This is a report on riding public transit in San Diego, California. It covers the Metropolitan Transportation System (MTS) including the San Diego Trolley. The MTS website is transit.511sd.com

This report does not cover the North County Transit District (NCTD), because we didn't go there. The NCTD website is gonctd.com

On January 7, 2008, my friend Claire and I spent three days in San Diego as tourists; we got around by riding MTS buses and trolleys. Our flight arrived about 9:30AM. At the air terminal, I saw a bus with a “downtown” head sign, but since I didn’t know exactly where it went, we decided to take the hotel shuttle.

San Diego is one of the few large US cities with an airport located right downtown, and with only one runway. We were told that the citizens of San Diego like it that way -- they have voted against moving the airport far away from downtown, such as out in the desert.

So it was a short trip in the hotel shuttle van to our rooms in the Holiday Inn Express in the “Old Town” part of the city.

Day 1 (arrival)

While Claire rested for a while in her room, I went out to look around the neighborhood – the Old Town Historic District. Old Town is a tourist trap, but it is very well done. There are numerous restaurants, shops and historical exhibits. Two city tour bus operations are based there. Public toilets are available. Tourists stroll in a street free of cars.

A short distance from the historic district, I found the Old Town Transit Center, with 10 scheduled bus lines, plus paratransit. I also saw a shuttle van for UCSD.

The transit center is also a commuter rail station, for the Coaster trains. The Coaster is the AMTRAK service coming down the coast from as far away as Irvine. We did not ride the Coaster.

Old Town Transit Center is near a freeway exit and there is a big parking lot, with a capacity of about 400 cars, plus an overflow area. The parking appeared to be free, with a 24 hour limit. There is a small amount of bike parking, plus bike lockers.

The benches at the bus stops are attractive – the seats look like they are made of varnished wood.

The transit center includes a convenience store and public rest rooms.

Old Town Transit Center is a major station for the San Diego Trolley. The Blue Line was established in the 1980s. The Green and Orange lines were added later. The trolley is actually a light rail system, powered from overhead electric wires.

The bright red cars are beautiful.

The typical train has three cars. Each car is an articulated unit, jointed in the middle. Inside the car, at the joint, there is a rotating platform, just like that in an articulated bus. It is not possible to cross from one car to the next, inside the car.

Each car has 4 doors on one side and 4 doors on the other. The operator sits in a compartment in the front of the first car.

As on BART cars, there is an operator compartment at both ends of the train.

San Diego Trolley runs on standard gauge rail.

I was told the trolley system got started as a shuttle service between the waterfront and downtown. This became popular, and about 1980 the system was expanded. The Green Line was added most recently.

The MTS buses are mostly made by New Flyer, based in Winnipeg, Canada.

Later in the trip, we rode two Gillig MTS buses.

I didn’t see any MTS buses made by other manufacturers. Many of the New Flyer buses were powered by natural gas.

The San Diego Trolley operates on a proof of payment (POP) basis. One just gets on and rides. When a fare inspector appears, tickets or passes must be shown. We saw only one fare inspection during our visit.

In San Diego, POP means that the interior of trains and the areas near the station platforms are “fare paid zones”. Anyone found in these zones must be ready to show a valid proof of payment. There are numerous signs warning: “Within this station, you must have a ticket or pass or be in the process of purchasing one”.

Bus riders either pay a cash fare on boarding, or show a pass to the bus driver.

After January 1, 2008, MTS stopped issuing transfers. For multiple segment trips, riders should buy a day pass ($5), which covers unlimited rides for one calendar day. There are also day passes for 1, 2, 3 and 4 days. Riders may also use monthly passes.

Here is the full fare structure for MTS buses.

Before the trip, I got on the San Diego Transit website and bought us 4-day passes ($15 each), to be mailed to me in Berkeley. The pass was a pocket-sized card showing a calendar, with the four days of our visit punched out.

Claire found me wandering in Old Town, and we went to lunch at the Crossroads Café, near the station and the big CalTrans building. It was lunch time; some CalTrans workers were playing cards at one of the restaurant tables.

After lunch, we boarded a Green Line trolley, heading to Santee. The Green Line starts at Old Town. This page gives a map of the trolley system. Our 4-day passes were good on both buses and trolleys.

