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Commute club needs more riders

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The Valley of the Moon Commute Bus Club could ride off into the sunset sometime in May if ridership doesn’t pick up.

The club, which was started in 1973, at one point had five buses running daily between Sonoma and San Francisco. Now, it runs a single bus from Schellville to San Francisco – four days a week.

The bus, which operates Monday through Thursday, leaves the Park and Ride at the corner of Arnold Drive and Highway 121 at 5.55 a.m. making eight stops in San Francisco where it ends at Mission and 9th. It makes six stops on its return run in the afternoon, getting back to Schellville at about 6 p.m.

Jean Claassens, one of the riders, said a number of things have contributed to the decline in ridership, including job changes, retirements and the ability to telecommute.

“Two years ago, we were averaging about 28 riders a day,” she said. “Now we’re down to about 14.”

The bus needs 19 riders to break even.

Currently, monthly riders are paying $350, while casual riders pay $15 each way.

Christine Hunter, the group’s volunteer liaison who has been riding the bus on and off since 2000, said some people have been riding for 30-plus years.

Hunter said up until a couple of years ago, the club received a subsidy from Golden Gate Transit because there was no bus service from Sonoma Valley.

“At one point, there were five buses a day that ran between Sonoma and San Francisco,” she said. “In 2000, we still had three buses a day.”

“When we had a lot of riders, we had a lot more flexibility,” she said. “We used to have multiple pick-up points in Sonoma.”

But when the subsidy dried up two years ago, the club was scrambling for a smaller bus rather than the coach it had been using.

Pure Luxury, a transportation company in Petaluma, stepped up with a smaller bus and helped the club keep going.

“We were paying $13,000 a month for a coach,” Hunter said. “Pure Luxury came in with a smaller bus for $6,750 a month.”

Hunter praised Pure Luxury for working with the club.

“They’ve been very helpful,” she said. “They reached out to us. They’re aware of our financial situation and they’ve been a good partner.”

But, she said, even with a smaller bus or van, the one constant is the labor cost.

One of the things that has helped recently is that the bus is attracting a fair share of casual riders who may go into the city one day and come back at the end of the week. “We had a surplus of funds from casual riders, but we’ve been chipping away at that too,” Hunter said.

Claassens, who’s an office manager for a company in the city, has been riding the bus for about five years.

“We’ve been through this before,” she said. “And the prices went up. So we cut it (the bus) back to four days a week.”

“This has been a godsend,” she added.

But neither Claassens nor Hunter know what they’ll do if the club disbands.

“There’s the Larkspur Ferry, but it’s 40 minutes there, and the Vallejo Ferry, but that’s about an hour-and-45 minutes each way,” Claassen said. “That makes for a long day.”

Hunter, who is vice president for talent at Big Heart Pet Brands, said there are Golden Gate buses from Petaluma and Novato that go into the city.

“We may be able to make it a couple of weeks into May,” Hunter said.

Anyone who is interested in joining the club can call Hunter at 415-265-1258 or see pureluxury.com/commuter-club.