In Transit: From S.F. to L.A. via Public Transportation

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Illustrations by Mark Ulriksen

On Monday, May 23, Michael Suniga lost his teeth on a bus in Watsonville. He'd removed them to chew gum, wandered off the vehicle to inquire when it would be departing, and returned to find someone had swiped his dentures. "I had bad luck all May, man," he says with a toothless cackle.

June has been no better. A man who'd purchased a fighting cock from Suniga — that's how he keeps afloat, along with drawing disability checks — stiffed him. "He owed me a lotta money — hundreds. But the cops nailed him before I could. And I got a whole bunch of eggs that need to be incubated." Suniga knocks back a slug of E&J Brandy from a single-serving bottle after I open the cap for him. It's not quite 11 a.m., and the 23 King City bus is rumbling down Highway 101 between stops in Chular and Gonzalez, making local pickups from the cul-de-sacs of remote towns dotting the vast agricultural landscape. Suniga grins and extends a pointed finger, preparing to recount another tale of woe. Instead his head bobs forward, his eyes close, and the bus rocks him to sleep.

Biking and busing between Greenfield and Salinas to visit his doctors — and overworked dentist — is part of Suniga's routine. It is not mine. But, on a recent Monday, I was in the opening stages of a transit odyssey — an attempt to venture from San Francisco to Los Angeles using only public transportation.

My route is the brainchild of transit blogger Matt Nelson, a baby-faced 24-year-old who grew up in an Arkansas town where the closest thing to mass transit was a Chrysler Town & Country. After relocating to transit-rich San Francisco, he founded www.californiastreets.org.image

Among self-professed transit nerds, devising Rube Goldberg–like routes necessitating dozens of bus or train rides to travel even short distances is a matter of pride. Many itineraries are strictly theoretical: No sane human will undertake Nelson's 68-hour S.F. to L.A. route via Yosemite.

Nelson's 32-hour, 14-transfer trek from this city to Los Angeles seemed crazy, too, at first glance. Going over it again and again, however — nah, still crazy. But it was too late. I was smitten. Just as the mountaineer George Mallory famously uttered "Because it's there" as his rationale for attempting Mount Everest, the notion of leaving the S.F.-L.A. route unchallenged ate away at me. I can't climb a mountain. But I can sit in a bus. And while Mallory's obsession led to his dying on a mountainside and transformation into a human Popsicle for 75 years, the worst thing that could happen to me was a night (or two) in a central California bus depot or an impromptu lesson on what manner of steroids to inject into fighting cocks.

As Suniga snores, I figure that my attempt to travel to Los Angeles on public transit will simultaneously answer two questions: Can you do this? And who would do this?


The N-Owl pulls up at Haight and Fillmore at 4:11 a.m. Somewhat surprisingly, it already has 16 passengers. Not surprisingly at all, the bus is already thick with the official Muni odor — BO ineffectively masked by Old Spice with hints of pee. Sunflower seeds are scattered beneath the seats and the floors are already movie theater-sticky. A man wearing a Philadelphia Eagles knit cap repeatedly smacks himself on the forehead; his pensive expression indicates some elusive knowledge is on the tip of his tongue. The driver's eyes meet mine. He exhales deeply. "It's Monday," he sighs.

Knit cap man stumbles off the bus at Fourth and King streets along with all the other riders. It's a shade after 4:30, and the Caltrain station glows like a beacon. Every last soul on the 4:55 train to San Jose is blearily staring at something: a computer screen, a newspaper, or simply straight ahead in an early morning stupor. No train car has more than three riders seated in it; it's a tight-knit club, and the passengers and ticket-checkers are on a first-name basis.

A young man wearing a black undershirt plops down in the seat across from mine. He has two phones clipped to his shorts, meaning he officially has more phones than shirts. He whips out a laptop and methodically bangs away at the keys. John Antoigue doesn't call what he's writing a diary: "It's more just facts." He documents life's minutiae: Bought eggs at Safeway. Watched Smokey and the Bandit on Net-flix. Chatted with weirdo reporter. Stuff like that.

