Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Adventures in Transit and the 54 bus

Spending a little time on public transit helps me to really appreciate my bicycle.

On Friday, I happened to leave work shortly before a caltrain 'baby bullet' would leave. Perfect. I thought I'd just go to the station, hop on the train, and get home super fast without breaking a sweat. Small problem. It was a 'new' train with a smaller bike car that was already partially full. The next train didn't come for another 26 minutes - and that was a local train. So I popped over and saw the 522 bus had just left. They time the two to leave at the exact same time (not bothering to think that this does happen to be the bus/train transfer station, where people coming from the north would find it useful to transfer to the El Camino bus.) So I just rode down the path on one side of the street, then crossed the train tracks to Alma. Alma is a pretty miserable street for cycling - horrible pavement condition, with no shoulder. However, there is a long stretch with no intersections, thus allowing for some quick travel times. Then there are a few jammed up intersections (with not even room to squeeze by), then it turns in to Central Expressway with a nice wide shoulder. I got to Sunnyvale long before a train appeared. I even saw the good 'ol 522 on El Camino right as I got there.

At least I was lucky. I get a Caltrain pass from work. Most people have to pay for their tickets. And Caltrain is proof-of-payment. This means you have to buy a ticket first, and then hope to get on a train. If you get bumped, you still have the time-stamped ticket that you have to use in 4 hours. You either wait it out, or you have just made a donation to caltrain. This can make 'bumping' even worse. Some people may have ridden - but now that they have paid for a ticket, they are somewhat obligated to wait for the next train. (If it were 'pay or stamp onboard' they could see it as a discount for not riding.) Or perhaps conductors could simply hand out "bump vouchers". A bump voucher could then be 'validated' as 10 ride tickets are validated and be used for a free ride at another time. (Though to prevent abuse a valid ticket should be required to receive one.)

An even easier approach to improving public transportation usefulness would be to synchronize bus and train schedules. Samtrans and Caltrain even operate from the same office. VTA is in its own little world - however, it doesn't even bother to sync its own trains with its buses. The 54 bus is a great example of this. Sunnyvale's caltrain station is overwhelmingly 'northbound commuter'. There just aren't many trains taking people to San Jose in the morning. And there are not a whole lot of people getting on in the afternoon to go back to San Jose. So, it would make a whole lot of sense to have AM buses arrive shortly before northbound trains leave and PM buses leave shortly after trains arrive. During the middle of the day, the schedule is not too bad. The bus arrives about 10 minutes before the train leaves. This is a little much, but makes it easy to catch the train, even with a slow bus.
During rush hours, however, its a disaster. Trains depart at :00, :13, and :18. The :13 train is a baby bullet, while :18 is a local. So, it seems pretty easy. Have the bus arrive a little before the bullet, perhaps :10. Even if there is a big delay, there is a chance to catch the local. It also allows passengers from San Jose to catch the bus going north. Instead, the schedule is timed to be about as bad as it possible can. The bus runs every half hour, yet the closest it gets is 24 minutes before the bullet train. Catching any train could be a challenge. The timepoints on the schedule are for the Sunnyvale transit center. Getting to the train requires crossing Evelyn at a light, and crossing to the boarding platform at the other side of the tracks. If all goes well, there is a slim chance that you can catch a train after arriving at 8:17, but everything must fall perfectly in place.
54 arrivals at caltrain station.
6:20a - 53 minutes before bullet (40 minutes before next train)
6:49a - 24 minutes before bullet (11 before next train)
7:18a - 55 minutes before bullet (0-42 minutes before next train)
7:47a - 26 minutes before bullet (13 before next train)
8:17a - 56 minutes before bullet (1-43 minutes before next train)

