Bus or bust!

Two RN&R staffers search for mass transit truths—and prominent locals—on Reno’s Citifare buses

Citifare will get you there, unless “there” is Caughlin Ranch.

Citifare will get you there, unless “there” is Caughlin Ranch.

Photo By Deidre Pike

We had to book to catch the Express.

We were trying to get a photo of a toddler climbing the steps of a Citifare bus at the Citistation in Sparks. He was cute, his little legs sticking out from under a too-big Dallas Cowboys jacket. The first step of the bus was as high as his chest, but by raising his little knee up to the level of his coat’s hood, he made the leap.

But before we could unzip the camera bag, the child had disappeared into the depths of his ride with his mom. And the bus we needed to catch? People were in a line, getting on the Express about a block away. We grabbed our camera gear and ran. We didn’t want to wait for the next bus.

It was hardly a secret. You could tell we were bus newbies. We didn’t know what we were doing. This was evident in the way Carli couldn’t figure out how to put the bus transfer ticket into the ticket reader. She tried it upside down and backwards. Deidre actually tried to put the transfer in the slot for the dollar bills. The driver took the ticket from Deidre, showed how the stub has a handy red arrow to direct insertion, and then inserted it for the moronic newspaper reporter.

Just how did we find ourselves riding the bus around Reno last Thursday?

Well, we’ve all seen the commercials. Assorted mayors and city managers and even attorneys general riding the bus. They are smiling. And they look like they know what they’re doing. They’re cheerfully conscious of their environmental correctness.

Do these people really ride the bus? Determined to find out, we rode the buses of Reno for a day in search of Frankie Sue. We didn’t find her—unless she was cleverly disguised as a young casino employee. But we did find a bunch of folks who ride the bus for a bunch of reasons.

The thought of going without a car gives me the jitters. My car not only gives me a sense of autonomy, but it also helps me satisfy my whims. For instance, if I really need an Energy SoBe in the middle of the day—I don’t drink SoBe, but let’s be hypothetical—I can just hop in my car and run to the nearest 7-Eleven. And, because I hate getting up in the morning, I leave my house at the last possible second and usually get to work about two minutes late.

That would all change if I used the bus. I’d have to get up 20, 25—maybe even 30—minutes earlier. So there it is: My car gives me the freedom to get sugary drinks whenever I want, to stay in bed a few minutes longer, to simply feel independent.

I love to drive. There’s nothing better than driving a fast car with a great sound system through the vast, beautiful flatness of the desert. Granted, my car is neither fast, nor well-endowed in the stereo department, but I can always rent or borrow. Buses just aren’t as, well, romantic.

But I want to be as environmentally conscious as the next person. And what could be a better way to ride into a cleaner urban future than taking the bus? I may not be willing to sacrifice those solitary desert drives, but I think I may just be able to get around Reno with Citifare, at least from time to time.

Less is more. I know I need to cut back. I’ve been thinking a lot about my consumption lately: my use of prepackaged food, the quantity of paper I use to print stuff out, the amount of electricity required by my constantly running washer and dryer, the amount of gas my car sucks up.

One day last week, I drove back and forth from home in Sparks to work in Reno three times. I drove from downtown Reno to the Meadowood Mall area for lunch. After work, I drove my daughter to swimming practice, then drove home. An hour later, I drove back to pick her up and drop her off at Girl Scouts. I then drove to Target and out to WinCo Foods on Northtowne Lane for groceries. I drove home to unpack the groceries. Then I went back out to collect my daughter one final time. I probably put 50 miles on my car.

I’m an auto addict.

The bus could be an antidote. We could unload one of my seven-person family’s three cars and save on insurance, gas, tires, brake jobs and oil changes. For $40 per month, I could ride anywhere the bus goes. I could use the family mini-van for groceries and kid errands. And the bus could get me from home to the News & Review. From there, I can easily walk to the university where I have classes. My life could be simpler.

But things would have to change. The first change would need to be that mental attitude that demands life to operate on my schedule. Not the schedule of the Regional Transportation Commission.

Is it possible? Spending a day riding around on the bus should help me figure this out.

7:35 a.m.
We got to the bus stop 10 minutes early. That’s long enough to do some second-guessing.

“Are we going north or south?”

“I forgot to ask the guy.”

Our vast advance planning efforts had included a five-minute phone call to 348-RIDE the night before.

We were put on hold for only a couple of minutes before a pleasant guy named Ed helped us plan our route from the intersection of Greenbrae Drive and McCarran Boulevard in Sparks all the way to the Reno News & Review office on Center Street.

