Daniel Eran Dilger
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San Francisco, Muni Fall Apart For Macworld Expo

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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.

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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.

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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.

SF Weekly – Rewarding Failure

What’s Next?
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 ATC map

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.

SFist: Muni – Wanna Guess Where This Is Going?

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?

What do you think? I really like to hear from readers. Comment in the Forum or email me with your ideas.

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  • dssstrkl

    And that would be why I ride my bike as much as possible. Unfortunately, I’m a whimp and don’t like to ride when its cold or rainy. One of the big problems with City politics is the fact that the supes are safely hidden behind District voting, ie they only have to worry about a single district (out of 11) and can go about fucking over the rest of the city as they please.
    Also, the new hybrid buses seem to be pretty heavy as well, since the streets under their routes are deteriorating pretty quickly, and I know for a fact that on many of those streets, those buses are the only heavy vehicles that ever go there.
    Here’s a funny picture from the Civic Center station I took this morning (Friday): http://www.flickr.com/photos/62733243@N00/2203690150/

  • dssstrkl

    Oh, and I forgot to mentioned that momuni.com is a nice iPhone optimized version of nextmuni.com that allows you to bookmark specfic stops for each line. Very nice.

  • http://web.mac.com/lowededwookie lowededwookie

    Isn’t it somewhat disturbing that the contracting company has as its first name Booz?

    To make matters worse if you take the initials you get BAH – as in “Bah humbug”.

    I feel so sorry for you lot over there. Our rail system isn’t that bad by comparison… Auckland on the otherhand.

  • droughtquake

    Ah, but the Breda cars were built by Pininfarina! They all have a little shield mounted inside near the driver’s compartment.
    (It could be worse, the cars could look as ugly as San Jose’s VTA Light Rail!)

  • slayerjr

    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?

    Jeebus Daniel, that would be so un-American and anti everything your country stands for. You some kinda Commie?

  • mofunkee

    Please tell me that the above story is all fiction. I live 2,800 miles away, in another county, and I am cringing. This is truly scary stuff. BTW, it was well written.

  • ninja

    To solve all the problems just elect some liberals, you will be on your way to Utopia.

  • Robbie

    Gee, Daniel, I resent your comment about us Italians being (supposedly) unable to build good trains… If you want to complain about Breda’s trains, feel free to do so at your leisure: you have good reasons, it seems. However, generalizing as you did is simply wrong.

    Btw, keep up the good work covering everything Apple!

  • http://johnsessays.blogspot.com John Muir

    It sounds perfectly realistic to me. I live in another one-party town* — Edinburgh in Scotland — and everything the council touches turns to ruin in no time.

    We had the foresight(tm) to tear up our tram network in the fifties, presumably since buses work that much better in a fairly hilly city with lots of Victorian and Medieval tight turns. The problem naturally enough became cars as time passed: not actually traffic as such but the absurd lack of parking spaces you get from the above description. The council plastered parking machines and an insane number of different kinds of permit all over town as an attempt to at least monetise that problem!

    Sometime in the 90’s our dynastic superiors (who a plurality of the city’s voters insisted on keeping eternally in office) decided to get people out of their cars through a wholly unexplained campaign of street closures and other traffic anti-calming measures. Journeys which used to take me 15 minutes *on the bus* became daily half hour plus monsters with loops and nose-to-tail traffic in a city centre which had scarcely seen it before. Predictably since buses are less nimble than cars in jams like that this served as a similar car driving advertisment as Daniel described, and drove several of the bus companies into bankruptcy while people abandoned them.

    The one company which went from strength to strength was LRT: which is jointly owned by the council. Hmm…

    Anyway, they eventually hatched the idea of holding a referendum for a scheme to put two loops around the town and tax people like in London for crossing them. Ken Livingstone (London’s mayor) was never stupid enough to ask people if they wanted such a thing, and our lot were duly crushed in the poll and speechless.

    As retribution they came up with a new tram plan (full circle anyone?) which scars up tourist-hotspot Princes Street pretty badly and weaves its way through the outskirts along old railroad tracks which for decades have been the town’s most popular dog walking and cycling routes. Fortunately they seem to have messed up with financing, and the scheme’s quietly gone back on ice.

