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Around the Bay: bus, BART and bathrooms

Lisa A. Goldstein

Monday, July 26, 1999

SAN FRANCISCO -- My mission: to travel by public transit around the entire Bay Area, armed only with a map and transit information from the Internet. My goal: to do it in four hours. My realization: never overestimate public transportation. I was 2.5 hours late.

What I also learned about public transit in the Bay Area during my day-long foray is that it's not always clean or on time, nor is it necessarily cheap.

And going to the restroom may be a problem.

I picked Wednesday, July 14, for my excursion (here's the itinerary, scheduled and actual). It happened to be a day filled with spilled chemicals on 101, a fire at a BART station, and other mind-numbing traffic incidents.

In light of all of the recent controversy surrounding Muni and other forms of Bay Area public transportation, I undertook my trip to assess its overall quality and the connections between the various systems.

I was surprised at being able to get from one location to the next pretty effortlessly. I was able to switch from one vehicle to another at each stop, something I had been worried about. The times were fairly regular, and the price was only $12.95 (including a free ride on Santa Clara County Transit made possible by a bus failure). Compare that to the relative flexibility of driving, which would cost around $54 at the company mileage reimbursement rate, not including the aggravation of dealing with traffic.

My favorite vehicle to ride was Caltrain, simply because the train had restroom facilities and I didn't feel like I was being tested for claustrophobia. The ride was smooth and I was allowed to satisfy my crying-for-mercy-tummy with a snack bar at the station. BART was OK; the seats are comfortable. The buses left a bit to be desired: they're slower, stop more often, and aren't as comfortable or dependable.

Perhaps most important was the discovery that a timetable cannot be relied upon when it comes to public transit.

Traveling is made easier nowadays thanks to the Internet. All the public transit agencies have their own websites that offer schedules, fares and contact information. Travelers can also visit the web to find up-to-date information before embarking upon their trips.

It was interesting to see the many microclimates, as well as how the Bay Area is connected. I needed several wardrobes, though. At the beginning, as I stood outside in windy and cold downtown San Francisco, I was pining for my jacket. San Rafael, in Marin County, was sunny and warmer, but El Cerrito, across the bay in West Contra Costa County, was City-like in its windy fog. And in Fremont, in southern Alameda County, it felt like summer at last.

Suffice it to say, I was glad I'd dressed in layers.

To start the 'round-the-Bay journey. I walked to the Golden Gate Transit stop at Van Ness and Sutter to await the 10:07 a.m. bus. Several Muni buses passed by, but the No. 80 Golden Gate Transit bus took its sweet time. This was to be my first venture on this particular bus, and I was not getting a good first impression.

The bus finally arrived at 10:34 a.m, 27 minutes late. The bus was clean enough, but at times the stops were a bit abrupt as the driver made his way through traffic. I had been told by the company that the ride to San Rafael would be about 41 minutes, which was about right. I was worried about my schedule being thrown off, but I only had a 10-minute wait at the San Rafael Transit Center before catching the No. 40 bus to the El Cerrito Del Norte BART station. The total for both buses, paid on the first one, was $4.55.

The 10-minute wait gave me just enough time to use the far-from-spartan bathroom facilities, which cost 25 cents (unless you're lucky enough to enter as someone exits). As I walked in the women's restroom, a man and a woman walked out. The toilets had not been flushed, the seats were dirty, and toilet paper was strung all over the floor. Theirs must have been some visit.

The transit center, where I made the switch, was well laid out. The bus schedules were posted, and the signs, with bus numbers and destinations underneath, were easy to follow. The ride was uneventful and on time.

I only had to wait a few minutes at El Cerrito Del Norte for the train to Fremont, which cost $3.40. It arrived on time, at 11:55, and reached Fremont a couple of minutes late, at 12:52. The train's condition was decent, and it was pretty empty at this time of day. So far, so good.

Oops, not so fast.

