It's 8:58 a.m., and I'm not having the smoothest of mornings.
I'm bursting through the just-opened doors of a Caltrain stopped at the Menlo Park station to chase after the 295 SamTrans bus -- a bus I'm supposed to be on -- as it rolls out of the station, crosses El Camino Real and chugs down Santa Cruz Avenue.
I clench my tote bag against my chest, and I take off after the bus -- a chase that lasts all of one minute before the El Camino Real traffic light changes with the bus on one side of the street and me on the other.
I'm on day one of a five-day experiment of riding public transportation to, from, in and around Menlo Park, and writing about my experience for The Almanac. No car, no rides, no bike -- just public transit from San Francisco, where I live, to The Almanac's Alameda de las Pulgas office, and anywhere else I need to go.
With gas costing more than $4.50 per gallon and environmental awareness hitting a fever pitch, I figured it was a good idea to live the public transit experience and write about it.
But as I catch my breath on the corner of Santa Cruz Avenue and El Camino Real, I'm not giving one iota of thought to my carbon footprint or the money I saved this morning by riding the train. Instead, I'm laughing in disbelief at the bizarre nature of Menlo Park's public transit system.
You see, my train didn't arrive in Menlo Park late, and my bus didn't leave the station early -- everything was right on time.
According to Caltrain's weekday schedule, a southbound Caltrain is supposed to leave San Francisco at 8:19 a.m. and arrive in Menlo Park at 8:58 a.m. According to the SamTrans 295-line weekday schedule, a bus is supposed to leave the same station and head toward the city's Sharon Heights neighborhood at 8:56 a.m.
Yes, that's actually the way the schedules read -- a bus is scheduled to pick up people at the train station exactly two minutes before the train actually arrives. So when the bus and train are right on time (as they are today) the bus is on its way out before anyone sets foot on the Caltrain platform.
The next bus isn't scheduled to come until 9:53 a.m.
I saw the schedules the previous night so, to a point, I knew what I was getting myself into. But part of me didn't believe that Caltrain and SamTrans -- two agencies that actually share staff and resources -- could mesh so poorly.
Now I've seen it, I believe it, and rather than wait 53 minutes for a two-mile bus ride, I set out on the 40-minute walk to work.
So why don't the train and bus systems connect any better in Menlo Park?
According to Caltrain and SamTrans spokesperson Christine Dunn, people in this area don't use the train and the bus as part of their daily commutes; they tend to use one system or the other.
"I don't think a lot of people take trains and buses," Ms. Dunn said. "Plus, if we don't have a certain number of riders, we're not going to increase one service at the expense of another. ... This is mass transit, so we have to try and come up with solutions that meet the needs of the highest number of people."
But there lies the Catch-22 of public transit.
Agencies such as Caltrain and SamTrans wait for ridership to go up before increasing the frequency and improving connections of any given service. Meanwhile, people who could take public transit but don't necessarily have to, aren't going to use a system that doesn't stop frequently enough or connect well. Until they see a change, they stick with their cars.
So in the end, the connectivity -- or lack thereof -- of the greater transit system remains unchanged.
"We have such fragmented transit service, and connectivity is one of the biggest challenges," said Menlo Park Councilwoman Kelly Fergusson.
"If the connectivity isn't good, people go back to their cars," said Jim Bigelow, chair of Menlo Park Chamber of Commerce's transportation committee. "If the fuel prices stay up, all the agencies really need to look at their services and do everything in their powers to make those connections work."
The Bay Area is full of transit agencies, all with their own tickets, fares, maps and schedules. Along with SamTrans and Caltrain, there's BART, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), AC Transit in the East Bay, San Francisco's Muni system, and others.
Ms. Dunn acknowledged that connectivity is "one of the toughest issues" facing Caltrain and SamTrans, but she stressed that the agencies are always trying to make it easier for riders, evident in baby bullet trains, express bus lines, and Caltrain-sponsored free shuttle service to and from local stations. (Shuttles take people to and from Marsh and Willow roads in Menlo Park.)
