By Matt Wilson, @WilsonSTComms
I didn’t intend to make a full loop around the San Francisco Bay Area a few weeks ago using only public transportation, but I pulled off the roughly-more-than-100-mile trek thanks to three different public transit agencies and a bit of luck.
My vague goal on Friday, April 20, was built off a dare by my co-workers to make a clockwise loop around the Bay from downtown San Jose, to work in San Carlos, to the Oakland Coliseum for an A’s game and back home. This all had to be done somehow, some way without my car, and the more transit options I took, the more impressed they’d supposedly be.
Here’s how I did it, and some of the interesting folks I met along the way….
First leg: The trek began with my usual workday routine. On most days I take the VTA Downtown Area Shuttle (aka, the DASH) that runs around the heart of downtown San Jose and drops travelers off at the San Jose Diridon Station. The free shuttle is a reliable option for getting to the station on time and without having to walk nearly two miles each morning. The DASH ride is followed by my roughly 40-minute Caltrain ride up to the San Mateo County Transit District in San Carlos, where I work and where all the fabulous things you read on PeninsulaMoves! are composed.
Second leg: After a long Friday workday, I got back on Caltrain headed north from San Carlos to the Millbrae Transit Center. Sitting nearby on my ride was a woman who was admonished for what she said was inadvertent fare evasion. (That’s what they all say, right?) After some chit chat, I realized she was a regular commuter who didn’t have the foggiest clue about Clipper, Caltrain Mobile and monthly passes. I was so surprised to hear this, and after a quick crash course in all those tools from me, and fellow passengers, she seemed genuinely excited to give them a try and avoid having to visit ticket machines every single day.
Third leg: Fresh off doing the impromptu marketing and customer service work, I arrived in Millbrae where BART and Caltrain meet and form like some sort of public transit Voltron. I walked across the platform to add cash to my Clipper card and catch BART for the long ride to the Oakland Coliseum. At the ticket machine, I met a young lady from Pasadena who was in town for a conference. She was proud of herself for figuring out Caltrain easily enough, but was completely unfamiliar with BART and Clipper, so I helped her out. We ended up realizing that we were more or less doing the same thing this day: using multiple transit options to get where we needed to go in the Bay Area.
The two of us ended up talking the entire BART ride, and I explained to her the history of BART and its future, which is finally making its way to my old hometown of Antioch, and very soon into Santa Clara County, and eventually to downtown San Jose. I could tell she was a little jealous of our connected network of systems as compared to what they have down south. I helped her make her transfer in The City and I headed to The Town.
Fourth leg: My initial plan after the A’s game was to ride with my friend back to the Warm Springs Station in Fremont (the current end of the line for BART) and either hitch a ride home with him back to San Jose, or just take a Lyft or Uber home from his place. But, emboldened by co-workers to make the full loop, I said “I’ll figure it out later,” which are the words I want printed on my tombstone when I pass.
After the game, my friends and I milled around the Coliseum grounds before boarding BART at the Coliseum Station. The ride south gave me time to research on my phone the options for getting back to San Jose. I found VTA’s route 181, an amazing workhorse of a route that connects folks from Fremont BART Station to the Great Mall Transit Center in Milpitas, the Santa Clara County Civic Center, downtown San Jose and the Diridon Station. This was essentially a direct route home.
VTA’s 181 bus is fast and gets straight to the point by taking the Interstate to Santa Clara County. But, actually getting onto the final bus of the evening required a stroke of luck. I had a few things working against me when I stood up to disembark the BART train. For one, I only had eight minutes until the bus left. And, I didn’t have enough money on my Clipper card and I had no idea where the bus stop was.
As I waited for the BART train to pull into the station, I said “wish me luck” to my friend, readied my wallet and Clipper card and dashed down the stairs to a machine to reload my card. I then exited one side of the station into the darkness to look for a bus stop. No such luck. I had exited the wrong side of the station. Uh oh! An expensive Lyft ride and some good-natured ribbing from my friend seemed likely.
I walked across the parking lot thinking I had probably missed the bus by now. But for some reason my gut told me to walk across the parking lot toward the other side of the station. As I turned the corner to enter the other lot, I saw familiar bright headlights and the heavenly sight of the numbers 1-8-1. That was my bus, but it was just about to pull out onto Walnut Avenue. I ran up to it, waved my arms and was shocked to see that the driver stopped for me, and opened the door.
“You know why I stopped for you?,” she jokingly asked as I scanned my Clipper card. “You’re an A’s fan, “she said while pointing at my obnoxiously loud green and gold jacket. “See? It pays to be a fan of the right team.”
Blown away by her sweet demeanor at such a late hour (and wondering what my fate would have been if she was a Giants fan) I took my seat very satisfied with myself. I and the half-dozen or so bleary-eyed folks on board were exhausted and ready for sweet silence. I figured a quiet ride back to Silicon Valley was in store, but how wrong I was. I sat across from a gentleman who had little regard for the fact that we were now past the stroke of midnight, into Saturday.
The gentleman in question was from Hong Kong and he wanted nothing more than to talk to the operator and anyone who would listen about the bus we were on and every type of bus he’s ever ridden, seen and touched. While this elicited plenty of eye rolls from riders and some polite I-have-to-listen-to-you-because-I-have-no-other-choice responses from the operator, I was shockingly charmed by the guy’s dedication to buses. This is saying something because we got some real honest to God bus buffs here at SamTrans, but this guy was on another level. He said he could identify the make and model of most buses, and the year each were probably purchased. He shared plenty of (i.e, too many) stories about riding buses of all shapes and sizes in Hong Kong, London and elsewhere in the world.
Needless to say, when I (foolishly?) told him I worked for SamTrans, his eyes lit up and he told me about all of our routes he’s ridden. Perhaps if it had been 12:35 p.m. instead of 12:35 a.m., I’d had been more receptive. I smiled, nodded and sang the praises of our ECR route.
I initially planned to get off in Milpitas and ride VTA’s light rail back to downtown San Jose to earn even more public transit swag points, but by this point I was very tired, even hungrier and realized the 181 was going to drop me off a short walk from my home. I figured I had traveled enough this day and wanted catch route ZZZ to Dreamland.
Three big takeaways….
- It’s rewarding to treat travel like an adventure and a game, especially when simply getting somewhere is the reward, not necessarily the destination. That’s been my mantra of sorts the last few years, and it has made a lot of little things I’ve taken for granted in life, more enjoyable. The whole point of April 20 was to go to work and then an A’s game, but honestly getting to and from both places was what I’ll likely remember. (For instance, I didn’t even remember the score of the A’s game until I started writing this.)
- If you have access to a smartphone, there really is no excuse for not being able to figure out multiple transit systems in short time. I literally made my decision to jump off BART and try my hand at VTA’s 181 in all of 10 minutes. I probably could have been even more successful had I planned ahead.
- Also, in the age of Lyft and Uber, unless you live in the sticks, you have backup options if things go awry when journeying without a car. These services can act like a safety net just in case you make a mistake or have to get somewhere ASAP. Think of these services like guardrails for the inexperienced public transit user looking to get comfortable living the car-free life.