Back-Seat Driver

Sacramento Councilman Jeff Harris goes carless for two weeks

Sacramento City Councilman Jeff Harris chats at the 65th Street light-rail station on Friday, Oct. 16, 2015. During a two-week transit experiment, he has ridden his bike to link up with buses and trains.
Sacramento City Councilman Jeff Harris chats at the 65th Street light-rail station on Friday, Oct. 16, 2015. During a two-week transit experiment, he has ridden his bike to link up with buses and trains. tbizjak@sacbee.com

Sacramento City Councilman Jeff Harris is on the Sacramento Regional Transit board, but he hasn’t had much experience riding light rail and local buses. This month, he’s getting a dose.

Harris, a freshman on the transit board, is going carless for two weeks while doing City Hall business. Instead, he’s riding the bus, taking light rail, walking and biking to and from council hearings and constituent meetings. Harris started last Monday, and said he will continue through the end of this week.

RT has come under some criticism lately for lack of cleanliness, inadequate safety measures and lack of convenience. Harris has been getting an earful from constituents and transit riders.

“I want to see the conditions of light rail, the stations, the cars,” he said. “I’ve heard anecdotes, opinion about safety.”

He also wants to find out, he said, how practical it is for people like him who have a car but would like to be transit riders. “I want to analyze how much extra time in my day (will) this take,” he said. “Also, I want to find out what is working.”

He spent his first week mainly on RT buses and found them clean. “It’s been pretty benign,” he said.

But it is definitely eating up time and can be challenging just to figure out how to get somewhere, he said. For instance, there is a bus that circulates through his River Park neighborhood, but it doesn’t take him downtown. If he takes that bus, he has to transfer to a second bus, significantly lengthening a commute that’s otherwise less than 5 miles.

His better option, he said, is to walk or ride his bike 1.5 miles to the route No. 30 bus at California State University, Sacramento. That bus makes a relatively straight shot downtown and drops him off a few blocks from City Hall. But it means a lot of time spent walking. Transit officials typically say riders are willing to walk a half-mile on either end of their trip but not much farther.

And, Harris said, with limited night service, you can’t get where you want to go. He planned to hitch a ride to a Pops in the Park event in South Natomas because evening bus service there is too limited.

One thing he noticed on his first light-rail ride: “There was no visible sign of security on the train,” he said. “No fare checked. We at RT realize we need to address that. We hope to more than double the fare checking.”

His experiment also has provided some unexpected pleasures, he said. It’s been physically invigorating and socially engaging.

“I’ve run into constituents who wanted to stop and talk,” he said. “I almost missed my bus! Made it by 30 seconds.” When he rides the bus, he reads, answers email and arranges his daily schedule. “It’s productive time. It’s actually relaxing.”

He’s uncertain about the big question: Will he continue using transit for work after his experiment is over?

“I think so,” he said. First, though, he’ll work up a spreadsheet to compare the benefits and costs of transit vs. using his car. “I am going to analyze how much I pay for fares, how much time it takes, and take stock of my productivity.”

He plans to report back to his fellow Sacramento RT board members.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

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