    Edinburgh’s real problem transport wise is the Forth Road Bridge. Nearby Fife has become a de facto exurb of the city and tens of thousands march past in slow moving cars between their homes many miles away and the ludicrous daily madness which is parking in this place. What they drive past, as it happens, is barely used farmland which grows EU sponsored crops which no one needs and would easily house the lot of them in a fraction of its space.

    Ah well. At least we’re not on the fault line…

    San Francisco could look to Japan to learn a lot about managing quakes, which for the most part Japanese cities seem to do especially well and unnervingly frequently. As for open source government though … that will take a generation.

    *Single party rule at least until recently. They were changed over to proportional representation over their heads, and now the beloved Labour (social democrat) party has been ousted by a coalition of Liberal (social democrat) and Scottish Nationalists (social democrat). You can just smell the change in the air!

  • Blad_Rnr

    Interesting, well-written article. More evidence of why less government is better, because government is always inherently inefficient. Things that appear so simple to you and I become a leviathan, and when you throw in the waste, mismanagement and corruption that I am sure takes place in all areas and at all levels, we see a complete waste of our hard earned dollars while stuffing the pockets of bureaucrats who do nothing and have no incentive to respect us.

    I know, having read you for a few years now, that occasionally you like to poke fun at GWB and his fellow conservatives. But from what you just wrote, a city managed by very liberal politicians, it just further demonstrates that BOTH parties are guilty of abusing the system. I have a hard time listening to a quack like Michael Moore speaking up for MORE government, even if his intentions are noble. It’s idiotic. When will we learn that outside of national defense and a judicial system, government can’t do anything efficiently, so why ask them to?

    I am not crying out for a Republican president. I am asking that, as the example above demonstrates, we Americans need to wake up and understand that the more we ask of government, the less they do and the more expensively they do it. Maybe it’s time to give Ron Paul and the Libertarian Party (less government, less taxes, more personal freedom) a try.

    [The problem isn’t really “more government” but “more incompetent government,” or in many cases, “less government with more corrupt consultants given privatized control of social projects.”

    The problems that plague Democratic San Francisco’s bumbling Muni are very similar to those that have surrounded the Republican US administration’s poorly planned, privatized war on Iraq, albeit on a much smaller scale. A government can’t operate efficiently if it can’t make tough decisions.

    While public transportation by train is an enemy of Neocons, they don’t seem to mind the massive subsidies poured into other socialized public transportation projects such as the Interstate highway system or the Federally maintained airports. And what about other nationally socialized government programs like our military and coast guard?

    I don’t think any political party has lock on the incompetence and greed that result from unchecked control. All the right wingers who pounced on my article complaining about Muni are simply acting as disingenuous opportunists. If SF were truly some liberal socialist paradise, the trains would be run on time and efficiently, as they commonly do across Europe.

    Many of Muni’s core problems are related to the transportation agency not having enough control of its own destiny, with the Board of Supervisors holding the power to unfund it at any time, and consultants acting as blind guides. Even if Muni were privatized as a enterprise, it couldn’t operate with that kind of political meddling, regardless of the ideology of those running it. Sometimes bringing up partisan attacks just isn’t appropriate or useful.

    And for the record, outside of the more egregiously incompetent examples of the City Gone Wrong, San Francisco is beautiful, bikable, walkable, clean, pursuing environmentally conscious smart growth, and welcoming of the people that more conservative counties chase from their communities. The fact that the City can thrive under the dark ages of the US is pretty impressive too. – Dan]

  • kent

    How about if we have the people who put together the Muni system design a national transportation system that would replace all other modes of transportation and provide their newly designed national transportation system to everybody free of charge. There would be a government supplied free transportation universally to meet the human right of mobility.

    [How about we just have the Germans or Japanese build us high speed rail links between our major urban corridors in California, the NE, and other areas that desperately need faster, reliable transportation options, and then run those links as profit generating system that pay for their own expansion? That way, we won’t need to invest as much money into building more socialized highways where drivers sit in traffic jams, or our Federally subsidized airports that cost us use taxes and lose money on top of the profits generated by the airlines that don’t pay to fund them. Plus, we can ease up construction and maintenance costs for the Federally subsidized roads and airports that support trucking, air freight, and passenger air lines, and reduce the need for Federal policing of airports. After all, terrorists can’t threaten blow a train out of the sky; a high speed train is no more of a target than a freeway overpass.

