My First Ride on SamTrans EPX Bus From East Palo Alto to SFO Airport

I took the new SamTrans EPX bus from East Palo Alto to SFO. It took 1 hour and cost $2.05, a nice alternative to paying for a 25-minute, $45 Uber ride.

On Friday, February 16, 2024, I took the new SamTrans EPX (express) bus from East Palo Alto to SFO Airport for the first time. The new bus route had just launched last week on Monday, February 12, 2024, and I had been tracking it for a couple of years now as it was a later phase implementation of the Reimagine SamTrans plan.

SamTrans EPX Route (Source)

Walking to EPX

From where I live in East Palo Alto, it was around a 12 minute, 0.5 mile walk to the stop at Bay Rd & University Ave. I used the Transit app to try to time the EPX's last scheduled pick up in EPA at 7:02pm. This bus did not have its live tracker on until around 2 or 3 minutes before pick up, which made me want to leave earlier in case the bus were to arrive before its scheduled time.

It's not a walk that I would do otherwise because it is dark and I am walking along undeveloped large parcels of land, such as Four Corners on the northeast corner of University Ave & Bay Rd. I pass by a couple of people walking, and I am worried that I could be robbed or attacked by a stranger. Near Bay Rd & Clarke Ave, there are street lights that are broken / off (I will report that to now).

Broken streetlights on Bay Rd near Bay Rd & Clarke Ave. The set of lights (not pictured) on the other side of the road are also out. This makes me feel less safe, especially given that the cars parked on the side of the road are blocking the view of the sidewalk in case anything were to happen to me while walking.
With my luggage, I am standing at the northeast corner of University Ave & Bay Rd, waiting to cross to get to the stop in front of McDonald's along Bay Rd.
I arrive at the EPX stop in front of McDonald's. I do not feel safe standing at the bus stop, especially as carrying a luggage makes me feel like I am more likely to be a target of theft.

I feel safer waiting in front of McDonald's entrance where it is very brightly lit.

Getting on EPX

After waiting for around 10 minutes, the EPX arrives roughly on time. The woman waiting at the bus stop got on the 296 which arrived a couple minutes before the EPX.

I am the only one on the bus. I took this photo at 7:05pm and the bus was scheduled to arrive at 7:02pm. That implies the bus arrived at around 7:04pm, which is pretty good. Only 2 minutes behind.

Like other SamTrans routes I have taken, I tap my Clipper Card and find a seat. I am the only one on the bus.

Riding on EPX

After a couple minutes, I have the sense that I will be the only one on the bus for a while, so I leave my belongings at my seat and walk up to the front to chat with the bus driver.

Here are some photos that I took while standing at the front of the bus.

Total time to get to Redwood City Caltrain from Bay Rd & University Ave: 33 minutes. By comparison, an Uber ride from Bay Rd & University Ave to SFO would be around 25 minutes (accounting already for some traffic).

After picking up 2 passengers (now I am not the only one on the bus), the EPX starts heading towards the Whipple Ave Highway 101 entrance. Along the way to Whipple Ave, there is another stop and we pick up 1 more rider. That makes a total of 4 riders (myself included) who will now go straight shot to SFO Rental Car AirTrain station. The bus driver tells me he is impressed that someone got on at the Veterans Blvd stop between Convention Way and Brewster Ave. This is the 5th day of the EPX route being active, and this is the first person who has gotten on at this stop. The bus driver can tell that word about the route is getting out. I reply that this person getting on at this last stop before Highway 101 has the best ride of all of us, because he gets a straight shot on the Highway 101 Express lane from Redwood City to SFO (rental car AirTrain station); unlike me, he does not have to wait through 39 minutes of local routes. The screenshot below was taken at 7:44pm, which means I have been on the bus for 39 minutes now.

Screenshot from Transit app of the last local stop on Veterans Ave between Convention Way & Brewster Ave.
By 7:50pm (45 minutes into my ride), the EPX is on Highway 101 and moving lanes to the left to get to the express lane.
Once in the Express Lane, this is a very smooth, fast ride. This photo is taken at 7:56pm at Burlingame Gardens. 

Getting Off EPX

I get off the bus and take this photo at 8:04pm. I have officially gotten from University Ave & Bay Rd to SFO Rental Car AirTrain station in less than 1 hour: 59 minutes to be exact!

One other person got off the bus with me at SFO and also walks in the direction of AirTrain like I do. This other person does not have a luggage though - only a backpack - so I have a feeling that they may be going to the rental car station or that they may be an employee at SFO.

This also implies that the remaining 2 are going to the next (last) stop at San Bruno BART.

Since the bus got on Highway 101 at 7:50pm, this breaks down to 45 minutes on local roads and 14 minutes on Highway 101. The EPX took 3x more time to go 1/4 of the distance. In other words, the last segment (3/4 of distance) covered 3x the distance in 1/3 the time. The highway segment went 3 * 3 = 9 times faster than the local segment. I'm not surprised by this, given that we are on the freeway going 65mph max (actually it is 61 or 62, the bus driver tells me, as the natural gas powered buses top out at 61 or 62mph, whereas electric buses top out at 65 mph).

