Like the movie Groundhog Day, every morning some 60 percent of Gilroy residents take the same trip over and over to their jobs in San Jose and Silicon Valley and they have to figure out the best, fastest and cheapest way to get there.
The Dispatch decided to race the 33.8 miles from Gilroy Station to San Jose Diridon Station during the heavy 7 a.m. commute hour and see which was best, the train, bus or car.
The results were mixed, each with serious tradeoffs. All three left Gilroy shortly after 7 a.m. The train was fastest, taking 48 minutes to reach the station at 7:54 a.m. The car arrived at 8:10 and the VTA Express bus at 8:15.
Driving was the most expensive, even with a hybrid that gets 25 miles per gallon. Adding the American Automobile Association’s estimates for wear and tear, insurance and depreciation of 36 cents a mile to the $3.50 of gas burned, it costs $16 per trip to ride the roads, not even figuring parking. The train cost $7.75 for a one-way trip, although a discounted monthly pass for $190.80 would cut that to $4.75 a trip. The bus was $4 each way, but a monthly pass at $140 would cut it to $3.50.
The train was worst for practicality and the large number of empty seats proved it. There are only three trains a day each way at 6:06 a.m., 6:28 a.m. and 7:06 a.m. Returns arrive at 5:30 p.m., 7:11 p.m. and 7:51 p.m. The express bus runs conveniently, about every 10 minutes during commute hours. The car, well, that depends on the tens of thousands of other people hitting the roads at the same time. It took only an hour to get to San Jose, but can take two hours to get home.
Flying on the train
Reporter Roseann Hernandez Cattani said she not only arrived quickest, but enjoyed the ride: “For a relaxing commute into work, Caltrain cannot be beat,” she said. “Not only is Caltrain is quicker than the two other options, it is generally, more pleasant for the commuter. No aggressive drivers pulling into your lane or tailgating. No delays due to your bus getting in a traffic jam on the highway or having to make stops that you don’t need. Instead of trying to stay ahead of the traffic, you can sit back and get ahead of your work correspondence.”
That’s what engineering manager Patrick Corpus likes about the train. “By the time I get to work my inbox is taken care of,” he said. He spends his time on the train not unlike many other commuters, plugging into their devices to check up on email, instant messages, social media updates. There is currently no WiFi on Caltrain—budget constraints have been cited over the years, although the service is being considered, according to its website. Corpus has only recently started taking Caltrain on a regular basis because his job switched locations, and he is finding the commute a nice surprise. “I’ll be a regular commuter now that the station is more convenient to where I work.”
Caltrain has 32 stations in its network, and parking is free at all stations south of Diridon. For commuters like Mike Park, who rides his bike from his home near Christopher High School to the Gilroy station, the train’s bike storage facilities allow him to easily take his bike with him to his job at Apple HQ in Cupertino, when he isn’t taking the company’s employee shuttle, which stops at the station, as do shuttles from other technology companies, including Google. “The only thing I have to worry about is the head wind,” he said.
Caltrain is not just for weekday work commuters, it also provides a hassle-free way for Gilroy students to get to class.
“I wouldn’t have the opportunity to go to Notre Dame if I didn’t have Caltrain,” said Tixie Ladd-Darrett, a high school senior. For the last four years, the Gilroy resident has taken the train to and from school, and has learned to navigate the various transit systems at work in Silicon Valley. “If I want to get home and my mom [who] works in San Jose can’t always get me, I can walk to the light rail station and take the VTA to Diridon to get on Caltrain.”
Stop and go by car
At first it seemed like driving alone was the way to go. Brad Kava soared north on 101 at speeds of, oh, 80 mph. Piece of cake, he thought, speeding through Gilroy into Morgan Hill. But then, at 7:20 a.m. at Tennant Avenue the brake lights flare like fireworks and the speed drops to 20 mph.
Pick up, slow down. Pick up, slow down. Ahh, the commuter lane would be so much better. Then at 7:30 a.m., for a minute, it looks like things will improve at the Highway 85 interchange, but, oops, there’s a traffic light and a long line of cars waiting to get in. It takes 10 minutes to get on 85 and chug along at the speed limit.
But merging onto Highway 87 is like that old Twilight Zone episode where the guy has a stopwatch that halts time and freezes everyone. The highway is a parking lot. In the next lane, a woman in a Ford Escort with a Catholic Radio bumper sticker is putting on her makeup. Over on the left, a woman is eating a bowl of noodles. You could walk faster. Stress levels rise and this is no fun. Other drivers aren’t polite and everyone looks angry as they jockey for every inch.
Finally, at the overpass into San Jose, things empty and it takes a few more minutes to get to the station, arriving at 8:10 a.m., about 15 minutes after the train, but ahead of the bus.
Driving a hybrid that gets 25 miles a gallon seems like at least it was a good deal, economically, until you figure the other costs of driving, including wear and tear, insurance, parking and mental anguish. Not that great a deal, especially when the local radio is as annoying as the traffic.
Contributor Nicholas Preciado’s ride on the VTA 168 Express Bus took the longest, but at $4 each way it was affordable and comfortable. The bus was quiet, partly because almost all of the passengers had headphones on. After stops at San Martin (where no one gets on) and Tennant Avenue, the bus zips along Highway 101 and 85 with no traffic.
But then, at 7:54 a.m. on Highway 87, the lanes clog up and the bus crawls for a bit before moving into the carpool lane and sailing faster again. The ride is comfortable. The passengers, while kept to themselves. Some slept; others worked.
After a few local stops, it arrives at Diridon Station at 8:15 a.m. There are bicycles for rent at the station; they are free for a half-hour and as much as $150 a day with hourly rates, but that doesn’t really work for commuting unless there is another station to put your bike by your office.
Preciado talked with commuter Vickie Davis, who takes the bus a few times a week and enjoys not having to commute from Morgan Hill to San Jose by car. She works for the city of San Jose, which subsidizes her public transit costs. Davis prefers the 186 Express bus over the train for its affordability, the WiFI, and the opportunity to catch more buses.
The race showed that we live in an area that isn’t really conducive to mass transit, but is making improvements. People are taking their bikes on trains, which helps healthwise and makes up for the fact that trains don’t go everywhere.
Companies including Google and Apple are sending buses to Gilroy to pick up their employees, which has created controversy in communities that argue the companies should contribute to mass transit, rather than helping the privileged few.
Buses run frequently and quickly, unlike trains—a chicken-and-egg problem—which have too limited a schedule to serve the mass of commuters. The railroad says they won’t schedule more trains because not enough people are taking the ones they have, but the ones they have don’t necessarily serve the time frames of a lot of passengers.
A half-cent sales tax measure that aims to relieve some of the congestion in Santa Clara County will go on the ballot in November. The 30-year tax would help fund a laundry list of projects, including the BART extension into San Jose, transit operations and Caltrain capacity improvements to the tune of $6.5 billion. If it passes, tax collections could begin as early as April 2017.
In the meantime, if you are driving, please keep both hands on the wheel.