Last month I ran a series of dull errands using my car. I left my apartment at 12:55 on a Friday afternoon and returned at 3:25.
I couldn't help but wonder: How long would it have taken me to do those identical errands using Muni and my own two feet? Lo and behold, on a recent Friday afternoon, I had a list of nearly the exact same errands to do: go to the drug store, drop off dry cleaning, mail bills, get quarters for laundry, visit a bookstore, use the ATM and visit a West Portal business.
So I decided to use public transit rather than drive and leave at the same time, 12:55 p.m. Because San Francisco is, after all, a transit-first city. At least that's what the politicians say when asked why our parking meter rates are some of the highest in the nation.
I leave the apartment sporting a backpack, a bag of dry cleaning, a bag of wire hangers and an iPod loaded with three episodes of "NPR: Marketplace." I give my shiny Honda Fit a wistful look, but walk by to the 37 bus stop. At least I didn't have to haggle with a construction guy to let my car out this time.
I miss the 37 bus by seconds. (I know that driver saw me!) The next one isn't for 17 minutes, so I walk down to Cole Valley.
I arrive at Walgreens, dodging a car backing out of the parking lot. On the day I took the Fit, I was at Walgreens at 1:07. I'm already 17 minutes behind, red-faced and out of breath. I buy an envelope to mail a program from my brother's flight school graduation (It's on its way, Mom!) and a Milky Way Dark.
I'm waiting at the bus stop outside Walgreens, watching three UCSF shuttle buses roar past in a row. Since Muni is so unreliable, UCSF has a big fleet of buses for its personnel. Transit first, San Francisco!
I arrive at the dry cleaners and gratefully surrender my bags. Ron's suit is ready, but I can't pick it up because I don't have a car with me. I am now a half-hour behind.
Like my day with the Fit, I did some walking around: walked to the post office to mail bills, walked to a laundromat to get $10 worth of quarters from the change machine. I check out my favorite used bookstore and buy a biography of Queen Mary I of England, otherwise known as Bloody Mary.
On my day with the Fit, I had 10 minutes left on the parking meter. So I sat in the car, eating my Milky Way and reading.
Today, I'm sitting on a filthy concrete island in the middle of a high-traffic, exhaust-spewing street. N Trains rush by, rattling and squealing their way downtown. I check my phone to see when the next outbound N trains will arrive: 13 minutes, 14 minutes and 16 minutes.
A packed N train arrives, with an empty one right behind it. I board the second train, then transfer to a 28 bus.
I arrive at my credit union. I'm now 41 minutes behind.
The 28 bus dropped me off at 19th St. and Taraval and I'm waiting for an L train to take me to West Portal. The street is pretty dirty and noisy. One of the challenges of taking public transit in San Francisco is that the streets are often dirty and there are few places to sit. So if you're tired (and by now I've taken three buses and a train so I'm starting to flag), the only place to sit on a litter-strewn curb.
I arrive at West Portal. On my day with the Fit, I was here at 2:34. Last time I had an appointment at a salon; I decide to get a pizza instead. My salon appointment took 23 minutes, so that's how long I have to eat a pizza. Which is good, because I'm kinda cranky now and need a beer.
I leave the West Portal pizza place and hop on an L train.
I arrive at Church and Market. Another exciting -- but dirty -- traffic island, but a 37 comes in 2 minutes.
So basically, running these errands took an extra hour. And let me tell you, there are other things I'd rather have done with that extra hour than sit around on dirty traffic islands as cars, buses and trains race by. Plus, on the day I used the Fit, I returned full of energy and ready to tackle some household jobs.
Today, I was wiped out, even with the brief pizza interlude in West Portal and ended up playing Civilization for 40 minutes before I could drag myself off the couch and pick up Benny from school.
As I've said before, my little Fit doesn't use much gas, so my daily decisions whether to drive are based on two criteria: amount of time and level of aggravation.
My judgment, therefore, is:
CAR 1, BUS 0.
This result illustrates Muni's biggest obstacles to increased ridership. Muni isn't going to get more riders from the working poor -- they already have no other choice. The system can't get more riders from the destitute, who can't pay anyway. Muni can't get more riders from San Francisco truly affluent; they wouldn't ride a bus if it had gold-plated hand rails and butt-warmers on every seat.
So the only demographic they can target is mine -- people with cars who are willing to take Muni if it's convenient, reasonably priced and somewhat stress-free.
I don't mean it has to be perfect -- a bus will be occasionally late and a driver will sometimes growl. I mean free of the soul-sapping, blood pressure-raising, white hot rage-inducing screwups and delays that riders routinely tolerate.
Transit first, San Francisco? Right now, I don't think so.