Traffic in the greater San Diego area is becoming increasingly challenging, and the cost of parking can be quite expensive in pay lots or quite limiting in 2-hour metered spots. One alternative to driving is to use the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System (SDMTS) to explore San Diego.
SDMTS does not have as expansive a transit network as other more established urban areas in the Midwest, on the East Coast, or abroad, but my experience with the service has been good.
The Trolley is our light rail system and it’s composed of the Green, Blue, and Orange lines that extend from Santee to San Ysidro at the U.S.–Mexico border. The Green Line alone will take you from SDSU to Petco Park, with stops at Mission San Diego, Qualcomm stadium, Fashion Valley Mall, Old Town, Little Italy, two blocks from the Embarcadero, Seaport Village, the Convention Center, and the Gaslamp Quarter. The Blue Line will take you to City College with its bus connections to Balboa Park (#7 and #215) and to San Ysidro. The Orange line will take you to eastern suburbs like La Mesa and El Cajon.
The bus network is more extensive than the trolley system, and it will get you to many places that that trolley won’t. Just plan on it taking considerable time. There are 90 regular bus routes and there are also Rapid and Rapid Express routes with more frequent buses with fewer stops. Before you board a Rapid or Rapid Express bus, make sure the bus will stop where you want to stop. It may not.
Compass Card/Day Pass
When you ride SDMTS, there are no free transfers—you must pay for each leg of your journey (typically $2.25–$5.00). It may make sense, then, to purchase a Compass Card (a one-time $2 fee for a re-loadable fare card) and add a Day Pass onto it for $5. (There are multi-day passes, too. You can check out the full fare structure here.)
When you ride the trolley, you must validate your day pass by tapping your Compass Card against one of the ticket vending machines or free-standing validation pedestals. On a bus, you tap your Compass Card against the fare box to validate your trip. You can learn more about the use of the Compass Card in this SDMTS video:
About a third of the time that I’ve ridden MTS, whether it be on the bus or the trolley, a Transit Police officer has asked to see my Compass Card to prove that I’ve paid my fare. (That’s why tapping your Compass Card before boarding each leg is important—no tap to validate the card = riding illegally and expensive citation.) One trip, I had my card checked three separate times: first, while standing on the platform; again on the trolley; and, a few stops later after a new set of Transit Police officers boarded, a third time.
I have to admit that my use of MTS has been limited to getting to special events downtown or to work (in Balboa Park) on those days where walks/runs/marathons shut down many of the streets. In each case, it’s been a viable, economical, and pretty hassle-free alternative to driving. It just may take a little longer, so plan accordingly when you go out to explore San Diego.