Welcome. I am the author of Universal Time, a sci-fi urban comedy;
Beaufort 1849, an historical novel set in antebellum South Carolina;
and Pearl City Control Theory, a comedy of manners set in present-day San Francisco.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

My Car-free Excursion to Ikea

My Ikea Haul

As a kind of hobby, I’ve been going to places further from home and more logistically challenging without a car lately, places to which I formerly would've driven. On Monday of this week I tackled the Emeryville Ikea store.

After evaluating my route judiciously, I decided to walk to the Mission 24th St BART station, take BART to the Oakland MacArthur Station, and then take the Emery-Go-Round bus to the Ikea/Bay Street bus stop. I thought long and hard about taking my bike on BART but I didn’t do so due to my lack of familiarity with the route and my uncertainty about the bicycle infrastructure on the Oakland side of things. In retrospect, I think I made the right choice.

I live a bit over a mile from BART, a 20 – 25 minute walk going there and a 30 minute walk (all up hill) going home. I wish I lived closer. In the coming decade, people who live a ten-minute walk or less from BART are going to be very, very happy about this because BART has the greatest reach of any public transit system in the Bay Area. Because Muni from my house to BART requires two buses and a transfer, that option can take any where from 13 minutes (a miracle of bus coordination) to 40 minutes. Plus it costs $2 each way. I am far too cheap to pay $2 to avoid a mile walk.

When going to the airport, I have come to appreciate the walk to BART as a feature, not a bug, of the experience because on days of plane travel it is likely the only exercise I will get.  And on my trip to Ikea, walking there was fine. Walking home with two full bags of stuff was a little more tiring.

As good as it ever looks
Now to the BART experience. First off, whoever designed the 24th St and 16th Street BART entrance plazas must deeply hate human beings. That’s the only explanation I can muster for the sheer hostility of those places both visually and as a site of human congregation. Once you descend into the BART Station, it’s not so bad. I eyed the bikes parked inside the station because I had thought a lot about leaving my bike there but had been concerned about the security. I noticed the bikes were, in general, not fancy bikes, and were by and large extremely well locked up, usually with more than one kind of lock. This did not allay my fears.

Pleasant enough inside the station
I had to wait 10 minutes for a train to MacArthur Station. The announced train schedule that flashes up on the board, while usually reliable, wasn’t this time because a train from Fremont curiously decided to go no further than 24th Street, offloaded its passengers, and then took on passengers back to Fremont. This held up my my train which was waiting down the tunnel (you could see its headlight.)

The train was reasonably full and got more so once we hit the first East Bay stop.  Still, BART is roomy, and this makes it a particularly pleasant form of transportation. In Oakland I noticed a number of women get on with large wire handcarts, good for shopping.  (They could probably carry 5 or 6 bags of groceries in terms of volume, though not, perhaps, in terms of weight.)  I began to regret not bringing my own smaller wire handcart, but as it turns out it would’ve been a horror story to bring it, fully loaded, on the Emery-Go-Round.

Pleasant or ride from hell?
I was a little anxious where to find the Emery-Go-Round when I got off at MacArthur, and indeed, there was no sign indicating where along the long platform it would stop, but luckily there was already one there, engine idling, going in the direction I wanted to go. Hooray! I quickly got on board and then proceeded to wait seven minutes (engine running the whole time) before the driver also boarded and closed the doors. The bus seats were 80% full, but it was roomy enough. The Emery-Go-Round is free! Being cheap, I appreciated this value as my round trip BART trip was costing me $7.20. It took about 8 minutes to go the 2.2 miles to Ikea. People got on and off at each stop but many got off at the Ikea/Bay Street stop. However, overhearing conversations, many of my fellow passengers appeared not to be shoppers but people who worked at the stores there.

I kept an eye on bicycle infrastructure as we went and did see some bike lanes and some sharrows. The bus only went over a portion of the route that Google Maps recommended if biking, so I don’t know what the infrastructure was like the entire way. I do know the last segment was a narrow bike lane along fast moving traffic. I also don’t know how rough and tumble the neighborhood is by the MacArthur BART station. I saw a number of houses that looked abandoned with all the downstairs windows boarded up. I felt quite safe, however, on the bus.

