[Note: This page was written sometime in 2008, when I lived on the San Francisco Peninsula.]
I don’t do as much of this as I used to (I am often given rides by very nice people), but I do some, and I’ve done enough to know that it is much more harrowing than commuting. Commuter transit is, whatever else it is, very regular. You go on the same train or bus every day, you know how long it takes, where to get off, and when you need to leave to get there in time. (Which doesn’t stop me from having to go at a run to the station sometimes.) Trying to go places in the off-hours, or going places that you’ve never been before, is considerably more challenging. It gets essentially impossible late at night; only in SF with the MUNI Owl buses and on the Peninsula 1 SamTrans bus run later than around midnight to 1 am. Luckily, I like to sleep at night.
When I first moved here, someone very nicely told me about 511 and the Trip Planner (probably my old roommates). It’s invaluable to a transit user, because you can plan a trip using multiple modes of transit without having to consult seventeen route maps and twelve timetables.
It’s really helpful; it can tell you about traffic, and it knows where buses stop, how much they cost, how long it takes to walk to one from another, and so on, so you can get a really customized trip plan. You can also call them, and there’s an automated system to talk to (the speech recognition is very good, and I know whereof I speak). They can also tranfer you to operators for most of the local systems — that’s how I always get in touch with SamTrans and Caltrain. The site has bike route planning and links to all the agencies and lots of other information. I do plan to collect some useful links here at some point, but 511 is a stand-in for now since it’ll get you everywhere by following links.
Like every other Bay Area transit thing, it has its oddities.
It doesn’t know anything about the (very highly populated) area of Sunnyvale where I work; it doesn’t let you be willing to walk more than a mile between transit points. It might tell you to take a lot of connections, when another route would be so much simpler, even if a little longer or more expensive. It does have options to deal with this to some extent, but they don’t always work correctly; you need to know something about the transit systems to use the options effectively. However, it does know how to properly manage connections, giving you (usually) enough time to deal with them. It’s a little conservative, which can be good or not.
One notable thing that’s you can’t really adjust for, since you have to choose a time: 511 isn’t smart enough to take the timing input you give it and say “Well, if you go then, you’ll have to take this ridiculously complicated route, so let me suggest you adjust your arrival time by ten minutes…” Which is great if you know what you’re doing, not so great if you’re not really that particular when you arrive if it makes the journey easier.
Even with 511, if there’s a transit system or two that you use a lot, or particular routes that run near places of interest to you, you’ll want to aquire the route maps and timetables for those agencies and routes. There will be times when you’re away from 511, and you’ll want to be able to check that you’ve gone to the right place at the right time. You’ll also need good maps of areas you’ll be walking in, even if you’ve been to the places before. (I like the San Francisco EasyFinder made by Rand McNally for SF.) Keep all your maps and timetables together in a place that’s easily acessible. If you use one particular route a lot, just keep that one in your purse or backpack. (I always carry a Caltrain timetable and a VTA Bike Map.)
My favorite transit system for off-peak is BART, though I use it less frequently because it’s mostly in SF and I’m mostly on the Peninsula. BART goes the most places, and it’s pretty fast for most of the way, not dependent on traffic. It’s almost automatic how long they stay at a station, so it’s almost always on time unless there’s a problem. It’s really frequent, with minimum 20 minutes. And I love the sound the trains make as they accelerate. I always sit in the seats opposite the system map, not because I need the map, but because I like to look at maps. I really wanted to live within the BART system reach, but working in Sunnyvale makes it tough. It would be a long, awkward, and expensive commute. So I don’t. But if I need to travel within SF, Oakland, and Berkeley, I usually use BART. It goes to two of the airports, too. (SJC can be reached by Caltrain and light rail or shuttle.)
The only problems are that it’s an expensive system if you go a long way, and the BART extension to SFO is much slower than BART in SF through Daly
City. Also, there’s no longer a way to go directly from Millbrae to SFO, which I just think is beyond retarded, and really lowered my estimation of BART.
It takes a little longer to get to SF downtown if you switch to BART at Millbrae, but if you’re going somewhere like the Mission, it’s really the most convenient, so there’s a tradeoff that shouldn’t be.
