Skip to content

Where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars

Yesterday was a day of bay-area firsts for me: taking my brother to my Berkeley stomping grounds, a knife was pulled on a friend following a dispute over pickup soccer; later, on an over-packed 38L, the Muni operator warned passengers over the PA that “because the bus is full, please keep your wallets and cellphones close because of pickpockets”; I returned home, personal belongings safe, and proceeded to lecture my (older) brother about how insular folks are becoming, especially on the bus. These served as poignant reminders that everyone is feeling the brunt of stressful times.

I started writing this piece on April 13–my birthday–and it remains unfinished, a constant nuisance as it languishes. In an effort to resuscitate, I am releasing this serially; this is the first contribution to a two-part focus on transportation planning and the city.

——–

I’m loving the new Mayer Hawthorne cover of Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”–especially the pan from Cupid’s Span to the Bay Bridge @ 2:08. Coincidentally, these are also my two favorite San Francisco monuments.

It is wild how, sometimes, you become aware of how tiny and coincidental things really are. Not a day after I played this song out did I pick up last week’s SF Weekly. The cover story, “The Muni Death Spiral,” details the public transportation crisis now looming over San Francisco: slashing some 10% of services to offset a $45 million deficit, Muni is subjecting itself to death by a thousand cuts. The article is also a great introduction to just a few of the oft-overlooked intricacies of transportation planning: Mayor-appointed and publicly-elected oversight boards, the cost of unionized labor, how extensive service can hold riders hostage–realities typically unbeknownst to citizens, but very much at-work behind the veneer of public transportation. Even something as charming and ubiquitously iconic as San Francisco cable cars–the very ones that “climb halfway to the stars”–represent the exorbitantly expensive nature of public transit.

On paper, the mayorally appointed MTA board runs the agency, with [CEO Nat] Ford reporting to the board. But then, Muni timetables are printed on paper, too.

A little history: in November of 1999, the successful passage of Proposition E—a San Francisco city charter amendment that replaced the Public Transportation Commission with a new municipal transportation agency, SFMTA—instituted a transit-first policy geared towards prioritizing the movement of people and goods in the City. Most notably, the amendment set standards for performance and service by Muni, “including meeting 98.5 percent of its scheduled service and having at least an 85 percent on-time record”; it also called for the new SFMTA to be governed by a seven-member board of directors appointed by the Mayor, ensuring that the Agency would control its own operations.

Generally, a board of directors for a transportation agency is intended to act as an intermediary for their electorate and remain accountable to the transit-users they serve; as a result of Proposition E, the seven-member board is hand-picked by the mayor to root out contrarian sentiment. “The mayor is very schizophrenic about the way he claims that he has nothing to do with how Muni runs,” said former Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin. “He generally says he has nothing to do with Muni, except when it’s abundantly clear he’s micromanaging the living daylights out of it.” And though Muni has been largely freed from the oversight of transit matters, it still acquiesces to the caprices of Mayor Newsom. The SF Weekly points to three egregious examples: the fudging of Muni deficit numbers to make them “politically palatable”; the commandeering of the taxi medallion system to raise an additional $11.2 million; and the myopic Culture Bus.

Just a year removed from laying off unionized parking control officers, vehicle washers, and mechanics, Muni stands poised to cut services again in hopes of relieving growing deficit numbers. A handful of Muni sources have confirmed that the mayor’s office does, in fact, dictate the transit agency’s budget “down to the smallest detail”; further, the mayor would deem Muni’s deficits “too high” for public consumption and cajole the agency into presenting “smaller numbers” that are “politically palatable.” Mayoral spokesman Tony Winnicker says Newsom’s involvement is a good thing: the mayor has a “great degree of day-to-day interaction” in crafting Muni’s budget. “That’s appropriate,” Winnicker continues, “and what the people should want.”

And while not a terrible idea, the San Francisco Culture bus of 2008 and 2009 is another instance of Newsom’s overbearing involvement in Muni operations. The service, intended to ferry tourists to and from the city’s various cultural destinations for a pricey $7 fare (later $10), utilized the best of Muni’s offerings: coupling the agency’s best buses and operators, the vehicles were fast and clean, but also empty. The $1.6 million budget for the Culture Bus came at the expense of core transit service and cost Muni “10 times as much as the fare revenues brought in.” I would be remiss if I didn’t account for the economic downturn, but the Culture Bus demonstrated that Muni itself is a victim of political vanity projects.

