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Getting around on Muni

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"Stand Clear of the doors"

As the bus heads downtown, more and more people board and fewer seats remain. In the middle of the line, however, musical chairs begins. Seniors spy a better seat across the aisle open up as someone departs now valuable real estate as the neighborhood they are sitting in is no longer attractive: teens are boisterous or playing music or games, a heavy person has squished them in, or their seat is too far from the door.  

Adding to the confusion is the fact that we have seats on the mezzanine level which require juggling to step down, particularly if bags are being carried. All this makes it imperative to keep our large interior mirror set so we can see what’s going on in back. A quick start, or rough pavement creates a fall on board situation which leads to an accident report and shutting down the coach on the line.

A card laid is a card played is the best rule to prevent a fall, and stay put while the bus is moving.

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Look before you leap

The Jaywalkers

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Back east, I remember seeing the "no jay walking" signs on the poles on almost every arterial in NYC and Philly. But here in San Francisco, we are a part of the wild, wild, west;  "Every which way but loose," to coin a phrase from a favorite Eastwood flick. As any passenger and driver can attest, pedestrians here in San Fran are among the most entitled in any city in the world. This can lead to daredevil defying acts in traffic and at intersections. It's almost as though the new countdown crosswalk clocks are a stopwatch and starting gun to begin the race to the other side. For others, the line drawn in the sand, the crosswalk, is about as important as attempting to mark the high tide mark on a beach where the waves have left their foam outline.  

The flashing stop hand does not mean wait at the corner. Your time has passed. It actually means, run like hell:  Especially if I keep my front door open at the corner.  Or, if jay walking casually across Van Ness, the stop lights and crosswalk signals mean absolutely nothing. And the dance is simply to pause between vehicles rushing by. Perhaps they will stop, perhaps they will honk, perhaps you will finger them, or hit them hard with your fist. We are all constantly teaching each other a lesson about consequence! Especially if we have been up partying all weekend, with the famous "morning after" walk of shame. As I bus driver, I see it all. The dark bug eyed sunglasses on a gray morning. The twitch of the jaw. The evasive look away. Or the loud cry of anger complete with descriptive profane poetry. 

All that matters as a trolley man intent on getting the next paycheck is to check left-right-left on my 13 mirrors all hopefully pointed to one space above my shoulders in the driver's seat. I may have to do a Sugar Ray, and bounce my head back and forth a bit if the rocker arms on the side of the bus have been frozen out of alignment from the wash rack at the barn. All in all, the moments after closing the doors become as important as becoming the next blog on social internet, or front page news in the paper! All I ask is that you make some noise if you are crossing from behind my mirrors in my blind spot. Please and Thank You!


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Islands v. Curbs

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On Market Street, there are two places on a block to catch a bus. If you have your Incredibles superhero costume tights on, you should know that the newer ETI Skoda trolleys weigh about ten tons sans passengers, so be careful you don't pull your back muscles when you catch the approaching bus and lift it above your head. For most of us mortals, however, taking a bus on the curb or on an island is recommended. The curb stops are located mid-block, and the island stops are near an intersection by a corner or a cross street. 


Unfortunately, much more needs be done to clarify the do's and don’ts of riding a bike in San Francisco.


First off, dear bike riders, take the parallel street! Usually there is a nice residential, less commercial street just off of a transit artery that is immensely safer for less conflict collision. Scott Street or Baker off Divisadero for starters. Page Street instead of Oak or Haight. Valencia instead of Mission. Howard Street with marked bike lane sharrows instead of scary Mission Street. Polk instead of Van Ness. The list goes on. It just is not safe to be on Van Ness or Divisadero during Peak Period, or what most call Rush Hour.


Sharrows are the arrow like bike icons indicated a shared lane with vehicular traffic. They are stenciled in the center of the lane so cars are not in a reduced width lane because of a separate lane for bikes. All these extra paint marks on the street do make for a confusing first time if you are in a car visiting San Francisco. What with transit islands and taxi and bus lanes, the driving space for regular traffic becomes constricted. This philosophy is extended to discourage automobile use, but with the advent of ride share vehicles in large numbers, the squeeze play can become not unlike a video game. But unlike on a screen, injury and collision is real.


Second tip: Walk the bike. When the space between parked cars and the first traffic lane is not consistently wide enough, walking the bike on the sidewalk is safest. The point is that this bike walk need not be a distance longer than two blocks. Sometimes sidewalks are wide and empty. Taking a driveway becomes the safe in and out. Timing with the car clusters based on the traffic lights also helps smooth the flow in making good time on a bike. If you know you're going to get a red ahead, why not enjoy the eye candy along the way?


Third tip: Knowing the Lights. Blazing ahead through a red looks really bad. When I see this happen, I follow behind to see if this violation pays dividends. Does running the light make for a faster trip down the line? In most cases, the answer is no. Violating a red light does not a faster trip make, due to the following red at the next intersection. I would lose my cool and scold the cyclist stopped at the next light. They also block autos from being able to make a right on red as they prance on their cranks or violate the cross walk by being way too close to the traffic lane of the crossing street. 