For me, coming from out of town and not being familiar with the area, to use bicycle infrastructure successfully the infrastructure needs to be extremely idiot-proof. For example, there should be signs straight out of the BART station that say “This way to Ikea/Bay Street by bike.” There should be a cycle track completely separated from cars the entire way so that I don’t fear being run off the road on an unknown street by unknown ferocious traffic.  Perhaps the cycle track even needs to be painted a different color the whole way so I will have certainty at all times I am going the right way.  And there should be pretty pictures of all this on some website, so when I am making up my mind on whether going by BART plus bicycle is right for me, I can make my choice with happy confidence. This is what I recommend for at least these particular 2.2 miles to connect Ikea/Bay Street to BART by bicycle for out-of-town shoppers.

It was easy to know where to get off for the Ikea stop because I could see the store from the window. But once off the stop, I walked into the Bay Street pedestrian mall thinking that would be a pleasant way to walk to Ikea. Wrong. The only way to get from the Bay Street area to Ikea is either to walk through a dark parking garage or go back and walk along the busy main road. After spending five minutes figuring this out, I walked back to the main road and made my way to Ikea. To Ikea’s credit, once you get to their property there is a nice walking path separated from the cars.

Ikea’s layout is sprawling. It was at least a four minute walk from the bus stop to the store entrance. All told, it took me an hour and twenty minutes to get from my house to the Ikea entrance. I spent 25 minutes in the store. A feature, not a bug, of not bringing a car to Ikea, is that you can only buy what you are willing to physically carry. This reduces impulse buying, a very good thing. (I still bought more than I intended and then cursed myself going home.) I brought two shopping bags with me with shoulder straps, each with the capacity to hold the equivalent of a stuffed paper grocery bag. They were both full when I left the checkout, one with somewhat fragile glass and metal tealight lanterns that I needed to get home in one piece.

Going home, I had the four minute walk to the bus stop. I arrived a little after 3pm. There were almost 20 people waiting at the stop! Very few shoppers, however, or at least few people who had bags of goods with them. I was very glad I had not chosen a rainy day for the trip as there was no shelter at the stop, no protection from sun, wind or rain. I was, however, able to sit. I waited close to ten minutes. When the bus finally came, it was quite large, perhaps 2/3 the size of a regular Muni bus. However, it only had one door. This was a big, big problem because the bus was very full, every seat occupied and all the floor space full of people standing. So every time the bus stopped, people wanting to get off had to claw their way to the front exit, climb down the steps, and then the people who wanted to get on could board. This was a slow, laborious process. In addition, with the bus so full, I had to sit with my packages precariously perched on my lap, and every time the bus lurched and threw the standing passengers around I prayed that no one would fall on me and crush my lanterns. This may seem like a silly anxiety, but if you are going to encourage people to take a bus shopping, the bus simply cannot be packed to the gills because it leaves no room for people’s purchases. If I (or several people) had with me a wire handcart full of things it would've made the congestion on that bus impassable.  If part of the point of the Emery-Go-Round is to convey shoppers from BART to the Bay Street/Ikea stores, then they are shooting themselves in the foot to let the buses get so crowded.

The bus ride back was slow (15 agonizing minutes) and the lurching made me motion sick. This 2.2 mile stretch between BART and Ikea is flat, flat, flat. I could've covered it with ease in 12 minutes on a bike (with no wait time) and felt great the whole time. More than anything, I longed for a bikeshare bike with a big generous front basket (for my well-stuffed bags) and decent bicycle infrastructure on which to ride it.

I was lucky at BART to find a train ready to head to San Francisco. Clipper Card makes going through BART stations a breeze. I don’t understand why anyone would fool with buying BART cards this day and age. The train back to San Francisco was nearly empty, plenty of room for my packages. I was grateful, a bit tired, and enjoyed being able to relax and not feel crushed or motion sick.