    It would be nice if you could control-alt-delete your fixation with neocon talking points and just look at issues realistically, rather than having to frame every conversation as a series of red state jingoisms. – Dan]

  • LyndellR

    Since subsidy keeps failure in business, you’re stuck with it. The solution is to get government out of that business and leave it to unlicensed buses and taxis. If you pay check depends on doing it right, you do it right.

    [Do we also have unlicensed drivers? Toll roads run by private enterprises that bill us per mile rather than freeways paid for the by the Feds? If so, how could rural Americans possibly afford to build themselves the roads they need? Do we set up the military as a free enterprise business that charges Americans per square mile of land they own to have it defended from attack? Do we bill rural red state citizens for the actual cost of running utilities (gas, water, electricity, Internet) to their farms, or are you only for “free enterprise” when it relates to services that support dense urban development and serves the needs of the urban Americans who earn more, pay the most taxes, and do more to keep the US competitive in the world economy? – Dan ]

  • mrbee

    Very interesting article Daniel. I live in Vancouver and our city embarked on a similar program to cover the city with rapid transit at almost the same time. In fact because we began just *after* SF did, naysayers were constantly making comparisons to your system.

    “Why didn’t we use the same cars/drivers/software as BART?” were an almost constant refrain from the naysayers at the time. Luckily for us (and sadly for BART), we have not had the same problems that you have had.

    While the administration of transit here is about as stupid and inefficient as it gets (perhaps this is unavoidable in the necessarily corrupt world of municipal politics), the trains themselves perform quite flawlessly for the most part.

    One thing I don’t understand about *any* transit system however is why they do not offer WiFi. Transit is always whining about how to get people to take the train or bus, yet if they offered a way to “work on the way to work” almost everyone would likely ditch their cars. Tres stupide.

  • ericdano

    Come on, San Fran is not interested in fixing anything. The Board and the Mayor are interested in passing stupid things like Gay this or Gay that. Or bickering at each other about pushing for this ballot measure or that on city time (illegal).

    Seriously, I hate going to the City. I’ll use Bart, but not Muni. If I have to go somewhere that is not within walking distance from Bart, I’ll drive.

  • http://thesmallwave.com treestman


    I’ve read your site for about a year now and do so, of course, for the tech articles. And yet, this may be the best article you’ve written.

    I lived in the City from ’88 to ’92 and, while I missed much of what you describe, even then it was clear the city’s “leaders” were leading us to the wrong place. Sadly, in some ways most of CA is like that.

    I love San Francisco. I haven’t gone back in a while, though. Next time I do, I’ll buy you a drink, but I guess I’ll take a cab.

  • nat

    What a city, Daniel! And I thought I’d be heading there after college.

    That sequence of events is so disturbing I can’t imagine you and your city’s frustration. However, I’m surprised to be inspired by it. I live in Columbia, MO, sort of the Austin, TX of Missouri. Its a college town of around 100,000 but expanding fast. Smaller cities inherently have smaller problems that can be nipped in the bud before they become major problems like your metro system as the city grows.

    I’m now very interested in learning about the problems of my town and finding remedies before I move to California in a few years after college. While I’ll be doing some research myself, there’s one flaw that irritates me every time I use a computer at school: WINDOWS! Windows XP is used in our three high schools, three middle schools, as well as at the local Career Center, which holds specialized classes that generally focus on technology. Two of the three high schools feature similar classes, but they too use Windows exclusively.

    My question is simply how can I persuade Columbia Public Schools to switch to Mac? Do you know if schools sign contracts with certain hardware and software vendors? If that’s the case, I’d try to find out when those contracts are up and bring up Macs as an alternative. Macs or Dells are required at MU, but Macs are generally favored by more students as many schools recommend them and thanks to them being sold next to ugly Dells in the MU bookstore.

    If hardware/software contracts aren’t used in public schools, I have an idea in mind. Due to our growth, a new high school is scheduled to be built in the next few years. While we already have three high schools, one is mainly for dropouts and pregnant teens. If I could get Macs into that new school, do you think the other schools would follow suit once they heard how much easier Macs are to use, maintain, etc?

