Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Dear Nathaniel Ford - Enjoy Your Family

Dear Nathaniel Ford,
Oh my! Word has just gotten out that my city will be giving you a big bucket of money so that you can spend more time with your family.

$384,000 will get you a lot of time with your family, Nathaniel. And congratulations on that lifetime of subsidized healthcare and FREE rides on muni for you and that beautiful family. I'm sure that you'll enjoy it.

You know what, Nathaniel? I'm not enjoying time with my family right now. And I think you can guess why. It's because my son is sitting at the Muni stop at Stonestown waiting for an M train. It's been 35 minutes already, and a train is due in just 14 more minutes.

Of course, this won't happen to you. You'll be with your family while you wait. Or maybe you all can just jump into a taxi. $384,000 goes a long way.

You commented tonight that it's been a "great experience" leading Muni. Allow me to make it more concise, Nathaniel. For your passengers, it's been simply an experience.

Enjoy that family time, Nat. And godspeed. We'll never forget your contributions to the city.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Dear Nathaniel Ford - It's Been a While

Dear Nathaniel Ford,

Forgive my poor correspondence over the past few months. It's not for lack of subject matter. Why, just yesterday, I stood at Embarcadero Station waiting for a T-Sunnydale while a driver exited the train and joked with a station agent that he needed to get some smokes. An N Judah, crowded with passengers, waited at the edge of the platform while the driver disappeared for a bit and came back laughing. He took his time getting settled in to his seat before moving the train forward. Imagine the people who stared longingly at the platform as they waited to jump 20 feet forward before the doors could open. Maybe some of them wanted a smoke too.

And that's not all, Nathaniel. Even though I walk to work in the morning, I'm still subjected to the maddening evening  commute in which the trains "self bunch" as they exit Embarcadero. J-J-J-N-N-L. Ah, the poor J rider who misses those three will wait 30 minutes before another trio emerges.

But today, Nathaniel, I encountered a whole new world of commuter woe. Masses of confused seniors, sullen teens, and angry moms found that they were unable to purchase their monthly passes without providing documentation proving their ages. The oft-delayed Clipper program has finally arrived. Today the staffers at Walgreens tried to explain why IDs were now necessary to purchase the passes that have been available to any citizen. Cheerful Clipper Commodores (the name is mine) attempted to decipher the byzantine process that around 75,000 youths and seniors must navigate in order to get their discounts.

Here's a snippet of my dialogue with Commodore Joseph:
Joseph: "All you need to do is fill out an application and you'll get the  youth pass in a couple of weeks."
Me: "If it takes two weeks to process a youth pass, will the monthly fare be pro-rated?"
Joseph: "The rate is $20 per month, but you need to have an ID for the youth and not a school ID."
Me: "What kind of ID?"
Joseph: "Only a passport or a birth certificate."
Me: "And if it takes two weeks to process, will they still charge me for the whole month?"
Joseph: "It's still a discount."
Me: "In the meanwhile, how does my son get his discount?"
Joseph: "The buses still accept the discount fare."
Me: "So he can get on the bus, pay 75 cents, get a transfer, and then take the subway?"
Joseph: "He has to ride at least one stop, but yeah."
Me: "But if he just wants to get on the subway, he has to pay two bucks."
Joseph: "Until you get a birth certificate and show it to us so we can make his pass."

Nathaniel, let's face facts. There are many thousands of citizens in San Francisco who cannot produce a birth certificate or passport in order to ride the subway to school, or to the senior center for a free lunch.  President Obama is trying to pass the Dream Act for them.  (Come to think of it, President Obama also thought that producing a birth certificate to satisfy seemingly capricious demands was stupid.)

Sure, there are probably hundreds of citizens who will grab granny's passport and show it in order to get a discounted Clipper card for themselves. The former suffer. The latter only get caught if they fail to notice the fare police before turning in the other direction.

Don't even get me started on the hundreds of kids who can no longer get a free muni pass so they can get to school.

You know what would be great, Nathaniel?

If the Clipper program were actually about making transport more convenient for all. But it's not. It's inconvenient. And, at its core, it's unfair to the San Franciscans who need equality the most.

Tomorrow, I shall begin the process of getting a youth Clipper card for my enfranchised child. I'll let you know how it goes.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Dear Nathaniel Ford - A New Year?