Help Desk Ed’s plan included taking the No. 22 at 7:45 a.m. to Citistation Sparks, then hopping on the No. 11 at 7:53 a.m. The No. 11, Ed said, would take us to Citicenter Reno. We’d be there by 8:30 a.m. It took Ed a while to figure this out. We carefully recorded all his tips.

“Don’t forget to ask for a transfer on the first bus,” he said.

Maria Soto likes the bus, even though transfers occasionally make her late.

Photo by Deidre Pike

“Ask for trans,” we wrote on a steno pad.

But we forgot to ask whether we should wait on the west side of McCarran or the east side. In the end, we guessed. And we guessed right. The No. 22 breezed by going south, right on time. We climbed up the steps and proudly fed exactly $1.25 to the money machine. We had entered the ranks of official bus riders. Nothing could stop us.

The first person I met on the bus was Dat Ta, a student at Washoe High School. Ta has been riding the bus to school every day for five months. He said that he’s had no problem getting to school by 8:30 a.m.

Not so for Maria Soto. She takes the bus every morning from her Sparks home to the Lakeridge area in Reno, and she is occasionally late for her babysitting job there. Because she has to transfer buses in downtown Sparks, she sometimes misses her bus and is an hour late or more. She said she explained the situation to her boss.

“She understands if, sometimes, I come one hour late,” Soto said.

Soto, a two-year veteran of Citifare, also takes buses to go pay bills, shop and go out to eat.

“I take the bus for everything,” she said. “The thing I like about Reno is the bus runs all the time. Say it’s midnight—I don’t have to worry if there’s no bus. I like to be dependent on me. You never know when you’re going to use the bus.”

Nichole, 25, said she rides the bus daily to her job at a chiropractor’s office. Work starts at 8:30 a.m. and she’s almost always on time. Because she has a bus pass, she calculated that it only costs her about 30 cents a ride.

But Nichole would rather have a car, she admitted. She’s saving up for a Dodge Durango.

“I need an SUV because of where we live,” she said. “To go skiing and stuff.”

Right now, when she wants to head for the slopes, she rides with her boyfriend.

Nichole seemed to be an experienced bus rider. She wanted to know where Carli and I were headed. When we told her we were going downtown taking the No. 11, she shook her head.

“You should take the Express, the 11-X,” she said. “It goes on the Interstate. You get downtown in 10 minutes.”

Since Nichole was headed downtown, too, she invited us to follow her. I was impressed at the friendliness of the bus riders we’d encountered so far.

8:10 a.m.
We reached Citicenter Reno about 20 minutes ahead of Help Desk Ed’s schedule.

“I’m going to check out the bathrooms,” Carli said. The bathrooms in one building were locked. A nice man helped us. Go to the other building, he said. The bathrooms are just inside the door, he said. On the left. He practically took us by the hand to show us.

The community spirit that exists among the riders of buses will be important. As traffic increases, mass transit may need to become a real live option for many more of us.

Traffic in the Truckee Meadows has nearly quintupled in the past 30 years. And it’s expected to double again in the next 30 years. In 1970, roads in the Truckee Meadows experienced 1.8 million vehicle miles of travel per day. By 2000, the numbers had vaulted to 8.5 million vehicle miles of travel per day. In 2030, predicts the RTC at www.rtc2030.com, the area’s traffic will have increased to 17.5 million vehicle miles of travel per day.

The amount of driving we do in our own ruggedly individualistic cars is also increasing. Back in 1970, drivers traveled an average of 16 miles per day. By 2000, we were driving around about 27 miles per day. By 2030, as urban sprawl keeps sprawling, traffic engineers predict an average driver will clock 33 miles per day.

Sure, some Nevadans would rather have a collective lobotomy than give up their pickup trucks and SUVs. But as congestion increases and commute times double, we may be left with few other choices than a major move to mass transit.

10:25 a.m.
Time for coffee. We wanted to take the bus to get a mid-morning mocha. We thought we’d try the java at Emerald City in the Caughlin Ranch area. We called our friends at 348-RIDE. But the bus, we were surprised to find, doesn’t go to Caughlin Ranch. The nearest stop is at Fourth Street and McCarran Boulevard, nearly a mile away. That’s too far to walk for coffee.

And by this time, we had our first bus convert.

“I’ve lived in Reno all my life,” said our editor, Jimmy Boegle. “I’ve never taken the bus. I want to ride the bus.”

“Hallelujah!” we said.

Jimmy bounced and sang: “We’re going to the zoo. We’re going to the zoo.”

Dude, where’s my car?

Photo by Deidre Pike

We don’t know why he sang this. It could have been the promise of coffee; maybe it was the excitement of the bus. He told us not to put it in the story. Heh, heh. (Editor’s note: You two will pay. —J.B.)

