Sierra Magazine

Ode to the Bus

Riding to work isn't always pleasant, but it sure beats driving.

by Bob Schildgen

No two bus rides are ever alike. In fact, a single ride can have multiple personalities. The one I'm on today rattles and bounces through the gritty flatlands of Oakland, California, before emerging onto the Bay Bridge for a smooth afternoon run to San Francisco. Like the ride itself, the vista from the bridge is always different--one day, the mountains and cityscape rise against a clear blue sky, the next they're shrouded in the fog that rolls over the hills and pours through the Golden Gate. Pelicans and gulls circle overhead, while giant ships heavy with cargo plow past sailboats skimming the waves. If you're just too tired to take in the glory of it all, you can simply ease into a meaningful nap.

Sometimes, I'll admit, the trip loses its charm. During the morning and evening commute--what used to be called "rush hour," until the term was rendered oxymoronic by gridlock--a 15-minute ride can drag out to 45 in heavy traffic. But even then, riding the bus beats driving. People get to know each other--and their neighborhoods--on the bus. Sometimes the evening commute feels like happy hour, with a crowd sharing joys, woes, and opinions, the last of which are never lacking around San Francisco. Other times, you sit back and read or just observe restored Victorians or almost-secret gardens, make a mental note to visit intriguing restaurants glimpsed outside the window, or eavesdrop on your fellow passengers.

"I make more money in San Francisco than in Berkeley," a panhandler notes as he compares strategies of the underground economy with a colleague in the back of the bus. Their conversation, ornamented with creative obscenities, ranges from analysis of the aesthetics of the Playboy Channel to ecological observations about the tranquility of the water below. What talented tour guides these gentlemen could be is even more apparent when they discuss the joys of mass transit: "I take the bus out to Pier 39, and catch the ferry back to Jack London Square," one says. "And that bus out to Golden Gate Park is a nice little ride."

Although I may enjoy panhandlers' conversations, I recognize that many people would not consider any trip with these two a nice ride. (A worse ride might be one with a zealot like me, lecturing about ending the ecological tyranny of the automobile and oil industries with a Marshall Plan for mass transit.) Many nonriders are so leery of contact with the masses, they're no more inclined to board a bus than to invite a homeless person to dinner. "Don't you know what kind of people ride the bus?" they ask. Actually, I do: They're a fascinating demographic mix, ranging from below the poverty line to middle-class commuters, book-laden students, families with children--and, on some lines, even wealthy venture capitalists.

A few days later our bus is crawling along while we stew in exhaust fumes. Eventually, we bump to a complete halt as a caravan of Army trucks merges from the left, jockeying for space with dozens of their quasi-military SUV brethren and other single-occupant vehicles. The pilots of these Range Rovers, Land Cruisers, Tundras, Tahoes, Avalanches, Yukons, Expeditions, Explorers, and, God help us, Sierras, are just as stuck in traffic as we are, but maybe the names give them delusions of outdoor adventure. I find myself pining for a return to the energy-conscious administration of Jimmy Carter, when cars were named after little animals like rabbits and colts. (I'd even settle for the Biscaynes and Bel Airs of the 1950s, their monikers redolent of their quiet suburban streets.) How can cars named after noble ideals like Civic, Esteem, and Accord survive in these hyperconsumptive times?

The beleaguered bus drivers on this run often take alternate routes or abandon the clogged freeway for city streets. This passage gives us a panoramic view of such wonders as the municipal sewer system and IKEA's six acres of consumer paradise. Eventually we squeeze onto a street called Shellmound, named after the middens of the Ohlone Indians. A fine word, midden, and a great name for a car: It's stationary and full of debris. But suddenly, even our alternate route grinds to a halt. I note with utter dismay that these Expeditions and Land Rovers have finally discovered something in their intrepid urban explorations--our trusty backroad. Is there no escape?

Ultimately, this situation is as frustrating for people who don't ride the bus as it is for those who do. At 50 cents a mile, the typical cost of owning and operating a car, a driver pays $5 to take my $2.20 trip. Factor in the time it takes to earn that extra money, and they're moving even slower than they think. (And wasting way more fuel: A typical SUV burns up to 8 times as much fuel per passenger-mile as our bus. Sure, the average SUV gets 20 miles a gallon, the bus 3 to 5, but we're carrying about 40 times as many people.) In gridlock, cars actually move backwards in car-warp time.

