Just how far can you get on public transit and a thrift-store bike? One obsessed writer tests the limits.
Cars are for weaklings.
That was my mantra Thursday night to keep my spirits up as I rode my $25, bought-at-the-thrift-store, 10-speed bike through the darkness in the middle of nowhere.
Why was I biking along empty, asphalt roads past miles of flat farmland near Dixon on a moonless night while normal people were driving by within eyeshot and earshot on I-80, comfortably cocooned in glass and steel?
Because I was on the lonely, last leg of a semi-successful mission: to get from Sacramento to San Francisco and back in one day via public transportation. Not Greyhound or Amtrak but public buses and trains.
Why would anyone bother doing that?
Call it a hobby. I got started a few years ago, when I figured out how to get from my home in Grass Valley to Sacramento in a couple hours for $1.
That’s right: You pay $1 to take western Nevada County’s Gold Country Stage to Auburn, making sure to ask the driver for a transfer ticket. That transfer gives you a free trip on the Placer County Transit bus that goes to the Watt/I-80 light-rail station. You ask the Placer County Transit driver for a transfer to get a free ride on Regional Transit’s light rail, which takes you right downtown.
Free transfers! Never forget to ask for transfer tickets!
The same works in reverse. You can get from downtown Sacramento to Grass Valley for slightly more money—$2.25—because the transfers and fares work a little differently.
But $3.25 round-trip. What a bargain! Timed correctly, it’s pretty seamless. Boom, boom, boom, you hop on one means of transportation right after another.
Alas, my round trip from Sacramento to San Francisco wasn’t as perfect.
I wound up making a poorly planned, 15-hour journey that included about 50 miles of bicycling and a stay at a $50 motel after I missed a connection in Vacaville and got stuck in Dixon.
But I’ve learned it takes trial and error to figure out how to travel long distances by public bus. You have to be an intrepid explorer, clutching a stack of bus schedules and maps and asking a lot of questions as you jump from one transit system to the next, patching together a route.
The first few times you pioneer a trip, you stand a good chance of getting lost or stranded or taking longer than you should.
But I discovered two ways recently to get from Sacramento to San Francisco. Let’s call them the easy way and the hard way.
The easy way (I actually haven’t tried this, but I figured it out by looking at schedules collected on my, um, more experimental journey):
7:57 a.m.—On any weekday, go to 1 Capitol Mall in downtown Sacramento and pay $3.75 to take westbound Fairfield/Suisun Transit (FTS, for short) express bus No. 30 to the end of the line: the Fairfield Transportation Center at I-80 and West Texas Street, where the bus arrives at 8:37 a.m. Be sure to get a transfer ticket from the driver when you pay the fare.
9:21 a.m.—Catch Vallejo Transit bus No. 90/91 to the El Cerrito Del Norte BART station. Arrival: 10:21 a.m. The Vallejo Transit bus costs $3.50 with a transfer ticket (that you remembered to request!).
Once you get to BART, you’ve got about four hours to goof around in the Bay Area. BART costs about $2 to $5 depending on your destination.
To make the round trip the same day, do this:
2:33 p.m.—Be at BART’s El Cerrito Del Norte station to get back on the No. 90/91 Vallejo Transit bus (eastbound, this time) that will take you to the Fairfield Transportation Center at 3:18 p.m.
3:44 p.m.—Catch the eastbound FTS No. 30, which gets to 1 Capitol Mall at 5 p.m.
Incidentally, this compares favorably with Greyhound, which costs $13.50 one way and takes two hours to get to downtown San Francisco. Or Amtrak, which costs $16 one way and takes two hours and 30 minutes.
Here are some other pluses: It’s a headache to haul a bicycle on Greyhound. The company charges extra and makes you box it up. That requires finding a bike box and taking the bicycle’s pedals off.
But, as long as there’s room, you can take your fully assembled, unboxed bike on the public buses and BART.
You also don’t need to show any identification to ride public transit—unlike Greyhound and Amtrak. Both got positively paranoid following 9/11 and now require photo ID.
I’m far from a terrorist. So, do I have to let the Man know everywhere I go? Not on public transit. There, my constitutional rights to privacy are secure! No one cares who I am. Now, I just hope Mr. Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, doesn’t read this and spoil it.
Now comes the hard way.
At the outset, I mistakenly thought the closest I could get to BART by bus from Sacramento would be going to the little Delta town of Isleton. There, I’d make a short (wrong again) bike ride on highways 160 and 4 to reach the BART terminal in Pittsburg.
The bike ride turned out to be more than 30 miles long. There’s not much of a shoulder on the road. In some places, you’re squeezed up tight against guardrails put there to prevent drivers from plunging into the water when the Delta fog gets thick.
I accidentally flipped over one of these guardrails just outside Isleton. One minute, I was looking at what I thought was an osprey flying overhead. The next, I was tumbling in what seemed like slow motion.
I felt grateful for not impaling myself on the sharp edge of the guardrail’s steel I-beam support but was disappointed to get whacked in the face by the rear tire of my bike as it came tumbling over.
The moral: Cyclists, keep your eyes on the road!
But if you like to bike, this is a good trip. The Delta’s beautiful this time of year.
Isleton is one of those ramshackle, old Delta towns. It looks like the set of the Robin Williams movie Popeye.
I had my third breakfast of the morning in Isleton: a crawdad omelet at Ernie’s Restaurant and Saloon. The co-owner and chef, GiGi West, explained that some fishermen still make a full-time living catching Delta crawdads.
