Thursday, October 23, 2014

San Diego’s Crapid Transit

Mourning the Wanton Murder of the #15 Bus Line


Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

On October 11, I said goodbye to my father. He had died two months earlier in the San Francisco Bay Area, and his widow (they had been married 53 years; he and my mom had broken up when I was 1 ½) had arranged what she called a “gravesite visit” and invited family members and friends for an informal memorial. That night, as I took the bus from the airport and then made a connection downtown to return me to my home in North Park, I said another goodbye — not to a person, but to a bus line. The #15, which started downtown and ran up the 163 freeway to Hillcrest, then turned onto El Cajon Boulevard and followed it to San Diego State University, was running for the last time before, in one of the many stupid and infuriating decisions made by the people running San Diego’s Metropolitan Transit System (MTS), it was shut down and replaced by a so-called “Rapid” #215.
I had been riding the #15 since I got to San Diego in 1980. At first my then-girlfriend Cat and I lived in Golden Hill and would walk down to Broadway and ride it either to the College area or all the way out to El Cajon — it ran longer in those days — mainly to buy LP records at stores like Off the Record and Blue Meannie Records. (Blue Meannie closed in 2008 — a victim of what in these pages I’ve called “the Interblob,” the way the Internet has largely taken over business after business and abolished the experience of in-person browsing — but Off the Record still exists, though it moved first to Hillcrest and then to North Park, where it holds out in a much smaller space and I still occasionally buy CD’s and used LP’s.) More recently, for the last year and a half I have been doing home care for clients who lived downtown, and I had used the #15 as my quickest and most reliable way to get to work.
But, beginning a little over a year ago, I was warned that the ill-informed idiots who ran MTS would not be letting me do that much longer. The key clue was when construction crews started building these elaborate metal objects on the sidewalk along El Cajon Boulevard and on other parts of the bus lines, including an island smack in the middle of Park Boulevard just north of University. The constructions got in the way of the existing bus stops, and frequently I would leave the house unsure of just where my beloved #15 was going to stop and how much farther than normal I’d have to walk to get there. Then the signs went up, announcing that a new “Rapid” bus line was going to be running along that route and these new, highly decorated bus stops were being built to accommodate it. It took a while to complete these projects — indeed, the morning service started on the “Rapid” #215 a crew was still hosing down the newly built stop where you were supposed to pick it up — but eventually the dark day came when the #15 would be no more and what I’ve come to call the “Crapid” would replace it.
I decided to be fair and give it a try. That lasted two days. On Monday, October 13 — the morning they were still hosing down the bus stop at El Cajon and Texas Street that “Crapid” riders were supposed to use to get on it — I wasn’t sure whether it was going to stop at the elaborate new stop they were hosing down or the old stop across the street. It stopped at the new stop and the sidewalk was still wet from the last-minute cleaning job as I boarded the “Crapid.” It took the “Crapid” just as long to make it down Park Boulevard as it did the old #7 bus, which (blessedly) still exists and which for years has run from Broadway up Park Boulevard, turned east on University Avenue and (depending on which one you get on) goes to 54th and University, College and University, or all the way to La Mesa. What’s more, while the #7 and the old #15 stopped at several locations on Broadway — including one just a block and a half away from my client lives — the “Crapid” only makes three downtown stops: the City College trolley station, Horton Plaza and the America Plaza trolley station. That means a longer walk once I get off the bus — and an irritated client who quite rightly wonders why it’s now so much harder for me to get to work on time.
The wanton destruction of the #15 and its replacement with the “Crapid” is just the latest in a series of bizarre moves by the people running the Metropolitan Transit System (the “Metropolitan Transit Sewer,” as I used to call it until a fellow bus rider sitting with me at a stop on Sunday evening said, “You’re being unfair to sewers — at least they run on Sundays”). For decades both the #7 and #15 ran all the way down to the end of Broadway — until the idiots running MTS decided to short-circuit the runs and end them at First, then shortened them again to end at Third, all of which makes it difficult to get to the Office Depot store at the end of Broadway where I shop often. What’s more, they’ve adopted a stupid plan that’s supposed to make the overall system faster and more efficient, but which anyone who actually rode San Diego’s buses regularly could have told them would be stupid and counterproductive.
It’s called “Limited Stops,” and it’s based on the dumb idea that the reason more San Diegans don’t use public transit is that the buses stop too often. I remember when the two trunk lines serving University Avenue, the #7 and the #10, both stopped at every stop along University. Now only the #7 does; the #10 (which starts at the Old Town Transit Center, snakes up Washington Street to Mission Hills and Hillcrest, and continues down University Avenue — except on weekends, when it abruptly stops at the 40th Street station on a bridge over the freeway) stops at just a few places along the route. The #15 was also subjected to a “limited stops” routine so that it made only one stop (at 33rd Street) on the long stretch of El Cajon Boulevard between 30th and 40th. When the “limited stops” nonsense was introduced at first even the bus drivers were confused — they no longer knew where they were still supposed to stop and where they weren’t, and sometimes they stopped where they weren’t supposed to (and thus made the system much easier on riders) until they learned which stops were still kosher and which were verboten.
