You can’t get there from here

Just try using mass transit in Sacramento

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As you drive out of Downtown heading east on the Capital City Freeway, there’s a large billboard sponsored by the Sacramento Regional Transit District just after the Arden Boulevard exit. In the tradition of Uncle Sam’s patriotic military recruiting, RT wants you. RT wants to give you a ride, and all you have to do is call the phone number on the billboard and request a new rider information packet. RT needs new users to the area’s public transportation system.

Among other things, the packet includes free passes for bus and light rail service, a map and a schedule, and a “Personalized RT Trip Plan” application. In marketing circles this expense is known as a “loss leader.” To get a personalized trip plan, you simply fill out the pre-paid post card with where and when you want to go anywhere in the RT service area, and mail it in. RT promises that “within 5-7 business days,” you will receive instructions on which bus or light rail services will get you there and back.

Sounds easy, but is it really that convenient? We do know that using public transportation commits us to a schedule. Someone else’s schedule. We drive because having a car enables us to go where we want, when we want. And we know that if we use RT to get where we need to go, we would have to give up at least some of that cherished, if self-centered, freedom.

But we also know that lots of folks who have no other choice—the low-income, disabled and elderly—use public transportation. There are many who voluntarily give up their vehicle to save money and some of us use the park-n-ride services of light rail to get to work Downtown without fighting traffic. Isn’t that good enough? But if mass transit in Sacramento were good enough, would we still have to creep along on the bumper-to-bumper freeway to get home during rush hour and endure so many summer smog alerts? Still more people need to get on board to save our environment.

So where can you go using public transportation, and how much time are you going to have to give up? Well, if you live within walking distance to light rail service, which runs from Watt and I-80, through Downtown, to Mather Field Road in Rancho Cordova, and want to get to a destination within walking distance, you can travel from before dawn to after midnight. And you’ll give up very little, if any, time compared to taking a car.

But if you live much beyond the light rail corridor, you probably can’t go anywhere you want, at any time you want. For the annual Earth Day issue, the SN&R wanted to get a feel for where you can and can’t go using public transportation, and sent me to find out.

I purchased a Sacramento bus and light rail system map and schedule book for a buck from Regional Transit (RT) headquarters on 29th Street. Spreading open the fold-out map, which shows the routes, and checking the schedule book for times, it is quickly apparent that, much like Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage, it will be a race against the clock to get home from many destinations after the sun sets. If I like the nightlife and want to boogie, and live in the suburbs, I may be dancing with myself, at home.

For instance, if I live in Orangevale and want to hit the popular Downtown dance floors at the 815 L Club or Face’s, I may have a problem. It looks like I can’t stay past happy hour, if that, because the last bus arrives at Hazel and Madison at 6:08, and I’ll have to leave Downtown considerably before that. And that’s Monday through Friday—the last bus on Saturday reaches Main and Madison at 4:52 that afternoon.

How about if I live in Rush Limbaugh’s favorite suburb, Rio Linda, and want to grab some grub at an Arden Fair Mall restaurant and then walk across the street to Polyester’s, the new ‘70 and ‘80s nightclub, and strut my stuff in my classic white leisure suit? It looks like I better get lucky and meet a chick with wheels, because if I don’t I can’t stay late—the last bus Friday night gets me to my swingin’ bachelor pad at Elkhorn Boulevard and Dry Creek Road at about eight o’clock.

The song remains the same if I live in most of Fair Oaks, Elk Grove/Laguna, North Natomas, the Pocket and virtually any outlying suburb not directly served by light rail. If I live near a main bus service artery in Carmichael, Arden, Rosemont, Oak Park, Meadowview, Land Park and other older, established areas, I can get back as late as 11:00 p.m. But unless I’m taking a cab home, I’ll never hear the words “last call” at most major hot spots.

Nightclubs are too crowded and loud anyway. Maybe I’ll try something more sedate for entertainment. How about a King’s game or concert at Arco Arena? Bad choice, transit-wise. I better keep my ticket and King Dog money and start saving for a car, or stand on the curb with my thumb out, because there isn’t any public transportation to Arco Arena. From anywhere.

William Draper, public information officer for the Sacramento Regional Transit District, explains that, unlike Raley Field, which has shuttle service to Downtown for River Cat’s games, Arco Arena and the King’s management have never expressed an interest in RT service to the facility. Draper speculates that since parking fees at the arena are likely a significant revenue source, arena management may not be overly enthusiastic about large groups of people ducking the $7 per car charge by taking public transportation.

Mike Duncan, vice president of Arco Arena Operations, concedes that the facility does make money off parking fees, but he points out that since the schedule for each event varies—"some get done at 9:30 and some at 11:30"—it is a challenge to provide RT service to the facility. Duncan also questions whether there is much interest for public transit to Arco events. “It’s nothing I believe there’s been a demand for,” he explains, but that they “would be interested” in considering such services. “Parking is a revenue source for us, but getting people into the building is the number one revenue source.”

OK, let’s say I’m not a lounge lizard, Kings fan or Arco Arena concert aficionado. I have always wanted to be one of those high-income urban professionals who work at the state Capitol as a lobbyist or legislative aide. I would live Downtown in a restored Victorian with hardwood floors, put the money I would have spent on a sport utility vehicle into a “green” mutual fund, and take the bus or light rail to work. A blissful life of political correctness.

