Blog

Short blog posts, journal entries, and random thoughts. Topics include a mix of personal and the world at large. 

The kids are back in school

Today marks the first day of Fall semester for the K through 12 kids, so naturally the bus I take to go to work were full of the young ones, and for some, their parents also. What was for the past few months a sparsely ridden bus route returned to being a jam-packed slog, with each subsequent stop filled with hopefuls looking to squeeze in just beyond the closing doors. Today’s commute was easily 10 minutes longer than usual, though I didn’t mind it because I simply listen to podcasts until it’s my stop to alight.

The return of the pre-college kids on public transport is my specific signal that Summer is indeed over, and it’s back to the normal grind of the regular school schedule. Of course, I am sensitive to this because I work at a university, and we go back to our particular scheduled programming in a week’s time. As someone who prefers peace and quiet, I’m oddly looking forward to campus starting back up; the atmosphere of learning can be very contagious indeed.

The crowded bus today made me reminisce of the trip to Japan back in July, and how glorious public transport in that country is. Despite the enormous population density, the system there is super efficient, and has the adequate capacity to deal with the sheer number of people. Most importantly, everything is always on time, so schedules are completely dependable. I fondly remember taking the local train during rush hour, and despite the sea of humanity, there was a train every two minutes on the dot, so getting on wasn’t an issue at all.

Contrast that with my experience today, where my usual bus passed by our station with a ‘not in service’ sign, leaving the following bus even more packed that it had to be. The morning commute on the first day of school maybe isn’t the best time for that, SF Muni.

The dark side is the best side.

The dark side is the best side.

I've found SF's parking problem

I’m one of the lucky ones to have the city’s public transportation network be super convenient for my purposes. The bus-stop for the bus I take to work is only a block’s walk from my house, and the second-leg light-rail train gets me literally right to the door – the stop’s name is the university. The decision to cease commuting by car almost a year ago has been hugely beneficial to my overall mental health. I take serene pleasure in getting lost in podcasts on the train, only paying scant outward attention to ensure I don’t miss my stop.

I also enjoy the walk to the bus-stop, short it may be. It’s a good opportunity to get some sun, which is crucial because the university is at the western end of San Francisco - notorious for its lack of sunshine. Plus, our office is in the basement level with zero windows; the brief stroll to the bus-stop might be the only chance I have to get some needed vitamin D.

A thing I’ve noticed lately on those strolls is the sheer numbers of cars parked on the street – in the middle of a workday. Mind you I live in a decidedly residential area, so very few people would commute to my neighborhood for work. Therefore, it’s safe to assume the massive number of cars that remains stationary on the streets belong to residents.

In a city that’s infamous for its parking difficulties, I have to say it seems the problems are self-inflicted. It’s clear to me now that each household simply owns too many cars, so much so that during a workday, the residential streets are still full of them. All these vehicles are just sat there taking up space; it’s no wonder there’s such an immense parking space battle after the 5pm for the people returning home from work via car.

You may point out that perhaps those parked cars represent people that take the bus like I do, so that’s actually a good thing from the perspective of the environment or whatnot. To that I’d say, yes, good on them for taking public transportation – if that is the case, but it doesn’t change the fact they’ve left cars behind on the streets doing absolutely nothing. Indeed, I too have a weekend only car, but the 911 is parked in an actual lot, merely taking up space I paid for.  

San Franciscans are wont to complain about the utter lack of parking, and how finding a spot requires prolonged games of musical chair, and every bit of luck. Well, it would seem a big part of it is our own fault. I wouldn’t go as far to say people should buy fewer cars; just that they should use a mirror next time they gripe about trouble finding a spot.

Hammer time.

Six months without car

It’s been about half a year since I’ve sold my beloved MX-5 Miata to go essentially car-less, so here’s a bit of a report on how the public transport life have been going thus far.

A few weeks back there was a report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that we are headed for irreversible climate calamity - if we don’t change course drastically - by as early as 2040, which is decidedly within our lifetimes. While there’s not much we can do individually to influence governmental policies in those regards other than vote, on a personal level the best we must do is to be as green as possible in our daily lives.