Dear Nathaniel,
I've been such an unfaithful correspondent lately, but I don't want you to believe that it's not because I don't think of you often. In fact, I find myself invoking your name frequently; it's similar to how I invoke Jesus, with a sense of frustration and futility, but with a tiny glimmer of hope that perhaps I'll be heard.

Did you hear me on Friday evening, Nathaniel? It was such a beautiful night with the moon illuminating the balmy streets, filling the hopeful hearts of San Franciscans. We couldn't wait to get home, shed the quotidian cares of the week, and get our parties started. But we had to.

Entering Montgomery Street station at 6:30, I found little space on the platform and, while inbound trains abounded, outbound trains were not in sight. A helpful announcement crackled over the platform, and those who can make out messages challenged by poor P.A. systems, a thick accent, and the howls of angry commuters may have made out more than, "problem with outbound..." That's all I needed to hear.

I ascended the stairs and hopped on the F, making my 7 mile per hour way home. During that ride, I invoked both you and Jesus. I even gave you the same middle name.

Nathaniel, dysfunction is endemic in your system. Where is the pride? How hard is this? New Yorkers, whose system is geometrically larger and more complex than ours, accepted poor service in the midst of a giant blizzard. Here ins San Francisco, we're asked to accept abysmal service in the following conditions:

  • Rain
  • Heat
  • Wind
  • Baseball season
  • Fridays
  • Holidays
  • Evenings
  • Mornings

It's a shame that commuters don't commute on pleasant Tuesday afternoons during basketball season and stay home the rest of the time.

I understand that you're soon to be fully vested in our city's astonishingly generous pension plan. It's been five years Nathaniel and you'll now enjoy a lifetime of salary, health insurance and even free rides on Muni. It seems like this has been your primary goal for these five long years. Isn't it time to let someone else give it a go?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Dear Nathaniel Ford - Remain Calm (or not)

What do you think happens when a jam-packed Muni train suddenly emits a loud bang and then begins listing? Did you guess panic? If you did, you’d be right. Or maybe you were on the same Castro Shuttle that I was on when a big bang/listing event occurred in Civic Center Station during the morning commute. 

The panic was mild, as panics go, but still, folks were pushing to exit the train.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been in a situation in which a crowd panicked. I was once on a packed ferry in bad weather when a wave broke through the window and water started pouring into the lower compartment of the boat. But there was a big difference in that situation. Because the VERY FIRST THING that the captain and crew did, was to remind everyone NOT TO PANIC. Sure, cold water in the middle of the ocean on a stormy night is scary, but having a reasonable voice tell you, “Please remain calm” has the effect of calming folks down.
After that initial message, people were still afraid and cold, but nobody was bashing into other people. The guy who was ripping open the life vest box set about his work more methodically. The crush of people on the stairs to the upper deck eased as people came to their senses. We all remained safe from the water, the weather, and each other. 

This morning was nothing like that. After the loud bang, the listing car, and the big dust cloud that looked like smoke, nobody said, “Please remain calm.” In fact, the train could have been driverless, given the level of intervention. Even as passengers began to shove against one another in a rush to exit, the driver still didn’t say anything. Nor did he fix it so that the doors stayed open. He did nothing. 

Nathaniel, when I exited the train, I noticed the driver chatting with a security guard who had arrived on the scene. The driver had a wry expression on his face. The two men continued to chat as passengers streamed out of the station, seeking other means of transport to work. My fear and concern gave way to rage, as I watched this bemused driver sit there chatting. Did he not notice the crying children, the panicked passengers, the big dust cloud that looked like smoke? More likely, he did notice, but he just didn’t care.

You know what would be really good, Nathaniel?

A simple statement. A tiny piece of information. Something that could calm passengers down. Clearly, the driver was not alarmed as he chatted with the security guard. Just as clear was his disregard for his passengers. That driver felt no sense of duty or responsibility for us. 

A sense of duty and responsibility costs nothing. It happens when organizations instill a specific cultural point of view in their employees, partners, and customers. How about if you give it a try? Ideally, before a real emergency occurs.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Dear Nathaniel Ford - This is Broken

Dear Nathaniel Ford,

I'm sure you saw today's Chronicle piece in which our Board of Supervisors questioned whether Muni is actually ready to phase out the paper fast pass. Maybe you even attended the meeting?

