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I recently had a dreaded first-flight out/last-flight back business trip scheduled to San Diego. My alarm was set for 4am, my bag was packed and all I had to do was roll out of bed, take a shower and get to the airport by 5am. Because I live south of downtown it would have been possible for me to take either of the first 2 southbound Link trips and get to the airport in time for my flight. But I was concerned about the possibility of a late flight arriving back in Seattle after the last Link trip, so I chose to drive to the airport. At 430am traffic is very light and the drive to the airport took about the same amount of time it would have taken to walk to the Link station. Also, the $28 all-day parking fee is less than what a taxi would cost at 1am.

Although I chose to forego the public transit option in Seattle, I did plan to use public transit from the San Diego airport to downtown San Diego. Lindbergh Field is less than 2.5 miles from downtown so it’s pretty easy to get from the airport to downtown via public transit: Route 992 runs all day at mostly 15 minute headways, the trip takes about 12 minutes, the fare is $2.25 and the stops are right outside each airport terminal. San Diego’s Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) also sells an all-day pass for $5, but it is only available with a Compass Card (the MTS equivalent of ORCA, except that a Compass Card costs $2). The problem is that there aren’t any TVMs at any of the airport terminals that I could find that would issue a Compass Card. It is possible to buy a paper all-day pass on a bus, but it costs $7 and doesn’t provide an official, reusable plastic Compass Card. I know I will be making several more trips to San Diego and having a Compass Card will be handy, so I paid $2.25 for the trip to downtown and bought a Compass Card at a TVM in America Plaza with an all-day pass for an additional $7. Two day ($9) and three day ($12) passes are also available at the TVMs with a Compass Card.

My expectation when I left home at 430am was a long day of work ahead in San Diego; but, thanks to my associates, there was actually very little work that I had to deal with once I arrived in town. In fact, by lunchtime, I was done with my work day and I had over 8 hours to kill before my return flight. So I decided to do a little San Diego sightseeing courtesy of MTS and my Compass Card. My first planned expedition was to take a grand circle trip of the area via the Green and Orange Lines of the San Diego Trolleys. Just to clarify, what San Diego calls a trolley is what Seattle calls light rail and there are no electric powered, rubber tired transit coaches in San Diego. Unfortunately, the Green Line offers very little scenery and serves mostly shopping malls, a football stadium and stations located next to freeways. So I abandoned my grand circle plan at San Diego State University station and walked around the nearby business district hoping to find something equivalent to the U District in Seattle. No luck with that either, so I returned to the SDSU TC and looked for a bus to somewhere else. The 215 Rapid seemed to be the best bet. The 215 Rapid looked like a BRT route to downtown San Diego via Balboa Park. In reality, the 215 Rapid is a watered down version of Metro’s RapidRide service: the 215 makes fewer stops and the stations are distinct, bigger and better than a regular MTS bus stop, but no off-board payment is available and the buses aren’t noticeably different from other MTS coaches. The 215 also travels a route that is pretty equivalent to Aurora Avenue between SDSU and Balboa Park. So I abandoned the 215 at Balboa Park.

Getting off at Balboa Park was an excellent idea. I spent a couple of hours enjoying the sunshine and I ventured into the Model Railroad Museum for a tour. I know model railroading isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time, but if you have any interest in model trains, you must take trip/pilgrimage to the Balboa Park Museum. I won’t go into a long review of the museum, but it’s a 5 star experience for anyone who might be interested in model railroading.

After I left Balboa Park I didn’t have a definite plan for the next few hours, but I was hungry so I decided to hunt for another bus and hopefully take it somewhere interesting (other than downtown). The first bus stop I encountered didn’t have any schedule or precise destination information, but it did have a stop number and signage that said “text stop number 12757 to 46687” for schedule information. Within seconds the stop schedule information was texted back to my phone. And that was pretty much how I spent the rest of my day until I caught the 992 back to the airport.

Overall, riding transit in San Diego is pretty easy and economical. Most routes are on 15 minutes or better headways. Every bus I rode was well maintained and clean. The drivers were friendly and the network is relatively easy to figure out for a visitor. Fares are $2.25 for regular buses and trolleys, $2.50 for express routes and $5.00 for peak hour long distance trippers. On the bus stop signs the fare for each route is clearly displayed and every bus has a dash board sign with the appropriate fare. The Compass Card has eliminated the need for paper transfers. The trolleys are proof-of-payment and there is very heavy enforcement during rush hour. Every platform had 2-4 uniformed FEOs checking just about every passenger which seemed quite heavy-handed and likely not very cost effective.

If you are planning a trip to San Diego, I highly recommend buying a Compass Card and forgetting about the rental car.

One Reply to “Transit Day in San Diego”

  1. I’ve visited San Diego without a car. It actually works quite well, as long as your destinations are wtthin about 5 miles of the Downtown core. Further out, service starts to get spotty. But for the central areas such as Downtown, Little Italy, Old Town, Pacific Beach, Hillcrest, North Park, Balboa Park and the Zoo, it’s fine. Not all these areas are served by the Trolley, but they do have major bus lines.

    Unless they’ve changed it recently, transit service is much better on weekdays than weekends. A lot of routes than run every 15 minutes during the week go to 20-30 minute service on the weekend. So if you’ve got a choice, go on weekdays.

    I definitely agree about the Compass Card. You can buy a 1, 2, 3, or 4 day pass, so you can buy just the amount you want.

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