Caltrain’s off-peak service has a lot of issues. I would go so far as to say that this is my single biggest issue with Caltrain. On the plus side, the line goes through most of the Peninsula town/city centers between Millbrae and Sunnyvale, so it’s usually where you need to go when you’re traveling between Peninsula towns. On the minus side, trains are very infrequent: every 30 minutes during the day, and every 60+ in the evening, with up to 120 minute gaps in some places in the schedule (though only up to 90 on the weekdays). It used to be worse, at a max of 120 minutes all days, but they improved the weekday schedule a bit by adding two evening trains. However, they did not do the logical thing of allowing an 11pm train from San Francisco, so if you can’t get back by 10:30, you still wait for the train of the damned (a ‘fond’ nickname for the 12:01).
They stop running very early on Sundays (the last trains leave SF and SJ at 9:00 pm), so I can’t do anything in the city on those evenings unless I have alternate plans to get home. All the trains in the evenings and weekends are slooowww and take 1:36 to get from SF to SJ (vs 0:59 for the commute-hour bullets). The last train leaves SJ at 10:30 normally, so you can’t stay down south late.
If you’re doing non-commute travel during the commute hour, it is also problematic. The fast trains only go to certain stations depending on the commute direction. For example, they stop at Sunnyvale northbound in the morning, and southbound in the evening. So if you’re doing non-commute travel (or indeed commute travel) from Sunnyvale to SF in the evenings, you’re stuck on a slow train. The commute trains also cause large gaps in the schedule. Sunnyvale has a 5:58 stop going north, and then a 7:04 one, so if I want to go up to SF on a weeknight, I have to leave work early, with all the attendant hassles that entails.
However, Caltrain does get credit for allowing bikes on at all hours, even if the space is sometimes inadequate and the institutional feeling somewhat less than warm about the program.
SamTrans and VTA Buses
SamTrans and VTA suffer from similar time-limitation issues. Many SamTrans buses stop running around 10:00, with some few exceptions such as the extremely useful 390 (Daly City to Palo Alto Caltrain) and 391 (SF-Limited to Redwood City Caltrain), both of which run on El Camino between Millbrae and their termini, and run until around 1 am. Their normal off-peak frequency is once every hour, or once every half-hour for popular buses.
The SamTrans drivers are usually very nice and will tell you when your stop is if you ask. On VTA I’ve only had one experience where I needed to ask, but the driver was nice then, and worked with me to understand what I was talking about. On both kinds of buses, you can get some strange people, but most people are fine. VTA is $1.75, more expensive than SamTrans’s $1.50. Both seem expensive for short rides but are a great deal for longer ones. (SamTrans’s express buses cost more, though — $4).
I don’t have too much experience with MUNI, but I do like the way they give transfers, whereas on SamTrans and VTA you pay for each fresh bus. However, I’ve had one pretty scary experience on it. I was on the #30 bus when some kids started tagging. Someone alerted the driver, and the kids tried to get off. A guy tried to stop them from getting off and getting away, and they hit him on the head with something hard. The bus driver came back to try to catch them and also stop them hurting anyone else. The guy was bleeding and the bus had to stop and wait for police. I got off and got the next one. I think I got some blood on me. I never found out what happened.
The buses tend to stack up and come in clumps, because there’s just a frequency level, no real timetable (this makes exact connections hard). I like the MUNI trains, though they aren’t very fast; the N is good for getting from Caltrain out across the city, but kind of slow. They’re one of the few that run any buses overnight (the Owls) but the Owls don’t go everywhere. The cable cars are useless. Just in case anyone was wondering (no one is), they should never be used for serious transit. A 511 itinerary that involved them ended up taking me four hours to get anywhere. Buses are always better. The F Market is almost equally useless. I often take the N because it stops by Caltrain, and it’s slow but fine.
Transit connections are a huge issue in general, but especially during non-commute travel. BART and Caltrain at Millbrae either work perfectly — you step right from one to the other — or, more often, not at all — you step onto the platform just in time to see the train leaving. Then you wait up to two hours, if you come at just the wrong time. This is pretty much the story of all transit connections. They’re not timed except within an agency, and so many agencies cover the area that you get virtually no timing at all on the Peninsula. A few months after I moved here I saw a headline that said, basically, “Study shows transit connections suck”. I had only lived here for a few months and was already like — wait, they needed a study to figure that out? Man, no wonder it sucks.
Even with the hassle, I prefer transit. I like to do things while I’m in transit, so I don’t feel that I lose time to transit. It does make it hard for me to do some stuff, like take midday appointments (I used to miss three hours out of my workday when I had midday chiropractic appointments) and do things in the evenings, but it’s a fair tradeoff, to me. And it’s kind of a mental challenge to work things out. I never have to deal with traffic and gas prices. I feel good about my energy usage. And I just love the experience, which I never do when driving.