In which we discover the fabulous Metropolitan Transit System on a driving trip to San Diego.
I don’t get down to Southern California often. For me it’s like another country entirely. But Holly’s nephew was getting married in La Mesa so we had to decide whether to fly into the San Diego airport and rent a car or drive Lucita, our orange Prius. We decided to drive, chiefly because Holly has a thing for Santa Barbara since she lived there for six years. That was years ago and she couldn’t afford to stay, but she takes every chance she can to get a few hours in what for her is paradise.
The drive from San Francisco to Santa Barbara on 101 on Thursday morning was uneventful and beautiful. We have agreed to stop, get out of the car and walk, and change drivers every two hours or so. Otherwise we get crabby and our old bodies get sore from driving. We surmise that the constant tension of hands on the wheel creates arm and shoulder pain. Plus, sitting in the same position for long: never good for people with chronic back pain.
A super wet winter has greened California hills and created lakes in every low spot. For awhile highway 101 follows Coyote Creek, the waterway that flooded the city of San Jose this month. The muddy water had spread out and taken over its flood plain. But we ran into no road closures, stopping to walk the beach at Pismo, and had smooth sailing right down to Santa Barbara where we spent the night at our favorite Motel 6 a block from the beach.
Holly the trip planner insisted we leave by 9am Friday morning, thinking we needed to get to El Cajon where her sister lives before being enveloped by rush hour traffic. And we did get out by 9, just as planned. We fairly flew through LA, but got stuck after we made the mistake of eating lunch at the lovely harbor at Oceanside. It only took 45 minutes, but put us behind schedule. And then we were in the dreaded Friday afternoon commute traffic.
Here’s the thing: you can’t avoid rush hour in SoCal. Rush hour is virtually every hour. And there are freeways everywhere! I know traffic is bad in the Bay Area, and we avoid it by taking BART or just not going across the bridge. We are retired, so we have options. Still, we don’t have freeways going every which way. LA is a network of freeways with some residential neighborhoods in pockets in between. Anyway, that’s how it looks on my map.
I was driving after LA and Holly was navigating with help from Siri voicing Apple Maps, who was worse than useless if you ask me. So Holly threw Siri out the window (not literally) and got us off Interstate 5 and onto a connector. By the time we reached our hotel in La Mesa neither of us wanted to ever get in the car again.
That’s when we discovered San Diego Metropolitan Transit System. We decided to check out the trolley line on Saturday. Holly’s sister and her family live in El Cajon, a suburb east of San Diego, but they don’t use this miracle of modern transportation. We can hardly believe this, as El Cajon has a major transit hub with free parking and connections to the local bus system.
Everything seems new on MTS and, according to an old timer at the station, they are adding to it all the time. They now have an orange line and a green line and also a blue line that serves the University of San Diego. It costs $2 a ride, but we bought all-day passes for $7 ($5 fare and $2 for the reusable Compass card) because we wanted to go everywhere.
We got on at the El Cajon transit hub with the idea that we would transfer to the vintage trolley, which makes a loop around downtown San Diego. The comfortable red and white trolley cars feel very European, but of course what you see out the window is the hilly desert landscape, mountains in the distance, traveling through neighborhoods of single story buildings, little post-war developments as well as luxury mansions on the hillsides. But San Diego County is doing its part to develop residential projects near transit hubs. We saw several new attractive five-story multi-family developments on our trip into the city.
El Cajon is near the end of the orange line and we were surprised to see few riders on the train. But this was the middle of the day on a Saturday, so commuters were absent. But soon the train began to fill up and as we got closer to downtown the seats were full. It was a warm sunny day and we got off the train at the waterfront with the plan to walk up to the next stop. That was the Santa Fe Depot, a beautifully restored train station that now serves as a transit hub for Amtrak, the trolley and city buses. There we were met by a MTS greeter who explained that the historic trolley line was not running because of maintenance being done on the tracks. He pointed us to a great saloon down the street and we were glad for his advice. Five IPAs, and we tasted every one. The winner in both our minds was Alpine. So we sat and had a pint, entertained by the bartender who had come from San Francisco and a guy sitting next to us from Lake County here to visit relatives.
On the return trip on the green line, the train followed the San Diego River, an urban waterway in the midst of cleanup. We saw some developed walking and bike paths and it looks like more miles are in the works. We could also look out the window at numerous freeways and be glad we were not driving on them.
We got into conversations with several interesting people on the MTS. Ron, a Caltrans worker, said he takes the trolley from his home to work at the corporation yard “right over there.” He likes working for Caltrans and likes San Diego, but said he plans to return home to Amarillo, Texas when he retires in eight years. “The money will go way further in Amarillo.”
When an old woman in a motorized wheel chair zipped into our car, we were amazed at her speed and skill. Then she started singing Mustang Sally. “You better slow that mustang down.” It was obvious she had no plans to slow down, but she sang the whole song anyway. “I don’t have to buy gas,” she said, “I just plug it in when I get home and it’s charged up in the morning.”
On the way home we exchanged favorite beer joints with a guy whose job takes him to San Francisco frequently. People in SD have organized a Beer by Trolley tour and perhaps we will take it next time. But one thing we know for sure. We are never driving here again. No more traffic jams! It’s public transportation all the way from now on. Too bad getting from there to here is so hard to do. You can’t just get on the train in San Francisco and get off in San Diego.
Getting out of our cars should be easy. If only our federal government saw the environmental imperative, took some of the money we spend on war and put it into public transportation projects, we would no longer be stuck in traffic. I fear that will never happen in my lifetime.