Friday, May 25, 2012

Public transportation report: to Palo Alto and back

(I'm way behind on trip & talk reports.  Here's a simple one.)

I wanted to go see a talk - actually, two - in Silicon Valley this week, using public transportation, so I researched & tried it.  In short: if your needs match what the system has available - if you have a midafternoon event, or if you can stay overnight - then the trip (running about $50 one way) would be delightful, simple & streamlined.  But if not, you're the one who'll need to make adjustments.

One talk was at noon; the other was in late afternoon, ending at 5.  Both were on campus at Stanford, which is the epitome of sprawl; which adds an extra leg (via bike or free campus shuttle) to the trip.

My intent: drive to Auburn (30m), take AmTrak's Capitol Corridor train to Richmond (2h30m), then BART to Millbrae (1h10m), then CalTrain to Palo Alto (30m), then bike or shuttle to the talk at Stanford; then reverse.
(If there's a way to do the GV-to-Auburn leg by mass transit, coordinating with the train, I don't know it.)

But getting to the noon talk in time looked problematic - taking the 6:30am train from Auburn might actually get you to Palo Alto in plenty of time (11;03 am), but each connection had only about 2 minutes leeway. So I bailed on that talk.

For the late-afternoon talk, getting home with a post-5pm start seemed equally hair-thin & stressful, as it's heavily constrained on the AmTrak end - you need to be at Richmond by 7:15pm for the last train(+bus?) to Auburn, and given travel times, this means you'd need to board the Palo Alto train (walking under the tracks to reach the far side) by 5:24pm. 

Since later AmTrak trains do run, but terminate at Sacramento, I decided to drive to Sac and take the train from there, albeit with some late-night parking lot trepidation. 

To reach the train station, you take 80, then 5 South to downtown; the station is at 5th & I St near Old Town Sacramento.   And it has extensive parking; of which, yesterday, half was packed, half was closed off, and other options were iffy.

So I tried driving to the next stop, in Davis at 840 2nd St.(take the Richards Blvd N. exit)  There, the parking lot turned out to be a) full and b) by permit only.  Signs directed us to a parking lot on 4th St, which - at the lot itself, at least - is surprisingly coy about giving the price.

So I ended up gnashing my hair, pulling my teeth, & skipping the AmTrak leg altogether, and - not knowing/trusting the Richmond parking arrangements - drove down to the BART North Berkeley station.  Where it turned out the parking lots were full.  Fortunately someone pointed out a pair of discontiguous lots to the south, on either side of Franklin St. north of Virginia, and the far one had space.  Parked there, noted spot #, walked to BART Station (~5 min.), bought BART ticket, went in, used ticket to validate $1 parking, and took the Millbrae train.

From there it was uneventful.  At Millbrae we take stairs up & (streetward) over the BART track & downstairs to Platform 5 for the CalTrain track; this train runs about once an hour around midday, and came 10 min. later. Caltrain tickets are sold at simple automated kiosks, of which there are plenty; it's best to have near exact change since dollar change is returned as the quarter-sized gold coins.

The train reached Palo Alto several minutes late, at 12:10; the Stanford shuttle was waiting, and delivered us to the tip of the Loop at 12:16.  (From there I spent several hours as tourist, shopper, and directionally-challenged person.)

After the talk, I didn't plan ahead for where to take the shuttle so missed the 5:24 CalTrain; ended up reaching my car in North Berkeley around 7:45, and got home in GV around 10:30pm.  It's a long day.

Taking a bike: it would be doable if you avoid rush hour.  Both AmTrack and CalTrain allow bikes - CalTrain has special stable-like "bike cars" for parking them, with seating above; and BART allows them except on specified legs during rush hour.  The rush hour ban means you couldn't manage the post-5pm multi-leg trip home if you took a bike with you.

Price: The entire trip would cost about $100: AmTrak round trip from Auburn is about $70; and round trips for BART (Richmond-Millbrae) and CalTrain (Millbrae-Palo Alto) are around $10 each.  I think you can buy discounted BART tickets while on the AmTrak train itself, which would save both (stressful train-changing) time and money.

No photos, sorry. I'll bring the camera if I go again.  (The disadvantage of starting at an ungodly hour - particularly with a pre-existing sleep deficit - is that by midafternoon your body may badly want its lost rest.  Extreme caffeine prophylaxis is a very good idea, as bleary-eyed listening & conversation don't help make the trip worthwhile. )

A postscript recommendation:
Parents of Stanford students need to pound into their kids' heads, to wear helmets.  Everyone was biking, and 95% went bare-headed.  What is the rate of head injuries at Stanford (and Davis), compared to more compact campuses?

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