Unsuck Golden Gate Transit

Some effective branding at the Hub, telling the world of GGT’s competence, class, and lack of a laminator.

For those of you that don’t know, I’m a Marinite that lives in Washington, DC, so commuting by GGT isn’t exactly normal for me.  (If you’re wondering why I blog on Marin issues while living across the country, my FAQ has a bit more detail.)  But, I’m home in Marin for the next two weeks for Christmas, giving me a golden opportunity to try the GGT.  I’ve written about maximizing our bus system before, but there’s nothing quite like on-the-ground experience.  My few days have been eye-opening.

There were a number of general problems with GGT that I noticed immediately.  As one that lives on transit – I don’t own a car – proper wayfinding, signage, and branding is really important to me.  For the same reason some people want nice cars, I want nice transit that’s clean, efficient, pleasing to look at, and a pleasing experience to wait for.  What I got instead was this:

  • Poor signage.  The transit pylons are ugly, not weatherproof, and the signage typically consists of timetables printed on office paper, which melts when the rain gets inside and turns brown when in the sun too long.  There are often no route maps, no system maps, and no regional maps.  There were system maps at the San Rafael Transit Center and the Lucas Valley Bus Pad, but GGT had printed them so small I almost needed a magnifying glass to see where routes stopped.  As well, there were no timetables for routes that didn’t come to that stop, forcing me to check on when the various exceptions to routing occur and leaving me in the dark as to whether I could switch to that service.
  • Poor shelter.  I boarded GGT at Polk & McAllister, which is the last primary stop for the service in San Francisco, but here is no shelter and no bench.  Despite its prominent position in timetables and relatively high volume of traffic, GGT treats the stop like an afterthought.  All they gave us was a pylon on the sidewalk with water-damaged route numbers and timetables.
  • Poor lighting.  I stopped by the Transit Center Saturday night and found the advertising far superior and better lit than the cheapo signage.
  • Lack of next bus departures.  Although I had brought with me a departure timetable, I had no way of getting this information otherwise, nor did I know if the bus had been early and I had missed it.
  • Lack of next stop information.  Despite long distances between stops and long headways, GGT chooses not to have its buses display which stop is next.  Given that the technology that enables this is the same technology that enables next bus departure information, this should be a top technology priority for the system.
  • Slow boarding and exiting.  The back doors of some GGT buses are almost vestigial, as they are not for boarding – despite the presence of Clipper readers – and they have signs imploring customers not to exit via them.  This means all boarding and exiting must occur at the front, forcing boarding passengers to wait for exiting ones to exit and forcing Clipper owners to wait while other passengers fumble for proper change.  Frustratingly, the buses that do allow rear exiting don’t have Clipper readers, so Clipper users still need to exit the front to tag out.

An old regional transit diagram from MTC, conspicuously absent from GGT’s stops.

Why is it like this?  GGT sells a valuable commodity – mobility – but it treats its customers like a burden.  The cheap and ugly signage screams to customers that the service is similarly cheap and ugly.  The lack of shelter tells customers they aren’t wanted.  The poor lighting says GGT doesn’t even care about what signage is there.  The incredibly inefficient boarding and exiting tells me that they either prioritize the needs of the bus driver over those of the passenger or that they bought the wrong buses.

Many bus stops have shelters, but some of the major ones don’t.  There is money to buy shelters, but the distribution seems haphazard.  The same goes for lighting – properly lighting one’s signs and shelters goes a long way to ensuring the experience is pleasant for the passengers.

Real-time arrival (next bus) kiosks are inexplicably absent.  Although GGT equipped its buses with GPS to enable accurate Clipper Card payments and with WiFi internet, two major parts of a next bus system, the back-end infrastructure to enable next bus information is not in place.  GGT makes up for this by being highly punctual, which could, in theory, enable next bus displays to count down to the next scheduled departures instead.  MTC uses just such a display using GGT information in its style guide examples, but the district ignores what MTC developed and I saw no next bus kiosks anywhere except MUNI and BART.

The most advanced and useful piece of technology used is the booklet available on every bus, complete with route information and system maps.  While better than nothing, the maps don’t include a regional transit map or even a list of other transit services, rendering them less useful than they might otherwise be.  In addition, the schedules are inconsistent as to which stops are listed.  For example, the Lucas Valley Road bus pad is listed in some routes (the 49) but not others (the 70, 71, 80, and 101), leading the inexperienced passenger to believe those other routes bypass the pad when that’s not the case.  GGT should choose which stops appear in the schedules and list them consistently.

This is made all the more frustrating because it doesn’t need to be this way.  MTC has a signage design document (PDF) that includes the Transit Center in its examples, so something better already exists on the MTC servers.  GGT need only spend a little money to have it installed, which would be part of the MTC Hub Signage project.  Other information, such as route numbers and timetables, could at least be laminated to prevent destruction by water and sunshine; using translucent plastic tiles would be even better.  Installing monitors to count down the next arrivals and departures would enable passengers to wait in peace rather than in trepidation.  Allowing Clipper Card holders to enter through the back door would encourage adoption of the card, and allowing passengers to exit through the back to speed boarding and offloading.

