Word cloud from bus route Twitter poll. / MacKenzie Elmer

A few Friday evenings ago and running late, I quickly weighed whether I should drive or take the bus downtown. Google Maps showed the bus line outside my apartment could get me there in 45 minutes, compared to a 25-minute drive. 

I drove and spent over 30 minutes in stop-and-go traffic on the 163 and another 15 minutes looking for a parking spot within six blocks of the bar. I reluctantly chose a private lot operated by a third-party company that charged $25 per hour. 

Now, not only was I late, I spent more than $50 in parking plus my own gas just to be there. 

That trip, had I chosen the bus, would have cost me $5 and taken about the same amount of time to reach my destination.

An impromptu poll of my Twitter followers revealed many San Diegans weigh similar pros and cons about bus transit. I asked: What would it take to get you to ride a bus on the regular? 

Forty-six percent of the 100 responses said: faster buses. 

Results from Twitter poll: What would it take to get you to ride a bus on the regular? / MacKenzie Elmer

Another 30 percent or so said either more bus routes or stops, in other words, options to reach more destinations. Another 5 percent actually said fewer bus stops, meaning the route nearest them takes too long.

This small, unscientific Twitter poll is consistent with years of transportation research showing transit riders value frequency and speed. The Metropolitan Transit System found the same was true among San Diegans in a 2016 rider survey, as did TransitCenter, an advocacy group, in a nationwide survey in 2019. Circulate San Diego, a housing and transit advocacy organization, made the insight the basis of a report last year advocating for regional planners to prioritize faster and more frequent bus service.

Riding the bus typically takes longer than driving a car in San Diego. As long as that is true, those for whom driving a car is an option will choose to do so.

Jesse O’Sullivan, policy counsel at Circulate San Diego, said making buses run more frequently takes coordination between multiple bureaucracies, namely, the San Diego Association of Governments (which manages regional transportation planning and holds a lot of the state and federal dollars for big projects), the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System (which runs bus and trolley service in most of the county), and each city’s local council governments. 

“The biggest overall message is, making the bus go faster is the best way to make transit better,” O’Sullivan said. “Some of the other long-term (transit) plans take up all the airspace … the question is what can we do now with the money we have now.” 

A dedicated bus lane can speed-up transit times by 25 percent, according to Circulate’s “Fast Bus!” report. Unlike other transit improvements, the capital costs of creating one are small: all you gotta do is paint one, like the two-and-a-half mile stretch of bus-only lanes on El Cajon Boulevard. That cost $100,000. Technically it’s a pilot project and didn’t involve tearing-up streets and replacing other infrastructure like stormwater pipes or speed bumps. For context, SANDAG built 14 miles of bikeways from its regional goal of 77 miles, at a cost of about $13.2 million per mile, according to reporting by the Union-Tribune. 

It doesn’t have to be that expensive, O’Sullivan said, but transit projects often trigger years of gathering public feedback and negotiations with local governments that have shelves full of other street projects and priorities which get tacked onto bike or bus lane endeavors. 

Listening to what transit riders want carries climate benefits, too.

Vehicles are the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in San Diego, responsible for more than half of locally-generated emissions. Buses are circulating through their routes every day anyway. Opting for the car adds one more pound of more planet-warming carbon dioxide per mile driven. The more butts in the bus, the fewer emissions generated per rider and the fewer vehicles vying for space, slowing down travel time and speeding-up the burning of fossil fuels. 

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  1. I live in San Carlos and work in Sorrento Valley. By the time the bus would get me to work I’d have to turn around and go home.

  2. It takes forever to get anywhere, It doesn’t go where people need to go, the route planning makes no sense.
    I live by Hoover High in City Heights, there are buses on El Cajon Blvd near my apartment. My closest grocery store is a Vons on Adams Ave. There are buses on Adams. The two routes don’t connect!?! The MTS trip planner recommends walking or biking? So I’m supposed to Schlep a week’s worth of groceries home in the rain like on Monday??

    Friars Rd is one of the major roads through Mission Valley, yet there is no bus route that goes down Friars Road.

    Now you know one of the reasons why SANDAG’s tax increase was rejected by the voters. Who wants to spend $160 Billion on a system this is this messed up?

  3. “After arriving at the H Street Trolley Station, Ochoa hops on the 704 bus route…”
    on a bus that’s “not in service”? wrong photo, perhaps?
    btw, i almost always take bus/trolley to events downtown rather than drive. have for years. so much less frustration.

  4. Other than downtown events, (e.g. Padres games) the bus trolley system takes too long. I don’t want to spend an extra 8 to 10 hours per week commuting to and from work on the bus or trolley compared to my car.

  5. I was a regular bike/bus commuter for 8.5 years in San Diego. I got comfortable with the 150 express between UCSD and Old Town, the green line trolley between SDSU and Old Town, and the bike lanes between Linda Vista and Point Loma. Occasionally I would ride to other destinations, but I hated it becoming the bus was so slow. There are lots of stops on most routes to accommodate the elderly and disabled, who can’t be expected to walk long distances to and from their stops. Unfortunately, if a bus stops every 2-3 blocks, it never gets up to the speed of car traffic and the frequent stops make average trip times too slow for most people commuting for work or school. Removing stops makes things faster and more convenient for many, but it hurts some of the bus’ core ridership too. It’s all about trade offs.

  6. What stands in the way? The conclusion is completely wrong. Making the bus go faster won’t solve one problem for one person. It still has to stop at nearly every stop to let people on and off. Moreover, it is also the number of transfers that make it take longer. I think it is hilarious how the author compared the bus to one example of driving in bad traffic on the 163. That is a useless comparison. I can often get downtown and be parked in less than 20 minutes from Clairemont. He also didn’t account for the extra time to go to the stop to make sure you are there 10 minutes early since the bus is rarely on time. The transit time has to be added to the initial wait time and potential wait time between transfers. A dedicated bus lane would cost an astronomical about of money and make driving miserable for people that are driving. That is truly one of the dumbest ideas I’ve ever read. Environmentalists always want to do things to make driving miserable since it is one of their primary strategies. I’d rather subsidize ride sharing for low-income workers than spend enormous funds reworking infrastructure for dedicated bus lanes. Frankly I think the buses should be retired and MTS should prefer more of a ride share model. You can’t design fixed routes that are going to work well for everyone, but a ride share app routes drivers dynamically. No special lanes other than existing carpool lanes needed!

    1. It’s necessary to make driving more miserable and public transport more attractive in order to get people to switch

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