Silicon Valley First-Time Transit Rider Guide

Background

Are you visiting, recently moved to or started working in Silicon Valley?  New to taking public transportation in the Valley?  Taking a Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) bus or light rail train can be intimidating for someone riding public transit for the very first time.

This guide will detail the steps you need to make your first trip riding a VTA bus or light rail train as pleasant as possible.  It will also detail how to make future trips equally as rewarding and pleasant for yourself – and fellow passengers.

A special “Thank You” must go to San Jose State University’s Transportation Solutions Department for providing all of the basic tips found in this guide.

Know Before You Go

Not sure which VTA bus or light rail train to take?  Not sure when VTA buses or light rail are running and how often?  Not sure about how much VTA bus and light rail fares cost? There are several ways you can contact VTA to obtain this information.

By Telephone

One way to contact VTA for information is by telephone at (408)321-2300.  As of October 2018, VTA’s Customer Service call center hours are Monday-Friday from 6am-7pm; Saturdays from 7:30am-4pm; and closed Sundays and major holidays.  Information is available in English, Spanish, and several other languages.  When calling, listen to the voice prompt and dial the number for which language you want the information in.

When calling, please provide the Customer Service operator

  • Where you are coming from (your exact address, landmark, shopping mall, school, etc.) to start your trip
  • Where you are going (exact address, major intersection, landmark, shopping mall, school, etc.)
  • What time and date you want to go (be as exact as possible)

The VTA Customer Service operator will tell you

  • the closest bus or light rail stop (typically near the corner of an intersection, or a transit center)
  • bus and/or light rail route(s) and destination(s)
  • where to get off the bus or light rail train
  • How much the transit ride will cost, one-way and round trip.

If the operator does not provide this information for you up front, ask for this information during the call.  Have a pencil (or pen) and paper ready to write down the information for your trip.  Make sure to note as much information as you can, to make your bus trip easier.

In Person (Downtown San Jose)

VTA maintains a Customer Service Center at 55-A West Santa Clara Street (east of North 1st Street) in downtown San Jose.  They are open from 9am-6pm on weekdays only.  The In-Person Center is closed on weekends and major holidays.

By Computer (Online)

Have a computer or mobile smartphone with an Internet connection? Use VTA’s Online Trip Planner to help plan your bus trip online. It’s quick and easy. If possible, use the save function or print out the information for your trip reference.

Mobile Phone Apps

Have a smart phone?  Consider downloading and using the Transit “app” before you go.  The “app” will help you plan your trip, inform you of departure times, and remind you which stop to get off on your bus trip.  After downloading the “app” on your smart phone, follow its instructions for its use for the VTA in Santa Clara County.

While you’re at it, download and use the EZFare “app” for purchasing transit tickets and passes for use anywhere on the system.  The video from VTA below shows you how the EZFare mobile phone app works for paying your fare.

More information on how to use the VTA EZFare mobile phone “app” for fare payment can be read here.

How To Ride VTA Buses

VTA runs several types of bus services throughout Santa Clara County.

  • Local (regular) bus routes typically stop every few blocks (roughly every 1/5 mile) from end to end.
  • Limited Stop bus routes only make stops at major intersections and transit transfer points from end to end. While Limited Stop buses usually run faster along their route than local bus counterparts, some Limited Stop bus routes only run during weekday peak period times.  This category also currently applies to VTA “Rapid” bus lines like the 522 Rapid.
  • Express bus routes link major transit centers and neighborhoods with employment centers.  Except for the 180 and 181 express bus lines, all express bus routes run only during weekday peak period hours.
  • Paratransit services provided by VTA (currently known as “ACCESS”) are for “those with disabilities who are unable to independently use bus and light rail as specified in the Americans with Disabilities Act.” (Appendix 49 CFR37.123). VTA publishes a separate guide for using paratransit services. (Adobe Acrobat PDF)

Contact VTA for more information on any of the bus services the agency provides in Santa Clara County.

How To Read a Bus Schedule

As of October 2018, here is a list of all current VTA bus schedules.

All bus schedules are read from left to right.  Most routes go in two directions (north/south or east/west). The origin and the destination are indicated in the timetables.  Not all bus stops are listed on the schedule. The bus stops listed are called timepoints. The timepoints are also identified in the route maps.

A photo showing an example bus schedule is below.

Sample bus schedule. Courtesy VTA

  1. Find the timepoint (column) for your starting point or closest to and before your starting point. For instance, you live one block from Main and Hale, so you would use the Main and Hale timepoint.
  2. Go down the column underneath the timepoint to find the time closest to when you want to catch the bus.  Using the example bus schedule, you want to leave Main and Hale by bus at 2pm.  However, the next bus is schedule to leave at 2:08pm.
  3. If you need to be somewhere by a certain time, find the timepoint closest to where you are going and what time the bus will arrive there. Work your way back to where you will begin your trip to find out what time you will need to get on the bus. For instance, you want to be at Burnett Avenue by 8:30am for an appointment.  The closest time for bus arrival at Burnett Avenue is 7:53am.  If you are taking the bus from Main and Hale, you would need to catch the bus due to depart Main and Hale at 7:28am.

