San Francisco, Muni Fall Apart For Macworld Expo
January 19th, 2008
Daniel Eran Dilger
A very long time ago, San Francisco was known as “the City that Knows How,” a slogan coined by US President William Howard Taft in 1911 on observing the monumental rebuilding work that followed the great earthquake and fire of 1906. Nearly a century later, the slogan still show up in places, but it’s hard to understand why, particularly if you’re part of the shrinking middle class minority that is wholly unserved by a political system designed only to entertain the wealthy and serve the needs of the abjectly destitute by the most inefficient and ineffective means possible.
Perhaps I’m being too quick to overlook many of the efforts expended by volunteers and public servants that make the City run and improve it in significant ways. It’s just too easy to be hit in the face with San Francisco’s glaring incompetence and ineptitude that seems to permeate its every facet. Add an event like Macworld Expo, which dumps an extra few tens of thousands of visitors downtown, and the mockery of organization, planning, and implementation that is San Francisco jumps out in one’s face like a street beggar.
Take Muni, if you dare.
I’ve lived in San Francisco for a little more than a decade. Ten years ago, the City’s municipal transit agency embarked on an expensive plan to fit the simple subway with Automatic Train Control, a system that was supposed to make the underground trains run faster and more efficiently.
Muni also began ordering replacements to the awful Boeing-Vertol subway streetcars that it had signed up to purchase back in the late 70s when the Muni Metro tunnel was being finished as part of the BART system. While Bart began operating its regional service in the mid 70s, Muni didn’t get around to running its first inner city train until 1980, and by the time I arrived in 1996, it was still struggling to figure out how to get the Boeing cars to work.
San Francisco had contracted with Boston to order the Boeing streetcars, hoping that the volume of the merged order would guarantee a better deal. Instead, cool San Francisco voted against air conditioning on the cars, and Boston tacked on the requirement for sharply rounded corners to enable the cars to rumble through its tighter, more ancient tunnels. The result was that Boston commuters were left sweating while San Francisco riders were stuck trying to board cars that only opened two center sets of doors while underground; the other doors on either end could only open when the trains emerged onto the surface. The rounded ends required rounded doors that couldn’t be opened on underground platforms without leaving a large gap for riders to fall into.
Of course, the other problem was that America didn’t know how to build vehicles in the 70s, and on top of that, an aerospace company like Boeing most certainly didn’t know how to build a train, particularly its helicopter division, Boeing-Vertol. The Boeing cars were as ugly and prone to breakdown as one might imagine from a 70s American whirlybird manufacturer trying to bluff its way through the design of an urban metro streetcar.
The Boeing cars were so poorly designed and unreliable that Boston’s MBTA ended up rejecting them as unusable, canceling its final order, and instead placed a new order for streetcars from the Japanese. San Francisco bought Boston’s Boeing rejects and attempted to put them into service over the next decade and a half.
Light At the End of the Tunnel.
After dealing with the horrific Boeing cars for a decade and a half, Muni discovered that there was another vendor who might possibly be more incompetent at building trains, and subsequently, and inexplicably, contracted with Italians for replacements. I’ve ridden trains in Italy. These people make nice clothes and serve excellent food, but if you want a train you talk to the Germans or Japanese or one of their closely related neighbors. Unless you are Muni, that is. Replacing the Boeings with Breda streetcars was pretty much exactly like replacing a Chevy Vega with a Fiat.
It was perhaps unintentionally comical that Muni advertised its train “upgrade” plans in bus stop posters headlined “the light at the end of the tunnel,” where the light was obviously a train. To everyone else in the world with an IQ above 75, that might bring to mind the cliche joke of the crushing reality that what you thought was your way out was actually about to run you down dead. But not Muni’s brilliant poster makers, nor its inept decision makers.
San Francisco ended up with the heaviest, most expensive, and loudest streetcars built since the dawn of train making. The Breda cars were so heavy they damaged the city’s tracks. The only thing that makes more noise is the antique streetcars Muni later purchased from Milan (which is also in Italy). At least those cars are very old and have earned the right to screech out in complaint as they tear down Market Street with their bells ringing.
The Breda cars simply don’t work; they can’t be paired into consists longer than two cars, because the wiring is so bad that the third car will lose contact, disconnect, and be sent free rolling downhill to jump the track and crash into whatever is in the way. Typically, this has been the Muni platform at 18th and Church, which has been destroyed at least twice, each time at which it has itself simultaneously destroyed one of the $3.5 million Breda streetcars.
Additionally, the Breda train doors were prone to failure and their braking systems were so suspect that regulators dropped the maximum metro operating speed from 50 mph to 30 mph, turning the Market Street tunnel into an excruciatingly slow ride that served as an advertisement for driving a car.