Our trolley train had 3 cars, which is typical. The cars are an eye-catching red. Each car has four doors, two on each side.

A step extends conveniently when a door opens. A rider climbs three steps to board. The doors are usually opened by the operator when the train stops at a station. If a door is closed, a rider can open it by pushing a button on the side of the car. Inside the car, there’s another door-opening button. Normally, riders find the doors are open when needed.

Wheelchairs board at the front of the lead car. The operator has to emerge from his cabin to operate the lift, which is like the lifts on most buses. There is a parking space for wheelchairs just behind the operator cab.

Seating in the trolley cars is in groups of four 2-person seats, in two pairs facing each other, seating 8 riders per group. The seats are comfortable, padded with a leather-like covering. There are three seat-groups in the interior of a car segment, between door pairs. Another group is in the front, and there’s one more group in the rear. There are no other seats, and a car has two articulated segments, so one trolley car can carry 2 x 5 x 8 = 80 seated riders. The seat groups nearest the doors are marked to give priority to seniors and disabled. There are plenty of grab-bars for standees.

Signs are in English and Spanish. Some, but not all, of the voice announcements are repeated in Spanish.

At the beginning of our trip, we heard a voice announcement telling us that no eating is allowed in the cars and there is no smoking. Also, riders should not put their feet up on the opposite seat. Signs forbid smoking “within 25 feet of stations, stops or other transit facilities”.

Inside each car, there is a passenger emergency intercom, for communicating with the train operator.

Our train rolled out of Old Town and passed a golf course. After that, there was a stop at the Fashion Valley shopping center, where there is a Bloomingdale’s and a JC Penney’s. There was a huge parking lot in the shopping center.

Another stop was at the QualComm Stadium at AT&T Park In the parking lot, we saw trash littered from recent tailgate parties.

Most of the trolley routes are at ground level. On the Green Line, near the Grantville Station, the tracks are up on a hillside, paralleling a freeway. The only underground station I saw was at the SDSU Transit Center. In the fast sections, the trolley speed is about the same as that of the cars on the freeway. There is not much in the way of barriers along the tracks. When the trolley crosses a road, there’s a standard railway crossing, with bells, lights and bar gates. The trolley is elevated when it crosses a freeway. We got off at Grossmont Town Center, to switch to the Orange Line. This would take us downtown where we would switch to the Blue Line, completing a circle back to Old Town.

All the stations had ticket-vending machines. I noticed that the display on top of some of them warned that no debit cards would be accepted. In some places, the same sign said no credit cards were accepted. We talked with a fellow rider who said that the restrictions may be due to local vandalism.

All machines accepted coins and bills. We ran through the ticket-purchase process on a machine at Grossmont. It seemed pretty simple. We cancelled before actually paying for a ticket.

There’s a panel on the front of the machine labeled smart card. It was unclear what this was for. On some of the buses, there was what looked like a Smart Card reader (like those for TransLink). Later in the trip, we talked with a line supervisor, who told us that MTS is implementing a “Compass Card”. Initially, it will only be used by MTS employees, but later on there are plans for introducing a smart card for riders to pay their fare.

On the Orange Line, the trolley goes down the middle of Commercial Street. The train moves more slowly in these sections. Street parking was available along the curb on both sides of the street. At one point, there were two traffic lanes on the left (at least 16 feet wide) and one traffic lane on the right.

The trolley ran on one track in the middle. At most trolley stations, one may freely cross the tracks from one side to the other. Passengers are warned to stay back of the yellow strips along the tracks. As it approaches, the trolley sounds a distinctive horn – a warbling “braaaaaaaaak!

Transit security appeared to be light. I saw police standing around in some stations. Except for fare inspections, I didn’t see police in the trolley cars.

We got off downtown at 12th and Imperial to transfer to the Blue Line. There was a shop there where one could purchase trolley passes – and quite a number of other things too.

While waiting, we saw a trolley train disengage cars. The coupling just opened, evidently under remote control, and one of the cars rolled away.

