Thursday, December 27, 2007

Back in the Third World

Yesterday morning I dropped off my family at SFO--I'll be joining them down south in a few days, after bach'ing it with the cat for a bit. I ostensibly should have gone to work, but servers are down that I need to do my job (honestly!) and my boss is out anyway, so I decided to go up to the City. My main objective was resume my quest for The King in Yellow, and visit McDonald's books, which advertises itself as a "Dirty Poorly Lit Place for Books", and seems likely to have it if anyone, and whose location straddling the respectability of touristy/upscale Market and the Tenderloin (Yelp reviewers caution, "just make sure to turn left when you leave"), makes it more appropriate as a solo transit adventure than a family outing.

After I finally found my car in the SFO garage (a fact that is tangental this blog, and really nobody's fault but mine--though they could mark areas with labels that are specific to the level--so that if you for example find your way back to area G36, you won't wander around for twenty minutes before realizing that there might be another area G36 above or below you... I just wanted to vent) I popped over to Millbrae to take advantage of the combined BART/CalTrain station's copious and free parking (here I always park on the 4th floor, because that's the level of the station mezzanine, and then you don't have to worry about what floor you parked on...). A few minutes later I was heading north on CalTrain. At 4th and King, I faced the eternal (apparently) dilemma of transit-enabled visitors to the City arriving by train from the peninsula--how to get to any part of town I might actually want to see? First, since no Muni vehicle or ticket machine takes credit cards, and I had no actual currency left, I went to the Safeway across the street, bought an Odwalla, and got some cash--in the strategic amount of $42.00, which left me a handy $2 in small bills to ride a bus or streetcar.

Next I returned to the corner of 4th & King, where the SF Muni has thoughtfully provided not one, but two places where you might board a streetcar to Market St. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any way to know which stop will get a car first short of either walking up to look at the NextBus signs on each platform, or else just walking out into traffic to look down the respective streets that streetcars might be coming from. I first tried the T stop on third street, but couldn't find a ticket machine. I went to the N stop on King (or rather, in the middle of the freeway offramp that dumps into King St). Here I could buy a ticket, but there was clearly no streetcar coming any time soon, so I went back to the T. NextBus informed me that the next T was in 17 minutes...

I decided to walk around the Safeway to Townsend, where you can catch a 30 or 45 trolleybus. There were several, all apparently getting in each other's way or something. After some delay.... well, I think I'm running the risk of loosing my readers here. Suffice it to say that eventually I reached McDonald's books, and they were closed.

Being denied the pleasures of a musty second hand bookshop, I decided I would visit a respectable one. I had never been to City Lights Books, and figured I might as well... the fact is, my mother has gone so far as to suggest that I'm remiss as a San Franciscan if I've never been to City Lights, and perhaps it's true. I ended up walking most of the way. It's faster than riding a 30 through Chinatown anyway. I saw the Beat Poetry Room, found a postcard and a book, and kept walking to Fisherman's Wharf where I caught an F line PCC (Boston Elevated Ry) to the ferry building.

At this point it seems natural to walk down into Embarcadero Station and catch and N or T--at least going this way, they're no guessing game--you can stand on the same platform to catch either. But long experience has taught me that riding a Muni train either into our out of the subway is often a slow and painful ordeal. Something about switching between computer control and manual puts them through fitful starts and stops. I decided to walk a couple of blocks and catch a train that had already been through all this, out in the open, at the stop next to the Cupid's Arrow statue.

NextBus said the next Muni train wouldn't be for 20 minutes. I was just about resigned to more walking, when one appeared out of the tunnel. Did NextBus think this train had already passed by? Or perhaps it looses track of trains when they transition from the subway (where it probably finds out their location from the automatic train control system) to the surface (where it tracks them by getting updates from onboard GPS). Whatever.

The T-train's progress was reasonable, until about when we hit Giants Stadium. The last couple blocks from there to CalTrain took about 15 minutes. In fact, most of that time was spent at a dead stop just before crossing the 4th & King intersection to get to my stop. I had nothing to stare at but a flyer announcing pulbic meetings about the planned Central Subway.

It seems to me like a public agency really ought to try improving service through cheap and simple means, like getting traffic laws enforced so that busses and streetcars can flow better through traffic, and trying to stop inflicting delays on passengers through one's own bungling before it has the nerve to ask the public to pony up a few billion dollars to improve service through new infrastructure. Fix the easy stuff first!

Muni could be so awesome if San Francisco just cared enough to run it well :(

At least on CalTrain I got an express, and zipped to Millbrae nonstop in much less time than it had taken to cover a mile or so on the Embarcadero.

Meanwhile, here's how my wife and daughter's journey went: We left the house at 11:15, allowing an hour to reach the airport, and the recommended two hours to check in and get through security, to catch a flight at 2:15. Sometimes allowing that whole two hours seems a little paranoid, but in this case, since they were flying with United, it was just about right. Or would have been, except that the flight was pushed out to 3:45. They reached my in-law's house in Redondo Beach about 6:00.

This is the kind of scenario that the corrupt and incompetent, but in this case correct, folks at the California High Speed Railway Authority like to point to as an illustration of the fact that high speed rail could provide shorter door-to-door travel times than flying, because train stations are just inherently more convenient to get to and get through than airports. Of course, you could have beat yesterday's travel time (6 hrs, 45 mins) driving if you didn't hit traffic. Theoretically, you could also get to LA in that time with conventional, non-bullet trains like the ones AmTrak already runs, if they were run reliably, and someone had the guts to make the UP and BNSF keep their freight trains out of the way. Again, try the cheap solutions first!

Well, I'm back! It's good to be home, but I do miss Swiss transit!


Cap'n Transit said...

Transit in the Third World is actually much better than that. It has to be because just about everyone takes it. It's only here in the US that it's that bad.

295bus said...

I admit I'm just kind of throwing out the term third world without thinking about it too much.

There's a lot of variety in 3rd world transit, ranging from Mexico City's excellent subway, to fairly broken down and barely running rail systems, to the gobs of really dirt poor cities that just have hordes of privately operated busses.

The main fault I see about US transit generally and Bay Area transit specifically is a lack of commitment to dealing with the details that actually make it useful. Sometimes this is a lack of investment. Sometimes it's unwillingness to do anything that migh ruffle feathers (like making bus-only lanes at the expense of car lanes or parking). Sometimes it's just really bad planning, either when an expensive new system is built that doesn't go where people need to, or because there is just no coordination between transit and land use.

The failures of US transit probably have more in common with the failures of the former Soviet block (referring to their entire economic system, not transit, which they seem to have been fairly good at)--heavy handed top-down planning, inattention to detail, and disregard for what people really want and need.

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