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A subjective comparison of public transportation in three cities August 11, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — katiesmillie @ 10:55 am
Tags: ,

I love public transportation — usually it’s cheap, good for the environment, and offers a safe ride home when imbibing delicious adult beverages.

Unfortunately it’s never perfect. Just for fun I made a quick and completely subjective comparison of public transportation among the three cities I’m most familiar with. These comments are my opinions, based on my personal experience only.

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San Francisco

Boston

Seattle

Reliability of service Muni only seems to stick to the published schedule in off peak hours. But as long as you use www.nextmuni.com which tracks each bus using a GPS you’ll always know when the next one is coming. It’s truly the best part about Muni.  Every once in awhile this website lists a bus that never shows up. You’re lucky if an MBTA bus comes within a 30 minute margin of the published schedule and no website or advanced technology is available to let you know if buses are running late. Subway trains are reliable but only get you certain places. Commuter rail is notoriously unreliable with late trains, missed runs, broken air conditioning, you name it. King Country Metro Transit runs closest to its published schedule of the three cities. They also offer a website that alerts you if a bus is running late, but I’m not sure if this is based on GPS and from what I hear there isn’t’ always info for each bus.
Affordability Muni buses and light rail are$2 all the time, which is a bit pricey. Muni needs to spend more time enforcing the thousands of people who jump on without paying. Boston comes close to winning this category with buses at $1.25 with a Charlie card and $1.50 with cash but given the reliability of the buses this may still be overpriced. Trains are on par with the other cities at $1.70 with a Charlie Card and $2 in cash. If you are a visitor they don’t make it easy to get a Charlie Card – they are only available at certain locations, and definitely not at the airport. $2 during peak, $1.75 off-peak, and free in the downtown area. I like their flexible pricing model but it can get confusing, especially when you are on a bus that enters and leaves downtown.
Coverage Muni light rail, bus, BART, Caltrain, and ferry offer very extensive coverage. You can get anywhere on public transit. But because they are all run by separate orgs you have to buy a separate ticket which is a pain and means more transferring and longer commute times.  In fact to certain locations it’s often more expensive than driving. Translink helps with the multi-agency problem but not the price. The coverage is only good if you are going somewhere near a T line. If you live more than 1 mile from the subway you might want a car as the buses don’t run that often and are spread far apart. I don’t have much experience with many bus lines in Seattle but it seemed like pretty extensive coverage to me just from looking at the map. There are many buses within the city and a decent number to suburban areas. However, lack of a major light rail system means longer commute times.
Friendliness of operators The SF operators are not quite friendly as in Seattle, but most have a great take charge, can-do attitude that is really what I prefer on a day-to-day basis when I’m trying to get somewhere. They don’t put up with crap, but they don’t slam the door in your face either. MBTA bus drivers and the green line subway operators always seemed to love to drive away and/or slam the door in my face when I was running to catch a train/bus. When I did manage to get on it was pretty much no-nonsense attitude, not welcoming but not overly rude. I recently had a very friendly experience with two different drivers. One went out of their way to help tourists find where they were going and another told us we didn’t have to pay when we didn’t have exact change. They both had positive attitudes and seem to enjoy their job.
Getting to the airport BART is a great way to get to the airport but expect to pay an arm and a leg. With the latest price increase it $8.10 to get to SFO from downtown. Another $2 to add a bus for me to get to a BART station. Might as well try Super Shuttle for that price. Or use an airport parking service (~$13/day) for a short trip, especially if you are traveling with more than one person. The price point is the best at $1.70-$2.00 for a ride on the T, but expect to take 2 lines if you are getting on near the red line and switch to the silver. If you are coming from anywhere else you’ll most likely have to take 3 different lines to get there. Lugging around suitcases while switching to all the lines can be a headache, especially at rush hour if the trains are full and people see you coming with a suitcase you might not get on. Cabs are a huge rip off too so either way it’s a pain in the ass. They newly built light rail (SoundTransit) is a great price at $2.50 to get to the airport. But it’s not connected all the way yet so you’ll have to take a shuttle from the last stop to the airport until December 2009 (so they say). Add a bus to get to the light rail station downtown and it took us an hour and 30 minutes total. But can’t complain much when it was only $2.50.
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