    Should I talk to the IT at my school, which is basically one guy? What should I say? Have you ever tried to migrate a business or school to Macs? Is it too late?

    Any info would be very appreciated. We’ve had numerous problems with PCs at school and many of my teachers know so little about computers (due to age and Windows’ unintuitive nature) they have trouble showing DVD movies and slide shows on the recently installed digital projectors. Is there anything I can do?

  • blacktalonz

    Holy Cow! If the uber liberals screwed up San Francisco so bad, I shudder to think what would happen if they somehow got control of the Presidency!

    Can you imagine these people getting their hands on public healthcare, defense, and heaven forbid the economy? They can’t even manage public transportation.

  • nat


    Just because the population is largely liberal doesn’t mean those in power are. Look at California’s governor.

    Here in Columbia, MO, described as very liberal city, we’ve got a republican governor, Matt Blunt, who’s made abstinence the only sex education and dropped healthcare for thousands. What can we do about what those in power do until the next election?

    If liberal San Francisco had gone with the Japanese as liberal Boston did, you probably wouldn’t be trying to make such a ludicrous argument, right?

  • qka

    Having worked in ATC software development for an Alcatel competitor, I know something of this field from the inside.

    My former employer also had a OS/2 based ATC product. Given the hardware and software available at the time their effort started, this made sense. In hindsight, you can attack OS/2 and how MS sabotaged it, but at the time, it made sense. So much, that even after OS/2 was dead to the rest of the world, we were still using it. Once software is developed and working, you have to reuse it in order to extract enough economic benefit.

    The other thing is that the software takes several years to develop and test, and then install in the field. Everyone likes to complain about commercial software that is buggy and loses their work. What about software that is buggy and could cause someone to lose their life? Each installation is a custom job, so there is no beta testing. That is why software reuse, mentioned above, is so necessary. Also, once a system is installed, it is expected to work for years. Here, the rapid rate of technological change is a problem. The hardware initially installed is outdated but functional. Replacing it can be such a problem that smart customers buy a number of spare computers, etc., and store them away for future use. So don’t knock “archaic” systems.

    The job is also made more difficult when the system is installed on a new rail line, rather than an existing line. Once the track is laid and the stations opened, everyone expects the trains to start running immediately. Given all the taxpayer money spent, that seems reasonable. Unfortunately, not all the kinks will have been ironed out of the system. Public outcry will always be the result! (Installation of new ATC systems on existing lines may be tested in the overnight hours, if possible.)

    That does not excuse the problems with the rail cars and how they fit track bends and station platforms. I cannot say more because that is outside my experience.

    I will add that “consultants” most definitely can be a problem. I remeber the one job I was on that involved a consultant who was constantly making more work for everyone, and fees for themselves. The end customer finally got wise and put an end to it. Surprising how fast things went after that!

    As for the two screenshots: The first is too complicated, and the second, while typicial of what is in the control center, is a bit too geeky for the public. Think something like the classic London Underground map – elsewhere I have seen a similar map for SF.

    As for politics – while it may have been involved to some extent, most of the problems come from this just being a BIG project.

  • progressivetech

    Just to let you know, the construction problems with these trains aren’t entirely the fault of Breda. While I don’t have a great deal of personal experience with their light rail systems I know a subsidiary of the company built a large percentage of the rolling stock for the DC Metro train system. Granted the original trains were designed by another company, but even so some of these trains have been operating for 25 years with comparatively few problems. I know light rail and underground heavy rail systems are very different animals but I figured I’d toss this out there anyway.
    Hey at least the legendary cable cars still work, right?
    By the way, Booz Allen isn’t totally inept at all they do, but it does always seem strange to me when municipalities hire consultants from the “Beltway Bandit” firms.

  • dssstrkl

    Hey blacktanolz, fuck you!

    The reason why San Francisco has this problem is because of the way that the City government is structured. There are initiatives to fix Muni almost every year, but the Board and the mayor tend to take the money and funnel it off to other crap. Also, the drivers, who are the highest paid in the world (really, this is a big issue here), get to not show up and don’t have to call in sick (!), ignore traffic rules, drive dangerously (2 people killed by LRVs this last week) and seem to be upset that they have to actually pick people up. Now not all Muni drivers are like this, but the fact that so many of them are colors perceptions. Add that to the fact that its nearly impossible to fire drivers and you have a terrible system.
    That’s our problem here, we have a corrupt MTA headed by an unaccountable and undemocratic city government.

