting from freight having priority for use of the same tracks that Amtrak uses. Having to transfer from train to bus on some schedules and routes is often a necessary accommodation.

Trains are also something of an acquired taste if one's travel expectations are set by air travel. The lack of cleanliness and maintenance of waiting areas and restroom facilities in bus and railway stations wouldn't be tolerated at an airport. Many train conductors and other personnel on railroads seem to be living out an image of the past heritage and culture of railroading, rather than being conscious of grooming and behavior standards prevalent in their primary competition airlines. Eccentricity (however colorful and often amusing) seems to be the rule rather than the exception. Use of the PA system is taken as an art form rather than a means of communication. The vagaries of diction and often blaring volume make the results either unintelligible or just annoying. We're not talking about flight attendants' amusing patter or tossing little bags of peanuts around, but sharing critical information like where to get off or make connections.

Finding the best routes and schedules for transit, especially when intermodal shifts between different agencies or operators are required to reach your destination, is very hit or miss. For example, I had an early morning meeting in Walnut Creek. I took the Capital Corridor Amtrak to Oakland the night before. The next morning I rode BART to Walnut Creek, and with a little difficulty figured out which bus route would take me to my destination. After the meeting, I was planning on returning to Sacramento on the Capital Corridor train. Although it would have been much shorter for me to catch the train in Martinez, I couldn't find the proper bus route to make the connection. Instead, I had to take BART back to Oakland and then catch a bus to the Amtrak station in Oakland. The Oakland "station" is not a readily identifiable location, but a stretch of track that runs down the middle of the street near Jack London Square. There was no signage directing me to the right platform and I wandered for several blocks in the wrong direction. Once on the train, we stopped at the Martinez intermodal station and there was the bus from Walnut Creek that would have saved me about an hour. Unfortunately, the Bay Area transit 511 trip planner did not tell me the bus route existed.

Last year I traveled from Anaheim to the state American Planning Association conference in San Jose on an always-obliging Southwest flight. There is a convenient and free shuttle bus from the airport to San Jose's light rail line, which took me within a few blocks of my downtown hotel. Unfortunately, I couldn't figure out which stop to get off and ended up walking with my bags on a warm, muggy night for many blocks through a dubious neighborhood along the rail line. The trip back to Sacramento was more of a puzzle, because there are no flights between Sacramento and San Jose, oddly enough. I tried searching on the 511 transit trip planner, but Sacramento is not included in the destinations listed. Finally, I noted that the Amtrak Capital Corridor route extends to San Jose (who knew?) but two different departure stations were listed for San Jose. I figured out with some difficulty which bus to take from near my hotel to the correct train station, but had to wander around before I could find the right platform (again no signage).

This year I traveled from Sacramento to the CCAPA conference in Hollywood. Southwest has good service to the Glendale/Burbank airport, which is more user friendly than LAX. I chanced to meet two other planners on my flight and we chipped in for a cab (CNG fueled) to the hotel in Hollywood at a reasonable cost, although I had originally planned on catching the bus identified in the conference materials. When I went to catch the bus for the return trip to the airport, I couldn't locate the bus stop with the correct route on the corner to which I had been directed. By good fortune, two other planners (with Caltrans in Sacramento no less) who were also having difficulty finding the stop spotted the bus just in the nick of time to catch it. The bus dropped us off at the airport entrance and we walked on a very hot day with our bags all the way to the terminal without being passed by one of the shuttle busses for which there was a prominent bus shelter near the entrance. Frequency of service seemed to be a problem.

The next week I had to return to downtown LA and chose to fly to LAX. After considerable hunting, I found I could take a free shuttle from the airport to the nearest Metro station. As it turned out, this bus ride was much longer and in the opposite direction than I had expected (still it was the closest station). The automated ticketing kiosk at the Metro station was obscure about what kind of ticket I needed to purchase to get downtown. The ticket said that it was only good for the Green Line and I could see on the map that I would have to change to the Blue Line and then the Red Line to get where I needed to go. I tried to buy another ticket before getting on the Blue Line, but the only ticket the machine spit out was for the Green Line, so I gave up and rode the Blue and Red in hopes it would be OK.

The wait for the train was significant. During the first leg of the journey, it was a bit disconcerting to have three burly and well-armed Sheriff's deputies get on the train escorting a prisoner in shackles. At another point, a second prisoner was brought on. The deputies made us change seats so they could isolate the prisoner. I wasn't quite as unnerved as the nice fellow I met who had just been released from jail and who was still wearing his jail-issue dark blue paper jumpsuit and canvas shoes because it was after hours and he couldn't reclaim his own clothes and car from the impound lot until the next morning. As everyone says about transit, you sure get to meet some interesting people.

With the waiting, free shuttle and three different trains, it took me more than two hours to get from LAX to my hotel downtown. It only cost me $2.50, although if I hadn't bought the second Green Line ticket, I could have made it for $1.25. Of course, it takes less than one and a half hours flight time from Sacramento to LAX, and I could park in the ramp right next to Sac Metro Terminal A. Sac Metro Airport doesn't have transit access, I guess in part because the airport doesn't want to cut into the parking revenue needed to pay off the bonds that were issued to build the parking garage. For my return trip from the hotel to LAX I was short on time and took a cab. The driver was great. Although it was rush hour, he got me from the hotel to LAX in less than 40 minutes. It only cost me $50.00, including tip.

As I continue in my commitment to use transit whenever possible, I'll pass along observations of the good, the bad and the ugly. Finding and riding transit is sort of like working on a bad marriage hard, but hopefully worth the effort in the long run. To be continued . . .

Joel Ellinwood

Joel Ellinwood, AICP, is a land use and environmental lawyer and planner based in Rocklin.