Get on the bus
It’s easier, cheaper and more fun than driving, riders say. You just need to try it
At 3:17 p.m. on a Saturday, the green-and-white bus pulls up to the corner of East Lassen Avenue and The Esplanade right on schedule. Outside the air is crisp but almost spring-like; inside the bus it is slightly warmer and still, as on an airplane.
A young mother sits with her two children, rocking one in a covered bassinet and reeling in the other as he bounces from seat to seat. He intermittently sucks on the plastic seatbelt while she isn’t looking.
A gray-haired couple sits at the front and chats with the bus driver about familiar things: the kids, the weather and the regulars on the bus who’ve been riding for the last 20 years.
At the very back are two teenage boys. Like the cool kids who rode the bus in elementary school, they have an arrogant air about them, like they’re better than the misfit group surrounding them.
All bob up and down to the rhythm of the tires on the road. They raise and lower their voices to accommodate the ding of each person’s signal to stop and the tick tick tick of the bus’s blinker.
This is a typical bus experience in Chico—relaxing, familiar and oddly poetic.
With some 850,000 riders each year, the Chico Area Transit System (CATS) isn’t necessarily hurting for passengers. But with the increased congestion in parking downtown and gas prices exceeding $2 a gallon, it’s time to realize we’ve got this service at our fingertips, and many of us aren’t even using it.
“I think one of the major reasons people don’t ride the bus is habit,” said Jim Peplow, a senior planner with the Butte County Association of Governments. “Americans are so used to just jumping in their cars and driving where they need to go.”
“It’s instant gratification as well,” added Janice Frattalone, BCAG senior planner of transit administration. “You may have to get to work a half an hour early [when you take the bus], and people just aren’t used to doing that. Being a bus rider is a different way of life. [People] want the bus to come to their doorstop right when they want, and we can’t do that. We’d like to, but we obviously can’t do that.”
BCAG takes care of the administrative side of the city and county transit systems—monitoring ridership, figuring costs and deciding how to make more people aware of public transportation.
In 2003-04, BCAG said operational costs for CATS and the Clipper were around $2.7 million. Riders’ fares pay for roughly 20 percent of that, and the remaining amount is divided equally between Federal Transit Administration funds and Transportation Development Act funds. Last year, FTA contributions were $1,080,653 and TDA handed out $2,031,542. Of that, transit needs are met first and then the remainder is given to other transportation services around town. Additional costs—such as the six 2003 Gillig Phantom buses that recently went into service—are met with the city’s allocated federal and state capital replacement funds.
The new buses are just one step BCAG has taken to improve the convenience for bus riders. In November it overhauled many of the routes, changing departure times, adding hours at the end of the day and even making half-hour routes available on busy lines like Routes 5 and 6 from downtown to the Chico Mall area. Since these modifications, Peplow said he has seen a 44 percent increase on Route 8, the student shuttle that runs out to Nord Avenue and student housing, and a 30-40 percent increase along Routes 5 and 6 from this time last year.
Another prospective change to the system could come in the form of a new transit center. Without eliminating many of the parking spots at Second and Salem streets, where the buses currently meet, a building would be erected to include restrooms, some artwork and a service person to sell tickets or passes. But city Management Analyst Linda Herman said contract bids for the prospective center came back way over budget. Even when sent out a second time, bids were more than the city could afford.
“We’re just kind of putting it on hold right now,” Herman said. “We’re seeing what we can do about consolidation and future funds.”
The consolidation Herman mentioned is a suggestion to combine the transit centers for all the county’s systems, including Butte County Transit, which runs from Chico to Oroville, Gridley and Paradise. Another option is combining the new transit center with the proposed downtown parking structure, an idea Mayor Maureen Kirk introduced at the Feb. 17 City Council meeting. The specifics of that plan are not set yet, and the consideration will be reevaluated at the Apr. 20 meeting after staff has consulted both the university and BCAG.
“We just saw the proposal the other day,” BCAG’s Frattalone said. “We have to look at that and make a recommendation from our perspective, but it’s still the city’s deal. It was an interesting concept that the mayor came up with, though.”
But whether or not the transit center makes it into development, you can be sure that many of CATS’ regular patrons will be riding either way. Irma Shearer said that she has been riding the bus since the mid-'80s, and now it’s a major part of her life.
“I love it,” Shearer said from the second seat on Route 1. “I don’t have to drive or deal with the traffic. I would not bring my car now for nothin'.”
Shearer takes the bus sometimes three or four times a day, so it’s no surprise that in nearly 20 years she knows the names of every bus driver and rider in town. “I’ve met lots of friends just riding around town,” she said. “If you don’t see ’em on the bus, you get worried.”
Jenny, a bus driver with ATC, the company BCAG contracts with to operate the transit system, said that it’s the friendliness between drivers and riders that makes the Chico transit different from the routes she’s driven in areas like Santa Rosa and Oakland. “Every time I come into town I run into people I know from the bus,” she said. “I’m a people person, and I love to drive. If I didn’t drive the bus I’d probably just be driving around in my own car wasting gas.”
Jenny echoed the feelings of Peplow from the BCAG, saying that initially it may seem inconvenient to ride the bus, but it’s actually a very rewarding experience.
“When people do start riding the bus, it’s like breaking a habit," Peplow said. "You have to actually think about riding the bus. But once you start doing that, you realize it’s a lot easier to do."