Bay Area Trip 1999

In September 1999, I did another all-transit trip in the San Francisco Bay area. Here are my experiences.

Day 1: September 8

My adventure practically started the minute I stepped off the plane at SFO. I made my way to the airport bus stop, and waited for the first bus that would take me and my luggage. It turned out to be Samtrans #3X. . .oops, #BX, that would be my first ride. About six other passengers, including one bike rider, also took this bus.

After travelling through what seemed to be an endless construction area (something about an "Airtrain"), we hit the I-380 and I-280 freeways. Although we ran into almost no traffic going to BART, I-280 southbound looked positively packed . . .

We finally got to BART Colma, where I bought my ticket and boarded BART. We departed with a full seated load (at least in the car in which I was riding). I got off at Balboa Park station and made my way to the streetcar stop. The sidewalk is narrow in places there, and it can be difficult for an inexperienced user to locate the proper stop (the K stops next to the sidewalk, the J one track over). But I finally located the proper stopping place for #J, and boarded it.

(Although the new Breda cars are all over the place, there are still plenty of Boeing Bathtubs around, so beware . .. )

Ridership on Muni #J was relatively light . . .until we hit 23rd and Church, when the car started getting really packed. (This was during the morning commute, so I should have more or less expected this).

I got off Muni Metro at Embarcadero, wandered around Downtown for a bit, boarded a Muni #32 to Pier 39, killed a little time there, walked along the waterfront, then boarded #30 to my Marina District hotel.

Muni #30 would be Muni bus I used most, as it connects the Marina with Downtown San Francisco and BART/Muni Metro. Most of the Muni buses I rode were pretty clean, although some of the older buses looked a bit worn and had some old grafitti. But certainly nowhere near as bad as just three years ago. Occasionally, though, the bus would drop its trolley, and the driver would go to the back of the bus and reattach the wires. . .

So, after checking in, I rode #30 down to Union Square. Through Chinatown (Stockton Ave) it got so crowded that Muni officials, stationed at each bus stop, were asking that passengers with tickets or transfers board through the rear door. I caught BART again, this time over to Berkeley. There, I visited the UC Berkeley Transportation Library, then I wandered around Shattuck, etc. for a while before catching BART back to San Francisco. (I slept through the big thunderstorm, though . . .)

Day 2: September 9

Today, I decided to hit San Jose and Santa Cruz. I'd use Caltrain to get to San Jose, then take the Hwy 17 Express (joint VTA/SCMTD operation) to Santa Cruz.

To get to the Caltrain station, I took Muni #30X downtown. That express bus gets packed with the yuppies of the Marina District, but I did manage to get a seat. Once Downtown, I went to the Embarcadero Muni station to wait for the Muni Metro line to Caltrain.

I had to wait about 10-15 minutes because not every Muni Metro train continues along the Embarcadero route; most go out of service at Embarcadero. Finally, a Caltrain-bound streetcar showed up.

Compared to other parts of the Muni Metro system, service along the new "Bayfront" line seemed downright infrequent (less than every 15 minutes or so). Ridership wasn't particularly heavy, either (maybe about 10 or so other passengers).

We arrived at Caltrain, in time to catch the 10:00 train (arriving in San Jose around 11:30). I sat in the upper level of the bike car, which was as well used as ever (a lot of bikes ended up getting off at Palo Alto station(?), where there is a bike rental shop). I also got a good view of the future light rail line at the Mountain View station. I got off at the end of the line at Tamien, and took the VTA LRT over to the Convention Center stop.

After about an hour at the San Jose Library, I hopped on the LRT again and rode downtown to catch the Hwy 17 Express. Ridership on the trip down to Scotts Valley was very light (about 5 other riders). Scotts Valley now has a little transit center behind the main shopping center, where the HWY 17 bus, plus SCMTD #30 and #35 meet. I and a couple of other riders scrambled after the #35, which was just about ready to pull out.

Once we reached Downtown Santa Cruz, I caught SCMTD #1 and rode over to UC Santa Cruz for a while. School wouldn't start for a week or so, but there were plenty of students on the bus. Upon returning to Downtown, a quick glance at the schedule indicated that, for the return trip to San Jose, any combination of SCMTD and Hwy 17 Express would require a 30-45 minute layover in Scotts Valley. I decided to spring for the Amtrak connector bus instead ($5). This bus, which was also lightly patronized (about 10 other riders, got me to Downtown San Jose about 5:30, even with bad traffic on the I-280

I just missed one VTA #180 (saw it pull out of the station minutes before we arrived, so I took some time to explore the ACE train that was due to pull out soon. I actually thought about riding it a short distance, but was concerned about transit connections (Great America? Fremont? Livermore?) and decided to content myself with taking pictures. Around 6 p.m., I boarded a Fremont BART-bound #180 (which filled up really fast--by the time we left downtown San Jose, we had a full seated load + 7-10 standees. And not too many got off in Milpitas, either. (Is it time for a direct express between San Jose and Fremont BART?)