  • lightstab

    Bravo, Dan. I went to San Francisco State and I can’t tell you how often I got stuck at the West Portal station while trying to commute to my job in Knob Hill. I still miss San Francisco though. I hope this doesn’t put anyone off San Fran, because it’s really a cool town, IF you have the money to live there.

  • lmasanti

    “What if San Francisco published all of the things it does Know How To Do in a public repository…”

    Taking into account your article, this repository of things the Muni “Know How To Do” would be empty!

  • hrissan

    On the opposite side of the Globe we have similar problems. Incompetence of authorities, expensive consultants who do not undestand at all how things are done, projects illegally assigned to contractors owned by city council relatives, city property deteriorating from misuse, etc.

    I’m curious, Daniel, why you are shifting to politics?
    Have you understood that the best things done by tech guys can not overweight stupidity of ruling guys at some point and you sense we are coming to that point? :)

  • Robert.Public

    Just took a trip to Minsk over new year that had the old Soviet era metro that was FAR better than the pathetic excuse for public transportation that we have in San Francisco. BART IMO is a beautiful thing (love the sofa like seats), but MUNI makes me cringe – slow, noisy, uncomfortable, incoherent system.

    As far as this being a liberal versus conservative thing, nonsense. Incompetence lies on both sides. If you are really honest with yourself there is no side that has a monopoly on talent nor idiocy. Each side has appalling failures and great achievements.

    a centrist middle class San Franciscan with a fixie, BART pass, and a car.

  • http://homepage.mac.com/johnnyapple johnnyapple

    Daniel, a good read. It certainly got me rolling! San Francisco is certainly not alone in poor planning and decision making.

    Mass transit and urban planning are high on my list of interests. Minneapolis and the broader Twin Cities is a metro of 3.5 million people. After decades of fighting we finally have our first light rail line. A 12 mile section running from downtown Minneapolis, through the Airport and on to Mall of America. No other metro half it’s size was without some form of rail transit when it finally opened. It took an accidental Governor/ex pro wrestler to get things moving.

    The line uses relatively slow (55 mph) Bombardier Flexity Swift trains. It has proven to be extremely popular. People actually park their cars outside of the city and ride to and from downtown to work. They’re dependable, clean and comfortable. The 3 year old line is already carrying more than twice the number of passengers as projected and is already carrying more than 12% of all Metro Transit passengers. Even more surprising is that the political wars continue surrounding the expansion of the system with 2 to 4 additional lines. Go figure.

    The train is also very popular with Vikings, Gopher and Twins fans as it directly serves the soon to be demolished, less than 30 year old Metrodome stadium. The new $522 million Twins Stadium will also be served as will the yet unapproved $1 billion Vikings Stadium. The MN Gophers are also getting a new $290 million stadium as they could not work out an exceptible deal with the Vikings to share, as they do now. The $234 million replacement for the collapsed I-35W bridge was nearly passed over for “light rail capable”.

    The rest of the transit system is served by smelly, dirty and hopelessly unreliable diesel buses. Ridership is pretty low. Go figure. The vast majority of these riders use the buses because they cannot or wish not to drive cars. They’ve recently started to replace the older buses with hybrid diesels which is good news. They run entirely on stored electricity while traveling through the already noisy and congested downtown streets.

  • http://homepage.mac.com/johnnyapple johnnyapple

    One more thought. I guess the Twin Cities will be in good shape to make future bids for the Summer Olympics. We’ve been in the finals before. Opps, scratch that, lousy mass transit.

  • http://johnsessays.blogspot.com John Muir

    @ Robert.Public

    You’re absolutely right about incompetence being independent of the left or the right. It’s all about nepotism, unaccountability and broken local politics which keeps the same people in power too long.