With all their problems, it’s hard to understand why the Breda’s pegged in at a price 30% higher than originally bid. When speaking of streetcars that cost $3.5 million each, that’s a pretty significant overrun. San Diego buys its streetcars from the Germans from about a million dollars less per car. Portland, Oregon bought a small batch of streetcars from Czechs for less than $2 million each, and they run silently and without tearing up the tracks and nearby platforms.
High Platform Hyjinks.
Muni’s Breda streetcars were also too wide and too long. Muni had to shave some station platforms and adjust its maintenance yards to make them to work with the huge new Breda cars. Because they are two feet too long, four car trains can no longer fit at the subway platforms any more, reducing the ability of the metro system to function as intended back when it was designed in the 70s.
Additionally, while the rest of the world was migrating to low platform streetcars that could accommodate disabled passengers from a low curb-height platform, the Bredas sealed the high platform fate of San Francisco’s transit system. Rather than remodeling the fewer than ten high platform underground stations to accommodate new low platform cars, Muni decided to build huge high platforms at the scores of above ground stops where the trains stop on the surface. That also required the streetcars to lower their stairs after they emerge from the tunnel and begin operating on the street, and raise them again when they arrive at a high platform surface station.
Of course, it simply isn’t feasible build four foot high platforms along the entire stretch of the surface routes, in part because many stops simply don’t have room for the huge concrete platforms. That means that disabled riders have to find the closest raised platform to board, which might be many blocks away. Location constraints also mean that many of these absurd high platform surface stations are actually located at points other than where the train normally stops to board riders, confusing both regular riders and those unable to get up four steep steps into the monster Breda streetcars.
Another Wrong Turn.
While Muni was in the process of replacing its silly Boeing cars with the absurd Bredas, it also embarked upon the aforementioned ATC system designed to computerize metro operations. The immediate result was the Muni Meltdown, an epic crisis I was unfortunate enough to witness, frequently while being imprisoned underground by The System That Does Not Work. If the train wasn’t inexplicably stalled for half an hour or more, it was accelerating like a spooked horse running downhill or screeching to a violent halt that threw all standees to the ground.
Alcatel’s ATC aspired to remove driver control and delegate operations to a computer running IBM’s OS/2. The metro cars still needed a driver, both as a backup and in order to pilot the train after it left the subway and turned into a huge heavy bus on rails, as every Muni Metro line does at some point. The cost advantage was supposed to play in by allowing trains to run though the tunnel timed closer together without any worry that drivers might run into each other.
Previously, trains had to sit at the western tunnel entrances waiting to couple with the cars of another line in order to send a full length train through the main Market Street Tunnel. With ATC, Muni General Manager Emilio Cruz bragged that the system was now firing 33 trains per hour though the system, with no car coupling waits. What he left out was that those were all single car trains rather than four car consists. Muni was sending far fewer cars through the system, far fewer seats, and far fewer people.
Everyone involved, from Mayor Willie Brown to those who rode Muni daily, knew Alcatel’s unproven ATC system and Breda’s ridiculous streetcars were Very Bad Deals for the City. Both projects were recommended, monitored, and administrated by Booz Allen Hamilton, a consulting firm from McLean, Virginia. The worse the projects became, the more Booz Allen Hamilton benefitted, because there was more crisis to bill $200 hours for, more overruns to account, and more expensive extensions to recommend and approve. Rather than being dinged for its failures, Booz Allen Hamilton was on continuous a shopping spree with its City-supplied Carte Blanc and earned bonus miles for every insane purchase.
By the time the dotcom bubble was in full bloom, the then archaic OS/2 ATC system was beginning to actually work, but really offered little benefit. The system might be able to run more trains through the tunnel, but couldn’t run as many cars because they were too big to fit. By that point, the City had invested nearly a half billion dollars into trains that didn’t properly fit on its platforms. ATC actually made things worse, because at least Muni drivers acting under their own control could park multiple trains at a platform at once; ATC refused to have more than one Breda train enter one of the hugely long metro stations (originally designed for four car trains) in order to open their doors at once and actually move riders efficiently.
Despite now knowing the location of every train in the underground system thanks to ATC, Muni refused to advertise that information, leaving riders stuck at platforms with no functional notifications of which trains were arriving and when. For a system that operates with the outstanding level of incompetence and irregularity as Muni, knowing if a train is coming within the next 20 minutes or not is pretty critical information to have available.
Thanks to another multimillion dollar contract related to NextBus, Muni began publishing a wholly independent set of train location data publicly. ATC locates trains using sensors on the tracks. NextBus replicates the multimillion dollar miracle using GPS receivers on trains and busses.
