When I first moved to Scotts Valley in 1995 it was to go to Bethany College. I didn’t own a car, so I didn’t bring one to campus. If I wanted to leave the campus, it meant one of two things: Begging a ride off one of my fellow students, or putting feet to pavement and walking.
Or the bus. Or so I thought. There was a bus stop on the campus, and one day I decided to stand at the stop and wait for the bus. I waited a long time. Turns out the Santa Cruz Metro bus system stopped using that bus stop a few years ago, but never posted anything about it. (Or if they had, someone had ripped it down.) I investigated online: The closest bus stop was at the end of Bethany Drive, at the bottom of the hill, a quarter mile away. So I walked to it. Waited 20 minutes. The bus picked me up, I paid my dollar, and within 15 minutes I was in downtown Santa Cruz. I went to the theater; I went to a bookstore; I went to Pizza My Heart; I went to Café Pergolesi; I had a blast.
And then I took the bus back to Scotts Valley. Which didn’t drop me off at the end of Bethany Drive; it dropped me across the street from Zenatto’s Market (now Scotts Valley Market), a mile away from the original bus stop. So I walked that. Then I walked uphill to the campus. I was not used to walking a quarter mile up a hill, so that was rough. But I got back to the campus.
From then on, whenever someone complained to me about how they were stuck on campus and couldn’t leave, I had no sympathy. “You’ve got legs,” I told them. “Get to walking.”
I only repeated this adventure two times as an undergraduate. When I went back to Bethany in 2004 for graduate courses, my fieldwork was off campus in Felton, and I still had no car, so I was walking to the bus stop daily. Again I ran into Bethany students who complained about being stuck on campus; again I told them, “Get to walking. How do you think Jesus got up and down the Galilee? He even walked across the lake! Honestly.”
Nowadays I walk everywhere. Then, I only walked grudgingly, when a bus wasn’t going my way. When I worked at Christian Life Center Schools, the buses didn’t go to the school; the first bus of the day only brought me within a mile of the school, and I had to walk the rest. Which I really didn’t mind so much. Sometimes I’d grab a coffee along the way. But I’d try to avoid walking any further than a mile.
That changed after I’d gone back to Bethany. It began with the 2006 bus strike. Which took place without warning, I might add: I had taken the bus to downtown Scotts Valley, and was waiting at the stop to go back home (or at least to the stop which was a mile away from it, anyway), and the bus didn’t come. So I waited for the next bus. That didn’t come. Someone at the bus stop had heard there might be a strike, and guessed that was why all the buses vanished as if this were Left Behind: Bus Edition. He left to fetch a taxi. I shrugged and got to walking.
Bus strike or not, I still wanted to go places. The grocery stores were 2.5 miles away from home. That meant I’d have to walk 2.5 miles down Scotts Valley Drive, then a bit down Mount Hermon Road, to go to Safeway and Nob Hill (and, eventually, Dollar Tree). So, one day, I bit the bullet and did. Got there in less than 45 minutes. Now, here’s the thing: When you add up my usual wait time for the bus, plus the actual trip, you save a half hour; though sometimes longer, ’cause the buses weren’t all that reliable. And I didn’t really mind taking the extra half hour to walk.
The trip back is a whole different story. For whatever stupid reason, the buses on Scotts Valley Drive went south all day, and went north only five times in a weekday: Once in the early morning, and four times in the afternoon. My job hours meant I would never, ever catch those northbound buses. So in order to use the bus system to go back where I’d come from, I had to take two buses: I had to catch a bus to Santa Cruz, get off at Pasatiempo (a golf club about halfway between Scotts Valley and Santa Cruz), walk over the freeway overpass, and catch the next bus enroute to Scotts Valley, which would then go south down Scotts Valley Drive. Stupid, but that’s how the system worked. If I timed it just right, I could get back up the street in about 10 minutes. If not, 40 to 70 minutes. And that doesn’t count the wait time for the first bus. Walking made more sense, most of the time. But I’d never have noticed, until my bus option was taken away.
You can get used to anything irritating if you put up with it long enough. Like Taco Bell. So, thanks to the bus strike, I got used to walking. But once I stopped looking at it as an inferior alternative to buses (’cause there were no buses) I didn’t mind it. I’d have two or three podcasts on the iPod, and listen to them all the way there. Or I’d listen to nothing, and think, and pray, and look around. It got to where I wouldn’t even think about walking for miles to someplace—to the library, to Coffee Cat, to the theater, or anywhere else.
I got a bicycle. A neighbor gave it to me when he moved away. The novelty of it wore off within about a month. I went back to walking. I preferred walking. Still do. I gave that bike to Goodwill, and don’t care to get another one.
And once the strike finally ended, I didn’t bother to take the bus. Well, unless I was leaving town: If I wanted to go to Santa Cruz or Felton or San Jose—if we’re talking more than two hours of walking in any one direction—walking isn’t so practical. But I’d combine buses with walking. When I got to Santa Cruz, I wouldn’t bother with bus transfers; I’d usually just walk to my destination. And of course, within the city limits of Scotts Valley, I walked everywhere. I didn’t mind. I liked walking. Still do.
