Local 49ers fans bond on SamTransBy Will Oremus
Monday night's home opener for the San Francisco 49ers started a little after 7 p.m. at Monster Park. For thousands of football faithful on the Peninsula, however, the game-day experience began some two hours earlier, at SamTrans bus stops crowded with fellow travelers decked out in red, gold and black.
They rode from Palo Alto, from Belmont, from Foster City and points north. For most, the ride to Candlestick Point is simply a convenient way to evade stadium traffic and save money on parking.
But on Monday, as the special 49ers express buses crawled through rush-hour traffic, convenience took a back seat to another reason some locals take public transit to the games: bonding with fellow fans.
At the bus stop in front of the San Carlos Caltrain station, the night got off to a bumpy start for dozens of riders who missed the early bus or were left stranded after it filled to capacity and took off. At 5:40 p.m., with the second bus 15 minutes late, a frustrated Paul Samuelson of San Carlos announced he was going to call a cab for himself, his son and two friends.
Just then, two buses pulled up, and the riders sent up a cheer before piling onto them. Some were forced to stand, a change from normal Sunday games when everyone gets a seat.
A man near the front of one bus groaned as he realized he'd be forced to remain vertical the whole trip.
"Quit whining, you little weenie," a friend shouted jokingly.
In recent years, an average of about 3,500 riders per game have taken SamTrans' express 49ers bus service, and ridership numbers have generally correlated with the team's success. More than 4,200 took the bus to a Nov. 19 game against Seattle when the 49ers were unexpectedly in the playoff hunt, but two losses later the number was 2,700.
SamTrans estimates 3,700 rode on its six special bus routes Monday night to see the team's first game in a season where expectations are running high. The unusual delays, spokesman Jonah Weinberg said, were the result of rush-hour traffic and technical glitches at SamTrans' bus base.
Near the front of the bus, brothers Bob and Rich Keller, of Sunnyvale and San Carlos, respectively, managed to grab adjacent seats. Like many others interviewed for this story, the pair said they've been riding the bus to Niners games since SamTrans started the service about 20 years ago.
"You get tired of driving the car, with all the traffic," said Bob Keller, 67.
"It's not so much getting into the stadium as coming out, with everybody else leaving at the same time," added Rich Keller, 64. While cars back up by the hundreds before and after games, the buses get their own lanes and drop passengers off right in front of the stadium.
On Sundays, the Kellers said, SamTrans' service typically runs smoothly. On Monday, though, the bus ran into thick rush-hour traffic almost as soon as it merged onto Highway 101 north, eliciting grumbles from riders worried they might miss kickoff.
"Nah, they wouldn't start without us," Bob Keller said wryly.
A few rows back, Paul Samuelson was struggling to keep his own sense of humor as he realized he would miss two tailgate parties he had hoped to attend. While he blamed SamTrans for "poor planning" in adjusting to the unusual Monday night game time, he said it was still better than taking a car.
For one, he said, "Nobody wants to drive when you're drinking." As a bartender at The Patio in San Carlos, Samuelson had met his friends there for a few beers before boarding the bus.
And then there was the happy coincidence of running into fellow San Carlos barman Greg Schleicher at the bus stop, the type of random meeting that regular riders say is common on SamTrans' 49ers buses.
Schleicher, owner of the Carlos Club on El Camino, said he often sees patrons on the bus to the game, but this was the first time he had ended up sitting next to a competitor.
While those two bantered, Steve and Gina Stephenson of Woodside sat quietly a couple rows ahead, Gina reading a novel and Steve looking out the window. They ride SamTrans to every game and had come prepared.
The bus emerged from traffic briefly only to slow to stop-and-go again near Millbrae, and a smattering of riders moaned as they realized that seeing kickoff was probably not in the cards. In true sports fan fashion, a few started up a sarcastic chant to vent their frustration: "Here we go SamTrans, here we go!"
The bus eventually reached Monster Park at 7:15 p.m., more than 45 minutes behind schedule, but still earlier than thousands of cars that sat bumper-to-bumper for at least another half hour.
While a couple of first-time riders said they'd think twice before trusting SamTrans again, a rowdy group in the back of the bus seemed less concerned about the delay. A few of them had snuck a 12-pack of Bud Light on board and were happily sharing the last round with the folks around them as the bus neared the stadium.
Asked which of them had come together and which separately, one tipsy San Mateo resident said, "We're all 49ers fans. So I guess we all came together."
Copyright ©2007 San Mateo Daily News. Published 09/16/2007.