public transit riders: we feel your pain

Hey everyone,

As promised, we go light for at least a few essays, unless earth shattering events hit the news.

Hopefully, the widespread (in North America) AT&T internet access outage of yesterday (8/7/12) did not affect you.  It did affect us, but we are back up live now.  And, now there appears to be some unresolved collective bargaining issues with AT&T and its various unions.  Coincidence?  Convenient coincidence?

This essay is for those public or mass transit riders and commuters in Europe and North America and in Australia who likely or certainly, at times, have encountered frustrating problems and delays in their daily journeys to and from work or school.

For several years we (my wife and I) commuted to work in the financial district of San Francisco, that most “progressive” of American cities, by the municipal railway.  This street car system is part of the municipal transit authority that runs the many bus routes throughout the city as well.  It is not so affectionately known to city residents as “Muni”.

One late Spring morning, likely in 1998 or 1999, I encountered (Lucy always used a different street car line and went to work earlier in the day) a major delay at West Portal station.  This station is where 3 (of the city’s five) different surface street car lines converge to go underground and proceed (with several station stops) all the way to downtown.  (West Portal is located generally in the southwest/south central portion of the city and the financial district is in the northeast tip of the city near to the bay.)  Delays on Muni were nothing new.  One becomes accustomed to them and learns, or has to learn, patience and temperance when such delays occur.

The inbound concrete platform was full to capacity this sunny morning with standing and some sitting commuters, perhaps as many 175  to 200 or more persons.  Nothing was moving inbound.  All of a sudden, we hear loud shouting from further down the platform directed at some nearby Muni employees.

“We pay taxes in this city for this system, and every Friday morning you f_ _k it up!!!”

Quickly, I moved to gain a view of this irate, young man.  He went on for a few more moments but did not say anything more that was memorable.  The Muni employees who were the targets for his invective, as per their training, simply ignored him and pretended not to hear.  (To them, he might as well have been a bird chirping in the morning sun.)

Upon hearing this outburst,  I simply had to laugh and did so.  Not at the frustration that he and the rest of us rightly felt, but rather that he was the only one among us that gave voice to that frustration.  Glancing around at many of the other nearby commuters who had heard his shouts, one could see expressions of resignation or perhaps even exasperation on their faces.  This young man proved he had a heart beat, and was more alive than many of the others around him.

Since he had specifically mentioned “every Friday morning”, the thought occurred to me that he may have been – due to these frequent delays – in the difficult position of having to explain to his supervisor at work why he was frequently late for work on Friday mornings. His boss was probably finding it hard to believe that the public transit was always to blame.  The boss may have thought to himself or herself that the real cause was this young man not being able to wait until Friday night to party and get drunk or high, and was partying on Thursday evenings and was thus not in good condition for getting up for work on Friday mornings.

A co-worker of mine a few years before, who was also a street car commuter on another line, said that he thought the city authorities ought to move all these unreliable street cars to Golden Gate Park, rip out all the seats and turn the metal shells into shelters for the city’s homeless population.  This rather cynical middle-aged man also joked that the street cars had been manufactured by a helicopter company that had never gotten off the  ground.

Often times, you would get 2 cars coupled together for the line you wanted to take.  2 cars meant more probability of securing a sear for your journey.  But, this was not always the case.  One rainy and misty late summer morning, as we stood at a car stop for an inbound streetcar, there was a long delay with no street cars coming in to pick us up.  There were not any viable alternatives to the street car line at this location, so we continued to wait with growing impatience.  The temptation passed through my mind to go back to our flat, call the boss and claim that I felt under the poor weather, then undress and go back to bed.  Ah, being of a rather conscientious bent, I continued my vigil at the street car stop.

After we did not know how long, a car appeared in the distance.  Slowly, stopping to pick up our fellow commuters every 2 blocks, it made its way to us.  When it finally reached us, one young man gave vent to some of his understandable frustration by shouting to the effect “We wait this long, and they only give us one car!”  Needless to say, it was packed like the proverbial sardine can. The highest human population densities are achieved on Muni streetcars in San Francisco when there have been earlier service delays on a morning or evening weekday commute.  Tokyo, Hong Kong, Bombay and Sao Paolo fall far short of these records.

The most frustrating events of all were when, for little or no apparent reason(s), street cars were taken out of service at various points along the line.  This is when you had to be ready for an adventure in getting to work.  When cars were taken out of service at one of the four downtown stations, you could quite easily cope by going down one level and using the BART (for “Bay Area Rapid Transit”) trains (coming from the suburbs south of the city) to go the last 2 or 3 stops to your destination.

But, cars could be taken out of service prior to getting to the underground part of the system.  When riding the other main line from the Sunset District where we lived, this was a more serious challenge.  This other line did not enter the underground at the same point as the other lines; and if the car you were on was taken out of service it often meant a greater distance for you to cover to get to the underground stations.  Then we commuters (refugees) would disembark and fan out in our attempts to make it to bus lines that might, by a round about route, take us downtown, or we could try for the nearest underground station that would offer cars coming in from other lines to get us to work.  Many times, we trudged through the streets of San Francisco in search of alternate means of getting to our jobs.  We did this usually in silence and often times under overcast, darkened winter morning skies.  It was eerie.  It seemed surreal.  We could have been the subject for a surrealist or impressionist painting.

We must end as we want to keep this essay light and not let it get heavy for the readers.  We include several images for you to view.

Accidents do happen.  The photo below is courtesy of fogcityjournal.com.

Muni fast passes are courtesy of sanfrancisco.about.com.  Good for one calendar month of riding.

This photo (below) is looking outbound at West Portal station in the late afternoon.  Courtesy of showbus.com.

Here is one car above ground on the N Judah (Street) line.  Photo courtesy of showbus.com.

West Portal station looking outbound with an inbound street car entering the station.  Note the newer cars.  Photo is courtey of showbus.com.

This photo (below) is courtesy of sfappeal.com.

This is what some of the underground stations look like.  This pic is by kind courtesy of adamahata.wordpress.com.

This photo (below) of an above ground station is courtesy of roughlydrafted.com.

This last photo (of an outbound street car) is a nice one and is courtesy of californiabeat.org.

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