Every now and then, more often than my editor might like, I try to give this column a personal cast. And because I sometimes write skeptically about BART and high-speed rail, let me bend your ear with the confessions of a transit nut.

It might have to do with my family's life in big cities when I was very young, before we moved to the place I consider my hometown, Tucson, Ariz. I grew up with the sounds of the elevated railroad. One of my greatest treats was taking the train with my dad.

If I had to pinpoint a moment when I drank the Kool-Aid of mass transit, however, it was when I headed to Europe after college with a profit share of $2,800 from my college newspaper. I realized then that people could exist quite nicely without a private car.

Ever since then, fighting upstream in suburban California, I've tried to use transit or bicycle daily. For nearly two decades, our family had one car. I could recite the schedule of the 66 bus, which takes me close to the Mercury News.

So why would I oppose something like the BART extension to San Jose or look skeptically at high-speed rail? If I had to pick a single word, it might be "credibility."

Put in the simplest terms, credibility means that whatever I'm riding -- bus, train, subway, even boat -- is meeting a real need. It's filled with enough people and runs often enough that it's virtually impossible to imagine its absence.

Baby Bullets


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By this standard, the Baby Bullet trains between San Jose and San Francisco -- five stops, one hour -- have excelled. So, too, have the cars reserved for bicycles, though you could argue that bicyclists should pay a small surcharge. The Baby Bullets meet a need. They're packed.

Most of the county's buses, and the light rail, depending on the time of day, are not credible. Take a daytime trip and you'll see. Even my beloved 81 bus, which drops me a block from home, is often two-thirds empty.

There's no mystery why this occurs. It's hard to live a suburban lifestyle -- a backyard in every home -- and still have a credible system. Mass transit depends on density.

A few years ago, a friend of mine good-naturedly groused about his commute from Willow Glen to Santa Clara.

He yearned for decent transit. Wrong, I wanted to say: You'd have to live atop a neighbor and three miles closer for transit to work effectively.

BART numbers

That's my problem with BART and high-speed rail. I see an enormously costly BART bringing only a few thousand extra riders a day between San Jose and Fremont.

I often take the speedy 181 bus between San Jose and Fremont. It might carry 30 people. But it runs only every fifteen minutes.

The same is true of high-speed rail. However great it sounds -- it makes us feel European -- it doesn't profit from the density of population in Japan or Germany. And its competition, the airlines, have hardly exhausted their possibilities.

You can argue forever about the costs or ridership projections. You can say the transit will create new urban centers. But fundamentally, you have to ask: Would you take it? If the answer is maybe, it's not credible enough.

Contact Scott Herhold at sherhold@mercurynews.com or 408-275-0917.