A creature of habit, Antoigue daily runs the 2.4 miles from his home near City Hall to the train station in his Earth vegan shoes. He sprays Brut deodorant on his underarms — two pumps each side — dresses, and disembarks in Palo Alto, where he manages a hotel. Before we can delve into the finer points of his documented existence, he's off the train and hustling into the darkness. The sun rises 15 minutes later. Fittingly, we're in Sunnyvale.

The train reaches San Jose's Diridon Station hours ahead of my next transfer — I've allotted plenty of time in case Caltrain suffers what the French sensitively call "an accident of person."

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57 comments
billcousert
billcousert

Will somebody please delete the spam?

rahul souk
rahul souk

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garage door repair irvine

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Martinez June
Martinez June

I agree FYI, the Coast Starlight trip costs roughly $55-$70 if booked well in advance

Nate
Nate

FYI, the Coast Starlight trip costs roughly $55-$70 if booked well in advance.

legendaryrob
legendaryrob

ok, first of all, i want to address some of the prices & timepoints, & 'transfers'. (for the record,I am the author of the original hitchiking site: http://www.legendaryrob.com (mind you, some of it is outdated, and some of it is politically correct, but i stand by my statements, re, safety (and dan savage agrees with me; closet cases are creeps, generally).--anyhoo, never mind the politics: lets start with the cost he says $41., i can save him some $ firstly: take any given samtrans allnighter on mission to palo alto caltrain station from downtown sf .(around $4.), then buy a 'super express' all day pass' from VTA $12.-this will not only get you on the #22 bus to downtown san jose, it will include your MST fare all the way to king city.--now, at king city, you now have of course to wait on the ft hunter liggett bus, (M_f only)but thats your lookout.,*(it was originally going to only allow military onboard, since ft hunter liggett is a 'closed' fort, but I guess thats not an issue anymore. buy an ALL DAY PASS on the slo county system-$5.oo. get to sant a maria: ok, I take issue with the idea that a 4 mile walk is a 'transfer', but whatever.. however the clean air express (m-f only) is around $7., then, yes the VISTA coatal express, is around $3.50 (they are SUPPOSED to accept/issuetransfers from sb area systems,(according to santa barbara MTD) but I have yet to see them actually DO so), then, yes, the transfer from pacific view mall in ventura to thousand oaks transfer center. (again, the rt 161 from To is ONLY M_F).however, a MTA DAYPASS is $6.00.it will get you ANYWHERE in los angeles county, and, get this: one ride thru long beach to the VA center, where you can get all the way to the carl's jr in san clemente for a little under 2 bucks.at carl's, you can buy an all day pass for North County transit/san diego transit for around $5, it goes thru camp pendleton, and oceanside, and includes most transit vehicles in san diego county.(trolley, the SPRINTER train from oceanside to escondido)* walk across border, and you can catch a jitney to downtown tj for about a buck.-you are on your own from there.--so, I have just got you 100+ miles furthur for a buck or so less. now, your writer also overlooked a MUCH easier (and cheaper) amtrak return: the pacific surfliner from the BURBANK station to the caltrain station in SF is ALWAYS around $50 bucks.the articles author, took the very expensive coast starlight service instead.--the pacific surfliner, goes from as far south as downtown san diego to either santa barbara or SL depending on time of day, and then AMTRAK (not greyhound) shuttles you up the coast- thru paso robles, king city, salinas, san jose, sf, then it goes to oakland or emeryville.

now, on to prundeale: there IS a restroom near the prunedale park& ride-no less than a football field away is a chevron station: (within eyesight) with a friendly staff, and (unlike a LOT of places in the bay area-you dont have to beg to use the can).(i'm looking squarely at the carls jr on powell & market here, folks: CA law says 14 seats or more have to have facilities for paying customers, and they have NEVER opened their damn bathrooms EVER, to my knowledge)--only carls i know that acts like that.grrr.