Even SFMTA’s acquisition of the San Francisco Taxi Commission is not without consequence. Hoping to poach taxicab medallions from drivers and sell them to the highest bidder, Newsom is planning to deliver a much-needed boost into Muni’s perennially empty coffers. But what of the taxicab drivers, the self-ascribed “unofficial ambassadors” to the city? In addition to facing any-and-all new rules SFMTA creates, drivers must now forfeit their $2,000 per month boon from renting-out their medallion; a slight, sure, when one notes that they have no vacation or sick days, no health or retirement plans, and command a salary of $25,000 a year. The real slight, however, evidences itself as profits from medallion sales will be used to subsidize the operations and paychecks of the “vast SFMTA archipelago.”

——–

And a preview of what’s to come:

Muni’s lethargy is literally costing it millions.

The Muni death spiral begins inauspiciously: the inveterate belief of Muni as “the People’s Railway” is shaken to its core by degenerating service and reliability. At an average speed of 8.1 mph, Muni is far-and-away the slowest major urban transit agency in North America. This is not just a nuisance for Muni’s declining ridership; it is a major financial drain on a beleaguered system. Slow vehicle speeds force Muni to spend more money to provide less service. Muni’s lethargy is literally costing it millions.

credit SFWeekly

What—or who—is to blame? (Mis)management? In a word: yes. Traffic, congestion, and density? These negatively affect transit, but, outside of creating (or, in San Francisco’s case, enforcing) bus-only lanes or installing transit-friendly functionality like queue jumps, Muni has few avenues left to explore.

How not to park, San Francisco Edition – Volume 2

I didn’t mean to make this a recurring thing, but c’mon–there were spots everywhere else around the street. Seriously? I caught this walking home from Golden Gate Park at Willard North & Turk.

April updates to come

Would you believe that working takes away time from blogging? Wild, I know.

April updates to come. I want to write about the importance of alleys, great music, and interesting sites.

Hang on.

How not to park, San Francisco Edition


Check out this guy at Scott street b/t Broadway and Vallejo. I’m actually surprised he hasn’t gotten a ticket yet.

Next stop: Employment

Because new, exciting restaurants and bars are usually the organic product of burgeoning streets and neighborhoods, food and drink tend to be the driving forces behind my exploring surroundings. But what happens when I can no longer afford to go out? How can I continue to discover San Francisco?

Existing in the shadow of nearly 3 months of unemployment and living the stern effects of joblessness on my brooding ego, I made moves in the last 2 weeks to find a job. And thanks largely to a helpful dose of the music of Rocky, I was revitalized. I got back on the (MUNI & BART) horse, pounded pavement, and found myself exploring the city by a much different avenue: the search for employment.

I love public transportation. Not only do I use it daily, I even started a blog to write more about it. This last month I utilized it to explore San Francisco–from SOMA to North Beach, from trains to restored streetcars, from terminals to bus stops–one interview at a time. The result is a unique vision of the city that recognizes the concurrence of services and substance; in planning terms, the nexus of mobility and accessibility. Tersely, public transit is a great way to get to know a city.

Enough gab–here are some distinct places I found while searching for a job:

First stop: SOMA. One of the interviews this month required my best professional attire. The problem? I lack professional attire. A tumultuous week of mounting my courier service (mom, brother Jason, and Eva) to clean and deliver my clothing from Los Angeles largely backfired and I needed to pick up a suit in a flash. After wasting a Saturday morning with an apathetic Macy’s Men’s Store staff, I hoofed it into SOMA to Harry O Menswear at 124 2nd Street (b/t Mission and Minna). All the beautiful sights and and great eats aside, if I were to take one experience away from my time in San Francisco, it would be the two hours Harry O spent helping me get a suit. He offers clients cappuccino, a great collection of (Italian) suits and clothing, and personifies customer service–he hooked me up and made my interview possible. It bears repeating: I look damn good in my suit and Harry O saved my life. Of the litany of amazing people I have met in my life, he is definitely up there. Pimpin’, dawg, pimpin’.

