Public transportation

25 Oct

I use the Lake Merritt station

I have a car. Where I live it’s a necessity. I wish I didn’t need a car. Cars are a pain in the ass and I don’t like driving. When I lived in Chicago, I didn’t have a car and it was great. It was easy to get almost anywhere on the El or by bus. They’re both run by the CTA, and it’s easy to coördinate trips between bus and train. Occasionally I’d take a cab, but not often. Most places worth going were accessible via El. “Cool” neighborhoods, downtown, stadiums, etc. Public transportation in Chicago is generally terrific. People complain about it a lot, but people will complain about anything. People are idiots.

Living in Oakland makes me pine for the CTA. Public transportation in the Bay Area is a giant clusterfuck. The local transit website is 511.org. That website lists 21 different bus operators, six rail operators, and five ferry operators. My movement is generally confined to Oakland, Berkeley, and San Francisco, so luckily I don’t have to deal with most of these service providers. The East Bay is serviced by AC Transit buses. To go across to SF you take a BART train. To get around SF, you take trains and buses run by the SFMTA (this is called the Muni).

Let’s provide a real-world example. Say I want to go to the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, which is in the City. (People here call SF “the City”, which I enjoy. Maybe more on that another time.) If I don’t want to drive I have to take two buses and a train. First an AC Transit bus, then a BART train, then a SF Muni bus. All of these agencies require a separate fare–there’s no transfer reciprocity. My total fare is $7.25 one way. That’s right, to go anywhere in the City not accessible by BART train costs $14.50 round trip. This is ludicrous. It’s easier to drive to a BART station, but parking there is nearly impossible. Still, it’s more convenient than taking the bus, even though I have to walk close to a mile if I want to park a) in a spot you can park in for more than two hours b) for free and c) in a place where I feel confident my car won’t be broken into. This reduces my round trip fare to $10.30. Still ludicrous. I’d drive if California gas prices, City parking, and bridge tolls weren’t even more ludicrous. The end result is that I don’t go to the City all that often.

Cable car fare is $6. I think only tourists ride them.

Maintaining a tunnel under the Bay is expensive. I get it. Running a fleet of buses is expensive. I get that too. But there’s no common sense in making a person pay almost $15 to make what’s essentially a local trip. I’m not going to San Jose or Sacramento or something. My suspicion is that the people who run these transit authorities are very satisfied with themselves and realize that the best thing for consumers would be to eliminate their own jobs and create one central transit authority. So they’re as territorial as possible and refuse to coöperate in any meaningful way.*

*Opinion not based on any research, evidence, or facts.

The only way the disparate transit authorities do coöperate is with the Clipper Card. This is a card that you can use to pay fares on any system. In theory, this is a good idea. You preload your card with cash at a Clipper Card machine at a station and then touch it to the reader on buses and train stations. In practice, it isn’t always that easy. Acquiring a Clipper Card in the East Bay is not easy. They’re not for sale at BART stations, only at Walgreen’s drugstores for some reason. I can’t think of a logical one. If you don’t live near a Walgreen’s, you have to go to a Muni station in the City to get one. That’s where I bought my Clipper Card. I put in $20 to preload it and the machine spat out my card. Unfortunately, this $20 was credited to me as a Muni “ride book” which means that instead of having $20 on my card to spend on my choice of transit services, it gave me credit for ten Muni rides. This is bogus. Imagine my frustration when I tried to get on the BART before I realized what had happened. I put another $20 on my card at the BART station. (You can add value to your card there but not buy one. Genius.) When I got home I had eight Muni rides and something like $17 cash on my Clipper Card.

Imagine my surprise the next time I rode the Muni. Instead of deducting one of my Muni rides, it deducted $2 from my cash value. This is double bogus. The only way I can use my stored Muni rides is if I have less than a $2 cash balance on my card. This makes me angry. If I thought I could accomplish anything by writing a series of angry letters, I would do so. Now what I have to do is to try to anticipate my balance so that when I get to the City I have less than $2 on my card so I can use my Muni rides. This is a huge pain in the ass. But I will absolutely not give the Muni the satisfaction of keeping free money in the form of rides I already paid for that I can’t redeem. Fuck them.

I live on a major thoroughfare one block from a major hospital. You’d think this would be a place with frequent bus service. Nope. There’s one route on my street, and one route a block over. They both come twice an hour. That’s it. That sucks. To get to Berkeley or anywhere in Oakland other than downtown requires at least one transfer. Then coming home, you have to time your trip so you don’t end up waiting 29 minutes for the bus that only comes twice an hour. The end result is that I never take the bus, even though I’d prefer to.

Sometimes this happens on AC Transit buses in my neighborhood

I mentioned 511.org earlier. I don’t have much to say about this website except that it’s confusing, slow, and generally unusable. The trip planner will provide you with several options, none of which are close to the fastest, cheapest, or easiest. The maps are so small that they’re pointless. When you view a route schedule, it doesn’t show you a map for that route. The whole thing is a disaster. If you don’t know where you’re going and how to get there on your own, you might as well not even try. The AC Transit and Muni sites are better. Not much better. I’ve spent a lot of time on the Chicago and Minneapolis transit sites, both are easy to use and helpful. It’s not that hard to do.

When even people who want to ride the bus drive instead, your transit system has failed. When taking public transit so expensive that people stay home instead, your transit system has failed. When your websites are so terrible that people give up before they even give public transit a chance, your transit system has failed.

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