Getting from EPX to SFO

Now I walk around the corner to the escalators which take me up to the SFO Rental Car AirTrain station platform. By 8:07pm I am on the AirTrain. The automated AirTrain runs every 5 minutes, and I happened to make the one right as the doors were closing. Impressively, this means that I got from the EPX bus stop onto the AirTrain in 3 minutes!

I don't have photo evidence, but around 8:20pm I get off the AirTrain at Terminal 3 AirTrain station. So from door to door, I have gotten from Bay Rd & University Ave in EPA to Terminal 3 in 1 hour and 15 minutes, for $2.05 (AirTrain is free, just $2.05 for SamTrans EPX). By comparison, an Uber would have gotten me to Terminal 3 door in around 25 minutes for $45.

Community Excitement

While I was on the AirTrain, I made a post into the East Palo Alto Neighbors Facebook group about taking the new EPX for $2.05. The next day, the Facebook group admin Mark Dinan (who also happens to be a cofounder of this blog) called me to tell me he has never seen a post get so much engagement: 377 likes and 37 comments. "People are really loving this new bus," he says. Today when I checked the Facebook post (today is Monday, February 19, 2.5 days since I made the post) it had 588 likes and 53 comments.

This is very exciting for me to see because I have sensed that EPA has a culture of having cars. Of course, some people take the bus - particularly those who don't have cars - but I have rarely seen the community so excited about a new bus route. My take on this is that getting to the airport is a very universal experience, even for those who may not have the need or money to fly often. But at some point, every person has to take a flight, and they all have to pay the same $45 or more Uber/Lyft rideshare fee, unless someone can give them a ride (which substitutes money for time costs). Having the option to take a bus to SFO can feel very liberating. It also feels like the county cares about East Palo Alto enough to want to introduce a new express bus route - one of its first express routes - that connects our community to San Francisco Airport (and San Bruno BART).

Let me share some comments I have seen on my Facebook post:

  • "Great news could expand that service to Central valley for commuters"
  • "Great news!"
  • "Now I know how long it will be taking me one trip to the city."
  • "Thank you I'm going to look up the schedules now."
  • "Wow the price it's amazing!!!"
  • OMG! A Godsend! I have a flight next month. I have no issue with the 1 hour time. I think I can get a neighbor to take me to the bus stop. Thank you so much. This is a HUGE money saver."
  • "Is there a place for luggage?"
  • "Price is great, but a rideshare gets you exactly where you want to be, about twice as fast right? With the bus you have to figure out how to get to your gate from the car rental tram."

Personal Thoughts

Getting to the airport is an experience that applies to both those who own a car and those who do not. Therefore, the EPX provides value to all East Palo Alto residents. Most of us have never taken a SamTrans before, and the EPX now gives us a reason to take the bus. We should not squander this opportunity that the EPX is opening in terms of creating a cultural change towards reduced car dependence.

One of the biggest risks I see to EPX's success is that an EPA resident might try the EPX (their first SamTrans bus ride in maybe decades), have a terrible experience getting to the bus stop despite having a good EPX ride experience, and then never take EPX or any SamTrans bus forever. The bus experience is more than just the bus itself; it also includes the trip to get to the bus stop. For me, that was a 12 minute, 0.5 mile walk along Bay Rd which was dark, lonely, and sketchy. If the City is serious about increasing multimodal transportation (e.g. the City's 40% vehicle trips reduction Transportation Demand Management (TDM)), the City needs to step up the walkability of the city and the safety while walking alone during the day or in the evening to an EPX bus stop. I will save my detailed thoughts for a future blog post, and here are some of my suggestions:

  1. Ensure streets are well lit to enhance visbility and deter crime. Currently I can point to at least 7 lights that are out on Bay Road (2 near Clarke Ave, 1 near Pulgas Ave, and 4 near Cooley Landing).
  2. Activate the sidewalks by making it easier to develop projects that increase foot traffic, such as retail, restaurants, and housing (of any type). More people on the sidewalks throughout the day means more eyes on the road, which leads to more safety.
  3. Invest in better transit waiting experiences. One of our busiest SamTrans stops in EPA (in front of McDonald's serving the 281, 296, 296 OWL, 397, EPX) should not just be a yellow McDonald's gate 4 or so feet from the road with a giant tree overhanging, no seats for elderly, and no shelter against the rain. I have talked with a SamTrans planner and the City already has funding for 7 new bus shelters. A problem is that our sidewalks are not wide enough to accomodate bus shelter plus wheelchair accessibility. So we will need to redesign some of our public spaces to have wider sidewalks and better bus shelters (with good lighting too for night time).
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