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.


Friday, October 8, 2010

Dear Nathaniel Ford - Staring at the Screen

Dear Nathaniel Ford,
I remember when the flat panel screens started appearing in Muni stations a couple of years ago. Folks waiting on the platform had plenty of time to speculate about what your coming network might show. Would it be soothing images of waves? Big Brother admonishments to line up and be quiet? Keystone Kops videos?

Nobody predicted that you'd actually show rail activity, but that was, apparently, the intent.

I've started photographing the screens at various times. Like on Monday when a group of French teens stood, giggling, in front of the one in Powell station. They were betting when the screen would update. It had been static for six minutes and a boy name Pierre was winning.

Here's what it looked like:

Then just after I took the picture, it reverted to the screen that we frequent riders are used to:

What's funny, besides the French kids' ability to make something so quotidian amusing, is that anyone with a smart phone (that's about 45% of all SF adults) can download any one of about a dozen apps that convey this info. And they never go temporarily offline.

For those without smart phones - or giant panel t.v.'s - a quick call to next muni does the trick.

It makes me wonder, Nathaniel, how much time and money is spent on these screens and the feeds that go into them.

You know what would be great, Nathaniel?

If instead of expensive, broken technology (see Clipper), Muni focussed on basic customer services, like friendly informative staff and customer-driven decision making.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Dear Nathaniel Ford - Another Friday Night

Dear Nathaniel Ford,

While I was waiting for the train tonight, I thought of a riddle:
How is Muni like a frat brother?
It's guaranteed to be f-ed up most Friday nights.

Really. Tonight I arrived at Powell after a very long week and a very difficult day. 7:15 p.m. on a Friday, Nathaniel, and the platform was so crowded that folks were starting to get hinky. It felt like one of those potentially explosive moments. Apparently the N hadn't passed through in more than 20 minutes.

The flat screen was, as it has been all week, temporarily out of service. Didn't matter. provided us all with the big picture. It looked like there were maybe 20 trains actually running in the entire system.

SFGate says that a crash was the cause of this Friday's meltdown, but, at the risk of seeming paranoid, I have to say that seems a bit suspect. The drivers are going nuts because the city wants them to be treated like regular workers who have to call in sick and pay for parking and have a limited number of days off. That's what my fellow passengers were grumbling about.

You know what would be really great Nathaniel?

If your passengers could really believe it when a crisis occurs. But we're all starting to think that catastrophe is just another word for Friday down at SFMTA.

I guess that the good news is that the Giants have closed the lead on the Padres as I write this. Hopefully their fans will be able to get home.