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Getting around Silicon Valley (if you don’t have a car)

By Stephen Beale

Silicon Valley’s mass-transit options are a far cry from what you’ll find in San Francisco or the big East Coast cities, but the area is served by a light-rail system that includes a stop near the conference hotel. The Great America station, across the street from the Santa Clara Convention Center, is on the Mountain View-to-Winchester line, one of two major lines in the system. The trains are operated by the Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority, better known as “VTA.” They’re not particularly fast, but they’re reliable and will get you to downtown San Jose or Mountain View in about a half-hour.

Light rail

Trains run every 30 minutes, except for weekday commute hours, when they run every 15 minutes. Schedules and maps are available from the VTA website, which also includes a list of free rider-information apps for Android and Apple devices. (To save space, the schedule doesn’t list every station. Note times for Old Ironsides station, which is just a couple minutes away from the Great America stop.)

The schedules identify the trains by direction – northbound or southbound – but the trains themselves use destination signs: Mountain View (north) or Winchester (south). The Winchester train takes you to downtown San Jose. Its final stop is on Winchester Boulevard in the city of Campbell.

The other major line is Santa Teresa-Alum Rock. These trains run every 15 minutes during the day and every 30 minutes at night. The two lines converge in North San Jose and separate again south of downtown. The Tasman and Convention Center stations are designated transfer points, but you can transfer at any stop served by both lines.

The fare is $2 for up to two hours in any direction (including transfers), or $4 for an eight-hour pass. You purchase the passes from vending machines at the stations before you get on board.

Also important to know:

  • Trains do not automatically stop at every station. Be sure to press the “Stop Request” strip before the train arrives at your station. Electronic signs and automated recordings on the train will indicate which station is next.
  • Fare inspectors periodically board the trains and ask passengers to show proof of purchase. You can be fined up to $250 (and asked to leave the train) if they catch you without a valid pass.
  • The $2 and $4 passes are not valid on VTA buses, but you can purchase a $6 all-day pass that includes local buses and light rail.

Getting to the station

The conference hotel and convention center are connected near the hotel restaurants. Use the convention center main doors as an exit and you’ll find yourself just across the street from the Great America Station. The station is in the Tasman Drive median. Please be careful and obey the traffic signals.

Destinations

San Jose. It may lack the hustle and bustle of San Francisco’s Market Street or Union Square, but downtown San Jose has many restaurants and other cultural amenities, including the Tech Museum of Innovation and San Jose Museum of Art. To get there, catch the Winchester train and deboard at the Santa Clara or Paseo de San Antonio stations.

The downtown stations for southbound trains are on Second Street, but northbound trains run on First Street. When you return, pay attention to the destination signs and be sure to board the Mountain View train. The Alum Rock train stops at the same stations, and if you get on one of those by mistake, you’ll have to transfer to the Mountain View line by the time you reach Tasman station.

Great Mall. This gigantic outlet mall is a short drive from the hotel, but to get there via light rail, you’ll catch a Winchester train at Great America, get off at Tasman, and transfer to an Alum Rock train on the other side of the platform. The mall is at the Great Mall station.

The mall’s dining options are nothing fancy, but you’ll find a large food court plus Dave & Buster’s, Olive Garden and Outback Steakhouse. To return, take a Santa Teresa train and transfer at Tasman to a Mountain View train.

Lick Mill. This light rail station is one stop away from Great America on the southbound Winchester line. Across the street (cross at the corner) you’ll find these eateries: Pho Khang (Vietnamese cuisine), Bistro Siam (Thai), Dona Maria (Mexican), Mikayla’s Café (breakfast, burgers and sandwiches) and the oddly named Butter and Zeus, which serves waffle sandwiches. I can’t vouch for the quality of these places, but they seemed to be doing brisk business when I visited on a Saturday afternoon in January. You’ll also find Togo’s Sandwiches and Carl’s Jr.

Pho Khang is closed on Sundays, and Mikayla’s Café closes at 2:30 p.m. (3 p.m. on weekends).

This “restaurant row” is about a half-mile walk if you prefer, but you’ll have to cross to the south side of Tasman (same side as Levi’s Stadium) because there’s a section on the north side with no pedestrian access.

