Friday, January 9, 2009

The Transit Rider's Toolbox

In a perfect world, you could just walk to the nearest RTA "The Bus Stops Here" sign, hop on the next bus, and go hassle-free anywhere in the IE. This is not a perfect world. Therefore, I decided to write this post on what you need to have a satisfying public transit experience out here in the suburbs.

This post is not intended for long-suffering transit riders. You guys already know. This post is intended for new converts to less-car or car-free living, for whatever reason, be it the expansion of UPass, the roller coaster that is gas prices, a new eco-consciousness, or perhaps their recent employment (or lack thereof). The right preparation goes a long way towards having an enjoyable ride.

So, on to what you ought to bring along. First thing's first:

  1. A good, sturdy bag.
    To be honest, this one is very much an individual decision. I prefer messenger bags myself, for their simplicity and utility. My wife has a backpack that works well for her. However, I'd say that SOME sort of container is important for you to bring along. Riding the bus, you don't have a trunk or back seat that you can simply throw things in. If you can afford it, invest in a bag that will take a little abuse. (I did the $30 Wally World bag thing... they break after a few months.) Ladies- maybe you can get away with just a purse. Business folk, maybe you need something that looks a bit more professional than what I'd carry as a college student. But the point stands, that you ought to have something to put all the other somethings in.

  2. Schedules
    Personally, I like to carry a copy of the schedule for all the transit agencies that serve the area. This affords me a level of spontaneity that I feel is crucial to life. If I need to suddenly rush off to Hemet, LA, San Francisco or Chicago, I have the requisite information in my bag. You therefore want to carry:
    The RTA Ride Guide. (Mandatory. Get it on board, at pass outlets, around the UCR campus or at the RTA headquarters.)
    Metrolink's combined schedule brochure. This is a nifty little brochure, it's about half the size of their normal schedules, and it has every Metrolink line within its tiny covers. (On board, at either Metrolink station, or at UCR's Transportation and Parking Services office.
    And either:
    The Amtrak California timetable. This has times for all Amtrak trains in California, is small, easy to carry, and informative. (Any staffed Amtrak station. LA Union, Fullerton, or Anaheim come to mind. You're also supposed to be able to have one sent to you via mail, by requesting it on their web site. Mine never showed up.)
    The Amtrak System timetable. This has times for ALL Amtrak trains. Period. It is a magazine-like 100 or so pages, and is slightly harder to use, but the sheer weight of information make it worth considering. (Request it online via their contact form here.)
    And, if your travels take you north, the Omnitrans Bus Book. This one's a big one, so I'd only suggest getting it if you need it. Otherwise, just printing out the schedule for route 215 should be enough, as you can figure out the rest once you're on said route. (On board Omnitrans buses, one of which stops at the Downtown Terminal.)
    With all of the above schedules, you'll have information on all the transit providers that serve Riverside, allowing you all the spontaneity that public transit affords.

  3. A good book.
    Good, in this case, refers not only to the book itself but to the form factor. College students, the bus is a good time to get some extra studying in. Everyone else, if you find you don't have time to read... if you ride the bus, now you do. The best thing you can do for bus reading is get a paperback, preferably smaller than 4 or 5 inches wide. You can, of course, read what you want, but that form factor is probably the best for both carrying in your bag all day, and for keeping in your space on a crowded bus. Again to students, if you have a course that requires reading any classics (Shakespeare, Plato, any older literature, classics in the field like Hobbes and Locke for poli-sci), you can probably get a svelte paperback edition of these. Keep an eye out.

  4. Cell phone, with appropriate phone numbers.
    This is useful in two ways. One, the obvious, is that you can call transit companies for information, and taxi companies and friends to bail you out if the need arises. I'll provide phone numbers. But the second is something that's helpful and that you might not have thought of. While waiting at a dark bus stop at night, it's sometimes difficult for the driver to see you, and that is NOT the time you want to be passed by. Turning on your cell phone screen and waving the bus down with it in your hand is a sure-fire way of getting the driver's attention, and therefore getting you on the bus instead of waiting in the cold another hour. Anyway, on to phone numbers. Most of these are in the schedule books, but if you've forgotten your schedule books it's good to have them programmed into your phone.
    RTA- 951-565-5002
    Metrolink- 1-800-371-LINK (5465)
    Omnitrans- 1-800-966-6428
    Amtrak- 1-800-USA-RAIL (872-7245)
    511-  Provides transit information for all operators in the Greater LA Area.
    For when things don't go as planned:
    Yellow Cab (800) 829-4222
    AA Inland Empire Cab (888) 333-8294
    And BTW, your cell phone 911 dials out to CHP, which may not be who you want to call in most cases. For emergency response:
    Riverside PD/FD (951) 787-7911
    UCR PD (951) 827-5222

  5. Portable audio player
    I'm torn on this one. On the one hand, I think our society is isolated enough, and I think the constant plugging of earbuds in to your ears diminishes the likelihood of meeting interesting people. On the other hand, there have been people on the bus that I have no interest in meeting. Headphones are a clear "Don't bother me" signal. Plus, you can rock out. So, if either of those sounds appealing, bring your iPod or non-Apple-trademarked music delivery device.

  6. Bus Pass
    Sounds kind of obvious, but I suggest getting a bus pass if at all possible, and carrying it with you always. (UCR, RCC, La Sierra U students, you already have one.) Even if you're not using the system very often, get a Ten Tripper pass. This frees you from the need to carry exact change, speeds up boarding, and allows you flexibility. For example, say you were going to ride the 16 downtown to catch the 1 to a point just south of Tyler Mall. Your friend is driving you home. You bring $2.50 accordingly. When riding the 16 and flipping through the bus book, you notice that you could connect to the 149 Express and catch the 1 at Tyler Mall, saving you time but costing you another $1.25. You don't have $1.25, so you end up sitting on the #1 for an hour you didn't have to. If you had a bus pass, you would be flexible enough to take the alternate route.
    Unlimited passes also have the advantage of allowing you to take any bus, for any length of time, for any reason. If you're walking down a street for a couple of blocks, and you see a bus coming your way, you can jump on and ride it two blocks. Probably not something you'd spend money on, but not a problem with a bus pass. So I HIGHLY recommend getting a pass if it makes sense at all.

  7. Patience
    Facts of life: The bus is not faster than driving. The train is only faster than driving during rush hour. Sometimes you get stuck at a railroad crossing and miss your transfer. Sh!t happens. It doesn't happen all that often, but when it does, be patient and reasonable. Check your schedule book for alternate routes. Enjoy a little more time to read/listen to your music. Accept that it's no more in your control than traffic is, and nothing is really that important. Keeping this in mind will make your ride more enjoyable than anything else on this list, so just relax.

A little preparation, a little patience, and a little luck will lead you to a good experience riding the RTA.

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