Interesting! I felt like a low-budget version of the late Charles Kuralt. I was on the road! Learning stuff! Meeting cool people!
Here’s how I got from Sacramento through the Delta to BART:
6:48 a.m.—Downtown, at Seventh and G streets, I took Regional Transit bus No. 51, which got to Florin Mall at 7:24 a.m. Cost: $1.50.
7:50 a.m.—I caught the South County Transit/Link (SCT/Link, for short) bus to Galt, which arrived at 8:25 a.m. Cost: transfer ticket plus $1.
9:20 a.m.—I took another SCT/Link bus through the Delta to Isleton, which arrived at 10:15 a.m. Cost: transfer ticket plus $1.
11 a.m.-1 p.m.—I biked through the Delta.
1:36 p.m.—I caught the westbound No. 300 Tri Delta Transit bus in Antioch, which got me to the Pittsburg/Bay Point BART station at 2:09 p.m. Cost: $1.
Tri Delta Transit may sound like the bus to a college fraternity’s toga party, but it’s actually eastern Contra Costa County’s bus service.
I was lucky to find it. The road in Antioch that I happened to choose went by Tri Delta Transit’s headquarters. The nice people there pointed me to the No. 300 bus (which saved me about 15 miles of bicycling).
I probably should fess up and admit I was pretty much winging the trip at this point. But that’s half the fun! You grab some information and keep going and see how far you get.
In my case, Vacaville was where the last bus stopped. I’ll spare you all the details. But from Vacaville, I attempted to bike to Davis hoping to get there in time to catch the last Yolobus back to Sacramento. Hence, my lonely, roughly 20-mile (I’m guessing) nighttime bike ride through the farm fields.
I gave up around 10 p.m. and got a motel room in Dixon, too pooped even to walk a block to a bar and get a well-deserved beer.
The next day, I caught the eastbound FTS No. 30 bus back to downtown Sacramento.
That was the end of that journey. But now I’ve got a whole new stack of bus schedules to study. If Charlie Kuralt’s looking down in that big, old rearview mirror in the sky, I bet he’s smiling.
Public transit can get you virtually anywhere—once you know the secrets. Here are some other destinations you can reach cheaply from downtown Sacramento via public bus. (These are weekday times. Check schedules for weekends and holidays.)
Sacramento International Airport: It takes about 18 minutes to reach the airport when you catch Yolobus on Ninth Street between I and J streets at five minutes after the hour (every hour between 5:05 a.m. and 10:05 p.m.). Cost, one-way: $1.25 (or free with a Regional Transit transfer ticket).
Galleria Mall: Go to any light-rail stop and take the eastbound train to the Watt/I-80 station at the end of the line (not to be confused with the Watt/I-80 West station right next door). Placer County Transit has a bus that leaves the Watt/I-80 station every hour, on the hour, from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. It gets to the Galleria half an hour later. Cost, one-way: $1.50. (That’s the fare to ride the light rail; then, you get a free transfer on Placer County Transit.)
Middle Yuba River/Oregon Creek swimming hole: This is an all-day adventure. Get on the light rail and get to the Watt/I-80 station by 6:10 a.m. There, you catch the Placer County Transit bus to Auburn, which arrives at 7 a.m. There, you immediately take the No. 5 Gold Country Stage to the historic National Hotel in downtown Nevada City, which arrives at 7:59 a.m. Then, ask the driver to point you to the Broad Street Bridge bus stop across the street. There, you catch the No. 10 bus at 8:20 a.m., which will take you at 9:06 a.m. to Oregon Creek, a popular swimming hole on the Middle Yuba. Cost: $1.50. To get back in the same day, get back on the No. 10 Gold Country Stage at 2:36 p.m. at the river. That will get you back to Nevada City in an hour. Then, at 5:10 p.m. catch the southbound No. 5 at the National Hotel and take it to Auburn. You’ll arrive at 6 p.m., and you immediately can catch the Placer County Transit bus back to the Watt/I-80 light-rail station by 7 p.m. Cost: $1.
Lodi, Stockton: A little bus called the South County Transit/Link, or SCT/Link, leaves Florin Mall and makes 13 trips a day to Lodi, stopping at Elk Grove and Galt along the way. The southbound SCT/Link bus leaves at 50 minutes after the hour, from 5:50 a.m. to 5:50 p.m. Cost: $3. From the Lodi Transportation Station (the main bus stop in downtown Lodi), you can get to Stockton on the No. 23 or No. 24 San Joaquin Regional Transit District bus. The buses cost $1.50, leave at various times and take about 45 minutes to reach downtown Stockton.
Solano Mall, Marine World, Napa Valley: Catch the Fairfield/Suisun Transit System, or FTS, No. 30 bus at 8:35 a.m. at 1 Capitol Mall in Sacramento for $3.75. The bus will arrive at the Fairfield Solano Mall at 10:14 a.m. There, at 10:33 a.m., you catch the No. 85 Vallejo Transit bus (the cost is $3.50 with a transfer), which will take you to Marine World at 11:03 a.m. Or, you can stay on the bus and go to the Sereno Transfer Center, Vallejo’s main bus station, at 11:15 a.m. There, at 11:18 a.m. (if you’re lucky; otherwise you’ll have to wait until 12:09 p.m.), you catch the Napa County VINE No. 10 bus (for $2.50). That will take you all the way through Napa Valley to downtown Calistoga at 1:15 p.m. (or 2:10 p.m., if you caught the 12:09 p.m. bus).