San Diego He started to notice the problem while driving at night. "Quite rapidly my eyes deteriorated," says Art Seamans, professor emeritus of literature at Point Loma Nazarene University, "and I drove when I shouldn't have. Finally, I was at a restaurant, drove out of the parking lot, and hit some cones in the street. I didn't know what side of the street I was on. And I said, 'That's the last time I'll sit behind the wheel.' But I was so terrified, because I had ridden the bus only one or two times. 'Oh, it's going to be impossible to get around. What am I going to do?' "
Twelve years ago Seamans was diagnosed with macular degeneration, which has left him partially blind. (He can see rough outlines of things, but "I have a hard time seeing people's faces," he says.) Since he taught full-time until 2001, he had no choice but to take the bus back and forth to work. Now, he says, "I am very high on bus service in San Diego. It's been great. The buses are regular and dependable, and they go fairly frequently. This is a great place to ride the bus. In North Park, where I live, I've got Routes 908 and 7 going east and west on University Avenue, the 2 downtown, the 15 along El Cajon Boulevard, and the 6 to Mission Valley."
There are those who have asked Seamans whether he's safe on the bus. "What are you talking about? People get the funniest ideas," he says. "Bus passengers mind their own business for the most part." He believes more people should take the bus.
According to records kept by the transit system, the average number of bus rides each month is 912,093. "Governor Schwarzenegger," says Seamans, "keeps talking about spending more money on freeways. What about public transportation instead?"
Seamans still goes regularly to Point Loma Nazarene University, where he participates in campus life, substitutes for current faculty, and Sundays attends First Church of the Nazarene on the college's grounds. So he is concerned about changes the Metropolitan Transit System recently has been proposing to one of his most crucial buses. From his home he now takes Route 908 to the Old Town Transit Center. There he transfers to the 26, which takes him to within two blocks of the university. The trip, he says, takes about an hour and 15 minutes.
Since many blind people take buses all over town, the transit system held on January 11 an outreach meeting at the San Diego Center for the Blind. The purpose was to explain potential bus-route changes the agency was contemplating. One hundred twenty people attended the meeting led by six transit system employees. The meeting was one of 45 community-outreach events the agency has been holding.
Seamans came away from the meeting worried that Route 26 was going to be eliminated. Nevertheless, he says he appreciated how transit-agency employees broke the crowd into smaller groups to discuss the changes and seek feedback. Seamans felt that the changes were not carved in stone.
Conan Cheung is the transit agency's director of planning and performance monitoring. In an hour-long phone conversation he explains to me how his department is looking at changing the entire system of almost 100 bus lines. The changes will affect 90 percent of the lines, from rerouting a block or two to complete elimination. On March 9, Cheung says, he will present to the agency's board a comprehensive plan. "We haven't addressed the whole system in 30 years," he says.
Due to shifts in demographics, new transit travel patterns are emerging in San Diego. In response, Cheung has three main goals: to meet market demands better; to increase ridership throughout the system; and to remove unproductive elements. He admits that the plan involves putting more traffic onto the city's main arterials. Often, he says, routes have "added direction movements," which usually are excursions away from arterials and into neighborhoods, where only a few people are served. Cheung cites the example of Route 13 leaving Fairmount north of Home Avenue to serve a residential neighborhood before continuing on the main route. "As an automobile driver," he says, "you don't wander into side neighborhoods on the way to your destination. We don't want buses to do it either unless there is demand for service in those areas."
I ask Cheung how the transit agency assesses demand for service. New computerized fare-box records suggest how many people are traveling a route, he says. That approach is limited, however, because many passengers use monthly passes rather than paying fares. To know which particular stops are popular, the agency sends out riders to count passengers who are boarding and exiting. It also conducts onboard surveys.
For planning-route changes Cheung's department also seeks "underlying factors" with an analysis that is geographically based and tries to identify what "sensitivities" riders in different regions have. Low-income workers are primarily sensitive to speed, flexibility, and cost. They have a low sensitivity, says Cheung, to "having their own space." People from affluent areas of town are discretionary riders who have the option of using their own cars. So their sensitivities involve comfort and, possibly, environmental concerns. In the future the transit system may try to attract them with more spacious buses and seats with higher backs.
The general trend of the changes that planners will present to the transit board on March 9 is to increase service over the coming year in urban locales and decrease it in rural and suburban areas. Santee is going to have Routes 832, 833, and 834 discontinued. "The problem in Santee is that only during schooltimes do the buses get enough passengers. We will probably provide a hybrid to replace the three lost routes with service at specific times," says Cheung.
In most urban areas of San Diego, bus routes will be modified rather than eliminated. But even small modifications can be painful. Bob Swail at the Center for the Blind complains bitterly that a change to Route 908 he heard discussed would mean he can't visit the business area near the intersection of Midway Drive and Rosecrans. Currently the route turns at that intersection on its way to the Old Town Transit Center. In the future, however, it may follow the more direct path to the line's end by continuing on Pacific Highway. The change would eliminate a stop across from the main post office on Midway.
As a blind person, Swail deals with problems most riders never consider in negotiating the bus system. "Caravanning" is the name he uses to characterize a bunching of buses at some stops. "Three buses will pull up, one behind the other," says Swail, who uses a white cane. "I can't see the route numbers, so by the time I figure out which bus is mine, I might miss it. The last bus in the row sometimes pulls out and passes the other two before I even get down to it."
In the context of an entire transit system, details like that might strike some as small, but Conan Cheung says his planners are trying to address them, if possible. A problem that irks many riders is that different buses traveling along the same streets often are scheduled to arrive at stops at about the same time.
Passengers boarding at the SDSU Transit Center tell me that the 955 bus commonly arrives immediately after the 11. From there both buses go west on Montezuma Road, diverging at the intersection with Collwood Boulevard. One woman told me that she can take either bus to that intersection, which is near her apartment, but she wishes the two buses left at different times so that she had more options for when she could depart SDSU. Fortunately, however, both the 11 and the 955 leave every 15 minutes during most of the day. The inconvenience is greater when service intervals are an hour or half hour. Even though three buses travel El Cajon Boulevard, on weekends riders still can wait 30 minutes to catch one -- and that's when the buses are running on time.
In regard to the upcoming route alterations, Point Loma Nazarene's Art Seamans takes a different approach than the one taken by the transit system. Instead of asking which routes attract the most riders, he wants to know how many different communities the various lines serve. Even though a small number of people ride it, Seamans identifies five different groups served by the Route 26 he takes to the university. Few professors ever ride the bus, he acknowledges, but a substantial number of students and university service workers do. The route also serves civilian workers and a small number of Navy personnel at the submarine base toward the southern end of Point Loma. Both tourists and locals can use the bus to reach Cabrillo National Monument at its tip. There are also visitors to the Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery along the way. And many Spanish-speaking women, says Seamans, ride the 26 to houses they clean for Point Loma residents. Still, the transit agency considers the farthest extension of the route, beyond Sports Arena Boulevard, to be unproductive.
According to Conan Cheung, the Metropolitan Transit System earns approximately $73 million annually in operating revenues from fares and advertising it sells. Additionally, California's Transportation Development Act and the San Diego Association of Governments provide most of another $140 million in public money to help the local transit system to operate. The latter suggests that, as much as it wants to, the transit system cannot take a completely free-market approach to updating its plans. Perhaps that is why it does listen attentively to bus riders like Art Seamans. Already, after initially floating the idea of closing Route 26's extension to the end of Point Loma, the agency is now considering a compromise. According to Cheung, it will probably end up reducing only the frequency of trips the 26 makes to the end of the line.