Patrick
Patrick

You could have taken bus provided by lowfarebus.com at McDonald (600 Van Ness & Golden Gate) at 6:30 am daily. The bus will arrive at Los Angeles Chinatown Metro Station (1231 N Spring St) at 2 pm the same day. Chinatown Metro Station is probably 10 minutes walk from LA Union Station. Total cost for bus ride is $45, one way. The bus co also gives you one free sandwich & one free bottle water. Bus has bathroom. You can reserve your seat via lowfarebus.com or gotobus.com.

Cindy Womack
Cindy Womack

Amazing that this is doable but my formally 7 hour commute (round trip) to work from Santa Cruz to Carmel (and only 5 days outve a 6 day work week) is now completely impossible.(Thanks MST) I love teh scenery but CentCal needs trains!

Congrats on surviving the trip!

Marvin Gardens
Marvin Gardens

Did you treat yourself to a roast beef dip at Phillipe's across from Union Station in L.A.?

Douglas Gorney
Douglas Gorney

OK, you've done this. But have you ridden the 38 from the beach to the Transbay Terminal? Or taken the 22 all the way to 3rd and 20th after school lets out? You do that…then we'll have something to talk about.

Joe Eskenazi
Joe Eskenazi

Douglas --

I have, indeed, done these things. So we do have something to talk about. As far as something to write about, I think it was best that I chose my preferred subject.

All the best,

JE

Douglas Gorney
Douglas Gorney

As do I. I jest, of course. Tremendous article and a great adventure. I'm jealous that you got the story.

pubtran
pubtran

What a great way to let people know that public transportation is as available as it is throughout California. I have been amazed to find out how much of the state is accessible via transit, especially since California's reputation is that of a car culture. The army financed bus line from King City to Paso Robles was especially interesting. I had wondered about that leg when I started to read the article and was not familiar with this piece.A few months ago I read an article about a similar trip from Pittsburgh to Florida, but that trip did involve a few legs on Amtrak as there were more gaps between transit lines.Thanks for a wonderful article.

Imatraveler
Imatraveler

Life is short and while we are waiting for the big moments, it's good to be reminded that life is really in the small moments, an adventure unfolding all around us. Using Mass Transit puts us in close proximity to a broad scope of humanity. Whether traveling by bus, train or ferry from town to town or just across town, remember to put down your book/IPad/Itunes once in awhile and immerse yourself in the experience of being a passenger on life's journey, 'it's a trip!" Great article

Bob Davis
Bob Davis

Back in the 1980's, there was a story in (possibly) the LA Times about two young men who went from West Covina to San Diego on transit bus lines. Took them all day, and they wound up coming home on Amtrak, but it was still an interesting story if you're a transit fan. Back about a hundred years ago, a group of electric railway officials did a cross-country trip from either Boston or New York using nothing but trolley lines. This was only possible for a few years, and there was one gap in upstate New York where they had to "cheat" and take a steam train, but again, it was quite an adventure. (Some day, I'll write up my cross-country, El Monte to Boston and back on the Greyhound journey--what I call the Dog Tired Tour of 1977)

Cph1776
Cph1776

There are two types of people in the world. When presented with the idea of going from SF to LA (or some similar distance) by hopping from local bus to local bus,

Type 1 folks will say: That's crazy. Why not just fly/drive/Amtrak/Greyhound it?

Type 2 folks: Sounds like an adventure! Let me see if I can get time off work....

Pb756
Pb756

I LOVE road trips and am familiar with almost every mile covered in this odyssey. What a great eccentric idea done justice by the right tone and style.cheers,

RaymondC
RaymondC

Just sad. This writer is trying to do it the hard way when it's way more convenient to just buy a Greyhound bus ticket and go from downtown San Francisco to downtown Los Angeles. It would be like in Japan trying to go from Tokyo to Osaka on all local trains instead of taking the vastly more convenient Shinkansen "bullet train."

Drunk Guy
Drunk Guy

my, you've just totally missed the point, here, haven't you?

