The drive for commuting
Take a round trip with locals who work in Santa Barbara and Goleta
BY HELEN ANN THOMAS
Every Monday through Friday (holidays excepted)--in the dark, chill, and sometimes fog of early morning--southbound Santa Maria commuters drive to the big lot across from the Radisson Hotel near the airport. They park and board one of five large Clean Air Buses headed for Goleta and Santa Barbara.
At 5:45 a.m., the sky is pitch black. It can be cold. One recent morning, about 30 southbound commuters (surprisingly chipper for that time of day),rolex replica watches some with hands stuffed in pockets to keep warm, were lined up on the well-lit sidewalk across from the hotel. They were waiting for the bus. Late arrivals drove determinedly into the lot, parked, and rushed to take their place at the end of the line.
A big blue bus with fluffy white clouds painted on the sides pulled up, and the queue of commuters climbed into the vehicle that would take them to their jobs in Goleta. By 5:58 a.m., 54 passengers had boarded the 55-seat bus. The last few had to run to get on board before the door snapped shut.
Among the passengers were Orcutt's Bob and Heather Cochran. He works for the county she works for a high-tech company. They each get off the bus a short walk away from their respective employers.
"The Clean Air Bus is great," Bob told me later. "We save several hundred dollars each month."
The county gives incentives for riding commuter buses.
"If county employees ride the bus 80 percent of the time," Bob explained, "the county gives them two extra vacation days a year."
He's been busing it for six months. Heather's been doing it for several months longer.
"The best part about the bus," Heather said, "is saving wear and tear on our car and wear and tear on us. It is very relaxing to have someone else drive.
"There is road work now going on at the Gaviota Pass," she continued. "We had a 45-minute delay Friday night. It was no big deal for me--someone else was driving, someone else was dealing with the stop-and-go situation."
The Cochrans had been up since 4:30 a.m. Their bedtime is 8-ish. Once on the bus, "people read the paper, take naps, and rest," Bob reported. "One gal watches movies on her laptop."
While the Cochrans are getting on the bus in Santa Maria, another married couple in Lompoc--Jimmy and Barbara Huyck--is going through a similar routine. They drive to Cypress and I streets, park, and board a bus.
"We love the bus," an exuberant Barbara said. "I can sleep on the way down and back. By the time our bus turns the first corner, about 85 percent of the passengers are sleeping.
"Everyone is courteous," she said, echoing the sentiment of her fellow commuters. "Everyone respects fellow passengers. We all try not to make unnecessary noise or stay on cell phones for long conversations."
Barbara has been commuting for 18 months, and her husband for several months less. Like the Cochrans, he enjoys the financial savings and the fact that his own vehicle gets a break. Commuter camaraderie is a plus, too.
"Everyone looks out for each other," Jimmy said.
"It's fun to chat it up at the bus stops," Barbara added.
In February, an average of 182 daily round-trip passengers commuted from Santa Maria, while an average of 232 did likewise from Lompoc. Santa Maria has five commuter buses, while Lompoc has six.
The 5:15 a.m., 6 a.m., and 6:30 a.m. Santa Maria buses carry employees to Goleta's high-tech alley--Hollister Avenue--and companies like Storz (scientific instruments), Yardi (real estate software), Pacific Capital Bancorp (parent company of Santa Barbara Bank & Trust), Raytheon (defense contractor), and UC Santa Barbara. The bus is regularly full or close to full. UCSB employees who ride the Santa Maria bus have to transfer in Goleta. One UCSB employee stows his bike in the luggage compartment at the bottom of the bus, and rides from Goleta to the campus.
Two buses, not nearly as full as the others, go to Santa Barbara. The first leaves at 5:50 a.m. and the second at 6:35 a.m. Ridership on these buses tends to be more variable. Many day-trippers take the Santa Barbara buses for want of another option.
"Ridership on the buses is steadily climbing and reaching all-time highs," reported Jim Kemp, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG).
As gas prices inch up, so does bus ridership.
and back again
At 4:56 p.m., the first of the returning Clean Air buses parked in front of the Radisson, and passengers rapidly disembarked. By 5:02, roughly 50 cars had left the parking lot. Commuters wasted no time leaving the area.
Clean Air Buses are part of SBCAG's transportation program. The association manages the system with state, federal, and Measure D funds. As well as providing a convenience for workers, the buses reduce traffic congestion, air pollution, and the need for employee parking in tight-for-space urban areas.
There are buses running out of Santa Maria, Lompoc, Buellton, and Ventura. The common destination is jobs in Santa Barbara and Goleta. SBCAG co-manages the Ventura Coastal Express with Ventura's Transportation Commission.
Most of the crack-of-dawn commuters wear the casual, comfortable clothing typically associated with computer-oriented jobs, and carry backpacks, tote bags, or lunch boxes. A few are suit-and-tie guys and gals with briefcases.
Most Clean Air Bus commuters on a recent trip didn't want to give their names for this story, but volunteered thoughts about busing more than an hour to work. Cost is the biggest motivating factor.
