If electric vehicles are not the "green" solution, if even good gas mileage is still bad gas mileage, then what is the best way to get around? Who are the real transportation eco-warriors? This line of questioning led me to the city bus system.
In 14 years of living in Sonoma County, the only bus I have ever ridden is the San Francisco Airporter. For the last six years, I've driven by the bus stop that's a short half-mile walk from my house, and never once have I stood beside the rickety post that sits, desolate on Highway 116, surrounded by weeds. How hard can it be?
My new goal: to ride the bus to the Santa Rosa Transit Mall from Sebastopol, preferably starting from that lonely bus stop that is walking distance from my house, and then ride it back again. Bus schedules are available at the local library, so that's where I get mine. I also call the transit line, where a city employee cheerfully helps me find my way from point A to point B. Unfortunately, that little bus stop, the one that I imagine myself standing next to as I wait patiently, stoically even, under the blazing sun for my bus to appear, only goes to Rohnert Park. If I want to get to Santa Rosa, I have to somehow travel the five miles into Sebastopol and catch my ride there. No big deal; I have a car. If I didn't, well, the transit system would have already let me down.
I park my car a couple of blocks from the Sebastopol Post Office, jog down to the bus stop and sit down to wait. A nice-looking young man waits next to me. After a few minutes of silence, he asks me if he can smoke. I say, "Sure, but can I ask you a couple of questions?" and we go from there. A 19-year-old West County native, Matthew Thomas, has been utilizing the public bus system for the last four years. In Matthew's opinion, the system has been going seriously downhill. This used to be the easiest way to get around, he tells me, but now, with the consistent schedule changes, unpredictable arrival times and route cutbacks, riding the bus is no longer an easy solution. "Oh," Matthew adds with a touch of cynicism, "and they're always late."
Our bus is, indeed, 10 minutes late, but once it arrives, proves to be quite serviceable. With an 18-passenger capacity, the bus is a little less than half full. I take a seat in the back and am soon lulled to sleep as we bounce and speed down the highway, making it to the transit mall in just under 15 minutes.
By the time I disembark, I'm feeling pleased. Refreshed by my catnap, I'm now sure that riding the bus isn't so bad, as long as I don't need to depend on it specifically. For instance, if I had no car and a bad limp, I would have a hell of a time getting to Santa Rosa every day for work. But considering my privileged position, I can afford to be flexible. Then I look at the posted schedules and realize that the next bus heading for Sebastopol doesn't leave for three hours and that it will be a 40-minute trip back. Apparently, bus travel on a Saturday was not the spiffiest idea.
In order to spare myself the tedium, I call some friends and arrange for them to pick me up in their family postal truck/RV that they run on biodiesel. (The transit mall, by the way, is notably free of fumes despite the buses pulling in and out. This is no doubt due to the fact that all of the buses run on natural gas, as opposed to the stinking, black fume-spewing diesel buses of my childhood.)
The postal truck eventually arrives. I board and we roar back to Sebastopol with both side doors open, the highway spinning below our feet. Just shy of town, we stop at the Chevron station on Highway 12 that recently began selling biodiesel. We're not the only ones filling up, and with over 2,000 gallons of biodiesel per month being sold from this particular station, it's heartening to witness firsthand the community interest in alternative fuels. Biodiesel may have its drawbacks, but it is grown and processed in the U.S. and reduces carbon emissions by a reported 48 percent. At $3.79 a gallon, compared to $3.09 for a gallon of diesel, I guess one could say that it had better.
So, I need a car to catch the bus, and I need a diesel to buy biodiesel, and I need a certain level of generosity and willingness to sacrifice convenience to do either. But think about it: if every single adult in the North Bay made a personal commitment to ride the bus just once a week, that could make a huge difference. In fact, the counties would probably have to add a bunch of new lines just to accommodate us all, which would make life easier for real bus riders, like Matthew. Besides, it's relaxing to ride the bus. You don't have to worry, road rage falls away and as long as the buses are clean, the lull of community travel can truly surround one in a soothing, low-emissions bubble of serenity.
Find out more about your local transit system by visiting wwwsctransit.com