A true express bus — one that bypasses surface streets and spends a lot of its route on the freeways, like a car — is considerably faster than one that stays on the surface streets and makes frequent stops. But a “Limited Stops” bus that runs on city streets isn’t any faster than a bus that makes all the stops. Why not? In two words: traffic lights. Any time the driver may be saving by not having to stop at all the indicated stops is going to be lost anyway by all the red lights he or she (and many of the best MTS drivers, both in terms of efficiency and friendliness to riders, are women) will have to stop at. This was a problem when the #10 was shifted to “Limited Stops” status — and it’s also why the #215 “Crapid” isn’t any faster than the #7. It still has to run down Park Boulevard, and even though part of the way it runs on a newly (and expensively) constructed dedicated lane, it still has to stop whenever there is a red light.
I mentioned this to a fellow rider at the #15 stop at Texas and El Cajon a few days before the #15 was killed and replaced with the “Crapid,” and he said that that wouldn’t be a problem because the new buses on the #215 would be equipped with radio signals that would broadcast to the traffic lights and cue them to turn green so the bus could pass. This seemed a bit dubious to me, but he swore that he’d seen this work in Cleveland. From years of bitter experience as a San Diegan, I replied, “There are plenty of things that work in other cities that get screwed up when they’re tried in San Diego.” After I decided to give up on the “Crapid” after two days and start taking the #7 to work, I mentioned this to a middle-aged woman bus driver who said those radio devices that are supposed to make the lights on Park Boulevard go green for the #215 to pass do indeed exist — but they’re not automatic. The bus drivers have to activate them as they approach each light, she said, and most of them aren’t bothering.
The “Limited Stops” nonsense and the wanton destruction of the #15 line to replace it with yet another slow, crappy bus that runs on city streets and gets delayed by red lights are just two examples of the thinly veiled contempt the people who run MTS have for the people who use it. A decade ago I interviewed San Diego environmental activist Carolyn Chase, and something she said in our interview has stayed with me ever since: “San Diego will never have a great public transit system as long as the people running it still think of it as a welfare program.” Genuinely cosmopolitan cities like London, Paris, New York or San Francisco see public transit as part of the urban experience; places like San Diego regard their transit systems as bones they throw to the people too old, too poor or too ignorant to drive.
Limiting the number of stops doesn’t make the buses any faster; it just means that transit users have to walk farther at both ends of their trips. Anyone who actually rode buses regularly would have been able to tell that to the majordomos at MTS, but no one did. Someone who’s seen the MTS offices at 12th and Imperial has told me about all the big, fancy cars in their parking lot, many of them chauffeur-driven, with which MTS’s decision-makers get their sorry carcasses to work so they can make decisions that make MTS slower, less efficient and harder to use. Replacing the #15 with the “Crapid” #215 is a doubling-down on the “Limited Stops” strategy that has actually made San Diego’s bus service worse, not better.
It’s long been a pet theory of mine — at least until I was told that a lot of MTS’s top staff people don’t actually drive themselves to work, but make enough money they can hire other people to do it — that everyone who works for MTS should be required to surrender their driver’s license for the duration of their employment there so they would have to use public transit and therefore experience the results of their decisions in the real world. The middle-aged woman driver I met on the #7 (who told me she’s retiring soon, which will be good for her but a loss for the system) had a similar but less drastic idea: everyone at MTS should spend two years driving a bus on the system before they get to be decision-makers. Either would ensure that the people making decisions for San Diego’s bus riders would be conversant with the people who use public transit, and would help keep them from coming up with cool-sounding ideas like “Limited Stops” and the “Crapid” that any bus rider could have told them wouldn’t work on the ground.
There are other problems with the “Crapid” #215, including the decision to set up a special stop for its eastbound run on Sixth and Broadway instead of having it use the same regular stops all other buses that run down Broadway use. This is yet another dumb MTS idea; by staggering the stops you make it impossible for passengers to play one bus line against another and get on the one that arrives soonest and will still get them where they’re going. No, if you want to get from downtown to North Park you have to decide in advance whether you’re going to take the #7 or the “Crapid” — and it’ll take you a long walk out of your way if you change your mind. It also doesn’t help that some of the stops are on dedicated lanes in the middle of the street — including the one outside the Grace Towers senior citizens’ building at Park and University — meaning that seniors and people with disabilities are going to have to make a potentially dangerous street crossing just to get to the bus stop instead of conveniently picking the bus up on the sidewalk in front of their building.
The “Crapid” was introduced with a major public-relations campaign that included a press conference at the Park and University stop and a cool logo with their advertising slogan, “One Sweet Ride.” It’s actually one more bitter pill shoved down the throats of San Diego’s public transit users by an insensitive and ignorant bureaucracy which knows little — and cares less — about the problems faced by people who actually depend on public transit to work and shop.