I stopped trying to control them by chiding them at the next light. It wasn't worth the cost to my serenity. I let one girl have it at Van Ness and Golden Gate, and I saw the next day that she took another route. Instead of changing her behavior on one path, she diverted to another. It was the safer route: less high speed traffic on a two-way street. Our stoplights are not timed. The reason for this is to slow traffic and break the pattern of speeding towards the end of the cycle when all the lights go red. Zipping through on a stale red can pay dividends, and most motorists and cyclists get this. The hard part is then to slow down and submit to the next red if it is not timed.


Fourth tip: Ride with the pack. This can be dangerous if some in the pack want to pass. Usually, riding just behind the pack is best. Let them blaze the trail for alley car pullouts and car doors. I come behind well lit and at a tracking speed. If they want to rush ahead without lights at dusk, more power to them. At least I will be seen.


Fifth tip: Be seen. Now some guys take this to the extreme. Some of these new head lamps look like they could be used to mine gold. The intensity of the beam looks like a close encounter of the fifth kind! But that apparently is not enough. Adding The Flash makes for an eye blinding experience, and does not seem to be a way to befriend or influence a motorist to be kindly and yielding. Be wary of pushback.

I did have a newly charged light on flash, and was using the sidewalk for a block on a narrow residential street where the cars fly by in a single lane situation. The pedestrian screamed at me as I approached and severely chided me as I dismounted. I did thank him for letting me know the light was bothersome. I now point it downward to the street right in front of me. I also use the dimmer function if I am on a sidewalk. I also slow or dismount if a pup is on a leash or young ones are playing.

I have since noticed that a light on a bike's handlebar is even with the rearview mirrors of a car. I use this to my advantage when coming up from behind a car at a stop sign in inclement weather or when its really dark outside. Being mindful of other cars and other bicyclists has helped me keep my Zen on the streets and in transit!



Blocked Zone

'Photon torpedos' on dash camera.


You can tell an experienced operator by how they flag stop a blocked zone.  Stopping at the top of the key so that the crosswalk is not blocked is a good first sign. Keeping the left lane clear is also good. Clearing the crossover on the overhead wires allows for a crossing transfer bus to pass through the intersection. This permits cars to pass by even though the bus is not at the curb.  This is the number one complaint from motorists: the bus is blocking traffic while picking up passengers. I also try to get eye-to-eye contact with those intending, and point ahead, to top of the zone, so they know where to move to board the coach when blocked by another vehicle. This happens frequently in the city: Charter, or tour busses take up almost the whole zone. Delivery trucks' lift gate encroaches upon the top of the zone. Taxis and personal vehicle boarding and drop offs also block the zone, particularly if those people are not ready:  Not ready because they are carrying something or don't have the money ready to pay the taxi driver. Suitcases or bags are very common in front of hotels or at BART stations. All this need be kept in the entire view of what is developing ahead of us as we make the decision where to place our doors.

Sharing the zone with shuttle buses that have grown in frequency with the increase in employment of tech companies in Silicon Valley, has led to some frustration and delay,  if we, in our city trolley, need to pickup or deploy the lift for a wheelchair or senior needing assistance. Two hundred muni stops were given permission for the Google, Facebook, Genentech, and Yahoo coaches to share with us. For one dollar, shuttles were allowed to use our stops. This payment arose out of a protest when those coaches were blocked by angry protestors, lamenting the rent increases around such stops by the huge demand created by techies living in the city and working down south on the peninsula. But in talking to a tech worker riding a muni bus one night, I confirmed what I had learned from two friends who did the Cal Train diesel conventional rail commuter line to points south, and back. And the sticking point is, and always has been, that the "transfer costs" eat up time and money between transit agencies, and these shuttle busses are "free" for employees, and are a one coach pick-up and drop-off "non-stop" ride to work and front door.  As a metro area, we have still failed in seamless connection between agencies, particularly to the south. An express 16AX, BX muni line was cut-off short of Cal Train, much to the dismay of those few loyal riders from the avenues to Soma, and on to Santa Clara County, which we call Silicon Valley. 

Santa Clara is one county south of San Mateo, the large county that borders San Francisco County, and separates the city from the sprawling tech campuses of Apple, Cisco, Oracle and the like. Though some campuses are in San Mateo County, one cannot transfer to points south from the city with a timed transfer, and/or a single payment, except for these free shuttles. The sad thing is that our infrastructure with CalTrain did not improve with express service from residential areas around San Francisco, to a train line that also suffers from abrupt closings due to fire, pedestrian collision, and blocked tracks. Access is all to easy to the rail right-of-way, and fencing and grade improvement is, and has been, long overdue.

The ease with which a policy change can occur from a single protest is but amazing. For over three years, we, as operators, gradually became familiar with these Silicon Valley tour bus coaches, and over time, have smoothed out most of the the zone sharing problems. Talking and sharing in the Gilley room helped us deal with the frustration and close calls in getting-used-to the shuttle drivers on our line, especially the 24 and 49. No mention was ever made of any help in extending zone curb clears for zone sharing, or fines or fees when we had a line delay. Only with public protest did any acknowledgement come from city government. But as with most problems, we had already dealt with it, in the Gilley room,as with all the other blocked zone problems, that we face daily. 

Keeping Zen in transit means I signal to you where I am going to stop.  It also helps that you recognize I am a person driving a bus, and not just a bus!

Buy book at Balboa Press

Driver Doug at Muni Diaries Live

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Marmon-Herrington Trolleybus

Check out the interior of a 1956 Muni Heritage Trolleybus!

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