It’s fortuitous then that I’ve switched to commuting by bus this year; one less car polluting the air on already impossibly congested Bay Area roads. On the positive side it’s dramatically less taxing mentally to simply sit down (or stand) and enjoy podcasts rather than navigating the roads myself. I get to work incredibly fresh, no risk of being still angry at the idiot driver that cut me off earlier. Not owning a car also means not having to stress over San Francisco’s notorious parking restrictions and street cleaning schedules.

The one negative of riding the bus is the increased commute time compared to driving. It ends up being about 45 minutes or so daily, which is a lot of potential productivity I could otherwise be doing. Podcasts have been a lifesaver in that regard: learning via listening.

On some nights coming home from work when the bus is late by half hour, for sure I’ve entertained thoughts of immediately buying a car again. Those moments are few and far in between however; SFMTA have been providing fantastic service overall, with a predicable and reliable schedule nearly every day. A dependable routine is what I like, and commuting by bus have become just that. Indeed it would be weird if I suddenly switch back to driving.

As for my vehicular needs on the weekends, luckily I have access to the family car. For the times where it isn’t available, UBER, Lyft, or a favor from a friend is always good.

After six months of public transport life, I can say I don’t exactly miss having a car for the daily commute. Unless I move somewhere else or the job situation changes I don’t foresee daily driving making a return. At the very least, public transportation will always be the first option explored; I must do my part in helping conserve the precious environment.

It’s on the weekends where I really, truly miss having a proper sports car to toss around. Having a driving simulator at home is great and all, but nothing can replace the thrill of the real machine. I even miss the mundane ancillary parts like maintenance and detailing. This is why in another six month’s time I’ll be buying a car purely for the weekend. It’s 911 or bust.

How…. symmetrical.

How…. symmetrical.

When even the buses are too crowded

One thing I realized in the contrast between taking the bus at night and taking the bus during "normal" commute hours is just how much more passengers there are in the latter. Honestly I was slightly annoyed the bus had to stop at every stop to let people off, compared to the bus at night in which it'll breeze through all the stops until my destination. Now that schools have begun Fall semester the negative effect is compounded: last Friday it took me a solid hour to get home, where it usually takes 40 minutes.

The population density of my neighborhood is only going to go up (there's two huge housing constructions happening on the western and eastern end), so if the buses are crowded now, I'm not sure how they are going to handle the additional thousands of people. There's but two main road arteries that leads out of the neighborhood, and even now it's already super congested during rush hour. Street parking is already impossible so let's add another hundreds of cars? Good luck with that. 

I sold my own car, electing to take public transportation, to avoid the above hassles. A few years from now however I can foresee that even taking the bus might be untenable due to the increase in passengers. Won't do me much good if I can't get on the bus and have to keep waiting for the next one (or one after that). I don't think I can live with the amount of wasted time if my combined commute to and from extends well beyond two hours.

For the sake of curiosity, I started to look at alternatives.

One would be the motorcycle. There are no laws prohibiting lane-splitting in California so a bike can simply weave through heavy traffic to get up front (as I see motorcyclists do all the time). Compared to cars, bikes are dirt cheap to buy and insure (no $21K Ducati Panigales in my future), get impossibly excellent fuel mileage, and are stupid easy to park. I plan to stay off the freeways so I don't think it'll be all that dangerous, either. 

I reckon an M1 license is in my future. 

 

At least it isn't busy on the weekends. 

At least it isn't busy on the weekends. 

Students on an early afternoon bus

I take the bus to work at 1:30pm, and to my surprise I constantly find students on the bus. Not hordes, but there's always a few. Isn't it just a bit early for these kids to be out of school? Perhaps they are delinquents.

The earliest school dismissal I ever experienced was back in middle school: 2pm, and even then I thought it was nuts to be let out that early, because it meant school started at an ungodly hour of 7am (I was never a morning person). As I reflect about it now, my teachers had to arrive earlier than that. Sleep is overrated, I guess. 

