Thursday, October 25, 2007


I feel validated this morning! As we proceeded on a fairly crowded L from Powell to Montgomery, the train stalled in the tunnel. Passengers checked their watches and prepared to groan. Then the driver came on the p.a.

"Through no fault of my own, there's heavy traffic in the tunnel this morning. We'll be moving again in three minutes," he said. "I'll keep you posted."

The driver's voice was mellifluous and his tone was verging on humorous. The groans were stifled and, all around me, passengers smiled. We returned to our reading materials and three minutes later proceeded to Montgomery.

Cost of this experience: $0.

The driver's quick and personable update soothed his passengers and we disembarked three minutes behind schedule, but unirritated.

Today's Stats:
Wait time: 3 minutes
Ride time: 19 minutes (including our 3 minute delay!)
Muni Reading: Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje
Irritation level: Zero! Plus the Red Sox won last night. A bonus.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Problem with Ballot Measures

Let me just get this out there. I am a firm - some might say strident - believer in representational democracy. I believe that "voter driven" ballot measures give elected officials an easy out when it comes time to make a stand that may not be popular. A good case in point this week was Arnold Schwarzenegger. He vetoed a gay marriage bill, citing Prop. 22, the 2000 ballot measure that "defined" marriage as between a man and a woman, rather than any personal beliefs.

Here's a ballot scenario:
Let's call it Prop 1863.
Proponents promoted "Cheap Labor" and "Strong Economy" and "Diversity in the Workforce" and voters (all white men) said, "YES!"
Then Abe Lincoln says, "Actually, I can't sign the emancipation proclamation because the voters have said they want slavery to continue."

Ballot measures are marketed to voters and funded by businesses. Voters can be lazy and they don't look at what these marketing slogans really mean and who benefits from these measures. It's big money.

So this morning, as I waited for my train, a very earnest guy was handing out fliers for Prop A - a measure that he promised would, "Improve Muni and make it more reliable." The flier says, "Clean Air, Better Muni." Well who wouldn't want that, right? The Yes on Prop A site promises, "$26 million per year -- $300 million over 10 years – without fare hikes or tax increases."

I like clean air, faster commutes and investment in infrastructure. I like that idea that more people will ride public transport if it gets better. What I don't like is that the bill's sponsors are taking the easy way out. Why not raise fares and taxes to pay for stuff? When things are free, they are valued less. This measure is to be funded by parking fees. Not your typical regressive tax for sure, but it will still come with higher costs and higher administrative fees.

Muni is spectacularly cheap. My monthly pass - after my tax break - costs about $41.00. I suspect that a majority of monthly pass holders would be willing to bear a slightly higher cost (say $50) for better service. But no elected officials are willing to say, "Hey riders, downtown parkers, and tax payers, all of you need to help bear the costs for infrastructure investments in our public transport."

That's what a true progressive would do, but instead they're busy printing up fliers and paying earnest campaigners to get convince citizens that they're voting for "Clean Air" and "Better Muni."

Today's Stats:

Wait time: 5 minutes
Ride time: 18 minutes
Muni Reading: The San Francisco voters guide.
Irritation level: The ride was fine, but these ballot measures really piss me off.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Sickout = Better Commute?

Yesterday a whole bunch of Muni Inspectors and Supervisors called in sick because of a contract dispute. I'm not sure what Inspectors and Superviors do, but in their absence, "Muni brass scrambled to fill the ranks."

Nobody I know experienced any delays in service yesterday as all the chairs of "Muni brass" emptied and these folks hit the streets to actually ensure that buses and trains did what they're supposed to do - pick people up and drop people off. The Muni management is threatening to fire the workers who called in sick - more 21st century union busting. (bad)

But union politics aside, it would be interesting to see what would happen if Muni acted like a 21st century private corporation and actually eliminated positions. Maybe they could start with the brass. With all those folks out from behind desks and occupied with the actual business of transporting people, maybe things would run more smoothly. Hmmmm.

Today's Stats:
Wait time: 1 minute
Ride time: 15 minutes
Muni Reading: New Yorker - Jerome Groopman on brain function in persistent vegetative state people. Seems like these discoveries will spark a whole new wave of Terry Schiavo type protest - but really interesting. Or, in a more perfect world, discussion about what consciousness means and how it makes us human. A girl can hope.
Irritation level: None at all. (If you don't count this crap weather.)

