Saturday, July 19, 2008

Bus transit in California's Sierra Nevada

They say that buses are only practical in higher-density urban areas, right? Well, maybe not; over the past few weeks I've seen a lot of buses in action far from any urban area, in California's Eastern and Central Sierra. I've also seen areas in Idaho that were even more remote, and where no transit went at all, but some discussion of lower-density areas where current transit technology is (relatively) viable is still in order.

I just returned from a 17-day family vacation. We did whitewater rafting, swimming, biking, hiking, volcanic crater exploration, miscellaneous environmental consciousness raising for the kids, and many other mountain activities for young and old. The weather was generally cooler than here in the flatlands, especially at night, though we did get a few hot days, but we could always escape the heat one way or another.

Our longest stop on this two-thousand mile odyssey was in Mammoth Lakes, CA, in the Eastern Sierra. Mammoth has a population of about 7,000, though it fluctuates depending on season, as it's a resort town. We weren't there during the peak ski season, of course, but Mammoth Lakes has been developing summer activities in recent years, with fishing and mountain biking the chief draw.

Mammoth Lakes is served by the Eastern Sierra Transit Authority, both in town and to/from nearby towns (which are at least 30 miles away). Nearly everyone arrives in Mammoth Lakes by SUV, as it's a high-dollar destination for mostly Southern Californians despite being a five-hour drive from Los Angeles. My wife has been visiting Mammoth Lakes since she was a girl, when it wasn't so expensive as it is now. Nonetheless, its in-town bus service is used by many during the summer on four regular routes, two of which terminate at destinations higher up the mountain and several miles out of town, one at the ski lodge. Most Mammoth Lakes buses have a nostalgic-looking trolley appearance, and bicyclists going to the ski lodge are the only people who get charged a fare. One route ran right past our condo.

I'd really hoped to use one of these buses during my week in Mammoth Lakes, but the schedule never quite worked out, as the bus past our condo only ran once an hour, and since we'd brought bikes on our trip, all my 1-2 mile trips into town (and many of those outside it) were more conveniently served by bicycling than by waiting for a scheduled bus. My wife managed one short bus ride, however, from the in-town route that ran every 15 minutes to its terminus 1 mile away from our condo. She biked the rest of the way.

One of the chief attractions of these buses was that the ones going to the ski lodge pulled a trailer that looked as though it could carry about 20 bikes. The ski lodge was the center of mountain biking activity, with a connection to the gondola ferrying passengers to the top of Mammoth Mountain (11,053'). Bike paths honeycomb the slopes, plus one alongside the road between the ski lodge and the town below that I took my two sons on: I biked up 800' to the ski lodge (at 8900') while the rest of my family piled into our minivan to meet me there. We then rode the gondola to the top of the mountain for lunch, then the kids played in some leftover snow at the summit. Later, we rode the gondola back down to the ski lodge, and my sons and I took the mountain bike trail back into town while my wife and younger daughter drove back. We might've used the bus, but the cost of three day permits for that big bike trailer was significantly higher than driving one round trip.

I also saw a few buses heading from Mammoth Lakes to Yosemite, operated by the Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System (YARTS). These were fairly expensive, especially for the kids, so rather than use one to get to Yosemite we made Yosemite an extended stop on our way back to Seattle instead. Yosemite has its own network of buses, which operate in some areas of Yosemite Valley where cars are prohibited. Again, I got close to using one, but the kids were having way too much fun on their bike adventures to substitute the paler experience of a bus ride. There were also open-air tour buses in Yosemite Valley, complete with guides, which looked like a great way to see the jaw-dropping sights there, but I've probably seen/heard most of what those guides had to say 20 years ago when I used to haunt this place on skipacking trips. Maybe when the kids are older.

As a regular bus rider user in a major urban area I hear a lot of media talk about how some sorts of transit are suitable in some areas and not in others, and that at least a medium urban density is required for economic operation of a transit network, but as shown by my experience in Mammoth Lakes and Yosemite this month, that ain't necessarily so. Public transit is subsidized to a greater or lesser extent everywhere in the United States, but some systems are closer to paying their own way than others. King County Metro only gets about 20% of its operating costs from fares with the rest subsidized, but some networks, particularly in areas frequented by tourists, can charge more for fares and still be close to a profitable operating margin. The Seattle Center Monorail operated profitably for many years by mostly catering to a tourist ridership, and I must assume that YARTS does the same now, but these are privately run, with relatively high fares. The Morgantown PRT (Personal Rapid Transit), serving the campus of West Virginia University, may be one of the best examples of a public (or at least semi-public) transportation system that operates at close to profitability: its system manager told me two years ago in a phone conversation that his system recovers more than 50% of its operating costs from fares alone, with the fare just 50¢. And this despite construction debt for that system that is far higher than it should have been due to Nixonian bungling while that system was being designed in the early 1970s.

I'm really looking forward to the opening of the PRT system at London's Heathrow Airport next year ... it might just herald a revolution in how people and goods move, all around the globe, promising far more cost-effective and energy-efficient transportation than any currently operating alternative.