We recommend arriving at a bus stop at least five minutes before the time shown on the timetable.  This allows time to gather the exact fare or transit pass you will need to pay to board the bus.

How To Board a VTA Bus

Bus stops are marked by a blue sign with the route number(s) and destination(s) posted on them. Because there may be more than one stop in the general vicinity (one at each side of the street or each corner of the intersection). It is important that you wait at the correct stop for the correct bus.

A sample VTA bus stop sign is below.

Example of a VTA bus stop sign.

  • White route/destination text on a BLUE background – bus stop for a VTA local bus route
  • White route/destination text on a GREEN background – bus stop for a VTA limited stop route
  • White route/destination text on a RED background – bus stop for an VTA express bus route
  • Blue route/destination text on a WHITE background – bus stop for a VTA Rapid bus route

When you see an approaching bus with the correct route and destination, signal the driver by standing near the curb and pointing to the street with either your left arm or right arm. Wait until the bus comes to a complete stop before boarding through the front door. As a courtesy, allow the elderly, the disabled, or pregnant women to depart the bus from the front door first.  If there are any elderly, disabled, or pregnant women boarding the bus afterward, let these people board first.

How To Pay Your VTA Bus Fare

This chart details VTA bus fares by bus type, and age range.  Pay your cash fare inside the farebox at the front of the bus, or “tag” your Clipper Card on the reader on the left side of the entrance, to credit your fare.  VTA has additional instructions on how to use the fare boxes aboard its buses.

Note that there are no more paper day passes available thru the fareboxes as of January 1, 2016. You will need to use either Clipper Card or the EZFare mobile phone “app” for these passes.

You can purchase a Clipper Card at any of the following locations:

  • Ticket Vending Machines (TVMs) at any VTA light rail station
  • select Walgreens stores in Santa Clara County
  • other retailers in the San Francisco Bay Area

This video from VTA below explains how to purchase a Clipper Card from a VTA light rail ticket vending machine.

Basic Rules For Riding Any VTA Bus

After boarding the bus, move to the back of the bus and sit down in any available seat. If required to stand, please remain behind the yellow safety line and hold on to the hand rails provided, above the seats. Try to avoid crowding the front of the bus, especially when standing.  This makes it difficult for those sitting to get off the bus at their stops, helping to slow things down.

The front of every VTA bus, behind the driver, has seats facing the aisle.  As a courtesy, let seniors, the disabled, and pregnant women sit on those seats.  As another courtesy, on crowded buses, offer your seat to a woman (especially a pregnant woman) or a senior.  This makes their bus ride – and yours – more pleasant.

If possible, avoid unnecessary conversations with the bus driver.  While basic information is to be expected of the bus driver, that bus driver has two primary jobs: keeping the bus safe and keeping the bus running on time.  In some cases, the bus driver may not be familiar with the area that is being driven.  It’s best to get the information you need for your trip before you depart.  If pressed for time, consider asking fellow passengers if they are familiar with where and how you are going.

Here are additional rules of etiquette when riding any VTA bus for you to read and learn from. These rules of etiquette, when followed, allow a pleasant transit ride for you and others.  Remember: you are riding on PUBLIC transportation.

How To Get Off (Alighting) From a VTA Bus

  • If you have the Transit “app” on your smart phone, make sure to pay attention to when your bus stop is coming up.  Otherwise, If you have no idea on how your destination stop looks like, tell the bus driver where you want to get off.
  • If you are familiar with the area, pull the bell cord or touch the yellow strip on the wall to alert the driver that you’d like to get off at the next bus stop. This will ring a signal chime and light a sign saying “Stop Requested” at the front of the bus.  (A smaller “Stop Requested” light will also appear on the bus driver’s dashboard.)
  • If able-bodied, leave the bus thru the rear doors.  This helps shorten the time the bus is at a stop, ensuring the bus stays on time for other riders.  Step as far away from the rear doors, taking all your belongings with you. Never step to the side of a bus’s rear doors – you could slip and fall under the wheels.

VTA Bus Transfers

Some of your trips may require you to take more than one bus line to reach your destination.  Sometimes, you may need to transfer on to a light rail or commuter rail system to reach your destination.