Off at 24th street station and then the walk home. The load I was carrying slowed me considerably heading up hill, and it took me half an hour. I really, really would've loved my bike for this final stage of the trip.

All told, the entire adventure took me three hours and ten minutes and $7.20. Almost one hour of this was walking between my house and Bart. If I’d driven to Ikea, I don’t think I could’ve done the trip in under two hours. If I’d driven, I probably would’ve made sure I returned before carpool hours and so the Bay Bridge toll would only have been $4.00. In addition, I would’ve spent $2.50 on gas and another $1.17 on tires and maintenance (based on AAA estimates of these costs per mile.) So that comes to $7.67 total trip cost versus the $7.20 I spent. And I would’ve gotten very little exercise in the process and quite a bit of stress dealing with bridge traffic.

But what would have been even better? What method of getting to Ikea would have been quick and enjoyable and could very well exist with just a little tweaking of our present infrastructure? First, I would add a secure bike parking facility above ground at the Mission/24th street station.  Carrying one’s bike up a flight of stairs along with two bags of shopping is just not doable. Even managing an elevator with a bike and two bags can be tricky. Plus, BART elevators often don’t work, and when they do, they are known for being icky, smelly and so slow they add ten minutes to your trip.
If I could’ve biked to and from the 24th St station, I would’ve saved 30 minutes of walking time. I would’ve been glad to pay $2 ($1 per hour) for no bike stair-climbing and complete bike peace-of-mind. In addition, a regional Bay Area bike share system with stations at MacArthur station and Bay Street/Ikea along with idiot-proof cycle ways (well marked, completely separated from cars) would have reduced my transit time on the other end from 45 minutes to 25 minutes. 

Just these two improvements would’ve reduced my total trip time by 50 minutes, down to 2 hours and 20 minutes, comparable to driving, parking and walking into the store. It would cost perhaps $2 more for the bike parking, (and perhaps $100/year for a bikeshare membership fee) but it would actually be a far more pleasant travel experience than either driving or riding crowded buses. And it would also be cheaper for society. Bikeshare systems generally operate without government subsidies, while the free Emery-Go-Round bus is completely subsidized by commercial and industrial property owners of Emeryville at $1.52 per passenger trip (2009 data.) (So I got $3.04 worth of free bus ride, even though it made me feel a bit sick. Thank you, Emeryville.) Cars are generally subsidized by society at $.39/mile (externalities such as pollution costs, accidents, road repair and maintenance not covered by gas tax monies, etc., but not including current and future costs of climate change) which means if I’d driven, my cost to taxpayers would've been $9.36. (One can argue that the Bay Bridge toll offsets some of this, but not much since bridge maintenance is far more costly than basic road maintenance.)

If we want to encourage people to reduce their driving and shop without cars, we need to make their experience pleasant and comparatively inexpensive. Bicycle infrastructure--such as easy, secure bike parking at BART stations, bikeshare bikes at BART stations, and entirely idiot-proof, extremely pleasant bikeways between BART stations and shopping districts--is an eminently cost-effective way to increase BART's utility to more people.


  1. Those EGR buses lurch quite a bit when changing gears, so I can understand why you started to feel sick. As for bike lanes, they only exist on 40th Street west of San Pablo Avenue, so about half of the trip between MacArthur BART and IKEA/Bay Street is riding in mixed traffic. I much prefer to ride my bike up to Emeryville from the West Oakland station, since there are bike lanes all the way on the relatively calm Mandela Parkway (flat as a pancake), even though the neighborhood around that station is really sketchy.

    1. Thanks for the suggestion! I didn't realize the West Oakland station was as close to the Ikea/Bay Street area as it is. Only 3/10ths of a mile further than the MacArthur station. I, too, would rather go a little extra distance in order to ride on a bike lane on a calm parkway. Perhaps I will try it in the future. Still want a bikshare system, though!

  2. Thanks for the great review. As a member of both the Emeryville and Oakland BPACs I am always interested to hear people's opinions who are experiencing the infrastructure for the first time.