Then it was BART to Lake Merritt (no more direct Fremont-SF trains at this time of night), another BART to San Francisco, and Muni #30 back to the Marina District.

Day 3: September 10

The plan was to go to Sacramento via transit, which could be done in two ways
  1. Ride the Baylink ferry and bus, for about $12.50 each way (or $20 round trip), or
  2. Piece together a trip with local transit agencies (Vallejo, Fairfield, etc.) Being an inveterate transit geek, I chose option #2.

    But first, I wanted to explore the new BART route to Pleasanton, since I never got a chance to ride it. So, the usual routine; Yuppiebus #30X to Downtown SF, then BART out to Pleasanton.

    The BART train pretty much emptied out once we got out of Oakland (Commute time was pretty much over anyway). A quick walk through the train found mostly cars with one or two security guards sleeping, and almost no-one else. We finally made it to Pleasanton.

    After wandering around the station for a while, I ran for, and caught a CCCTA #121 bound for Walnut Creek. (Part of #121 is the route of the old Bart Express #D bus, before BART got out of the bus business).

    #121 operates along a mixture of freeway, commercial arterial, residential streets, and rural two-lane roads. Ridership, however, was minimal (generally, less than 5 riders at a time) until we got to Bishop Ranch. Things picked up a bit on the rural road through Danville; we arrived at Walnut Creek with about 15 passengers.

    A short BART ride brought me to Pleasant Hill, a good jumping off point for long distance bus excursions. The Benicia bus to Vallejo stops here, as does the (commute only, but bidirectional) Fairfield bus. I caught the Benicia bus, which filled up about half way at the mall on its way across the bridge. We made it to Vallejo (I considered hopping on the Baylink bus at the Curtola Park/Ride, but it had left about 5 minutes before the Benicia bus got there. . .

    So, when we got to the Vallejo Transit Center (street corners, really). I was thinking . . .should I try to catch the Vallejo bus to Fairfield, then transfer to the Yolobus? But that Yolobus runs about 4 times a day, and I didn't have a schedule. . .

    But then I saw a "Napa Valley Transit" pull up across the street. I decided to go to Napa, never having been there before. (And, I heard about the great wines, although I really don't drink all that much anyway).

    The Napa bus was really comfortable, with padded seats in a uniquely patterned black/gold/wine color design. The driver accepted my Benicia transfer for $1.00 off the fare. The NVT bus also had a feature that automatically announced stops as they were approached, although it was sometimes hard to hear over the engine noise . . .

    NVT primarily runs up Highway 29, except for a small area called "American Canyon", where it runs along a residential street. (American Canyon also has its own small van-bus circulator system). Once away from the town, you get a good view of vineyards and a few wineries, although there are some business parks being developed here as well. NVT also serves Napa Valley College, before heading into Downtown Napa.

    Downtown Napa, is, well, interesting to say the least. The buses (NVT, and the VINE local buses) all converge at a small, offstreet bus terminal on Pearl St (but don't hang around too long--signs warn that "The bus terminal is not a place to socialize; if you're not waiting for a bus, vacate the premises!". Behind the bus terminal is a medium sized open air mall, with a visitor center and the typical mall stores. (A farmers market was just setting up as I left). Walk through the mall, and you'll see a street full of antique shops, book stores and a few restaurants.

    (Restrooms can be hard to find, as both the mall restrooms and the ones at the bus terminal were locked. I had to go all the way to City Hall . .. ) I also explored the area north of Pearl St (mostly thrift stores and a few older looking appliance shops).

    The trip going to Napa had ok ridership, about 10 riders. But going back to Vallejo later that afternoon, we left Napa with a full seated load. About a third got off in American Canyon, though, with the balance continuing to Vallejo.

    I grabbed Vallejo #80 for the return trip to El Cerrito Del Norte BART. While travelling on I-80, I noticed "a dog chasing a cat" (actually, a Westcat bus being followed by a Greyhound!)

    After that, it was BART back to SF, with a stop for dinner and bookstore shopping in Berkeley. . .

    Day 4: September 11

    Alright. There's this big flea market at Foothill College in Los Altos. Besides, I have friends to visit in Fremont and Novato. Can I do all this without reaching for a rental car?

    I must have thought so, because I found myself waiting for a Muni #30, at 6 a.m. on a Saturday. The bus did arrive in time to take me to Caltrain in time for the 7:00 a.m. departure. After buying my ticket, I start walking towards the trains . ..

    Uh-no. Because of construction in the tunnels, buses were being used to shuttle people to South San Francisco, where the train would be waiting. So, about 20 of us pile into a Samtrans bus marked "Caltrain Shuttle", and we sped along the remains of SF's double decker freeway network toward South San Francisco. As promised, Caltrain was waiting, and we boarded it.

    Off Caltrain at Palo Alto. Had to hunt around for the bus terminal, but I found it in time to board VTA #35. This bus meanders around Palo Alto, Mountain View, Los Altos and Los Altos Hills on its way to Foothill College. Ridership was fair-to-middling (about 10-15 passengers--pretty good considering the time of day and the area of service).