Transferring to Another Bus Line

When planning your trip, give yourself at least five (5) minutes’ lead time, between the time you arrive at the VTA bus connection’s stop, and the time your VTA connecting bus leaves that stop.  This will give you time to reach the VTA connecting bus stop(s). Double that time if you are a senior, disabled, or carrying a lot of bags with you.

If you are taking a regional bus service like the Highway 17 Express Bus service, allow at least ten (10) minutes’ lead time to get to its bus stops either in downtown San Jose, or at San Jose Diridon Station.

Plan on riding an intercity service like Greyhound or Megabus? Allow at least 30 minutes’ lead time between the arriving VTA bus and scheduled departure for your intercity bus.  This allows time for you to check yourself and any luggage you carry on to the bus.  Help speed your intercity trip by buying your intercity bus ticket in advance.

Make sure to check the bus schedule(s) during your trip planning to allow for the best, fastest travel time between bus lines you will need.

Transferring to VTA Light Rail

Many VTA bus lines connect with the light rail system throughout Santa Clara County.  As with connecting with VTA buses, plan your trip ahead of time, giving yourself at least five (5) minutes between when your bus arrives at the light rail station, and when the light rail train you want departs.  Double that time if you are a senior, disabled, or carrying a lot of bags with you.

Transferring to Commuter or Intercity Rail Services

VTA buses and light rail serve Caltrain stations at Mountain View, San Jose Diridon, and Tamien light rail stations.  VTA buses also stop at many stations along the Caltrain corridor in Santa Clara County, from Palo Alto to San Jose to Gilroy.

Word From the Wise
A Caltrain monthly pass on a Clipper Card good for two or more zones also serves as a local monthly pass for VTA buses and light rail – including limited stop buses and rapid bus lines. Read up and wise up on this VTA and Caltrain bargain here.

VTA buses and light rail also serve Capitol Corridor and Altamont Commuter Express stops in Santa Clara and San Jose Diridion.  Riding Amtrak anywhere in the United States? VTA buses and light rail serve Amtrak’s only stop in Santa Clara County, at San Jose Diridion Station.

For all rail services except Amtrak, allow at least ten (10) minutes’ lead time between the time your bus arrives, and the time your connecting train departs the station.  This will give you time to get to the station platform and buy your train ticket(s) if needed.

When taking Amtrak, allow at least one (1) hour between the time your bus arrives at San Jose Diridion Station, and your Amtrak train’s departure time. This gives you time to check in any baggage you have aboard the train, and to properly “check in” for the departing train as needed.

How To Ride VTA Light Rail

Below is a map of the VTA Light Rail System, courtesy Wikipedia.

VTA light rail system map

VTA Light Rail system map. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Reading the VTA Light Rail schedule

  • As of October 2018, VTA Light Rail runs every 15 minutes on the Alum Rock-Santa Teresa, Almaden-Ohlone Chynoweth lines and every 30 minutes on the Mountain View-Winchester line.
  • Light rail schedules are read from left to right.
  • Light rail routes go in two directions (north/south). The origin and the destination are indicated in the timetables.
  • Not all stations are listed on the schedule. The stations listed are called timepoints.
  • Find the timepoint (column) for your starting point or closest to and before your starting point.
  • Go down the column underneath the timepoint to find the time closest to when you want to board the Light Rail.
  • If you need to be somewhere by a certain time, find the timepoint closest to where you are going and what time the Light Rail will arrive there. Work your way back to where you will begin your trip to find out what time you will need to get on the Light Rail.
  • We recommend arriving at a Light Rail station about three minutes before the time shown on the timetable.  If you are a senior or disabled plan on arriving at least six (6) minutes before the time shown on the timetable.

Paying VTA Light Rail Fare

If you don’t have a valid pass, make sure to purchase your ticket or pass before boarding. Ticket vending machines are available at all stations.

VTA light rail ticket vending machine.

If you have a Clipper Card, make sure to “tag on” with your card at any of the black Clipper Card readers before boarding a VTA light rail train.  The below photos show what a Clipper Card fare reader at a VTA light rail station looks like.

Failure to provide proof of payment to the fare inspector could result in a fine of up to $276 or more.  The video below shows you how to buy an 8-hour excursion pass (good for a round trip ticket) for VTA light rail.

See the VTA bus fare paying section above for information on how to obtain a Clipper Card or use the EZFare mobile phone “app” for paying light rail fare.

Boarding VTA Light Rail

Light Rail stations have level platforms, signs, and shelters. Some stations have a center platform located between the two tracks, side platforms with two tracks in between, or a single platform with only one track.  In downtown San Jose, northbound Light Rail trains run on 1st Street while southbound Light Rail trains run on 2nd Street.

As a light rail train approaches the station, make sure to look for the electronic destination signs. The signs and audio announcements will indicate the train’s final destination.

Read the signs on the platforms and by the tracks to make sure that you are waiting for the correct train.

