Marin's Public Bus System

On any given weekday, nearly 200 public buses crisscross Marin County. Have you ever ridden in one? If you are like me, your answer will be, “No, buses intimidate me.” Or, “I never know where they’re going.” Or, “How do you pay the fare?”

Lately, I’ve been riding the bus in Marin. That first time can be awkward. However, given time, you will work out the kinks.

 Last Friday, I took a #19 from Tiburon to our office in Sausalito. It was a one-transfer, 35-minute commute (by car, it’s 20 minutes; by bike, 45 minutes). The bus was on time, the driver friendly and the ride smooth. At most, eight people were aboard the 48-passenger bus.

An hour later, I caught a #22 on Bridgeway heading for an interview in San Rafael. This time there were no transfers and again the bus was on time. We turned off the freeway at Corte Madera’s Town Center and passed through downtown Larkspur, Ross, San Anselmo and San Rafael before reaching the Transit Center alongside 101. This journey took an hour (by car, including parking, this would take 25 minutes) and at its most crowded 18 people were on board, most of them College of Marin students.

After my interview (more on that later), and feeling bus-savvy, I took a #23 to visit an artist in Fairfax, then a #29 to San Anselmo to buy a camera. I was back at the Transit Center by 4 p.m. and one of those big articulated buses—the kind with the accordion hinge in its middle—was about to leave. I jumped aboard. “This is a number 36 bus,” the driver announced as we entered the freeway. “It’s an express.” Only eight of us were on board and, after a 12-minute ride (we hit 65 mph on the freeway), I got off at the Marin City transfer point. This time, for the first time, there was a 20-minute wait before a #10 arrived. Within minutes, I was back in Sausalito.

Suburban buses are a complicated proposition. Everyone wants to go from exactly where they are to exactly where they want to be—and that’s impossible. Marin Transit’s (marintransit.org) bus schedule, listing 47 routes both within Marin and to San Francisco, Santa Rosa and the Richmond BART station, is more than 80 pages of fine print, and still it does not list every stop.

Here’s the good news: because I’m a senior and I bought a one-day pass, my 30 miles of traveling throughout Marin cost only $2.50. Single fares within Marin are $2 for adults; $1 for seniors and students. The not-so-good news: except for routes going into and out of the Canal community and a few lines in the county’s midsection, Marin’s buses are mostly an under-utilized asset. Rarely on my travels was a bus even half full.

My San Rafael interview was with David Rzepinski (pronounced Ra-pin-ski), Marin Transit’s congenial general manager. He said about 12,500 passengers ride Marin Transit's  buses every weekday. The district operates on a $28 million budget, meaning each ride figuratively costs about $9. Rzepinski recognizes his core market is one of low-income riders, seniors and students.

“Marin’s buses are mostly supported by sales and property taxes,” he said. “Approximately 20 percent of our costs are covered by fares.” Marin Transit does not own most of the buses it uses (depending on size and type, a bus costs between $450,000 and $700,000, paid mostly through state and federal grants). “Almost all our service is contracted out to the Golden Gate Transit District,” Rzepinski said.

Also operating under a contract is Whistlestop Wheels (thewhistlestop.org/transportation), a 55-mini bus operation that annually transports 105,000 seniors and disabled persons at normal fares from their curb to medical appointments, stores  and visits with friends. Another mini bus contracted service is the West Marin Stagecoach (marintransit.org/stage). “It takes you to Bolinas, Inverness or Point Reyes Station and back—with hiker-friendly stops en route—in about the time it takes to personally make the drive,” Rzepinski said.

Marin Transit, soon to be 50 years old, can inexpensively get you from (near) where you are to (near) where you want to be—virtually anywhere in the Bay Area. As with life, it is all a matter of timing. Try it once and you’ll be a believer. That’s my point of view. What’s yours?

E-mail jwood@marinmagazine.com