Trials and Tribulations

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Wrote most of this two weeks ago, then forgot to post it. Timelapse…

San Francisco, for such a self-satisfied place, has much to learn from the rest of the world. Even dinky little podunks like Xining and small towns in Qinghai can teach the city some tricks. And while I would like to see San Francisco advance in the areas of street food, running trails, vegetable markets, and all-comers piano shops (among others), the most urgent quality-of-life service in which the city by the bay needs catching up is public transportation.

Admittedly, this post is being written amidst a major BART strike, rendering the cross-bay transportation system paralyzed. Admittedly, transit in the San Francisco area is provided by a wide range of agencies, which provide services from heavy-rail trains to cable cars to swift (if rare) ferries. But for a region which fancies itself progressive, and as such miles ahead of the rest of America on every issue, transportation here is remarkably bad at getting you where you want to go in any reasonable amount of time.

Take Muni, San Francisco’s century-old municipal transportation system, which seems mired in its Byzantinely crisscrossed system of overhead electric wires. The majority of Muni buses are powered by the wires, which spread chaotically, a massive chaos of spiderweb produced by giant, stoned arachnids. To ensure that they stay on the correct wires, buses must proceed slowly through every intersection. The cables attaching the wires to the buses frequently fall off. The buses are extremely jerky; I’ve already seen numerous old ladies go toppling to the floor as the buses start to move. And aside from the elusive “Express” and “Limited” buses (which only run during peak hours), bus stops are spaced extremely closely, often no more than one block apart, transforming what should be a routine trip across the city into a Scylla-and-Charybdis-fraught Odyssey of surprisingly epic proportions.

Take one recent venture, endured while returning from a weekend run in Marin county, an approximately 10.5 mile trip. Full disclosure: I can’t blame this one on Muni alone, as Golden Gate Transit (the major operator of buses crossing the aforementioned bridge) was also responsible for my misfortune. In the end, this journey took nearly an hour longer than my 13-mile run – and, taken altogether, was a truly ridiculous experience.

Where to start? The less-than-hourly bus that was late, causing an entire busload of passengers to miss a connection to another bus – and wait in sizzling heat in a shopping mall parking lot for nearly an hour? The combination of purposeless stops and faster-than-necessary swings around tight corners? Once on the second bus, the seemingly normal but subversively crazy seatmate, who told me about his racial-biblical theories at high volume and constantly made and remade details about his past?

Or the events following my eventual transfer to Muni in the heart of San Francisco’s Civic Center, which, as readers may know, is what could be termed an interesting neighborhood. After waiting fifteen minutes for one of three possible bus lines, I jumped aboard the 6, ready to travel the short distance back to my neighborhood. I would have walked, but I needed to get home quickly and had ignorantly assumed Muni would be the fastest method of travel. My phone – along with common sense – told me that I’d be home within ten minutes.

We traveled one block down market street, stopping at a red light. The light turned green; we remained in position, doors open, though no passengers were boarding. The doors closed; we were ready to go. The light turned red again, then green; red, green, and still we stayed where we were. The man standing next to me, clearly experiencing what us medically trained professionals call altered mental status, started yelling.

Even if I could fully remember what was screamed, I wouldn’t be able to reprint such words, which are not suitable in mixed company, let alone for the delicate, dainty ears of my exceedingly socially conscious (if small) readership. Suffice to say that Muni, the driver, the passengers, America, and pretty much the rest of the world were on his hit list. Five minutes into the rampage, the driver turned around, stretching his head around the barrier behind his seat, and started yelling back.

Again, his words were unprintable, but in short order he requested the gentleman in question to take a seat and kindly refrain from further soliloquizing. He further added that the bus upon which we had the pleasure of sitting was unfortunately temporarily unable to continue its onward journey, having instead to remain in place until a certain superior to said bus driver deigned the moment appropriate for the bus to continue its forward movement. Apologies, sincere or otherwise, were made on behalf of the transportation agency in question.

Fifteen minutes later, we started moving. Two blocks later the cables fell off the back of the bus, necessitating another stop. Three blocks uphill, the cables fell off again. Finally, I simply got off the bus. It had taken nearly forty minutes to travel just over a mile.

I am a public transportation snob, or, in International Hipsterspeak, a connoisseur. I appreciate when train transfers are timed and happen on the same platform (Hong Kong MTA, MacArthur and Oakland 19th St. BART). I appreciate when buses are frequent and redundant, allowing for convenient and option-filled travel to any point in a given area (Qinghai). I appreciate when there is easily available real-time information about arrivals and departures (most places). I appreciate when transit systems have integrated cards and fare systems that are reasonably priced, allowing the car-less traveler to arrive at their destination with pocketbook somewhat full.

Unfortunately, San Francisco has a boggling combination of Muni, Golden Gate Transit, AC Transit, Marin Transit, SamTrans, CalTrain, BART, Blue and Gold Ferries, and many more regional agencies that, aside from a skeleton cooperation in the form of the Clipper card, seem to hate each others’ guts. I’d love to see the region form a comprehensive transportation plan, including express bus services and rail, integrated and reasonably priced fare systems, and more. But as I’m not likely to live into the next geologic era, I’m not setting my expectations too high. Until that point, expect to see me standing on the Muni, a latter-day west coast Charlie, endlessly riding to and fro along the precipitously sloped crests and declivities that make up this city, endlessly unable to reach my destination.

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