    #35 finally arrived at Foothill College, giving me about 45 minutes until the next bus to visit the flea market. (There was a lot of computer stuff, but nothing worth carrying all the way to Novato on a bus. Maybe next time).

    Now, on to Fremont. This required a couple of transfers, from the #35 to #20 in Mountain View (the transfer point I used was behind a major shopping center, and required a dash across a wide street), and then from #20 to a Fremont-bound bus (VTA #180) in Milpitas.

    The ride on Route #20 provided a good view of the Tasman LRT construction, as well as a few of Silicon Valley's more famous companies (Netscape, for example). Ridership was fair (about 1/3rd of a bus load), as most of the office parks and businesses along the route were closed for the weekend.

    At the end of the route in Milpitas, I got off to wait the 15-20 minutes for VTA #180. I noticed an AC Transit bus, walked to the front to look at the headsign . .. "#322 Fremont BART". I asked the driver when it left. "Now!". I grabbed a schedule from the #322 bus, and noticed that, even with all the street running, that #322 would get me to Fremont BART earlier than waiting for VTA #180 would, so I boarded. My VTA day pass was all the fare I needed (#180 would have cost 75 cents upgrade).

    #322 generally ran half-full the entire trip from Milpitas to Fremont, but was otherwise unnoteworthy.

    I arrived at Fremont BART around 12 noon, met with my friend, and we rode BART to Berkeley, where we spent a couple of hours. Then it was time for the next stage of my trip--Novato. We parted ways at BART, with me continuing on to El Cerrito del Norte station for my Golden Gate Transit #40 bus connection. Unfortunately, I had misread the schedule, so I ended up there an hour early. Really not much to do but read the free newspapers at the station, and watch AC Transit, Vallejo Transit and Westcat buses pull in and out of the station. Finally the GGT #40 showed up.

    After about 20 minutes, it was time to go. The bus driver was a bit unsure of the route (this was his first time driving #40), so another passenger and I helped him along the way. The bus was about 1/3 full by the time we went over the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. At San Rafael (nice transit center, with GGT, Greyhound, Airport buses and even a half-hearted provision for commuter rail in the future), I transferred to a northbound #80.

    The #80 was pretty busy, about 2/3rds full generally. I chose a seat near the back, and noticed a little bit of *grafitti*! On GGT! Who'da thunk it :-). Most bus service in Marin consists of buses like GGT #80 going up and down the freeway, stopping at freeway bus stops.

    Eventually, we arrived in Novato. Most, if not all buses in Novato serve the bus stop at Redwood and Grant. This stop is in the median of Redwood Street, built mostly of wood (benches, shelters, planters) and is heavily landscaped.

    After visiting in Novato for about two hours, it was time to catch the #80 back to San Francisco. It was about 8 p.m. when it arrived at the Novato bus stop. This time the bus was 3/4 full, mostly with families returning from Santa Rosa. Most of the subsequent stops had at least one or two passengers waiting at them; in fact, between Terra Linda and San Rafael, there were about six or seven standees! Most of this crowd got off at San Rafael, leaving about half a busload going south to San Francisco. I got off at Fillmore/Lombard and walked back to my hotel.

    Day 5: September 12

    Time to pack up and go back home. I decided to take it easy and ride Samtrans #7B. .. oops, #292 back to the airport, to give me one last good glance of the city. (Besides, the #7F . .. uh. . .#KX wouldn't take my luggage--some things remain the same!)

    Samtrans loads up at the Transbay Terminal, so getting there from the Marina required at least one transfer. I took Muni #30, transferring to #45 at Van Ness, and arriving in time to catch the #292. #292 almost always uses artic buses, but this one wasn't particularly full (about 10 or so people. We picked up a few more along Mission and Potrero, though).

    I often find #292 a relaxing alternative to the freeway express buses. We made it to the airport in about 45 minutes, plenty of time for me to check in, etc. and fly back to LAX!

    Final thoughts

    Generally, everything operated as expected. Buses and trains ran on time, and were usually not too crowded (except for Muni #30 in Chinatown. . .)

    Offhand, I'd like to see:

    1. Direct express service (at least peak hour) between San Jose and Fremont BART

    2. An enhanced Hwy 17 service between San Jose and Santa Cruz, with stops in Los Gatos, Scotts Valley, and perhaps Summit Road (e.g. a merger of Hwy 17 Express and SCMTD #35. . .)

    3. Perhaps, more frequent weekend service on GGT #40, although that may not really be warranted

    4. Better transfer agreements in San Francisco. For example, transfers from GGT, AC Transit or Samtrans (which should offer transfers or day passes anyway, but that's another story) should be valid for base fare on Muni. Muni transfers should be valid for partial fare payment on GGT, AC or Samtrans. . .

    5. More service to Solano County, Davis, or even direct service to Sacramento from Pleasant Hill BART. . .
    But anyway, I had a good time riding the Bay Area transit systems; I've been doing this since 1991 and hope to do it again real soon!
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