Back in Old Town, we had an excellent seafood meal at the “Café Pacifica” restaurant. Afterward, we strolled around the shops, on a car-free street We noticed round medallions set into the concrete of the sidewalk, marking a grave. Later, we learned that the Old Town Historical District had been built over an old graveyard, some of which is visible today. Originally, there were 477 graves. The streets and sidewalks were built over gravesites. In recent times, high tech equipment was used to locate the paved-over graves, and the medallions were put in to mark their locations. In some cases, people were able to identify graves of their ancestors, and those graves were moved.

Day 2 - Tour Bus

The next morning, the first of the two full days in our visit, we decided to take a city tour. Two tour companies were operating out of Old Town during our visit. One featured motorized trolley buses with tires. We chose the one offering a double-decker British bus. Only about 8 other tourists were aboard – January is definitely “low season” in San Diego, even though the weather was very pleasant. The driver, a young lady who introduced herself as Millie, expertly handled the bus, operating the right-hand drive while giving her spiel. (During the high season, another person does the talking) On leaving Old Town, we passed the Marine Corps boot camp base, which trains new Marines in the western half of the country. San Diego has always been a big military town. The USMC likes being able to operate their 21-day boot camp year-round.

We passed the Santa Fe rail depot, a classic structure. A trolley station is conveniently located nearby.

We saw the harbor, including the few remaining boats of the tuna fleet.

Some years ago, downtown and waterfront San Diego was a very rough and dirty district. Today, it is beautiful and business is thriving. We passed the convention center, which does big business year-round. We were told that, in August, the comic book convention is a lot of fun – people go about dressed as characters from comic strips.

Our bus tour was diverted (twice) to pick up more tourists who had arrived on a cruise ship -- Monarch of the Seas, which goes down the Mexican coast every Tuesday.

While waiting, Claire and I amused ourselves by writing down the names we saw on the side of the taxis. We saw “Abe’s Cab”, "Yeha Cab", “Israel Cab”, “Kurd Cab”, "Eritrean Cab", "Miracle Cab", "Ark Cab", "Royal Cab", "HHH Cab", “American Cab”, "Cool Cab" and even “Transit Cab” (the last one runs on natural gas). In San Diego, one can choose a cab to suit one’s ethnic, political or esthetic preferences.

Claire asked our tour guide if San Diego has any building height limits (a current focus of dispute in Berkeley). We were told that the limit is 400 feet, and that’s imposed because of a nearby military airfield, which might go active again someday. Even at today's commercial airport, some planes come in surprisingly low over downtown.

We got off the tourist bus at the San Diego Zoo. The zoo visit was well worth the price of admission ($49 for both of us). We saw the pandas, monkeys and birds. We missed the tigers and the meerkats. At one point there was a special showing of selected animals, which were led out in front of the audience by trainers. There was a long, lean African cat, and an arctic wolf, who was stimulated to howl when the trainer told the audience to howl.

There was a bus ride available within the zoo park, but we didn’t take it. The one bit of zoo transit we did ride was the aerial cable cars down from high point back to the entrance (fare $3 each).

On departing the zoo, we had expected to “hop on” the tour bus again, but for some reason, this wasn’t allowed. So we rode public transit. Claire asked a nice taxi driver where the bus stop was. We went to the MTS #7 bus stop on Park Street, just outside the zoo entrance. We got on and rode to where we switched to another bus which took us to the local Whole Foods Market, where we bought some healthy food, and ate some of it at the market. We then caught a #10 bus back to Old Town.

Day 3 - the Bay

The next day, we took a trolley to the waterfront, getting off near the Santa Fe Depot.

We bought round-trip tickets ($6 each) on the ferry to Coronado Island. During the ride, we had a nice conversation with a young man whose parents were in the Navy. San Diego is a major Navy town. The Navy likes the deep harbor (250 feet in the middle) and the fine weather.

He pointed out the nuclear powered aircraft carrier USS Nimitz. During the previous day’s tourist bus trip, we saw the other Nimitz-class carrier based in San Diego, the USS Ronald Reagan, just as it was departing. An older carrier, the USS Midway, is now a museum in the docks area.

Our friend said he often rides the ferry, and sometimes takes the bus over the soaring Coronado Bridge. Downtown, he rides a skateboard.

Coronado Island is popular with tourists and retirees. One guy said he comes there every year in his RV, to spend the winter. The weather was sunny and warm, even in early January. There was an area of shops at the ferry dock. We took an MTS bus to the famous Hotel Del Coronado. We looked at the atrium garden, visited some shops and walked on the beautiful beach. About every 10 minutes, a Navy helicopter, or some other aircraft, would pass overhead.