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Muni 3-Step

The little stall area near the door is an attractive space to stand on a crowded Muni train. You're not pushing against an irritated person in a seat and you can generally reach some sort of handrail when the riding gets rough. But with this space comes great responsibility.

Are you reading this grumpy woman with the curly hair? Are you reading this sullen teen with the infected eyebrow piercing?

You are standing in a major traffic thoroughfare and you must act accordingly. When the train pulls in to a station, step off and to the side. That way, your fellow passengers can easily exit without jostling you. And you can stop muttering about being jostled. It's simple.

Step off, step the side, step back on. And if you choose not to do the Muni 3-step, please stop complaining when you're jostled. It's your fault. You are in the way in a public place.

That rant out, I will say that I experienced a very entertaining driver this morning. I think that he must be experimenting with cadence and sentence structure, as if he were the Thelonious Monk of Muni. I'll try to convey the oddity of his station announcements:
arrrivING. ciVIC CENNNNNter. now. we'rehere. CIviccenTER. CITTTTYYYY hall.

Today's Stats:
Wait time: 5 minutes - three too full trains passing. Not bad for a rainy day.
Ride time: 15 minutes - I believe we could have shaved off a minute and a half if everyone practiced the Muni 3-Step
Muni Reading: New Yorker - Hendrik Hertzberg on Hillary's laugh. He is a fantastic writer. Sort of like a stern but avuncular social studies teacher.
Irritation level: HIGHthenlOW. Thanks Thelonious.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Catching Up

So it turned out that last week's meltdown was due to a power line that fell down in the tunnel. The Muni spokesowman in this article apologized profusely, blah blah blah. Nice sentiment. The thing that really got me though, was this detail: "Metro service was interrupted around 7 a.m."

When I got to the train at a little after 8 a.m., the station agent shrugged and muttered something about slow trains. By 8 a.m., I had already listened to three different morning radio stations, all of which updated me on weather, traffic, local news and sports. If Muni knew at 7 a.m. that 30,000 people where going to be affected by this power line, why the hell didn't they alert the media. A simple message on the radio could divert at least some of those people onto buses, or taxis, or encourage them to walk. It would be proactive. It would be informative. It would stop people from begin pissed off and put out.

Maybe Muni could consider allowing people to sign up for text alerts. That would be a great leap forward that COSTS NEXT TO NOTHING.

Anyway, on to today. For a Monday, the ride was very smooth. But for the second time in as many days (I rode the N on Sunday), the air conditioning was at full blast. I felt like I was riding in the refrigerator car. I guess it woke me up.

Today's Stats:
Wait time: 1 minute
Ride time: 12 minutes
Muni Reading: Some Fun, a short story collection by Antonya Nelson. Really good stories, but a bit grim. I will never live in El Paso.
Irritation level: Low. Chilly.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007


"Is there a problem?" I asked the station agent.

The platform in Castro station looked like a sci-fi film - perhaps a cautionary tale about overpopulation.

The agent shrugged, pressed his intercom button and yelled at a woman who was carrying a lapdog to show her pass for the animal. I repeated my query.

"Trains are slow," he mumbled, giving another shrug.

A garbled announcement came over the p.a. informing us that there was a problem in the tunnel between Van Ness and Church. Something, something, something. Trains are running very slowly. More info than the station agent was willing to provide.

The announcement prompted an exodus from the station to the waiting F train. Many of us exited the F at Civic Center and rode BART the rest of the way downtown. I wonder if there's a correlation between Muni service levels and BART riders who use Muni passes?

Today's Stats:
Wait time: 15 minutes
Ride time: 22 minutes
Muni Reading: The New Yorker with the hilarious "Narrow Stance" cover. Seymour Hersch scares the crap out me every time, but I'm glad to have him.
Irritation level: Extremely high. A little information and honesty would go a long way.

Monday, October 8, 2007


Like many who live in the Castro, I opted to leave my car in its spot on Sunday and take Muni everywhere. The Castro Street Fair brings throngs to the 'hood, with every available spot taken from noon until revelers come home.

We passed through the fair on our way to the very cool Bluegrass Festival. This year there were a lot of green-oriented booths and businesses. Ironically, this morning, neighborhood looks anything but green with fliers, smeared food, plastic cups, broken glass and styrofoam packing peanuts littering the streets. Aren't the fair organizers supposed to clean up?

Anyway, back to yesterday. I have to say that with all the events in town, I was anticipating nightmarish travel conditions, but all was well. We took the N Judah out to Golden Gate Park and the 5 Fulton back. The drivers were friendly and the crowds were good-natured. Go figure.

