Facing its 30th birthday with a midlife crisis of declining ridership, yearly multimillion-dollar deficits and fare increases, the San Mateo County Transit District finally is assembling a dramatic plan to reinvent its bus service for a changing market.
The core idea is to attempt a replication of Caltrain’s popular "Baby Bullet" trains, which have produced a surge of revenues for the past two years by cutting the number of stops and delivering a one-hour commute between San Jose and San Francisco. SamTrans would attempt to offer speedy express buses along its main El Camino Real route with about two stops per city, thereby drastically lowering its current 100-minute travel time between Palo Alto and Daly City.
There should be no argument about the worthiness of this goal. Obviously SamTrans needs to try something new because its present methods just lose money and passengers. So now the bus line is examining the various technological alternatives for enabling faster service on El Camino.
Should SamTrans purchase an existing computer system that would turn traffic lights green when a bus approaches? Or should there be dedicated bus lanes on El Camino Real, as are widely used in downtown San Francisco?
How about some of the optional enhancements under consideration? Will SamTrans provide real-time schedule displays at its express stops, like BART stations? Will these accurate "Next Bus In 5 Minutes" schedules be accessible on the Internet via PDA or cell phone? Will the buses provide Wi-Fi for commuters?
Looking at the fierce resistance faced by Muni for its proposed "Geary Express" along the crowded bus route between the westside and downtown, we would advise SamTrans to avoid seeking dedicated bus lanes if at all possible. Geary Boulevard merchants and neighborhood activists become enraged at any prospect of losing parking spaces or slowing automobile traffic on the busy thoroughfare.
Interestingly, SamTrans express buses would be competing to some extent against the Baby Bullets of sister agency Caltrain. The express trains would presumably always be faster, having their own right-of-way. But the Bullet Buses are likely to be cheaper and would have the added advantage of being able to go into the heart of downtown San Francisco, instead of halting at the present train station across from AT&T Park.
SamTrans is likely to face a difficult road ahead, since El Camino Real is largely under state control and the CalTrans highway officials must be consulted at every step. Also Peninsula cities are now united in the "Grand Boulevard" plan for making frumpy El Camino into a county showplace, so they will have their own ideas about manipulating traffic patterns to accommodate express buses.
But we hope SamTrans will ultimately overcome the formidable obstacles and give this key Bay Area route the kind of bus transit alternative that commuters would really use.