Also note that Lick Mill station has separate platforms for northbound and southbound trains.

Mountain View. This one is easy: Just take the Mountain View train to its final stop. Along the way, you’ll pass by Yahoo’s corporate headquarters and NASA’s Moffett Field. Watch for the giant hangars after the train leaves Moffett Park Station; they’re said to be among the world’s largest freestanding structures.

The line terminates at a transit center near Castro Street, the main drag of downtown Mountain View. Here, you’ll find a wide selection of eateries and many techies with too much money to spend. The area is also home to several bookstores. I recommend BookBuyers, which is next to Books Inc. at the corner of Dana and Castro.

Trains arriving at the Mountain View station return as Winchester trains.

One caution: VTA is adding a second track between the Mountain View and Whisman stations (the last mile of the line), and service could be disrupted on up to three weekends in 2015. VTA says it will offer alternate bus service in case of shutdowns. Odds are this won’t happen during the conference, but just in case, you can check the website for any rider alerts.

Heading to San Francisco

Image by Mark via Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/34186459@N00/5412578628The Mountain View transit center also serves as a stop for Caltrain, a commuter line linking San Jose and San Francisco. The trip to San Francisco takes 50 to 75 minutes depending on whether you catch an express or local train. The line passes through Palo Alto, Redwood City, San Mateo and other cities along the Peninsula.

Caltrain uses a zone-based fare system. The trip from Mountain View (Zone 3) to San Francisco (Zone 1) costs $7.25 one-way or $14.50 for a day pass. As with VTA, you’ll buy your ticket at a vending machine in the station, and conductors periodically ask passengers to show proof of purchase. Be sure to check the schedule, especially if you’re traveling on the weekend when the trains run just once per hour.

The SF Caltrain station is in the city’s South of Market Area (SoMA), near AT&T Park where baseball’s Giants play. It’s about a mile from downtown San Francisco, but if you don’t feel like walking, you can take a cab, bus or MUNI rail line. However, for the fastest route to downtown, transfer from Caltrain to BART at the Millbrae station.

BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) is a high-speed rail line that links San Francisco to Oakland and other points in the East Bay. Get off at Powell Street for cable cars and shopping at Union Square, or Montgomery Street for a quick walk to Chinatown. The last SF station is Embarcadero. If you don’t get off there, you’ll be headed for Oakland in the Transbay tube.

Keeping it all straight

As you can see, the Bay Area has a complex patchwork of bus systems and rail lines, each with its own rules and fare structure. In addition to VTA, Caltrain, MUNI and BART, we have SamTrans in San Mateo County, AC Transit in the East Bay and Golden Gate Transit in Marin and Sonoma counties. Helping to sort out this mess is 511.org, a website that provides links to all of the local transit systems plus a handy Trip Planner that will suggest the best options for getting from Point A to Point B.

If you plan to use multiple systems on your trip, consider picking up a Clipper Card. It functions like a debit card for buses and trains in the area. You load it with cash and touch it to a card reader at the train station before you board. It automatically deducts the appropriate fare, and some operators, including Caltrain, will discount your fare merely for using the card. You can order a card online or purchase one at Walgreens or other local retailers. None of these retailers are near the hotel, but the vending machines at the light rail stations let you add value to existing cards. If you plan to use one of these cards, be sure to read the guidelines for each system on the Clipper Card website. For example, when riding Caltrain, you have to “tag off” when you depart the train.

Points beyond. Comedian Steven Wright once remarked that “Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time,” and the same is true of public transportation. The Bay Area is one of the most scenic places in the world, and much of it is accessible by bus and train. The Winchester line stops at San Jose Diridon – the city’s Amtrak and Caltrain station – where you can catch buses to Santa Cruz or Monterey. If you’d rather go north, Golden Gate Transit will take you from San Francisco to tourist attractions in Marin and Sonoma counties. But if you’d like to see these places without spending half the day in transit, you’re probably better off renting a car.


Stephen Beale is the Inside Health Media editor for MediaMisers' Bulldog Reporter and is based in the San Francisco Bay Area.