At the hotel bus stop, there was a sign “I love a clean San Diego County Inc.” The stop was adopted by the association of Coronado beach resorts. Several murals were on nearby walls.

Back in waterfront San Diego, we boarded a #2 bus, which turned out to be an old Gillig. We were on the wrong side of the street and found we’d boarded at the last stop, but the driver was very nice; he saw we were tourists with a 4-day pass and let us ride around to go the direction we wanted.

The #2 was a fairly long bus ride, taking us through various kinds of neighborhoods, with bungalows and victorians. At one place there was an arch over the road. Our driver was especially competent and nice. He got out to help a lady load her stroller, politely asking her to first remove the child. A guy on crutches asked for the lift. While it was deployed, a scruffy bum objected to the lift blocking his sidewalk.

The bum was an exception. In our experience, people in San Diego were especially friendly and helpful. I was thinking of sending in a commendation for our driver; but I noticed that MTS shoulder patches do not show an operator ID number like AC Transit patches do.

There were not many bus shelters in San Diego, probably because of the year-round nice weather. I also did not see many stops showing a bus schedule. At one stop, instead of bus benches, there were seat cubes.

Trolley to Mexico

After lunch at a Mexican restaurant, we decided to go to Mexico. We took a bus to a trolley station where we boarded a Blue Line to San Ysidro, which is the US town opposite Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico. It was about 5pm -- rush hour. The train was packed full. We had to stand for a while, until some seats became free. There were plenty of places to hold on while standing. After we were seated, we had a conversation with a pleasant young man who was bound for Chula Vista. He pointed out the Navy installations in National City, where there is a huge base. Some people got off at the stations south of Chula Vista, but most of the riders were bound for the border.

About 5:30, fare inspectors boarded the train. They were uniformed police, boarding all the cars at once. In English and Spanish, they called out for tickets and passes. The inspectors quickly worked through the crowd and then left the train. I didn’t see any violators get caught.

About 5:40, the trolley reached the end of the line, and everyone got off. Nearly everyone strode toward a concrete structure and began to ascend a ramp. Most of the people appeared to be returning to Mexico after working in the US during the day. There wasn’t much to see at the trolley station. There was a MacDonalds and some trinket shops. A bus was available going to Tijuana, but few were boarding it.

We joined the crowd of pedestrians crossing the border. The ramp went over the lanes of cars coming both ways over the border. Vehicle traffic was heavy; the US inspectors were busy. Most cars quickly went on through; some pulled aside into an inspection area. There was a place where a car from the US could do a U-turn if it didn’t want to enter Mexico. We paused at the top of the bridge, where the down ramp began. We could see the Mexican port of entry – a sign above one lane said “Nada de Declarer”. At the bridge exit down at street level, people passed through a turnstile; we could hear the repeated clicking of the gate. They then walked toward the Mexican inspectors. Not having our passports, we didn’t enter Mexico (the bridge is entirely within the US). After watching the border scene for a while, we turned around, walked back over the bridge and descended the ramp to return to the trolley station.

Then we got on the Blue Line trolley and rode north in the night, all the way to Old Town. Our train was nearly empty as it left the border, but more people boarded along the way. The Blue Line has plenty of riders.

Special Treatment by MTS

Claire had identified a restaurant for dinner, near Old Town. I had used the MTS website to determine which bus we should take. Somehow, I got it wrong. I thought we should board the #7, when the correct bus was the #35. Claire asked bus drivers for information, and by the time we got clear on what we should do, the #35 had departed. But an MTS line supervisor very kindly took us to the restaurant in her official truck – special treatment for transit-oriented tourists!

After the meal, we boarded a #35 back to Old Town and returned to the motel.

Day 4 (departure)

That was the end of our transit-oriented trip. The next morning, we had to catch an early plane, and the bus to the airport didn’t run then, so we took a taxi. Our flight went to Los Angeles where we caught a flight to Oakland.

At Oakland airport, we caught Air BART to the Coliseum station. I rode a Richmond train to downtown Berkeley, where I caught a good old AC Transit #51 bus which took me home.