    @ johnnyapple

    Minneapolis for its faults sounds pretty together. Interesting that it took a political outsider to move things along. My least favourite feature of how we do politics over here is that we have no elected mayors, or indeed any high offices. Everything in Scotland is done above our heads by legislators, who rely 100% on their political party to keep their jobs. The further voters are kept from power, the worse the scope of incompetence can be. To me it sounds like San Francisco suffers primarily from being too much of a bastion of the one political party. Whether it’s Democrats or Republicans matters little when you discover that your vote is essentially worthless.

  • zpikzpan

    Al this “liberal” spewing should really stop. This divide is so idiotic, since your right wing and left wing politicians will broadly do the same things anyway. Message for USA residents: even your liberal politicians are considered right and conservative in Europe.

    You know, that little continent with public transport systems 20 years ahead of yours.

    Go for instance to Sweden – if only for the incredible long legged blondes – and take the train there. Paid with tax money from just about the most well off people on earth, because of its incredibly inclusive social system.

    Any Swede will criticize it – who doesn’t criticize his/her own government – but ask them if they’d prefer the American dream instead. “And give up one year pregnancy leave? Are you crazy?”

    Really, really, get a perspective. The USA has some good things, there are some incredible Americans. But you are not the centre of the world. You might even have noticed that most other Western countries tend to see the US way as the way not to do things.

    BTW, interesting statistic: for those in love with the American dream: upward mobility between generations is much higher in Europe than in the USA.

    Go Google, if you don’t believe me.

  • DiamondDog


    This is the best article you’ve had in a while. Please submit it as an OpEd to the Chron or SF Weekly or something! I’ve lived in SF since Sept. 2006 and while I love the City, there are some glaring problems that need to be addressed if it wants to evolve. To tell you the truth, I don’t care about WiFi, but MUNI must be fixed.

  • nat


    I agree with you to a certain extent. Some of the kids I have to deal with in my French 2 class will back-talk the teacher saying “This is America. We have the freedom of speech!” Right, and so do many other countries. I can’t imagine living anywhere outside of the US at the moment, but that’s because I believe America can change.

    America is still a very young country compared to places like Europe whose histories are similar to or worse than our current dilemma. We say we’re a democracy, yet since I was born (1988) we’ve had two families running the White House – the Clintons and the Bushs. If Obama loses the primary to Clinton, I highly doubt I’ll be voting at all, which is a pity considering it would be my first presidential election. That’s not going to happen if America wakes up!

    I think my thoughts can be summed up best in that song played by Randy Newman at this year’s Macworld Expo entitled “A Few Words In Defense of Our Country.” Take a listen by downloading the Macworld keynote on iTunes, buying the song there, or stream it from Apple.com

  • kent

    Hey dssstrkl

    You need to relax. You were a bit impolite to blacktanolz. Your comments about San Francisco seemed to be in agreement with his point.

    Have a nice day.


  • daniel.lucas

    I very much enjoy reading your blog, however, I feel I should defend the Italians on your Chevy/Fiat analogy, which is utterly misleading.

    Italians cars are, without a shadow of a doubt, among the best cars in the world (along with the Germans, depending on what you’re looking for). Meanwhile, American cars are generally oversized, inefficient gas guzzlers that can’t take corners and handle badly.

    Clearly San Francisco’s Italian-made trains aren’t right for the job but that is no reason to make cheap and inaccurate analogies to suit the context of your post.

    Indeed, you yourself go to great lengths to put people right about erroneous or fabricated information they have published. Be careful not to award yourself a Zoon.

    Having said that, I love your blog. Your articles are very well written, highly entertaining, very witty and extremely informative. And despite the above comment, they are generally very well researched, too.

    Keep up the good work!

  • nextcube

    Add to this the disturbing trend of elected officials deliberately lowballing the costs of a project because they’re afraid voters would object if made aware of the real price tag. Once the project is started, you don’t want to walk away from all the money you’ve already spent on half-finished work, right?
    The other issue that seems to come up often when dealing with government agencies of every shape and size is that they often lack personnel with the technical skills to construct the RFPs, evaluate the proposals and oversee the projects. But were the municipalities paid enough to actually retain top-notch civil engineers (for example) there’d be huge public outcry at the substantial salaries of government employees. Heads I win, tails you lose.

  • nat

    daniel.lucas said:
    “Clearly San Francisco’s Italian-made trains aren’t right for the job but that is no reason to make cheap and inaccurate analogies to suit the context of your post.”