And those efforts, coupled with higher gas prices, have led to higher ridership, she said.
According to system-wide data, Caltrain recorded 39,940 riders on an average April 2008 weekday -- up 13.5 percent from the 35,200 riders in April 2007. Caltrain shuttle ridership also spiked more than 14 percent; bus ridership increased a more modest 3.7 percent to an average of 49,430 weekday riders.
"People have to get creative how they get to and from public transportation, and we're trying to help on both ends of the commute," Ms. Dunn said. "We'll just never be able to satisfy every individual need."
The waiting game
It's 6:15 p.m., I'm sitting at the 295 bus stop on the corner of Avy and Cloud avenues, and it's looking as if I have some individual needs that public transit isn't going to satisfy -- not today, at least.
After starting my day chasing a bus, I'm waiting for one that's late, bitterly accepting that I'm going to miss my 6:19 p.m. train back to San Francisco.
I call SamTrans customer service, the operator tells me that the 295 bus, which was supposed to arrive at 5:48, is running 29 minutes late and should be here any minute. I ask if there's a way that I can check online to find out whether tomorrow's bus is actually running on time, to prevent another long wait, and the answer is a polite "no."
Sure enough, the bus comes just as my Caltrain is scheduled to leave the station. I pay $1.50 for a six-minute ride, and then I wait some more -- this time for the 6:48 p.m. Caltrain.
I get to San Francisco at 7:24 p.m., about two hours after leaving The Almanac office, and I still have to get home from the train station. I am exhausted.
Stress of the schedule
Over the next several days, I get more accustomed to life on public transit.
The connections are still tricky (I take a later southbound train, but still have to wait 30 minutes for a bus), but to an extent, I get used to them.
I run errands when I get off the train, the buses and trains are clean and relatively quiet, and I'm not spending $15 per day on gas driving 35 miles to and from the office.
But I am stressed out.
I'm entirely dependent on a system in which planning trips takes far longer than the trips themselves. Instead of having the ability to make a 10-minute trip to the bank or grocery store, I must rely on a system that is sometimes on time, and sometimes not.
Getting north or south along El Camino Real and the Caltrain line is easy, but trying to get east or west from the center of the city (such as my daily trip to The Almanac's office from the Caltrain station) is not.
In an age where people can get updates for just about anything via e-mail, text message, or phone, there isn't an easy way to figure out if a local bus or train is running on time.
I have to carry around maps, schedules, my $49 Caltrain pass (good for 10 trips), and dollar bills and quarters to pay the $1.50 SamTrans fare and $1.75 VTA bus fare.
Navigating transit Web sites is also complicated.
SamTrans.org refers to El Camino Real as a north-south road, while VTA.org refers to the same street as an east-west connection. SamTrans.org lists only some its own bus stops in its online schedules, and VTA.org doesn't recognize SamTrans routes at all. Even 511.org, operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which oversees Bay Area transportation, doesn't register The Almanac's address (or any nearby bus stops) thanks to a misspelling of "Pulgas" as "Pulgus" in the Web site's database.
According to local transit agencies, improvements to the system are coming.
Now it's a matter of when the agencies will follow through on those promises.
The SamTrans and Caltrain Web sites will be revamped some time next year so people can go online to check real-time train and bus arrivals and departures, Ms. Dunn said. She noted that riders will also be able to get updates via e-mail or cell phone about any delays or schedule changes.
MTC spokesperson John Goodwin said the "Translink" card, a debit card of sorts that will eventually act as a ticket on every Bay Area transit agency, will be accepted by Caltrain in upcoming months, and the system could find its way to SamTrans and VTA buses by 2009 or 2010.
The Translink card is one way MTC is trying to achieve the greater goal of getting people to cut their driving by 10 percent by the year 2035, Mr. Goodwin said. Instead of keeping track of multiple tickets and fares, riders can board any type of transit with the swipe of a card.