    Regarding bike share, both Oakland and Emeryville are very interested in implementing systems, but nobody wants to move forward on a plan before San Francisco, at the risk of having their equipment, cards, accounts, etc, be incompatible with the larger system. I agree that it would make sense to have one system work for the whole Bay Area, but as such those plans are on hold for the time being.

    The direct route from MacArthur BART to Emerville's Bay Street Mall is 40th Street, which curves via a bridge and becomes Shellmound Street. The Emeryville portion or 40th and all of Shellmound both have wide, freshly painted and paved bike lanes, and the portion on the curved bridge is even protected with a wide buffer, but I agree that with four lanes of fast moving traffic the experience can be uncomfortable to the occasional cyclist. Emeryville also has a system of neighborhood bike boulevards which also serve the same destinations (minus a bike/ped bridge over the train tracks that was cut with the loss of state redevelopment funding), but are less direct and more complicated to follow, unfortunately. A protected bike lane may be in the long term future for 40th Street, however, as the city has an interest in removing curb cuts and curbside parking on this route, which would make a cycletrack possible.

    As for Oakland's part of 40th Street, they have been trying to install bike lanes there for years but have met continued resistance from the residents who refuse to remove the planted median or curbside parking, and from AC Transit who refuses to allow a road diet on this admittedly important transit corridor. As such the compromise which will be implemented in 2013 is a Long Beach-style "super sharrow" bike lane hybrid, which entails a continuous green bike lane running in the center of the rightmost lane, with white sharrow markings on top of the green. I'm currently in a "wait and see" mode before I make a decision on whether it is safe and comfortable to use, but it will at least be a step up from nothing.

    Additionally, the street that parallels 40th to the south, West MacArthur, is actually getting a road diet, part of which has already been completed, and in 2013 there will probably be continuous bike lanes from that side of the MacArthur BART station all the way to Emeryville as well. Not quite as direct, but an alternative for people who do not like the "super sharrows".

    To be fair, I feel that Oakland has developed the best bike wayfinding signage standards of the entire Bay Area, and their work has even been used as an suggested example in the NACTO guidelines. The destinations these signs point to include business districts but never individual businesses, however, so the best you will get is guidance directing you to Emeryville, or to the Amtrak station, or to a park, hospital, etc. There are bikeway and pedestrian wayfinding signs around the MacArthur BART station, but perhaps not right at the exits. I'll mention that to the Oakland bike coordinator to find out if there is a reason why not.

    I agree with the commenter regarding the West Oakland BART connection along Mandela being a great alternative connection to Emeryville, and another interesting example of a former urban highway being converted to a more complete street. That part of Oakland is very interesting to explore by bike, despite the crappy pavement and train tracks, and is not nearly as dangerous as people make it out to be. The old victorians that survived the highway and BART construction, as well as gritty artist studios and plenty of awesome murals and street art make it a worthwhile trip, topped off with chicken and waffles at the Brown Sugar Kitchen.

    1. Interesting side note: All of Emeryville west of the train tracks is landfill, so if you want to see the "real" Emeryville you'll have to head over to the other side next time!

    2. Robert,

      Thanks for the great info! So frustrating with bikeshare being delayed because it's such an effective, inexpensive way of dealing with the "last mile" (or two) problem that all transit inevitably faces.

      Okay, two recommendations now for West Oakland and Mandela Parkway. I'll have to check it out (maybe when I'm with my husband.)

  3. I'm envious you even have a transit-accessible Ikea in San Fran. Here in Baltimore, our Ikea is in the middle of suburban hell.

    1. In Denmark,the Ikea stores have bike paths directly to them! (Or at least one does, as described in a nice account on Copenhagenize.com) I wonder how long before Ikea realizes the suburban hell model of store placement even in the US has a limited future?

      Even here in the middle of San Francisco, Trader Joe's won't open up a store where they can't offer an adjacent parking lot, not even if it's in a particularly dense, walkable, transit-rich area where thousands of customers would stream in and out on foot every day.

      At least in Baltimore you have access to a pretty reasonable train system running from Boston to Washington DC. I would take that over public transit to Ikea any day!