    I think you stated his point here without realizing it. Daniel wasn’t saying a Fiat was comparable to a Chevy Vega in terms of quality, but that neither the American Boeing trains nor the Italian Breda trains were right for the job.

    That’s why Daniel said:
    “[Italians] 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.”

  • hrissan

    Regarding european cars, I’m sorry to tell you no cheap and mid-priced car in Europe (except German) can compete seriously to Japanese car.

    No one here where I live is going to buy a new peugeot, fiat, opel, skoda, citroen, seat etc when he or she can buy 7 years old toyota honda or subaru (7-year old toyota costs the same or less and way better in features and reliability then new european car).

    So Daniel is right, if you want car or train, you go to Japanese or Germans, of course.

  • gus2000

    Japanese, Germans, Italians…how about “Axis Motors”?

    I used to live in Washington, and the DC Metro is the best rail system I’ve ever seen (although I’ve not been to Europe). Others have managed to provide efficient public transportation, so clearly the problems in the Bay Area on less technological and more political (i.e., the means exist, but the will does not).

    The automobile was one of the best things to happen to America. It was also one of the worst. Public transportation in the US woefully inadequate.

  • droughtquake

    daniel.lucas, the only cars Fiat sells in the US are from Ferrari and Maserati. The last Fiats sold here were ‘Bertone’ X1/9s and ‘Pininfarina’ Spiders and they didn’t even use the Fiat brand at that point — Fiat had a well deserved poor reputation. (Fix It Again Tony.) The Strada (aka Ritmo) was one of the last Fiat-branded cars sold here.

    gus2000, the DC Metro system was based on the BART system, they fixed a few of the most glaring problems when the DC Metro system was designed.

  • http://homepage.mac.com/johnnyapple johnnyapple

    French Canadians make pretty nice trains too… even the Germans buy them. Well, according to my simpleton ‘google a wiki’ level of research anyway.

    Chevy/Fiat… that’s a pretty clear comparison to me. He didn’t say Ford GT/Ferrari Enzo.

    Fiat has shipped us a handful of extremely bad tin cans over the decades. For the average Joe, we view Italian cars in the same light as we view Chevy Vega or Ford Pinto. Ferrari gives me a woody, so does Armani!!

  • http://www.15thStreet.tv huebs

    I’ve lived in New York City for the last 3 years and will finally leave next week. Every year I’ve been here, there seems to be some new problem with the subways. They’ve constantly been under construction so I’ve never made it through a weekend without experiencing some ridiculous wait.

    My personal pet peeve, however, falls very much in line with the argument you’ve. The “L” train was one the first to receive upgrades in the past few years. The only noticeable change is the new inclusion of signs which are supposed to notify riders of when the next train is coming. The biggest problem is that they are never correct. Sometimes they’ll get it right but often they’ll say the train is ten or so minutes away and a train will show up right then or they’ll say the next train will arrive in a few minutes and it’ll never show. This is really not an issue because the signs are useless. They are buried three levels underground at train level. By the time you’ve seen the signs, you’ve already paid your $2 and walked down three flights of stairs. If they had placed the signs at street level, you could actually make a decision to ride the subway or not depending on the train schedule (if it was correct). I guess they don’t want you deciding to not spend the $2.

    It’s really annoying how much time and money was spent installing this flawed piece of technology. It has very much influenced my decision to move to a city where public transportation isn’t an issue ’cause it’s nonexistent — Los Angeles.

  • daniel.lucas

    Looks like things differ slightly depending on what side of the Atlantic you live on because a car like the Fiat Punto actually has quite a good reputation in Europe. They are cheap to run, good value, etc. Another example is the Fiat 500 which scored 5 stars in the NCAP safety test.

    I wasn’t comparing European and Japanese cars but I do accept that Japanese cars are indeed cheap, well featured and very reliable. That’s why you see more and more of them these days.

    In any case, I apologise if I misinterpreted Daniel’s analogy. And thanks for the feedback, I learned a little something.

    Let me point out that I’m not Italian. I just didn’t relaise Fiat had such a lousy reputation in the US.

  • OlsonBW

    I’ve held quite a few different computer tech job titles since 1983 until today. I’m not saying this to try to impress anyone. This is just to show that I’ve actually used the operating system that is being talked about. OS/2.