Of course, I will need those special home accessories available exclusively at the only Restoration Hardware store in the area, located at the Roseville Galleria mall. But can I get there? Turns out I can. RT and Placer County Transit have just initiated service to the mall from the Watt/I-80 light rail station. They’ve got regular service, even on weekends. Now I can get those genuine Restoration Hardware Shetland Woolies premium floor protectors ($8.95 for a set of four) to stick on the legs of my furniture. My floors won’t get scratched and the Woolies “won’t shed or disintegrate over time like felt-based products,” according to the package. That’s a relief.

But what I really am is an ordinary, average middle-class guy, without a mutual fund, and, like thousands of other Californians, I don’t have health insurance. If I have a testicular cancer relapse or slip in the shower and break my hip, it will be off to the county’s indigent medical facility, the U.C. Davis Medical Center on Stockton Boulevard. Can I get there from where I live off Auburn Boulevard in Citrus Heights? My RT map and schedule say it can be done. Maybe I better dry-run this trip while I’m healthy, just to make sure.

Luckily, the nearest bus stop, about two blocks from my front door, is close enough to get to hopping on one leg. Waiting for the bus on a Friday morning, I shared the bench with Bob Mitchell, who sported the white cane of someone visually impaired. “I’m legally blind,” he explained. Mitchell, a regular RT user, was on his way to the Hillsdale Boulevard Baptist Church where he travels once a week to do volunteer work. Although he would like to see light rail extended northward, he says he is able to get to most places he needs to. He adds that RT drivers are “very friendly, courteous and always helpful,” and that the buses run on schedule.

Sure enough, the bus shows up on time. Our driver, Ira Wharry, is indeed friendly, and helps me plan my route. Yen Nguyen boards the bus at our next stop. She just moved to Citrus Heights from Downtown and is using her day off to test run the bus service she will be taking to get to her job at Downtown Plaza. Wharry tells her where to get off, and which bus to take next. “He’s really nice,” she says. Nguyen, 21, doesn’t own a car. “I’m paying off some bills,” she explains.

After transferring to a second bus, I arrive at the Watt/I-80 light rail station. The stairs and landing area that take me down from the street to train level are clean and puddled by a recent pressure washing. But the stench from the porta-potty near the loading area indicates that it is far beyond its “best before” date.

The train departs and I share my car with a pre-school class on a field trip to the park, a pair of homeboys with prison tattoos, and a couple wearing CalTrans I.D. badges. At the 65th Street station, I board a waiting bus for the final leg to the medical center. I arrive an hour and 40 minutes after I started my journey.

On the return trip I met Deuson Uslakar and his wife. He had a unique accent and explained that he is originally from Slovenia. “It’s close to Austria,” he said, my facial expression giving away my weak knowledge of geography. Uslakar is 79 and uses public transportation mainly to go grocery shopping and to the doctor. “There is a good connection to the hospital in Roseville,” he said. His only complaints are that some bus changes are an hour wait, “half an hour would be better,” and that the service is not so good in Citrus Heights, “but they say it will improve.”

John Vigil ("they call me ‘Little John’ “) pulled up at one of our stops on a bicycle, which he loaded on the front bike rack of our bus. Vigil is 52, on disability and doesn’t own a car. “My license expired,” he said. Vigil lives in North Highlands and today is traveling to Fair Oaks to see friends. He says there is usually room on the bus for his bike, and that even when the two-space exterior rack is full, most drivers will let him load his bike inside the bus “most all the time, as long as there’s room inside.”

However, he avoids the light rail because during peak periods bikes aren’t allowed. In fact, last year he was ticketed for having his bike on the train at the wrong time of day. He says the restriction wasn’t clearly posted, and a judge agreed, dismissing his case. But he doesn’t want to take any more chances—"I haven’t taken my bike on light rail since.”

My afternoon return journey isn’t as seamless, and requires a half-an-hour wait at Auburn Boulevard and Greenback Lane.

I get back to my original bus stop in Citrus Heights two hours and 10 minutes from the time I left the U.C. Davis facility. For comparison, I drove the same route a week later at the same times. The trip is about 25 minutes each way.

This significant travel time difference, says Alan Hirsch, local transportation advocate and coordinator of the Sacramento Transportation Equity Network, is part of the problem. How do you get people who would otherwise drive to take public transportation if it doubles or triples travel time? Hirsch says part of the answer is implementing the concept of “Bus Rapid Transit.”

BRT speeds bus travel using low-floor buses that allow faster boarding, especially for disabled passengers; queue-jumping lanes at intersections that allow buses to bypass waiting traffic; signal pre-emption, so buses can change the stoplights; dedicated bus lanes on major roads, and other time-saving features in use in other cities. This is all described at

RT senior schedule analyst Mike Fitzpatrick says RT is looking at incorporating some of the features of BRT, which he calls “corridor enhancements,” for the busier routes of Stockton Boulevard, Watt Avenue and Sunrise Boulevard. “We are working with the county on signal pre-emption along sections of Watt Avenue.” Fitzpatrick says it would also be possible to add a dedicated lane along a portion of Sunrise Boulevard, north of Highway 50.

But RT public information manager Draper points out that a significant source of RT funding comes from the state and federal governments, which will often specify how the money can be spent, such as exclusively on light rail. Local politics also plays a role in the allocation of funds and services. Draper says that often improving services in any given area boils down to “a matter of political will.”

So, do we want to spend our time waiting, or our money, for a better transit system? Or, perhaps the real question is, do we want to continue to drive at the expense of the environment?