GGT isn’t trying.  Although it is the only possibility for good access to Marin, although it is the only way for carless San Franciscans to find Marin and although it is the cheapest way for Marinites to move around the Bay Area, GGT seems to deliberately ignore or overlook simple solutions, many of which MTC has already developed.  Indeed, some of the recommendations here were made five years ago by MTC itself (PDF).  The return on investment could be huge, but for some reason the Board relies on cheap half-measures and ignores the effects on its image.  Marin and Sonoma are incredibly wealthy counties, lands of the Cadillac, but their transit service sells itself as a Gremlin.  The North Bay deserves better.

About David Edmondson
A native Marinite working in Washington, DC, I am fascinated by how one might apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of my home.

10 Responses to Unsuck Golden Gate Transit

  1. Sean says:

    That shelter on Polk was just removed, MUNI is putting in a new wave shelter. MUNI sure could have coordinated the removal of the old and installation of the new- its been about two weeks. GGT is wary of pads as timepoints, because they cannot hold the bus there if it is early.

    For real time info, check marintransit.net. Its only a few routes now.

    • Marin Transit is pretty good with the routes they run. Weatherproofed system maps are at every stop along with the timetable, and having the real-time info helps with the very long headways. Thanks for the heads-up on that.

      As for bus pads, well… my thing is that, because of all the exceptions to where routes go based on time of day, and because of the generalization of the system map, the only way to know that a given route serves a given stop is to check the front of the booklet. The information is there, but I need to check three places (map, stop table, then schedule) to find out if and when a given route serves the stop. It’s needlessly arcane.

      Hopefully things will improve – I was digging around after I posted, and MTC adopted a resolution in October with financial penalties for noncompliant member agencies. GGT certainly falls under that category.

  2. danlyke says:

    The two things which annoy me every time I try to use GGT:

    1. Erroneous stop information. My partner works for MCOE with older developmentally disabled students, and one of the processes they teach is using the transit system. We recently drove bus routes, taking pictures of the stops along the way to use as a reference for “when you see this, get off” materials. The stops didn’t match the map.

    The last time I rode Golden Gate Transit, I got off two stops before I had to. Of course I didn’t much mind, because I was able to walk faster than the bus for that stretch…

    2. Lack of GGTF. Really? So rather than using Google Maps or some other system, I’m stuck with the awfulness that is 511.org? And even when I do use 511.org, I then have to go back and check the schedule to see that I’m going to be sitting in the cold and dark at the San Rafael Transit Center for 40 minutes before that next bus comes.

    Of course maybe if they did publish that information I wouldn’t be tempted to grab the bus and take one car home rather than just taking a second car when I want to meet my partner down in Marin for an after-work shindig.

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  7. russellroesner says:

    The thing that sucks the most is their lack of the MAIN THING for any transit system….a schedule that has all of their stops listed. Huge SWATH’s, in some cases MILES of the routes on the long travel bus’ like the 101, 54, 56, etc. miss 3 to as many as 7 bus stops in between their “main stops” on their printed schedules. Thus, in San Francisco, they will lead you to believe there are only about 6 or 7 bus stops when there are closer to 20. Its impossible to create a schedule with your stop and exact pick up and drop off times if your stop is not on their “main” schedule. 511.org is the only place you can find a specific time for a specific stop in between main stops. Unless you are online at all times, there is no other way to plan a trip aside from manually writing down the times bus’ arrive at your stop on a piece of paper by planning fake trips and divining the schedule. How one of the richest places in America, and most most high tech could not spend the time to create a complete schedule is crazy.

    • Pierre Crist says:

      The GGT Buses mainly the 72 to Rohnert Park and SF all have
      electric banner signs just back of the driver over the asile that lists all stops
      coming up I can’t imagine the others don’t. All Sonoma County Transit buses have it. 511 indeed has some problems but ,you should be carrying a map anyway, plastic for weather, if you are using public transit. Whatsamatter you can’t type out your itenerary on the computer for the next day or are we just to damn lazy like most Californians. Did you even bother asking the driver for his advice? As for the GGTpaper schedules forget it no one can make any sense of them so why bother.

      • Evelyn Adams says:

        They suck and have sucked for decades. Nothing new. They always have their hands out too but slash routes, ferries, etc. The buses are touted as state of the art. My arse. Every single one I’ve ridden sounds and feels like the wheels are about to fly off. The buses are not comfortable at all and yes, getting on and off is sloowwww. I take the 72x for the most part now and I am left with just a handful of options. Forget it if you cant get to the stop by 7 05, that’s the last bus out of Santa Rosa. The train is coming, but train then ferry to SF doesnt connect all the way either. The north bay stinks at public transit. They snubbed BART and now were sitting in gridlock for eternity.

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