We ran to catch the No. 1, which goes down South Virginia to Meadowood Mall. Meadowood Mall has coffee. And we’d get a chance to talk to tourists and regulars who ride the bus, well, recreationally. This being our third bus trip, we thought, maybe we’d finally get to see one of those prominent locals on his or her coffee break.

I plopped down next to Sunshine and Michael Gray, who were headed south from Citicenter on No.1. Michael, who is in the Army, said he has no need for a car. When stationed in Reno, Michael takes the bus to work at the Army recruiting office on South Virginia Street, and he said that works out just fine. Before joining the Army, Michael took the bus to work every day at the Peppermill.

“As long as it gets me to work, I don’t care,” said Michael, who has no driver’s license and no immediate plans to get one.

Sunshine Gray was headed to Meadowood Mall to hang out. She has taken Citifare regularly since seventh grade, ever since she “was able to get around by herself,” and now she takes the bus about three times a week for shopping, eating and other errands.

Sunshine said that her bus rides have almost always been hassle-free. On one trip, however, the bus she was riding in got hit by a car. The damage was minor, Sunshine explained, and no one was seriously hurt. There were only a few complaints of whiplash.

Just minutes after Sunshine told me about the minor collision, a Toyota Tercel darted in front of us, cutting off the bus on Virginia Street just past Peckham Lane. The Tercel was in the left lane and darted past the bus, in the right lane, into the Wells Fargo drive-thru at the last minute. The bus driver hit her brakes. I had been sitting backward —not the recommended sitting position—and I almost fell into some guy’s lap. Luckily, we escaped collision, and I narrowly escaped finding myself in the arms of a bus-riding stranger.

Next, I spoke with Betty Milne of Burnaby, British Columbia, who comes to Reno to vacation about twice a year with her husband. She stays downtown and takes Citifare when she goes shopping, usually to Costco or Meadowood Mall. Milne said that she has had no problems with Citifare and finds the drivers very helpful, but has noted that they don’t let seniors know about discounted rates. She had to ask.

“Why are you writing about the bus?”

“We heard that important people ride the bus. We wanted to see the mayor or a city councilperson.”

“Jeesh, yeah, in your dreams.”

One bus driver, who was not interested in giving his real name, said that the drivers are especially irritated with the commercial in which the mayor of Reno plugs the bus.

“If you can find a driver who’s seen him, that’d be a miracle.”

But Louise Pena, a driver for more than 11 years, said that she’s seen County Commissioner Jim Shaw riding the bus: “He was checking things out.”

And though she hasn’t seen the mayor of Reno, she has heard of one bus-riding Mayer. Sparks Councilman John Mayer has been on her husband’s bus. Also, whenever Kenny Rogers is in town, playing at John Ascuaga’s Nugget, Pena said the band takes the bus around town. She’s driven them.

Route No. 1 is busy and crazy, Pena said, but she loves it.

“I like the tourists, because they’re basically in a good mood,” she said.

World traveler Kurt Diepolter, riding south on South Virginia Street, agreed.

“Most people are on vacation, and they are open,” Diepolter said. Thirty years ago, the 65-year-old worked as a chef in a Lake Tahoe restaurant. Since then, he’s traveled home to Germany and all around Europe, where mass transit is used matter-of-factly by many more people than in the United States, he said. He’s traveled in South America on luxury buses, where curtains can be drawn for privacy and an attendant serves up blankets and pillows. He’s also traveled on buses where people are crammed in like cattle being shipped off to market.

“Here, the bus system is quite good,” Diepolter said. “I’ve never met anybody rude in Reno.”

Another passenger, John Davison, 28, told me he met a girl on the bus once.

“She was very pretty,” Davison said. “She was sitting nearby, and she was not shy, so it was easy to talk to her. I got her phone number and called her. We’re friends now, but I’m playing the field.”

We concluded that not many prominent individuals ride the bus. Why not? Steve George, the spokesperson for Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa, said that Del Papa was asked, along with many other public figures, to appear in the RTC’s commercials.

“I don’t think she rides the bus too often,” George said. “She’s a little too busy for that. And she’s down in Carson most of the time.”

We really don’t know how often we’ll ride the bus. But by the end of the day, we’d gotten over our initial insecurities. After trips on four or five buses, we were using transfers like pros. Carli even took the bus to Truckee Meadows Community College and made it to another job on time.

This bus thing: It’s doable. It’s environmentally conscious. It could end up saving us money. But can we give up our cars, adapt our schedules, re-think our dependence on autos?

We’re not making any promises. But now, we’re at least open to the possibility.

Ride on.