John
John

Give Raymond a break, guys. He's posting from a Yahoo! account, so he's probably a little "special."

Dajmiller
Dajmiller

Easy. Can you say "Amtrak" or "Greyhound"?

Halschieve
Halschieve

Great story. This trip was done in reverse from San Ysidro to San Francisco 30 or forty years ago and chronicled in either the LA Times of the SF Chronicle (pardon the pun). Then the writer had several long hikes between the Central Coast cities because there was no public transit in place then.

sfnoebrit
sfnoebrit

Thank you, Joe - what a great article! One day I too shall do this, if only for a bet or worthy cause.

Briansays
Briansays

great solution to all the homeless that come here for the welfare magnet and havena one way bus tix to la

ibuyufo
ibuyufo

The Greyhound fare from Oakland, ca to Los Angeles, ca is $42 if you buy it on the web. Takes 12 hours to get to LA by greyhound.

Peter Christiansen
Peter Christiansen

And the "one hour" flight from SFO to LA actually takes at least four hours (including the three hours you will need to clear the security but NOT including the time it takes to get to the airport - and then of course at least another hour to an hour and a half to get your luggage and get from the airport to anywhere near where you are actually going.

It takes me 5 and a half hours to get from my front door in SF to my brother's front door in LA, by care but last weekend I decided to fly. It took - 6 hours! and it cost nme $328 for the ticket, plus $30 for long term parking at SFO.

donnie
donnie

joy! what a fun read. glad to see interesting & creative journalism still alive.

GuardGirl
GuardGirl

How on earth did you visit Ventura and not comment on the gigantic, snaking house sculpture at the bus stop? It's at once hideous and entrancing! http://www.wayfaring.info/2009....

Joe Eskenazi
Joe Eskenazi

GuardGirl --

From afar, it looks even loonier. Also, they're totally ineffective as bus shelters, as pigeons nest in the upper reaches and crap onto the benches. Mark Ulriksen did depict the house in his illustrations, and I documented it on our Google map of the trip:

http://blogs.sfweekly.com/thes...

Hellman
Hellman

Great little travel piece. I've often wondered myself whether this trip was possible. Thanks for giving my day a much needed lift.

Kathryn Barrera
Kathryn Barrera

I rode a greyhound from Santa Maria to Oakland. It was an amazing trip as I was just visiting CA after finishing college. I ended up staying in the bay area for 4 years and meeting my husband. We live in FL now and have a baby boy. None of that would have ever happened without the bus trip. I couldn't afford a plane ticket and I was unaware of the train option. Wow the story took me back. The smell of the bus. The fields of lettuce, the variety of humanity I met.... Good read. Thanks for sharing.

Daniel M
Daniel M

Interesting article, but you do a bit of a disservice to the uninformed by making it appear this is the ONLY way to get from SF to LA without a car. Once you got to San Jose, you could have transferred to an Amtrak Coast Starlight and been at Union Station in LA something like 10 hours later. Or you could have taken a Greyhound bus and gotten there in a similar amount of time. You might instead have claimed you were traveling from SF to LA using only Local Public Transit lines. It would have been more honest and less misleading

Bob Davis
Bob Davis

The title "in transit" let me know that this wasn't about a trip on Amtrak or the Doggy Bus. Although I've traveled between the Bay Area and LA by train, bus, pickup truck, furniture van, an assortment of cars, various aircraft, and a cruise ship, this mode of travel I will leave to the young and adventurous.

Joe Eskenazi
Joe Eskenazi

Daniel --

Thanks for the compliment. I'm confused, however, at how you managed to glean any inference in my story that "this is the only way to get from SF to LA without a car." You also chide me for not claiming I was "traveling from SF to LA using only Local Public Transit lines." You have somehow missed the headline and repeated references in the body of the article stating just that -- in fact, the sole conceit of this story was to travel form San Francisco to Los Angeles on public transit.

Thanks for reading anyway.

Best,

JE

 
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