Carolyn rides the trolley

Once you get past a few quirks, the trolley system is a welcome alternative to the car.

by Carolyn Chase
hen I received a jury sum mons notice last fall, I never thought that I would actually be chosen to serve on a jury. I figured I'd go downtown one day and be able to check in via phone for the next four days. Shows what I knew. I was part of the very first group to be called for the very first trial needing jurors that day. I was one of the first 24 to be called and darned if I didn't get put on a real live jury for a civil trial.

I was now facing a regular, daily downtown trip to court with the whopping jury compensation fee of $5 per day plus mileage. On the parking front, the county lets you know where the closest lots are ($8 per day) and the cheapest ($3 per day). In between the closest and the cheapest are both trolley and train station stops. I was determined that my parking and travel costs not exceed my puny daily stipend. I was motivated to reduce the cost and stress of a daily drive, the search for a space and an indeterminate hike. This was my chance to use the trolley system to commute and be "up close and personal" with local transit. I'd navigated subways and transit systems around the world. If I could negotiate the systems in Tokyo, Hong Kong, New York and Washington D.C., surely I could get with the program here at home.

This wasn't so much an environmental statement as a personal stress and cost reduction. I think it goes back to the days when my father was commuting 70 miles each day from L.A. into Orange County and back again. It was a very high price to pay then. Many years later, when I commuted to a job in Rancho Bernardo for nearly a year, a key goal of mine became to always live near where I worked. My personal assessment is that there is no more vile waste of time than being stuck in traffic, burning gas and time. So I've generally minimized my personal transportation costs and stresses by telecommuting that is, working out of my home. But the environmental advantages to getting out of our cars are formidable as well.

Cars do it

Automobiles contribute to air pollution, global warming and water pollution through their emissions. About 20 percent of ozone and about one-third of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States come from the automobile.

Transportation is also a consumer of land. Hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands were lost to freeways before there was a mitigation policy. We continue to lose natural wetlands to freeways and replace them with constructed wetlands, which science hasn't proven really work. Transportation also consumes farmland and is a progenitor of urban sprawl, which takes farmland and open space and leads to more driving, which leads to more of everything else.

Figuring it out

The first key to my downtown transportation happiness was an arrangement between the county and the trolley system. Attached to my jury summons was a coupon that could be redeemed for a free one-way trip on the trolley, worth up to $1.75. Racks in the jury lounge had all the latest trolley, bus and train schedules.

I'd taken the trolley once before, to the border and back, but I hadn't ridden the system since it had crept northward toward my home. First things first: I checked the route map to find the closest stop to Pacific Beach, in this case the Old Town Station. I checked the pocket schedule and found that if I arrived at 8:30, I should be able to park for free, hop a trolley and arrive downtown with plenty of time to make a 9am court date.

Going my way?

In negotiating any travel system train, subway, airport, bus station the signs are the most important key to user friendliness (followed by the station agents and the brochures). Since the purpose of all these systems is to ease the movement of large numbers of people, they all have most things in common. It's only the critical details that screw you up, and this is where the signs can help or hinder.

I have to say that our trolley system is not the most user-friendly I've experienced. The basic information signs are large, which is good, but loaded with fine print which is complicated and bad. When you are rushing to catch a train, you need the basics summarized simply and easily. Our system could do much better.

On my first day, my first problem was to figure out: was the train that was sitting in the station the train I wanted? Was it headed in the right direction?

Being a relatively quick study, it was easy to figure out that since Old Town is the current end-of-the-line, all trolleys leaving the station were headed in the right direction. You can usually look at the end of any transit car and see the destination (or if it's out-of-service).

Confusingly enough, the train in the station when I arrived said "Old Town." Not very useful. The doors were closed. Not very inviting. I decided to ask inside the station. It turns out that the station is not a station per se, but kind of a mini-mart that didn't open until 9am.

Meanwhile, the train left.

My next lesson was that, unlike every other system I've ever used where the doors open and close automatically another indicator of whether or not they are in service the doors on our trolley system only open when someone presses a button requesting that they open. Oh well.

Ticket, please

Another odd thing about the system is the security. The system utilizes roving police to regulate access to paid customers. In other words, anyone can get on or off with or without a ticket. If the fare police catch you riding without a ticket, you are busted and will pay a substantial fine. The risk unticketed riders run is based on how often the system has officers check the trains. In the dozen or so separate trolley rides I took, I was checked once.

The system has a few other oddities. For instance, at the 5th and C station they have 3 ticket machines on the south side and none on the north. This is an unfortunate incentive for jaywalking and undoubtedly has caused a few folks to miss their train. At Old Town, there is only one ticket machine for the entire station a major stop on the line. This can cause lines and delays at key moments when folks just trying to figure out how to buy a ticket are mixed with those rushing to make their train.

Trolley bliss

But once I figured out the basics, I loved it. I now know that the trolley is the best way to get to any county or city hearings, where even finding parking can be a hassle in addition to an expense.

Since the end of the trial, I've had occasion to go downtown a couple of times. When my parking has been subsidized, i.e., I'm going to a meeting where the parking bill will be covered, I drove. When I was running late and not sure of where I was going, I drove. But just last week I attended a hearing for the Regional Water Quality Control Board via the trolley. I stopped in at Origami Cafe, had a fabulous lunch and a short walk to the hearing. On the way back to Old Town, I caught up on my reading.

The best thing about riding the Trolley was the leisure and freedom it gave me. While most Southern Californians look to their cars as the provider of ultimate freedom, I had a much more complete sense of freedom on the trolley. Riding the trolley was relaxing. I was able to read, think or listen to my walkman. And, it was cheaper: I didn't have to pay for the gas and wear and tear on my car. I didn't have to pay for the parking. I did less walking.

So check out the trolley, it's ultimately the lower hassle, lower cost choice. And catch up on your reading.

Carolyn Chase is Chairperson of the Waste Management Advisory Board of the City of San Diego, a board member of San Diego Earth Day and a member of the Executive Committee of the San Diego Chapter of the Sierra Club