After leaving from Poway some 20 minutes earlier, a block of 25 commuters crosses Mission Valley on the 163 and slows to a stop as it meets a wall of brake lights. Rather than grip the wheel and curse, though, they finish the article they’re reading or just go on sleeping.

Part of San Diego’s much-maligned transit network is an express commuter bus service that connects the county’s outer-ring suburbs along I-15 with employment centers downtown and in Sorrento Valley.

The service offers comfortable reclining seats like a charter bus, includes few stops and uses the freeway’s traffic-free carpool lanes for much of the ride. Its commute times are competitive with driving.

These existing “premium express” bus lines offer a lot of the same conveniences being touted of the “bus rapid transit” line, a new transit option the San Diego Association of Government envisions as a centerpiece of its 40-year transportation plan. That line, city officials say, would mimic rail service in frequency and convenience.

SANDAG is responsible for planning and constructing the region’s transportation networks; the Metropolitan Transit System, which operates the existing commuter bus service, takes care of day-to-day operation. SANDAG recently lost a legal battle with environmentalists and transit advocates over its 40-year plan, in part due to opposition to the bus rapid transit line.

Capacity for the bus rapid transit line comes from widening freeways with new carpool and bus lanes. Transit advocates who sued over the plan want an expansion of the trolley system and other rail-based options to take priority,and think the highway widening only continues San Diego’s car-centric development.

But the existing premium express bus service would complement the envisioned bus rapid transit. Together, they’d work something like a commuter rail line in tandem with a traditional subway.

“What (bus rapid transit) brings is the route operating all day at high frequency,” said Rob Schupp, director of communications for MTS. “We’ll still have nice commuter buses on I-15 every morning, but those operate during peak times only. (Bus rapid transit) does the same type of service with a slightly different route that operates all day.”

Premium express bus service sees spikes along with gas prices, but overall ridership is increasing too. When gas prices surged in September and October, premium express buses experienced all-time highs in ridership.

Graph courtesy of MTS
Monthly ridership on the premium express bus line hit an all-time high when gas prices spiked in the fall.

On Tuesday, the 860 bus line — connecting Poway to downtown San Diego — pulled into a park and ride facility near Route 56 and I-15 with two riders. Twenty five more riders climbed in, and the bus — now half full — pulled away just past 7.a.m., bypassing a lengthy wait to get on the highway and into the nearly empty carpool lanes headed south.

Once it reached the 163 and the carpool lane dissolved, the bus settled into stop-and-go traffic just past Mission Valley. But while drivers clenched the steering wheel and pumped their breaks, the 25-odd riders slept, read the newspaper, played with their phones or yelled business jargon into a Bluetooth headset.

Photo by Justin Bridle
An express commuter bus encounters traffic delays near Mission Valley.

Brian Phelps, a 56-year-old Poway resident who works at the Hall of Justice downtown and has lived in San Diego County since ’69, has been commuting by bus for years, for the same reasons that motivate many transit users: save on gas money, reduce wear and tear on his car and to cut down on stress.

“More people should use it,” he said. “I don’t know why they don’t.”

By 7:30 the bus reached its first downtown stop, at 11th Avenue and B Street, and made its way onto Broadway before finishing its leg at Pacific Highway and Grape Street.

If you work within walking distance of one of those downtown stops, you’d be hard-pressed to make better time in your car, especially when you factor in parking time. If you have to grab another connection on the trolley or a standard bus line, that might not be the case.

There’s also the time it takes to get to and from the park and ride station in Poway, currently preparing for the construction of a $12.2 million, three-story parking garage that would be finished roughly a year from now. That’s right — the premium express bus still mostly requires a car.

But David Eric Leonard, a 36-year-old Poway resident who works in landscape architecture and planning in Hillcrest, has managed to finagle a morning commute without ever having to drive.

When he returned to work for 2013, Leonard began a new daily commute beginning with a two-block walk to a premium express stop at Poway Road and Midland Road. He takes that downtown, then transfers to local service, toward San Diego State University. His office is another two-block walk from his final stop.

The new route adds a bit of time to Leonard’s daily commute, and forces him to adhere to a strict schedule leaving his house and the office, or risk doubling his commute time when the express service ends. But, he says, he’s noticed that he’s not tired or in a bad mood when he gets to his destination.

In addition to saving on gas and car maintenance, Leonard has another reason he made the switch: peer pressure.

“We do extensive transportation planning for SANDAG, CALTRANS and cities,” he said. “We preach transit and walkability all the time, and I’m proud to say that of 23 people in our office, five bike to work, one walks to work, one skateboards to work and two use the Coaster from Carlsbad and Orange County. Now me.”

He and his wife have discussed giving up one of their cars, he said, but it’s still not feasible, since he needs a car some days to chase meetings and fieldwork around the county, in places that aren’t serviced by frequent transit service.

I’m Andrew Keatts, a reporter for Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you’d like at or 619.325.0529 and follow me on Twitter

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Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.

Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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