Please hold on: Tenderloin. I hate getting my hair cut because someone usually botches it. It’s probably my fault–I’ve tried everything from explicit instructions to telling stylists to go nuts–and the result tends to be sub-par. Arthur at Public Barber Salon (571 Geary b/t Shannon and Jones) knew exactly how to take care of my curly mop without much explanation. We chopped it up and, before I knew it, he was done–and I looked good. The narrow space had some funky-cool art and betta fishes swam in suspended fishbowls. Good energy and better prices.

Next stop: Jackson Square. This neighborhood is littered with fun, little drinking spots–like neighbors Bocadillos and The Bubble Lounge–but I found William Stout Architectural Books to be the standout establishment. A tucked away space at 807 Montgomery (b/t Jackson and Gold) belies the bevy of incredible picture books that range in topics from architecture and design to urban landscapes and fine art. And for the 15 minutes before an interview, I was in heaven.

End of the line: North Beach. While doing some recon on a would-be employer’s office, I took a walk through the amazing alleyways of North Beach, checking out huge staircases leading into Russian Hill and exploring the bay-breeze filled streets along the Embarcadero. Re-purposed pier edifices down to the Ferry Building now house circuses, limo companies, and restaurants. Resting on the bay (at Pier 17 b/t Green and Union) and watching the charmingly restored streetcars ring by was the headquarters of TCHO, a manufacturer of chocolates who is redefining the way chocolate gets made and sold from plant to package. Everything from TCHO‘s unique brand and factory speak to its fusion of technology and chocolate. They are self-described as the crossroads of “Silicon Valley start-up” and “San Francisco food culture” and you can check out the recycled and refurbished legacy chocolate making equipment on a tour of the facility.

Me and the Metropolis

What is the product of unemployment, moving to San Francisco, and a desire to ditch the Yelpers of the world and discover my environments by alternative and public transportation?

Me and the Metropolis.

I’ll break away from the usually pithy blog-speak and level with you: this is an experiment influenced by a love for the city and a desire to better understand transportation behaviors. Can I abandon my car Sophia (yes, she has a Facebook page) and drastically reduce my car usage for a year? Can I walk, bike, bus, and rail to and from my destinations? What would it look like and how much would it cost? Will making the concrete-connection enrich and enliven my relationship to the city? Can I do this all while experiencing the sights, the food, the drink, and the culture that comprise a metropolis? Finally–and arguably, most importantly–can I make some wicked chart porn from the results?

So what makes me “qualified” to endeavor such a thing? Well, first and foremost, I love the city; I am obsessed with urban formations, architecture, and neighborhoods; I went to school to better understand the city and its effect on the artist; I have lived in urban environments my entire life; and Los Angeles (my home) and I are forever linked (or inked may be a better word). And what can you expect to find here? I will try to spare the bountiful details resulting from travel demand forecasting and miles-traveled, and instead share my eye-level view of the city infused with literary reference, musical influence, and culinary curiosity. A regular Stephen Dedalus, a modern-day man about town.

Finally, this blog will also allow me to experiment with a lot of my other interests, namely graphic + website design. This particular blog–Jon and the Metropolis–will soon transition to Me and the Metropolis and will be a featured aspect of my online presence and portfolio.

I am looking forward to this upcoming year. See you around.

Neighborhood Walk 03/09/10

Went on a little walk today with Eva to explore and checked out some portions of Clement street, Sacramento street, California street, and Geary boulevard. Some places of note:

Park Life store + gallery (Clement, b/t 3rd + 4th) reminds me of one of my favorite stores in LA. This store sells stuff that can only be described as great conversation starters–an incredible selection of design, architecture, and photography books, a host of jewelry designed by local artists, hip clothing (shirts + sweatshirts) from brands like Free Gold Watch, and a fun collection of artwork featuring Tuff Taco and his partners in crime Bad Burger and Pillaging Pita. [Ed. note: OK, the last one is my own creation. I bet he would taste awesome.] All in all, stores like this are usually my first stop for gifts–the products are always unique. Be sure to check the sardonic self-help books and entertaining portrait of the alien holding his rescue.

What is with San Francisco and chicken and waffles? Don’t get me wrong–a better combo of foods may never be found–but there is something special about the after-church crowd that hits a Roscoe’s in LA. At first glance, the unassuming Eats restaurant (Clement + 2nd) looks like your standard new-American breakfast spot. Upon closer inspection, I was won over with the farm-house aesthetic, chalkboard specials, and, most importantly, the menu. Can’t wait to check it out.

I’ve listed a couple other spots to check out on the map.