California Forum

SMART Bay Area train, dumb Bay Area transit

Bay Area Rapid Transit passengers wait for a train in this Oct. 22, 2013 file photo taken in Oakland. Individually, the Bay Area’s many transit systems work well, but connecting among them can be challenging. (AP Photo/Ben Margot, File)
Bay Area Rapid Transit passengers wait for a train in this Oct. 22, 2013 file photo taken in Oakland. Individually, the Bay Area’s many transit systems work well, but connecting among them can be challenging. (AP Photo/Ben Margot, File) AP

The northern terminus of SMART, the new passenger-rail system in the North Bay, is the Sonoma County Airport Station in Santa Rosa. But after my 8-year-old son and I flew in, we learned the airport is more than a mile from the train.

There is as yet no dedicated shuttle from plane to train. My son wasn’t up for walking. A public bus that would get us nearer to the train wouldn’t show up for hours. Uber wasn’t picking up and my Lyft app kept crashing. The four cabbies outside the airport refused to take us on such a short, cheap trip.

The Bay Area is our richest large metropolitan region because it skillfully connects the world. But if you need to make transit connections in the Bay Area, good luck.

Lured by this summer’s preview rides on SMART, I recently spent three days navigating the Bay Area by train, ferry and bus. I left bewildered by the failure of a place famous for integrating culture and technology to integrate its own infrastructure across its nine counties and 101 municipalities.

Stuck at the airport, we called our own cab to take us to the train. The first 43-mile segment of the 70-mile SMART line runs from Santa Rosa to San Rafael, and has bathrooms and a café selling wine. The ride took 90 minutes and offered a grittier view of Sonoma and Marin Counties—mobile home parks, old industrial sites—as well as glimpses of Mt. Tamalpais.

The SMART train is eventually supposed to reach the Larkspur Ferry Terminal, a 35-minute boat ride from San Francisco. But the first segment ends two miles short. A bike path and a bus can get you to the ferry, but we were in a hurry and took an Uber.

We shouldn’t have rushed: The ferry left 10 minutes late. On a clear day, we enjoyed views of the Golden Gate Bridge. After meetings in San Francisco, we went to BART’s Embarcadero Station, heading for Oakland Airport and a flight home. But the first six trains were too full to board. BART is a system built for 60,000 riders that moves more than 400,000 daily.

When the seventh train arrived, we pushed our way in. “That’s rude,” said one rider.

“We’re from L.A.,” I replied.

We made the flight, but the day produced sticker shock. The four-station ride from San Francisco to Oakland’s Coliseum Station, from which a tram takes you into the airport, cost $10.20 each. Add that to my $11.50 ferry ticket (my son’s was $5.75), the $9 Uber ride to the ferry, the $11.50 one-way fare on SMART, and $10 for the airport cab ride, our journey was pushing $70. In L.A., a Metro ride is just $1.75, with free transfers.

A few days later back in San Francisco, I was at a BART station, needing to get to San Jose on a Caltrain. BART and Caltrain share a station in Millbrae, but the schedules aren’t synchronized there, so I walked 25 minutes from BART’s Powell Station to the Caltrain at 4th and King.

In San Jose, I disembarked at Diridon Station, which may have a bright future as the northern terminus of California’s high-speed rail. But for now, it is just another setting for concoliseumnection frustration; I waited a half-hour for a train on Santa Clara County’s VTA system.

The next day, to get to San Jose Airport, I took Caltrain to the Santa Clara Station, which offers a VTA bus shuttle. But even in the rain, the bus driver refused to open the bus door for 15 minutes , and then took a meandering route by a soccer stadium.

For all its transit offers, the Bay Area has forgotten what’s most important: connections that serve riders. Right now, using transit there makes you feel powerless. That should be unacceptable in California’s most powerful region.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at joe@zocalopublicsquare.org.

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