When I moved back to Vacaville, I just kept walking. Church is about 1.5 miles from home. The libraries are three and four miles. My sister’s house is five miles. I’ll walk further… and have.
The idea stuns people, ’cause they don’t want to walk anywhere. Especially when it’s hot out, or cold out, or rainy out, or anything other than a perfect temperature; and not even then. They can’t wrap their minds around the idea that anyone would choose to do so when there are more useful alternatives, like buses.
Ah, but Vacaville’s buses suck. Always have.
My family moved to Vacaville in 1981. The CityCoach, at the time, was a dial-a-ride system: You phoned them, and dispatch would send a shortbus to your house to pick you up. En route, they might pick up a few other people, and drop off a few other people; this wasn’t a private cab ride.
By the time I graduated high school, CityCoach created four regular routes (color-coded for your convenience), and were gradually swapping the shortbuses for full-length ones. They built bus kiosks. They converted the gasoline-powered buses to natural gas. They expanded to eight routes and changed the colors to numbers.
More recently, ’cause they got some federal funding, they built two snazzy transfer centers—one downtown, and one by the Cultural Center—with electronic tote boards which tell you when your bus is coming. Some of the kiosks also have tote boards. Two, which I walk past regularly, have a sensor that annoyingly shouts at you when you walk past, “Warning: Vandalism is a crime.” It’s a creepy thing to hear, coming out of nowhere, in the middle of the night. I’m tempted to spray-paint it out of revenge.
But in the 25 years since I graduated high school (yes, I am that old), they’ve not changed much.
Vacaville is a commuter town. People live here and work elsewhere. So they either have cars, or they take commuter buses (which they drive to). Very few people take the buses. Yes, sometimes the CityCoach buses are crowded, ’cause the Vacaville school district got rid of the school buses, so now the kids have to take the CityCoach to and from school. The rest of the time, they’re half-full at best. I see ’em whipping past me all the time.
The CityCoach makes a big to-do about “more routes” and “longer hours.” They assume the people who read their ads don’t have as long a memory as I do. There are six routes. They used to have eight. They still have a Route 8. They got rid of routes 3 and 7, which were sort of counter-clockwise versions of routes 4 and 8. Like the southbound buses on Scotts Valley Drive, they only go one way, and if you want to go back home on the same route, you have to travel the full loop.
By “more routes” they mean they have more and longer than recently. But when I lived in Vacaville in the early 2000s—heck, when I lived in Vacaville in the mid-1990s—they had all eight routes, running twice an hour, same as now. Although they do have longer hours: The buses run till 7 p.m. instead of 6.
Now, compare Vacaville’s lousy system with Santa Cruz’s lousy system. There, the buses likewise ran twice an hour—but until 11 p.m. Let’s say there was a function I wanted to attend at 7 p.m.: In Vacaville I could get there, but not back. In Santa Cruz I could, and did.
In every other place I’ve lived, the bus system has been countywide. The buses connect the cities. With one bus pass you can go everywhere in the county. That’s not how it works in Solano County. Fairfield and Suisun share a bus system. Dixon has no buses. The other cities—Benicia, Rio Vista, Vacaville, and Vallejo—have their individual systems. Fairfield has an intercity bus where you can transfer to the other bus systems, but of course it’s not the same system. It only stops at transfer centers instead of significant landmarks, which means you will always need to transfer. Or buy each system’s bus pass.
If you live, work, go to school, and go to church in one city, you can avoid the inconvenience and inefficiency of transferring around. For that matter, you can avoid the buses altogether. But not all of us are so lucky. Like when I lived in Scotts Valley, if I ever have business outside of town, most of the time I have to bite the bullet and ride the bus.
Wait, did I mention going to church? Unless you’re an Adventist, scratch that. Vacaville’s buses don’t run Sundays. Fairfield’s interlink service is closed too. If you work Sunday, or the only day you have free for shopping is Sunday, or if you just want to take the bus to church, good bloody luck. You walk. Apparently they can stagger the schedules so the bus drivers can work five days a week on a six-day schedule, but to do so for a seven-day schedule is just beyond them.
The problem with Vacaville’s buses—really, all of Solano County’s bus systems—is they’re not actually designed to accommodate all the citizens of the county. They’re only designed to accommodate the existing riders. Whenever they take a survey, they ask the riders how they like the bus. They don’t ask anyone else.
Back when I rode the CityCoach, I filled out a few of their surveys. They ask for suggestions. I’ve lived in other counties and used their buses, so I offer the usual four suggestions: Nighttime hours. Sunday routes. Buses both directions. Countywide passes. But these things don’t happen. The governing boards are perfectly happy with the status quo.
Well, I’m not. And I’m quite happy to avoid the whole mess and just walk everywhere. I don’t have to schedule my life to fit the buses. I never have to say, “Sorry; can’t stay; I have to catch the last bus.”
The only thing I need be bothered with are the well-meaning people who want me to get a car. (Groan.)