Mark-Elliott Lugo, who is an energetic-looking 59 years old, might well be the poster child in the San Diego public transit system’s campaign to increase ridership. Lugo has been taking San Diego buses for over 40 years. He has never owned a car. He’s doing quite well, thank you.
“I got the learner’s permit in high school,” Lugo tells me in a workroom at the Taylor Branch Library in Pacific Beach. He is the art curator for the San Diego Public Library. “The only time I’ve ever driven a car was when I had to take driver education in high school. I know that every young male in America, the first thing he wants is a car. It was probably my upbringing. My mother was from New York, a city that has excellent public transit.
“I was never interested in cars. In retrospect, I’m glad, because the money I’ve saved from never having a car has enabled me to buy a house. And I have a major art collection as well, a museum-quality collection. I’ve spent quite a lot of money on art but still not as much as a car would have been over the years. I’d rather have a piece of art than a car, anyway.”
But when Lugo learned recently that the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System was named the nation’s outstanding transit system, he nearly fell off his passenger seat. Lugo thinks local transit, with such notable exceptions as the trolley, has been getting worse year by year.
In July, the American Public Transportation Association in Washington, D.C., awarded San Diego for being the outstanding system among those in the United States and Canada that operate 30 million trips or more annually. A formal presentation will take place at the organization’s annual meeting in Orlando, Florida, this October. San Diego hosted the event last year.
I call Washington to learn what impressed the association about San Diego’s system. Spokeswoman Virginia Miller tells me that her organization picked a team of industry and transit-supplier experts to judge the competitors, who provided information in two major categories, quantitative and qualitative. The quantitative category was weighted two-thirds to one-third over the qualitative. In the quantitative category, over the past three years the San Diego transit system — both buses and trolley — performed especially well in ridership, up 12.3 percent; preventable accidents, down 14 percent; fare-box revenue, up 12 percent; and driver-related complaints, down 26.8 percent. In passengers per revenue hour, local officials claimed to be “up 200 percent on some routes where [the system] reallocated resources from low-productive to high-productive areas.”
The qualitative category contained nine subcategories more difficult to measure. They included financial management, safety, minority and women advancement, marketing, community relations, policy and administration, attendance and employee costs, operational efficiencies, and customer service. According to Miller, the American Public Transportation Association’s award is the most prestigious in the industry. “San Diegans should be especially proud of their transit system,” she says in closing our conversation. In an editorial on August 15, the Union-Tribune gushed over the award. As of this writing, the transit agency is running a flashing ad on SignOnSanDiego, the U-T’s website.
That Mark Lugo is not so proud of his transit system gets me to wondering. On my own regular transit trips, I talk to many people who greatly appreciate how the Metropolitan Transit System allows them to do without a car almost daily. On the other hand, complaints are legion. After KFMB-TV, Channel 8, announced the transit award on July 31, the station’s website received 23 comments, 21 of them critical or even expressing ridicule.
Are complaining riders and a proud Metropolitan Transit System two ships passing in the night? Among the competition’s subcategories, customer service sticks out as the two parties’ possible point of contact. I ask the transit system’s Rob Schupp if the award application included a customer-satisfaction survey. No, he said, but “many of the other factors that we found we are improving point to better customer service. Take greater ridership and safety,” he says, “or fewer customer complaints and greater on-time performance.”
Schupp says the transit system measures on-time performance by sending undercover people on buses and by global positioning technology. “All the buses that aren’t contracted out, which are about half those on the streets, have global positioning that allows them to be monitored.” According to figures the system provided, its on-time performance has improved by 6 percent over the past three years.
But late-running buses are one of Mark Lugo’s major gripes. His work requires him to visit artists all over San Diego County, and if he misses a connection due to his bus being late, his day might be ruined. Route 30 in and out of Pacific Beach is one he takes frequently, and it’s constantly late. “For one thing, the scheduling isn’t done right,” says Lugo, who notices that at many transfer points, one bus leaves at the same time another is arriving. That’s fine if your bus is right on time, but there are too many things that can happen on a trip to make a bus late. “Trouble that drivers have strapping in wheelchairs is one example, or buses get caught in intersections with long wait times at signals, such as in the Sports Arena area or the Golden Triangle, or people slow the buses while they struggle to slip dollar bills into the fare boxes. Many drivers are very good to wait a little longer for passengers that are arriving on another bus, but some of them are sticklers for leaving exactly on schedule,” says Lugo.
“And it takes too long to go anywhere,” he continues, citing the hour and a half he spends going from Pacific Beach to Ocean Beach. There are two ways to make the trip, says Lugo, Route 30 to Old Town, where Route 35 into Ocean Beach starts. Or Routes 8 and 9 go along Mission Bay Drive to Midway Drive, where passengers can transfer to the 35 turning onto West Point Loma Boulevard. “But you know it takes too long when a kid on a skateboard gets off the bus and beats it to the destination.”
Another complaint of many people is that there is no bus service in most locations after 10:30 at night. Someone who wants to go to the Gaslamp Quarter for a little nightlife must take a $30 taxi ride home. They might just want to avoid driving after having drinks. And Lugo maintains that the situation causes lost revenues to downtown businesses.
Further, maintains Lugo, there has been a “gradual and constant erosion over the years of frequency of service and shortening or discontinuing routes.” For example, last year the transit system was going to discontinue Route 923 going out of Ocean Beach and along Harbor Drive to downtown. That one finally turned Lugo into an activist, he says. He began informing all the establishments that might be affected. Although the transit system argued that the route didn’t carry enough passengers, it was going by Point Loma High School, the airport, the Ocean Beach and Point Loma hostels, and many other businesses along the way. Lugo’s activism forced a compromise with transit. Instead of discontinuing the route, officials cut its frequency in half. On weekends, it runs only every hour. “I don’t think any buses should run hourly,” says Lugo, “because if one breaks down, a person could stand there waiting for close to two hours.”
The transit system’s general thinking about weekends perplexes Lugo. Buses going to the beach, such as Route 30, are often reduced in frequency from every 15 minutes to every half hour. “But many people go to the beach on weekends,” he says. “And every year, transit changes to a reduced winter schedule on Labor Day, apparently because they think fewer people will be going to the beach. In fact, some of our hottest days come after September 7 [this year’s Labor Day], and loads of people get on the bus heading for the beach. They include many tourists, such as young Europeans.”
Does the transit system, I ask Rob Schupp, take passengers’ views into consideration when hiking fares and making route changes? He assures me it does, that many meetings were announced for public comment before both last January’s changes and those of 2007. Lugo has been to them. They are so crowded you can hardly get in, he says. Even then, many are held during most people’s working hours.
After my meeting with Lugo, I walk the block from the Taylor Branch Library to Grand Avenue, where I wait for the bus I need to get home, Route 30. I am pleased that it comes in a reasonable time. But I get onto a bus with standing room only, a human sitting in every seat or looming over every square foot of the aisle. Several stops disgorge enough passengers for a few of us to sit down. Several more stops and a new passenger boards. As the bus lunges forward, he falls backward and lands on my lap.
Route 30 is likely to become even more crowded. Last week, the transit system announced, among other cuts in service, that Routes 8 and 9 would start running less frequently.