Menlo Park Councilman Heyward Robinson said it's good for agencies like MTC to set high goals, but all agencies have to be on board to solve the regional issue of getting more people to board public transit.
"Do we have a public transit system that can meet people's needs? I think that's the big question and the answer depends on where you're going," Mr. Robinson said. "I'd like to see these agencies become a little more customer friendly and make an effort to increase ridership. This is a regional problem that needs regional solutions."
And increasing ridership, according to former Menlo Park councilman Steve Schmidt, requires increasing service.
"I would say that the transit agencies need to step up and buy more equipment and hire more people," Mr. Schmidt said. "We need people who think practically and can connect these services to each other <0x2014> not put all our transit dollars into one bucket."
Crossing county lines
It's 4:15 p.m. on day four of my public transit efforts, and I am roasting at a bus stop on the corner of El Camino Real and Live Oak Avenue.
It's 90 degrees outside, and I'm waiting for the SamTrans 390, which rolls through Menlo Park on El Camino Real, and takes passengers to the Palo Alto Transit Center.
I'm taking this bus because this same route used to be covered by the VTA 22, which looped from the Menlo Park Caltrain station to Eastridge Mall in San Jose.
The route was one of the few ways for Menlo Park residents to get into Santa Clara County via public transit, but the VTA cut Menlo Park service in January, citing low ridership and overlap with the SamTrans 390 bus.
Now, riders have to take the SamTrans 390 to Palo Alto and transfer to the VTA 22 to go any farther south.
Waiting for the SamTrans 390, I talked with David Carroll, a former Menlo Park resident who still works downtown, but now lives in Mountain View and regularly takes the bus to work.
"I work one block away from a [SamTrans 390 stop, and I live one block away from a [VTA 22 stop," Mr. Carroll said. "The system isn't as integrated as it should be and there are some discontinuities, but one day I decided I'd do my part and resist the temptation to jump in my car."
I got to see one of those discontinuities firsthand as the SamTrans 390 pulled into the Palo Alto station. Right as it pulled in, a southbound VTA 22 pulled out, sparking grumbling and groans from Mr. Carroll and a handful of others planning to transfer. Mr. Carroll and the other VTA 22 riders had to wait nine minutes for the next bus.
Bernice Alaniz, a VTA spokesperson, acknowledged that the 22-line isn't the seamless trip it once was for Menlo Park riders, but said that people have adjusted to the change.
"We had some [duplication with SamTrans, and we wanted to increase frequencies on other lines," Ms. Alaniz said. "People were apprehensive at first, but now that the change is in place, they seem to be OK with it."
But the casual rider also has to pay two fares to switch from a SamTrans bus to a VTA bus. While the two agencies accept monthly and daily passes from each other, they don't accept single fares.
That means the trip from Menlo Park to anywhere south of Palo Alto would cost a casual rider $3.25.
It's day five of my experiment, and I'm on my last Caltrain trip home. For the first time in three years of driving a 70-mile round-trip commute, I cannot wait to drive a car.
Sure, I cut my carbon footprint and saved some money, but I almost lost my mind in the process.
There were just too many connections, too much time spent waiting, and too much time spent worrying about waiting and worrying about connections.
I took on this story to learn more about how public transit works in Menlo Park, but I also learned more about my own dependence on a gas-guzzling, single-occupancy, it's-there-when-I-need-it car.
"Maybe one of the reasons it's hard to pull people out of their cars is because our cars are part of who we are," Councilman Robinson said. "We depend on them, and couple that with how hard it is to get around in the current transit system, and we get addicted to driving."
Well, I went cold turkey for five days, and I need a driving fix. At least, I do in Menlo Park.
So, what can we do about this?
At a time when more riders on public transit could help reduce greenhouse gases and dependence on foreign oil, what can transit agencies do to reduce the misconnections reported on these pages and encourage more people to ride trains and buses.
Many people in local communities have ideas, and The Almanac will be reporting these online and in future issues of the paper.
You can join the conversation on Town Square.