Nathaniel, please remember that your organization is a service business. Service businesses succeed when they listen to their customers. Sometimes it might even mean admitting that they made a mistake.
The Gap even manager to turn their logo debacle into a kind of cool mistake. Gap's not alone. Many many others have experienced similar fails. Remember New Coke? Remember the redesigned Tropicana logo?
Each of my examples here has  one thing in common. When they woke up and started listening to their customers, they realized that they'd fixed the thing that wasn't broken.
I wonder if you and your cohorts in the MTA have ever, in the past two years, sat back and asked yourselves, "Is Clipper right for our passengers? Does it solve an essential problem for them?"

You know what would be great, Nathaniel? 

If you ASKED your customers if they need Clipper, instead of telling them that they do. When I visited your office a few weeks back, the Clipper people kept telling me how much easier it would be. Perhaps that's true, but getting a Muni pass was not hard to start with so any improvement is only incremental, especially when you consider the expense and the operational gaps that Clipper doesn't address.

Sometimes people just flock to things because they're good and they work. The Metro Card in New York was like a miracle compared with those heavy little tokens. FastTrak visibly speeds the commute.

All Clipper seems to do is, well, the exact same thing that the FastPass did but with an added layer of expense and complexity.

Maybe by listening to your customers you can figure out how to make us like Clipper, instead of just ignore it.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Dear Nathaniel Ford - HAL

Dear Nathaniel Ford,

I thought you’d be interested in yesterday’s morning commute. I got to Castro station a little late – at around 9:10 and I thought that the commute to work would be simple since rush hour was surely over.  Imagine my surprise when I found a platform that was completely full. People were spilling back to the stairs. The daring were jockeying for position on the yellow strip, apparently anticipating the imminent arrival of a train.
Eventually, a two-car L arrived and we huddled masses surged to the train. Some 40 minutes later, we hobbled into Civic Center, where we sat at the west end of the platform. A grumble erupted. The crowd, already irritated grew irate. 

Finally, our driver, silent until now, made an announcement. “The computer is controlling the train. The doors in the back won’t open.”

Nathaniel, did you ever see the move 2001: A Space Odyssey? If you have, you would know that an evil computer named HAL takes over a space ship. The situation was ripe for a joke, but it JUST WASN’T FUNNY. We were stuck, crowded, late, and IN THE STATION. Nobody laughed. Nobody made HAL jokes. Instead, people began shouting, “Open the f-ing doors.” It got heated, Nathaniel. 

After a couple of minutes, the driver agreed to come and manually open the door. He warned us that he’d only open the front door, and that he’d only hold it open for a minute so if we were to get off, we had to do so fast.

We exited the train like so many Chilean miners, anxious to breath the air.

Outside, we found sardine-can F-trains and packed buses making their way up Market Street on impromptu Express routes. Puzzled tourists wondered if they’d ever get to Fisherman’s Wharf. Disgruntled passengers wondered if they’d ever get to work. 

I walked the five blocks to my office, formulating an algebraic equation that might be able to calculate the economic impact of the morning’s screwed up commute. 

X = the average wage of each worker
Y = the average productivity of each worker
A = the hourly expenditure of each tourist at Fisherman’s Wharf
B = the likelihood that any given tourist will choose to go to Chicago or New York or Boston or LA, for goodness sake. (Because all of these cities have functional and reliable public transit systems.)
60 cars per hour, each ½ hour late = 30 hours for the three hours of morning commute, or 90 hours.
Each car carries 100 people, 75% of whom are workers and 25% of whom are tourists.

90*(75 (50 xy) + 25(A/B)) = Impact

Nathaniel, I’m no math genius. But if you plug in $20/hour and $35/hour productivity for workers, and $35/hour spending on tourists and even just a 25% likelihood that they’re not coming back, that means that impact of the “computer controlling the train” is $1,669,410. And that’s just for one morning.
Based on your own salary, or even that of one of your drivers, I think you’d agree with me that these numbers are on the conservative side. And my equation is rudimentary. 

A computer like HAL could probably get a better equation, but he’s got better things to do. Like maybe control the train.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Dear Nathaniel Ford - A Riddle

Dear Nathaniel Ford,
This was a rough week for us Muni riders. The heat seems to produce delays that make our platforms too crowded and our trains too slow. I chose to find my zen.

Like when I rode the F train home on Wednesday. Sure, it took 40 minutes instead of the 12 it would take on the L, but I met a nice tourist and gave him advice about where to go in the Castro.

Best of all, I thought up a new Muni riddle:
How is Muni like a teenage girl?
It travels in packs and is completely unpredictable.