01 June 2010

Planes, Trains & Automobiles

Listening to: Ra Ra Riot, "Can You Tell."

It's ridiculous how terrible San Francisco's public transportation system is. Yes, there are a lot of options. You can take the Bay Area Rapid Transit, there exists a mythical underground metro, there are cable car trolleys for certain areas, and of course there are the buses. The lurching beasts that stop at every corner, reek of people and trash, and are packed with crazies, wild kids, or a Chinatown rush. The buses are the worst and that's before factoring in the constant delays of service and the fact that they can cease to run at any time. When people say that the public transit system in SF is amazing, I want them to visit another city immediately.

For example, just cruising London, Amsterdam, and Barcelona for a few days, the combination of trams, metros, and buses were far superior to anything SF had to offer. In a pinch, hailing a taxi was easy too. Try doing that out here, where it's usually faster to call for a cab and wait on a corner than to luck into one passing by.

And it's not like London and Barcelona are smaller cities. The population of London is almost eight million, Barcelona's is closing in on two million, and Amsterdam's about eight hundred thousand -- comparable to San Francisco's head count. Amsterdam is quite flat and everyone rides bikes and its city center is smaller than San Francisco so it gets a comparison pass because you could probably walk from end to end in about forty minutes. But what are SF's excuses when measured against London or Barcelona?

The entire San Francisco MUNI system -- including buses, BART, trolleys -- is only the seventh largest transit system in the US. It has 54 bus lines, 17 trolley lines, 7 light rail lines, and one subway tube. The buses are scheduled to operate every five to fifteen minutes during peak hours and every half an hour for late night routes. All numbers pulled from Wikipedia, which also notes that "complaints of unreliability, especially on less-often-served lines and older (pre-battery backup) trolleybus lines, are a system-wide problem." That's putting it mildly. For all that work, the MUNI services about seven hundred thousand people a day. To put that in perspective, the London Underground has eleven lines that service three million riders per day.

But don't just believe the numbers. Go visit another city and see how easy it is to pop up and down into the metro, step on a tram, or jump into a cab. There's no waiting in horrendous wind or dealing with decrepit buses. The metros in all three cities we visited were gleaming and wonderful. We never waited more than a few minutes for a train to come by, regardless of time of day or weekday/end. A nicely designed metro map told us where to be and when we would be going. It was all so simple. Also, because we were always on the move in the underground -- from track to track, escalators, etc. -- there was very little waiting so it felt like we were accomplishing forward motion. A large part of the experience of waiting for a MUNI bus is hanging around at the stop with twenty other disgruntled people. Not a fun experience.

Here's an article from Wired on "The Man Who Could Unsnarl Manhattan Traffic." It's a fascinating read and it references congestion pricing which I encountered while listening to a podcast about London. Basically, drivers who want to come into central London face paying additional fees. This money is used to add more buses, subsidize tickets for riders, and the decrease in cars entering the city causes less delays. It's an interesting idea and I'd be curious if congestion pricing ever makes it to the States.

In related news, I'm back from Europe. The trip will be detailed in due time I'm sure but most importantly, while I was gone, the Celtics took care of business and will be meeting the Lakers in the Finals starting this Thursday. Am I afraid? A little. Am I sure the Celtics will win? Yes, pretty sure. Would I have been happier to not see the Lakers? Probably. But another win over Kobe and his pretenders will be pretty sweet. I've already bet my friend a jersey and the championship DVD set so if any other Los Angeles fans want to step up, you know where to find me.

I've also decided to jump on the Argentina band wagon for the World Cup. I know next to nothing about soccer but I'm partial to the Argentina team uniforms (I bought one ten years ago during another trip through Europe) and I know who Diego Maradona is and what the Hand of God was, so that should be enough to seal my allegiance. It's important to cheer for something, otherwise you'll end up with nothing. Someone said that, I think.