Since I had a few minutes at the Fremont BART station before catching the Santa Clara Valley Transit bus (No. 180 Express), to the San Jose Caltrain station, I was second in line to use the women's restroom (typically, there was no wait for the men's room). While peering outside, I saw the 180 dropping people off, so I ran outside to catch it. As the bus drove away, my frustration turned to relief as I realized the driver was just taking a 10-minute break.

Back to the bathroom I went. It wasn't until I was outside again that I realized I'd been charged $3.80 to exit, enter and exit the station. This is a quirk of BART fees: you can go from one station to another for as little as $1.10, but if you enter and exit at the same station, like Fremont, it's $3.80. This is also the excursion fee to tour the entire system and visit any of the 39 stations for up to three hours as long as you enter and exit the same station. If someone tries to do this without returning to the same station, they run the risk of being cited. They can also do it much more cheaply by exiting at the next station.

At the Fremont station, there's no way to enter or exit without putting a ticket into a turnstile. Actually, there is a way: people can go through the side doors, either with or without the station attendant's permission. I didn't know I had this option, and at the Berkeley station, I can use the phone or restroom before entering the turnstile. What the heck was this?

When I called BART after my trip to inquire about the discrepancies in station design, all the operator could say was that the stations were built before 1972 and there have been no changes of any kind. Whatever.

I promptly complained to a BART employee. He pointed to a sign that warns people of the charges incurred when entering and exiting the station. However, this sign was small, on the station attendant's window, facing the entrance to the station -- not exactly noticeable. Unfortunately, this employee said, there was nothing he could do for me.

I sulked away to wait for the bus. A few minutes later, the employee walked over, handed me a hand-written ticket with $4.30 on it, and said it was from someone that morning who wasn't supposed to have it.

My faith in public transit employees, er, humanity, was restored.

But that's not all that transpired at this BART station. The bus, scheduled to depart at 1:12, was unable to start. As more than 10 of us waited in line, the driver made a few attempts, to no avail. She finally took her bag and walked away from the bus into the station. We were left without an explanation or apology.

"Are we just supposed to wait for the next bus?" I asked the guy standing next to me.

"I guess," he replied.

With that, I walked over to the bench and sat down, figuring I had a 20-minute wait ahead of me. A few minutes later, the driver came back and was able to start the bus. As we climbed on, she waved her hand and said, "Get on, get on," thus saving me 65 cents because of the delays.

My arrival time in San Jose was to be 2:11, but since the bus left at 1:23, I was worried I'd miss the 2:30 Caltrain, which cost $4, the last ride during offpeak hours. The driver managed to get there at 2:15, despite traffic on the highway, which allowed plenty of time to purchase my ticket and a $4 egg salad sandwich from the station snack bar. Incessant seat vibration made the ride uncomfortable.

The Caltrain left a minute late but arrived in San Francisco on time. Once at the Caltrain station at 4th and Townsend, I looked about for my next ride: the No. 42 Muni bus, a $1 ride. I had been given instructions by Muni to find the correct bus and its stop, but found them confusing because some details were omitted or unclear.

Seats were hard and the bus wasn't as clean as some of the others I'd ridden. In fact, a passenger who boarded came prepared: she took a clean paper towel and wiped off her seat for a few moments. She then looked at the dirty paper towel and the seat, determining it to need further wiping. Her actions provided a bit of entertainment for the rest of us, as well as some unease on my part as to what I was sitting on.

Since we were approaching rush hour, the roads were clogged, and the front door was stuck. After a few attempts, the driver got it to open while the bus was stopped. Once the bus started again, the door would not open.

I returned to my starting point, Van Ness and O'Farrell, in 19 minutes. I had been told it would take 25. After 6 hours and 30 minutes of "touring" the Bay area, I was finally done.

As soon as I could, I got into my car to drive home. I'd had enough of public transit for one day!

Talk about Muni in our vent box.

See Lisa's itinerary using public transit around the bay

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