That system at least made it possible to know the arrival of the next train from your computer or from your iPhone, but not to general riders waiting at platforms. Recently, Muni rolled out LCD displays at stations that briefly displayed a nearly readable system map and arrival times using NextBus data (above), but then replaced the display with a cryptic ATC subway map with code characters that are nearly unreadable to even the most enthusiastic train nerd (below).
Muni could have bought old G4 iMacs, attached them to the wall, and used its existing WiFi wireless network to feed a simple display of Dashboard widgets showing the NextBus data. No programmers needed, no millions of dollars, just a simple and effective system to serve the public. It could also share access to its WiFi network so that commuters would have a reason to be that much less incensed that the trains weren’t coming on time.
Yes We Have No WiFi.
Of course, Muni doesn’t care enough about its riders to offer them any perks. And San Francisco could already be bathed in free WiFi were it not for the political self-agrandizement of members of the Board of Supervisors, who not only chronically underfund Muni but also managed to derail Mayor Newsom’s City-wide free WiFi plan and ensure that San Franciscans remain either without Internet access or be left to pay 1996 prices for 1996 Internet service plans from AT&T or the cable monopoly.
Supervisor Aaron Peskin decided at the last second that he could halve Earthlink’s contract term while demanding double the service rate at the same price that had already been agreed upon, and then seemed befuddled when Earthlink chose to pull out of the deal instead of continuing clownish negotiations with reality-impaired bureaucrats mucking up a plan that already held out little potential for commercial profit at significant risk.
Had the City instead raced to deploy Earthlink’s free WiFi, Macworld attendees and their tens of thousands of iPhones and MacBooks would have been able to do something this week. Instead, the massive iPhone homecoming taxed AT&T’s EDGE network to the tipping point, and even managed to beat up GSM service in general. Squabbling private WiFi networks strained to advertise their SSIDs, let alone manage to connect long enough to do anything worthwhile.
It appears AT&T’s backbone data networks toppled over as well, with DSL service failing across the City. When a major utility goes out in San Francisco, it’s usually electricity. The City regularly suffers fires in its ancient substations and occasionally PG&E manages to allow sidewalk transformers to explode. The City runs its lifelines so precariously on good days that its scary to think what might happen if, God forbid, a major earthquake might occur.
Not Ready to Rumble.
The last time the Earth shook, San Francisco had a bunch of empty hospitals to reactivate. Since then, we’ve let George Lucas tear down the Letterman Hospital to erect a digital campus for churning out Jar Jars, and we’ve begun dismantling the shuttered and crumbling Public Service Hospital at the other end of the Presidio.
Even the once highly regarded San Francisco General Hospital has been relegated into the Hospital of Last Resort, to function as a free service dispensary for homeless crack addicts. If you have a medical emergency, prepare to wait in line for several hours. I know I always do when I make my regular ER visits. Getting knocked off a motorcycle automatically qualifies you to win a ride to SFGH, as its the designated trauma ward in the City.
If electricity, transportation, data access, and health care are all coveted luxuries now, imagine how things might get crazy when the City is faced with a real challenge: earthquake, tsunami, epidemic, or even just the influx of several thousand visitors. Even Macworld Expo seemed to be enough to taunt the arrival of a mini-Armageddon.
Muni fell apart, in the sense that it functioned worse than its typical bumblingly incompetent level of operational lunacy. Trains began lurching to an erratic stop in a way that echoed the Muni Meltdown of a decade ago. Muni never runs like a real transit agency, but it usually doesn’t throw riders to the ground at regular intervals, at least not in the metro.
What caused this sudden surge of appalling service? Did IBM release a patch for OS/2 that shorted out Muni’s ATC? I witnessed passengers being thrown twice in the few couple days. It’s like being back in the pre-burst world of the mid 90s again. If the City is being shaken to its foundations by a medium sized event, that certainly doesn’t hold out much hope for the City when real crisis hits.
I Recommend Some Open Engineering.
What San Francisco really needs is an infusion of Open Engineering. What would happen if Muni delegated its train arrival information screens to the company that manages a variety of animated information displays in its Apple retail stores? What would happen if the City dumped Booz Allen Hamilton and outsourced the metro’s ATC system as a community, open source-based replacement that wasn’t tied to Alcatel and an operating system that nobody uses anymore?
What might happen if the the Board of Supervisors insisted that the City and County of San Francisco use PDF and Open Document, open software where ever possible, and actually encouraged the development of community-built WiFi networks?
What if San Francisco published all of the things it does Know How To Do in a public repository shared with other municipalities, and encouraged comments and feedback from the worldwide community of civil engineers and planners? What if the City opened itself and its data systems to third party input, and leveraged the willing volunteers and corporations that already know how to solve many of the simple problems that confound our town? Could that open transparency help burn off the dense vapor that clouds rational decisions just like the Sun dissipates our City’s fog every late morning?
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