In the evening, trains arrive around :16, :21, and :55. The :21 is the desirable Baby Bullet. Again, they are timed almost perfectly to miss the trains. You can take a fast baby bullet - and then watch a bus pull away from the station right before the train arrives. But, at least in the evening, there are two buses that actually make reasonable train connections.
5:18 - no bullet (2 minutes after closest train)
5:48 - 27 minutes after bullet (27 after closest train)
6:19 - 58 minutes after bullet (2 after closest train)
6:48 - 27 minutes after bullet (27 after closest train)
7:16 - 55 minutes after bullet (21 after closest train)
8:16 - 55 minutes after bullet (21 after closest train)
9:16 - no bullet (33 after closest train)

Now these buses do arrive a couple of minutes before the baby bullet to San Jose. So perhaps VTA is trying to make it easy for people to get quickly to San Jose. The catch is that VTA also provides plenty of service for that. From El Camino, the 522 gets from Hollenbeck to downtown San Jose in 30 minutes. The 23 bus can take an hour. The light rail is around 35 minutes. All of these connect to various points of the 54 bus (and are some of the main points for people getting on and off the bus.) They also go to multiple destinations in central San Jose. So why exactly would anybody need to take the bullet train there? Chances are, its just an accident that they timed it so well for catching a bullet downtown - either that or they are crazy sharks fans. (But unfortunately, that would leave them no way to get home.)

Perhaps the reverse commute? Well, the northbound trains leave at :58, so yes, it would be only a 10 minute wait for somebody catching it. Or an 18 minute wait for somebody trying to get on the bus going north. Neither is that great.

Perhaps it is just an attempt to tie in to the light rail schedules. The northbound buses arrive 4-6 minutes before the southbound light rail leaves. But since the trains leave every 15 minutes, there are plenty of other opportunities to create good connections to the light rail, while also having good caltrain connections. Furthermore, the 522 provides a much faster means of travel to San Jose - and is closer to the population center of the 54s route.

In the end, there are no excuses. The 54 schedule is just bad. Just typical VTA thoughts in isolation. And that is what makes riding a bike a necessity.

And if the schedules were not enough of an issue, drivers can introduce their own variance. Some choose to adhere religiously to every timepoint on the schedule. Some only pick some to adhere to, while blowing right by others. Some try to drive as fast as possible to get to a timepoint, then wait there until it is 'time'. (This last type can actually be beneficial. I once was able to get off the bus at El Camino, cross El Camino and Olive, return some books at the library, and then go back to the bus stop on Olive to catch the bus as it came by.) And then there is the matter of what clock they are following. (One bus whizzed by a stop a mile and a half from the start only 2 minutes after the official start time. Since the speed limit is only 30 miles per hour, this bus did some serious speeding with no stops or red lights - or left a little early.) But its hard to give bus drivers a tough time. Given the system they have to work in, I'm grateful that they are willing to at least try to provide some transportation sanity. It would be nice if VTA actually required its employees and board to use transit. Ha... That would be the day.

March madness

March madness is here. A whole bunch of basketball games, where the underdog theoretically has a chance. Though only theoretically. Right now, the only 'underdog' remaining is low-seeded Arizona, who happens to be in the tournament for its 25th consecutive year. We got wonderful games like Connecticut vs. Chatanooga. UConn could have gone home after the first half - and still would have won.

Meanwhile in the NIT, there are actually some exciting games. St. Mary's vs. Davidson. Even first round games like #1 seeded Creighton vs. #8 Bowling Green were competitive.
San Diego State and Davidson both seem to be coming alive now, and would probably be doing well against anybody.

Now that the NCAA has ownership of the NIT, why not combine both tourneys? You could still seed the top 8 teams in each region as they are now. But then combine seeds 9-16 with '17-24' from the current NIT pool. In the new 'first round', the 9-24 schools will play each other, with the 1-8 seeds getting a first round bye. These games could feed in to the similar place in the bracket. Thus Number 9 will play number 10 in the first round, with the winner playing #8 in the second round. #11 will play #12, with the winner playing #7. This way we get an exciting first round where anybody could win. Teams that do go on a hot streak in the post-season will get a chance to continue it. Even a lowly 24 seed still has a reasonable chance of getting at least one post-season victory. And the 'play-in' teams will not longer be excluded from brackets.

And for teams that don't make the tournament, there will still be the CBI.