"You save money, man," one commuter said.
A Clean Air Bus pass costs $140 a month. Monthly personal vehicle gas bills can run between $400 and $600, while monthly parking permits for some could cost around $35.
Commuting to Santa Barbara takes a big chunk out of a schedule. Riders spend two-and-a-half to three hours on a bus each day. Depending on where a person lives in Santa Maria, commute time to the Radisson can vary from five minutes to 30 or 40 or more. Most passengers disembarked within a three-to-10 minute walk from their workplace. One UCSB employee said that once he arrives in Goleta, after an hour's ride, he has to wait 10 minutes for a transfer bus to take him to the campus, consuming another 20 to 30 minutes. More than three hours of his day are eaten up by simply getting to and from work.
While riding the bus can be less stressful than driving--and far less stressful than not having a job at all--there is still stress, particularly in getting to the bus on time. Although it seems that there are always available seats, there are no reservations. Seating is on a first-come, first-served basis.
"The worst part about taking the bus is not having a car to run errands," said commuter Julia Fox, who's been commuting from Santa Maria to Goleta for more than two-and-a-half years. "But I have lots of friends at work who help me out if I need to go somewhere."
Another woman said that not having access to a bathroom was the worst part of busing to work.
No one mentioned "going green" or cutting down on air pollution as motivation to ride the bus for this story. The decision to ride seemed to be based primarily on cost, with convenience being a bonus.
Fare for a one-way ticket to Goleta and Santa Barbara is $7. Ten-trip passes are available for $50 at the SMAT office on Fairway Drive in Santa Maria. Passengers can deposit the fare in boxes, but they have to have the exact amount. Change isn't available.
Not all commuter buses are created equal. The Ventura to Santa Barbara and Goleta Coastal Express, for example, costs commuters only $2 each way. Ventura County government subsidizes the fare. The Ventura to Santa Barbara bus also operates seven days a week.
Santa Marians would also like to have weekend service, which currently doesn't exist.
"We continue to have many requests for extended service to Santa Barbara," said Kent Epperson, SBCAG's director of Traffic Solutions.
Local governments seek to relieve traffic congestion by encouraging commuter transportation that doesn't involve only one or two people in one car. They promote vanpools and carpools.
UCSB is one employer that provides vans. Jamey Wagner, program manager of Transportation Alternative Programs, reported that UCSB owns the vans used to transport Santa Marians and Lompocans.
"The primary motivation for vanpooling," Wagner said, "is to save money."
The university kicks in $21 of the cost of the monthly bus pass.
Tax law permits employers to withhold the cost of group commutes up to $110, as a pre-tax deduction. This means that about $1,300 of income earned isn't taxable if it's spent on alternative transportation.
Wagner's records show that 32 employees and/or students currently commute to UCSB from Lompoc. Five do the same from Santa Maria. The vans hold between 11 and 14 passengers, who can exchange driving for discounts on fare. Wagner said that usually two passengers agree to rotate driving, and each rides for half-price.
SBCAG's Traffic Solutions Division has a website that matches commuters with group rides in vanpools and carpools. The site allows commuters to state their needs and preferences.
Employers up and down the coast benefit from group commutes, most noticeably when it comes to parking. Some employers simply don't have adequate space for every employee to park.
Santa Barbara's Cottage Hospital, for example, is a major employer, and it's located in a residential area with narrow streets. Visitors stopping in to see patients are aware of the severe parking limitations. Cottage is so appreciative of employees who don't drive to work and contribute to an already overburdened parking situation, that it pays employees to take alternate transportation.
Employers lose some flexibility with commuting employees--such workers typically can't accommodate last minute, end-of-the-day needs or emergencies. If you have to run for the bus, you have to run for the bus. There's no other regular bus on the Santa Maria-Goleta-Santa Barbara axis, so if you miss the last Clean Air bus, you're stuck.
Santa Maria-based Chumash Casino employees have it much easier, and their commute is less expensive. The casino maintains a fleet of buses, some of which carry up to 55 passengers. Casino employees can drive to a large parking lot on Autopark Lane, off of Skyway Drive in Santa Maria, and park. The casino provides the no-cost transportation as an employee benefit. Santa Maria's city bus system has a bus stop at the same location.
The casino gains by not having to tie up hundreds of parking spaces and by consolidating the transport of workers on Highway 154, well known for wayward drivers.
Despite the pro-commuting efforts, Santa Barbara County is gearing up for a major transportation headache. The upcoming widening of Highway 101 south of Milpas in Santa Barbara is going to produce major congestion and delays, particularly at peak traffic times.
In anticipation of the difficulties, SBCAG initiated a "Curb Your Commute" program that kicked off with a well-attended information breakfast on Feb. 28 at the Biltmore Hotel in Santa Barbara. The association is encouraging employers to consider flexible working arrangements during this critical period, but buses aren't the only options.
SBCAG is also recommending telecommuting, flex-time, and compressed workweeks.
Contact freelancer Helen Ann Thomas through the executive editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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