The City of Stolen Time

waiting for the train
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If you don’t live in San Francisco or care about city infrastructure, skip this post. I am compelled by my own impotent rage to document the abject absurdity of commuting in this city. This is anecdotal and subjective in nature; for statistics, please see Joe Eskenazi and Greg Dewar’s excellent SF Weekly article, “The Muni Death Spiral”.

Today the N-Judah train I was riding during rush hour stopped at Church and Duboce due to “train control problems”. (For those of you who do not commute in San Francisco, that stop is the last above-ground stop for the N, meaning that all the commuters trying to get downtown and to the Caltrain station are out of luck.) Above-ground, all the F-Market trains and shuttle buses were packed. I did not even bother walking into the Church Street station to see what the K, L, and M were like. I walked the mile and change to Civic Center, which, in and of itself, did not bother me; I enjoy walking, and I rarely see that part of town on foot.

What bothered me is that I left my house early specifically to get to work early and instead I was a half-hour late.

To review: I am a city employee. I take the city’s public transit in order to get to work. My job, like many jobs, is dependent on me being on time. On days like today, public transit fails in such a way that I am late for work.

And because I am a city employee, I do not have a flexible schedule — regardless of what SFGate.com comments state — so either I end up taking a shorter lunch break or I stay late to make up the time. In the former case, I have less time to decompress during the day; in the latter, I have less time to decompress at the end of it.

This city is stealing my time, half-hour by half-hour.

Since August of 2006, I have paid a flat monthly fee for the idea of a train or bus taking me 5 miles one way in a reasonable amount of time. I say “the idea” because this unicorn of transit has only appeared with any regularity when I worked the evening shift for several months. On a Tuesday morning, I would leave the Outer Sunset at 10:15 to get to Civic Center by 10:45. The trains rarely filled up by the time they hit the underground, and I would have 15 minutes to make a cup of tea before my day began.

But that was not rush hour, and most commuting happens during rush hour, when Muni often fails. I have seen nearly-empty N-Judah trains ramble outbound through the Outer Sunset during rush hour with no inbound counterparts in sight. That means the trains are stacking up at Ocean Beach and squatting there during rush hour when people are trying to get to work. In my case, it means I am trying to get to work for the same city that thwarts my commute multiple times a week.

My only options are:

  1. Commute by alternate means. I no longer own a car, so I would need to walk (a Google-estimated trip of 100 minutes) or bike to work. Before you tell me all about the health benefits of walking and bicycle-riding, let me tell you about my will to live. My trust in San Franciscan drivers was soundly smacked from me in 2005 when I was hit by a truck while crossing an intersection on foot. I had the right of way. The truck didn’t stop, and neither did any other commuting human after I stumbled across the rest of the road and collapsed on the sidewalk. Although my injuries were minor, I now live with chronic pain in my right forearm. The accident gave me some serious perspective, especially on what I am willing to do in regards to my personal safety.
  2. Leave 90 minutes before I am scheduled to work, leaving a cushion three times the length of a normal commute. The only pro to this option is that I will theoretically create such a large cushion that no Muni failure could impact my start time. (Although I know better, because I have experienced one-way commutes of 2 hours.) The cons to this are significant: not only do I have to change my sleep schedule, but due to the aforementioned rigidity of my schedule, I still “start work” at the same time, even if I am sitting in my office, ready to go an hour earlier.

So #2 it is, as I join the ranks of people who are forced into long commutes, sacrificing quality of life on the altar of crumbling civic infrastructure.

What can we do to fix this? I would again direct you to the SF Weekly article. A city that claims to be so dedicated to environmental causes must see the value in a functional transit system, or it is not what it claims to be. But the blatant hypocrisy of this place is a topic for another day.

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6 thoughts on “The City of Stolen Time

  1. Tim Trautmann

    As we all know, due to political circumstances, it is pretty much impossible to get any kind of sensible reforms done at MUNI. Rescue Muni (http://www.rescuemuni.org/) has been trying to get things fixed for 15 years now with little success.

    Apparently there is a group of citizens trying to get something on the November ballot to get some of the issues fixed: http://fixmuninow.com/

    I have many years of “fond” MUNI memories. When I hear the words “automatic train control” I break out in a cold sweat.

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  2. Seven

    For your commute to downtown, if it’s not too far from your endpoints, consider walking in the morning to the 5-Fulton.

    This might provide you a more predictable commute, even if it is slower on average.

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  3. well said.

    this is the kind of thing that’s killing the city’s ability to be a place to live and work and why I get so worked up over muni stuff these days. the people in charge do not know or care about our experiences and it adds up.

    a friend of mine lives on the 66 Quintara line which had its schedule gutted, so she has a choice – study late at school and be forced to drive or leave, waste time on Muni and get home late anyway. Either way it’s terrible and it’s why I keep on fighting at the blog, but also why some days, like today, I just wanna quit because what started out as a fun thing to do has become so depressing as I hear more and more stories of how our city has failed us completely.

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  4. Cindy

    I too was a commuter on the N-Judas until I bought a scooter four years ago. Gas & insurance cost less than a Fast Pass, and I get to work in a third of the time.

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  5. makfan

    I rely on MUNI to get to Caltrain, but I leave home about 6:30 am to catch the 7:14 am baby bullet. I am usually OK, because the meltdowns seem to happen later. When I occasionally tried to catch the 8:14 am baby bullet, I was often delayed to the point of missing the train and having to wait 45 minutes for the next (and last) southbound baby bullet.

    The schedules for the community lines like 35, 37 and 66 are horrendous now. If you have trouble walking up hills, you better run all your errands early or be prepared to pay for a taxi — if you can fine one.

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