Wait on the platform behind the yellow tactile warning band until the light rail car has come to a complete stop.

The light rail train operator will open doors automatically.  Stand clear of the opening doors. After allowing those wishing to leave the train to do so, carefully enter the train.  Take a seat or hold the handrails while the train is in motion.

When the four-tone sound plays, it means the doors are closing, and light rail is about to leave.  Stand clear of closing VTA light rail doors.  Do not block the closing doors of any VTA light rail train – otherwise, you will cause the train and others to be late.

Making Room For Other People Aboard VTA Light Rail

Are you taking a bicycle with you aboard VTA light rail? Make sure to use the vertical bike racks at the center (bending portion) of any VTA light rail car.  The photo below shows how to store your bicycle aboard any VTA light rail car.

Bike rack aboard a VTA light rail car. Courtesy @SwimPatricia on Twitter.

No room on the bicycle rack(s) for your bicycle? Place your bicycle underneath your seat.  Do not place your bicycle (or anything else) in the aisle where it will block other passengers.

Occasionally, a VTA uniformed fare inspector may board the train and ask for a proof-of-payment. When asked, present your pass or ticket to the inspector.

Exiting (Alighting) VTA Light Rail

  • Listen to the automated announcement for the name of the next station. If you are about to get off at the next station, press the gray strip (located by the windows) before the train arrives at the station.
  • If you have the Transit app on your smart phone, make sure you programmed the phone to tell you where your final destination is, and follow its instructions.  Listen to the Transit app for when you need to get off light rail.
  • Use caution when exiting Light Rail vehicles. The doors will stay open only a few seconds. As a courtesy, allow seniors, the disabled, or pregnant women to exit light rail first.
  • Before exiting light rail, make sure to take any and all of your belongings with you.

VTA Light Rail Transfers

Often, you will need to transfer to a bus or even another type of train to reach your final destination.  Below are some tips on how to simply light rail connections to buses and other trains.

Transferring to Another Bus Line

When planning your trip, give yourself at least five (5) minutes’ lead time, between the time VTA light rail arrives at your stop, and the time your VTA connecting bus leaves that stop.  This will give you time to reach the VTA connecting bus stop. Double that time if you are a senior, disabled, or carrying a lot of bags with you.

Are you taking a regional bus service like the Highway 17 Express Bus service at San Jose Diridon Station? Allow at least ten (10) minutes’ lead time to get to the Highway 17 Express bus stop on the other side of San Jose Diridon Station.

Plan on riding an intercity service like Greyhound or Megabus? Allow at least 30 minutes’ lead time between the arriving VTA light rail train and scheduled departure for your intercity bus.  This allows time for you to check yourself and any luggage you carry on to the bus.  Help speed your intercity trip by buying your intercity bus ticket(s) in advance.

Make sure to check the VTA light rail schedule during your trip planning to allow for the best, fastest travel time necessary.

Transferring to Another VTA Light Rail Train

You can connect to another VTA light rail train line at three (3) stations in San Jose:

  • Tasman
  • Convention Center
  • Ohlone/Chynoweth

Check the VTA Light Rail schedule and allow at least ten (10) minutes for the connecting train.  Listen on board VTA light rail train or the Transit mobile phone app, to help get you to your final destination.

Transferring to Commuter or Intercity Rail Services

VTA buses and light rail serve Caltrain stations at Mountain View, San Jose Diridon, and Tamien light rail stations.

Word From the Wise
A Caltrain monthly pass on a Clipper Card good for two or more zones also serves as a local monthly pass for VTA buses and light rail – including limited stop buses and rapid bus lines. Read up and wise up on this VTA and Caltrain bargain here.

VTA light rail also serves Capitol Corridor and Altamont Commuter Express at San Jose Diridion Station.  Riding Amtrak anywhere in the United States? VTA light rail serves Amtrak’s only stop in Santa Clara County, at San Jose Diridion Station.

For all rail services except Amtrak, allow at least ten (10) minutes’ lead time between the time your bus arrives, and the time your connecting train departs the station.  This will give you time to get to the station platform and buy your train ticket(s) if needed.

When taking Amtrak, allow at least one (1) hour between the time your bus arrives at San Jose Diridion Station, and your Amtrak train’s departure time. This gives you time to check in any baggage you have aboard the train, and to properly “check in” for the departing train as needed.

Conclusion

It is hoped that this guide will give you some basics on how to ride and pay for your VTA bus or light rail trip.  This should be especially useful if you are visiting Silicon Valley, or if you have just moved into Silicon Valley from elsewhere.

Please contact us for any questions or corrections to this guide.  Your information will help others use public transit in Silicon Valley.

Eugene Bradley
Founder, Silicon Valley Transit Users