So here sits a competent bus driver, one of thousands earning decent union wages to spend a large chunk of their time sitting in traffic. Not only are we wasting labor and gas, we're squandering capital investment in a big machine that's now reduced to a fossil-fuel incinerator. A dedicated bus-only lane would cure this pointless immobility. To pass the time, I make an attempt at civic duty, snapping open my trusty Leatherman tool to tighten a screw on the back of a seat. Our system needs all the help it can get.

We survive the ride, and the next day I'm no longer brooding on transit woes as one rider friend serves up gossip about the mysterious workings of San Francisco politics. Another seeks advice in two of the most challenging human endeavors, romance and home repair. "Focus on the home repair and the romance will take care of itself," I advise.

An active Republican pal lets me in on the deeper strategies of the party, and even the hidden lives of Republicans. One day, for example, he wants to know how to eradicate wild carrots without using pesticides, a peculiar question regardless of your political persuasion. In a laudable burst of compassionate conservatism, it seems, he'd let a homeless person camp out in his backyard. The indigent man established a garden of carrots that went to seed after his departure, eventually reverting to feral carrots that developed such tenacity that not even Leatherman could extract them.

On another day, on a local run, I board a new, sleek bus. No quick repair needed here. This one is soon crowded though, collecting 40 people, standing room only. I'll leave it to the cost-benefit number-crunchers to determine how much the car drivers should be paying us to reduce traffic by riding this bus. (While they're at it, they could calculate the car drivers' public-health bill: With 43,000 traffic fatalities a year, automobile transit ranks right up there with breast and prostate cancer.)

Around 50th Street, we enter car-warp anyway. Then it hits me: A marketing ploy to conquer the distaste for human contact that keeps some people from setting foot on the bus. If indeed the highest spiritual goal is to break down the barriers between self and world, then getting on a bus could be downright transcendent; a vehicle of enlightenment instead of a ship of fools. I can see the posters now, with Deepak Chopra or the pope or Buddha, linking bus travel to salvation.

But if some routes are crowded, others go begging for riders, which is not surprising given our local transit district's paltry advertising budget and its overall bad reputation among the affluent. One fine Sunday morning, for example, I'm heading over to San Francisco to the baseball game. The Giants are battling for a playoff berth and Barry Bonds is cracking home runs at a record-setting pace, but there's only one other passenger on the bus. Since I have no one with whom to obsess on baseball statistics or discuss the health of late-relief pitcher Robb Nen, I relax and enjoy the magnificent view from the bridge. Inevitably, though, we encounter a pack of SUVs muscling into our lane. Obviously, the spiritual marketing stuff just won't fly with these road warriors. Maybe the way to beef up ridership is to give this baby a camo paint job and call it the Road Rager or Rampager or Terminator.

Or maybe the solution to the whole problem is to eliminate parking. My bus may be empty, but tens of thousands of people are taking mass transit to this game. The new 40,000-seat ballpark has a meager 5,000 parking spaces--considerably fewer than old, chilly Candlestick Park. But no one seems to mind the absence of asphalt. Close to downtown, Pacific Bell Park is easily accessible by train, bus, subway, even ferry. Attendees scarcely need to walk a block to enjoy a fine meal, a post-game drink, or a leisurely stroll by the waterfront. It's a model of urban development. Even though the Giants didn't make it to the playoffs this season, transit proponents have a victory to savor on every trip to the game.


Bob Schildgen is Sierra's managing editor. He and his Leatherman ride the bus every day.

How Does Your Hometown Rate?

A better bus system doesn't just benefit commuters. Investing in transportation alternatives helps revitalize urban centers, clean the air, and save open space. Yet around the country, most local, state, and federal governments spend the bulk of their transportation dollars on new highway construction, the number one cause of sprawl.

In a November 2001 report, the Sierra Club's Challenge to Sprawl Campaign explores the connections between transportation, sprawl, and air quality, ranking pollution levels and transit spending in 50 metropolitan areas. To find out how your hometown rates, download the fall 2001 sprawl report at www.sierraclub.org/sprawl.

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