My first two years of primary school was in China, and school in Asia is an all-day affair: the day begins promptly at 8 o'clock, and we didn't start walking home until after 5. It was de-facto, full-time daycare service for the parents because school hours complemented normal adult work schedules perfectly; no one needed to take off work early to pick up their kids. In that regards I think the system in Asia is more conducive to workforce productivity. 

There was a two-hour break for lunch and nap time, so cumulatively classroom learning hours was the same. There weren't beds or anything for naps, we were tiny enough to lie down on paired desks or chairs. I didn't appreciate it back then (I've hated naps since I can remember) but looking back now I think structured naps are an excellent idea, especially for little children. Not only is more sleep always beneficial, kid's attention spans being short as they are, having a sleep break in between morning and afternoon ought to help learning retention tremendously. 

Obviously, such a system would never get implemented in America (because "freedom"), though I bet a sizable amount of parents wouldn't mind sticking their kids in school for longer hours. Children sleeping on desks and chairs (or floor even) would be considered torture here in the States so schools would need dedicated dorms, and who has the money for that? 

So instead we've got kids let out of school early in the afternoon and making a ruckus on the bus, as they are wont to do. Perhaps I'm just an misanthropic curmudgeon who's getting old.  

19th and Holloway. 

19th and Holloway. 

First time night commute on MUNI

Heading home from work last night was the first time I took the bus this late (I get off at 10:30pm), and I have to say it was not anything out of the ordinary. The only small hiccup is the duration between buses is absurdly long compared to normal commute hours. I thought the app was malfunctioning when I checked schedules on NextBus and saw the next train wasn't for another 25 minutes. Had I drove I wouldn't been home already in that time. 

Fortunately the prolonged intervals is offset by the lack of traffic at that time of the night, so the trains and buses are quite quick. There's immensely less passengers too, which meant fewer stops and pickups. I was amazed that my connect bus got from Balboa Park station to my house in 10 minutes, where it'd normally take 25 minutes when the sun is out. Even with the extended wait times, the trip home last night ended up taking the same amount of time when I worked "normal" hours. 

One negative though is that San Francisco, as famously usual, is bitterly cold at that time of night. Yesterday was no different: (Karl the) fog rolled in heavy and there was an ever so slight of a drizzle; standing at an unprotected bus stop for 20 minutes was not exactly the most comfortable occasion. I think I'll start packing a beanie.

Do I miss having a car, then? The time saved by driving compared to an hour on the train and bus is significant (~45 minutes). However, to achieve my current financial goals I am willing to trade that time for more money. Compared to the fiscal outlay of car ownership, a MUNI unlimited monthly pass is but 78 dollars. There's always UBER if a train never arrives or I really need to get home quickly. 

But let's see how day two and onwards go. 

A train station all to myself. 

A train station all to myself. 

The kids are back in school

San Francisco Unified School District is back in session for Fall so just when you thought traffic couldn't get any worse around here, out comes thousands of parents driving their young ones to school joining in on all the fun. 

Must. Be. Nice. Right from the start of elementary school onwards I either walked or took the bus to school. Granted the grade school I went to was a 10 minute walk up the hill, I bet you parents of today would drive their kids to school given the same distance. Wasn't crime much worse back in my day? My immigrant parents were to busy at work earning money to stay afloat in this new country of ours to care. 

I don't begrudge them an ounce. 

If I had kids I'd drive them to school too, no matter how short the distance. I probably won't let them roam freely until after puberty. You should all thank me then for not having kids and therefore not contributing to the traffic calamity. It isn't just highways that gets jammed up: on my usual commute bus there are tons of parents, who otherwise can't afford to drive, taking their kids to school. Good on them indeed but the buses are packed enough as is. 

You'd think the transit agency would add more buses when school is in session, but that sounds way too logical for SFMTA. They can't even get enough drivers to fulfill the usual quota! On my route there definitely is not a bus every 8 minutes as prescribed in the official schedule. Far too often I encounter 20 minute(!) gaps between buses during rush-hour, and those days are the worse. 

I'm looking forward to returning back to night-shift next week so I can take the bus at 1 in the afternoon and it'll be empty as can be. Until then, this week is one of the very few times I really miss having a car. 

Perhaps I should try biking to work...

Perhaps I should try biking to work...