Today's Stats:
Wait time: 2 minutes
Ride time: 12 minutes
Muni Reading: The New Yorker with the hilarious "Narrow Stance" cover.
Irritation level: Zero. (Holiday?)

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Cause & Effect?

On Monday, I wrote about the new flat panel screens that are supposed to give Muni passengers detailed information about trains. As of this morning, I still haven't seen a single one working. Most have a standard windows message: This page contains secure and non secure items. Do you wish to continue?

Click yes and the page is updated. Do nothing, and well.... Maybe Muni has a requisition out for someone to click yes. Can I get that job?

Having suffered through statistics in college, I understand cause and effect, and logically I realize that the presence of these silly and redundant screens likely has little effect on Muni's efficiency. But....

Ever since the screens went up, the trains have been all screwed up. Weeks of smooth rides have given way to completely unreliable service.

Yesterday I had to take a taxi after learning that trains were "running, but slowly because something happened between Powell and Embarcadero." I exited the station, thinking that I'd just get the F streetcar, but there was no streetcar in sight. I shared a cab with a nice guy.

I had a mid-day Muni opportunity as I was meeting a friend for lunch at Embarcadero. I figured I'd save a few minutes by hopping on one of the six Muni lines that pass through Montgomery, only to find that the next train wasn't due in the station for 15 minutes. WTF? BART and got me there in seconds.

Yesterday's trifecta was complete with a classic Muni meltdown in the afternoon. A 2:00 accident at Sloat & 19th had snarled all traffic on the western side of the city. I checked NextMuni before my evening commute and saw that nearly every KL and M was stuck on the other side of the accident site and that other trains were stalled in downtown stations. Why, if everyone in the city knows that the intersection is shut down and will be for hours, would the Muni people keep sending trains into traffic Hell? Why not shuttle them between West Portal and Downtown and at least keep some passengers moving?

Perhaps the managers were huddled around a computer screen, trying to figure out how to click the YES button on their new toy.

Again, I took BART, taking advantage of the little-known perk - MUNI PASSES WORK ON BART as long as you begin and end your ride within SF. (Balboa - Embarcadero.) I had a nice walk home from the Mission on a lovely evening.

So.... this morning. Once again the trains are screwy. A T enters Castro station. The disembodied voice announces, "This train will not stop." Nobody moves. The train stops. The doors open for long enough that a sprite might have been able to pass. The doors close. The train sits there for a couple of minutes, then departs.

A few minutes later, an L arrives. We get on. It stopped in the tunnel 4 times. No explanation. Just sitting there.

Maybe our driver was thinking about the flat panels screens. Maybe she was thinking about how that expense might have gone toward her salary, or more trains, or better managers who can actually keep her passengers happy. Maybe she was stuck on Taraval for hours yesterday, and she was still in a bad mood.

Cause and effect? It's starting to make sense.

Today's Stats:
Wait time: 12 minutes
Ride time: 22 minutes
Muni Reading: The New Yorker fashion issue. I finished the article on Donatella Versace. The part about the ballet she commissioned to honor Gianni made me weepy. I must have PMS. Or maybe it's the flat panel screens.
Irritation level: High. These screens are bugging me. So are the stats.

Monday, October 1, 2007


This morning, a large flat panel video screen greeted us Castro Commuters. Presumably, it will provide us with exact train locations from West Portal to Embarcadero. I also fear that it will be used to deliver important advertising info to its captive audience. As of this morning, though, it was displaying the stations and a windows error screen.

Its presence sparked a few questions:
1. Why do we need this? We have the hanging screens and soothing female voice that announce train activity pretty accurately.
2. How long before this thing is working?
3. How long before it is stolen?

As with all things Muni, the answers may reveal themselves in due time.

After pondering the sign for a few minutes, I hopped onto a Castro Shuttle. The air conditioning was at full blast. It's a little chilly this morning and train was like a refrigerator car. Why? As I type, my icy fingers are thawing.

Today's Stats:
Wait time: 5 minutes
Ride time: 15 minutes
Muni Reading: The New Yorker fashion issue in which I found out that Donatella Versace has her 'staff' cover the surgeon general's warning on her cigarettes with an embossed DV sticker. She is delightfully freaky.
Irritation level: None. But if the trains start running late because flat panel screens are needlessly being installed in stations, then I'll be very irritated.