    When they needed an operating system that could be up 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 1/4 days a year, there was only one OS at the time that ran on PCs that could honestly claim to be able to do this. OS/2.

    What else? DOS, Windows 3.1 or ’95 that would eventually come out? Amiga? Mac?

    None of the others could do what OS/2 could do. I –know– people are going to say this isn’t true but it is. I had ALL of them. I collected oss like people bought underwear. I wasn’t rich, I just didn’t buy a new car and went without other things.

    I USED all of them all week long playing with them, connecting them into a network and having lots of fun. None were as stable as OS/2 was. Not when your LIFE depends on something being up 24 hours a day.

    As for the programming? Any OS can have bad programmers but it doesn’t sound like the programs are the problem. It is the trains.

    OS/2 is still valid in keeping the trains running.

    OS/2 is still updated by IBM despite popular thoughts and despite what IBM says. It’s just behind the scenes to the public. But to the fortune 500 companies that still have a lot of OS/2 machines behind the scenes it is very open.

    I just don’t use it for my desktop anymore.

    My last “PC”‘s power supply died a few years ago. I didn’t really use it much anymore once Mac OS X 10.2 came out. It was current and there were very good non Microsoft products available for it that fit my needs. So I just never replaced that power supply.

    Now I just run Macs and when people tell me they are frustrated I tell them how Microsoft doesn’t care anymore and Apple does. Mac OS X just works. XP and Vista are a pain in the #**&# in comparison. People want out of the Windows nightmare and are starting to, with increasing numbers, to switch.

    It isn’t time for the trains to do this yet though. I still swear by, and not OS/2, for its ability to run 24/7/356 1/4 days a year.

  • http://homepage.mac.com/johnnyapple johnnyapple

    The sides differ because Italy doesn’t sell any of their currently great small/affordable cars in the U.S.

    Demographers – dumb asses I think – don’t think chubby, rich American’s want beautifully engineered small cars. When our gas prices hit $4 or $5 per gallon that might change.

    What are the one-passenger Sprawlville American’s going to do then? Bang on their horns more than ever – my personal experience tells me. We’ll still drive 3 ton SUVs… one person at a time.

  • daniel.lucas

    quote: “What are the one-passenger Sprawlville American’s going to do then? Bang on their horns more than ever – my personal experience tells me.”

    You never know, they might try public transport ;)

  • DiamondDog


    I doubt it. Americans (especially Californians, it seems) are too addicted to their cars. Americans value privacy more than community, preferring to isolate themselves from each other in their real estate and cars because they feel entitled to the privacy they provide. “A man’s home is his castle” they like to say, but what is a castle but a cold, uninviting fortress to keep “common” people out? They apply the same analogy to their mobile castles.

    Is it too late to reverse the terrible effects cars have on cities? I certainly hope not. San Francisco is still small enough to be able to correct it IF the citizens really want to. But I don’t really see a great organized and coherent desire to achieve this.

  • http://homepage.mac.com/johnnyapple johnnyapple

    Public transport needs to compete with private transport. The heavily fought for, politician killing light rail in Minneapolis is proof positive. People ride because they want to, not because they have to. I won’t get into the economics of it in this small space. If I did, I’d have to send Daniel a huge check to pay for his bandwidth fees.

  • http://homepage.mac.com/johnnyapple johnnyapple

    I love to visit San Francisco! It’s been two years since. BART from the airport to Powell is sweet. I only have to lug my bag a few blocks to my hotel. Muni on the other hand… a few trips up and down market are OK.

    What got a sympathetic chuckle out of me are the curved trains with curved doors that can’t be used because passengers might fall under the train. DID NO ONE THINK OF THIS WHEN THEY SIGNED TO MILLIONS OF DOLLARS WORTH OF CONTRACTS? Seriously? Nobody noticed until the trains where delivered?

  • worker201

    It could be a lot worse – you could live in Houston!

  • http://joynerian@mac.com ijoyner

    I have always found SF’s public transport a pleasure and pretty much did for last year’s WWDC as well. I can work out how to get around SF, but can I do that in Sydney, no.

    Sydney has lumbering double deck trains that are slow and then slow to load and unload while passengers navigate the stairs. Double decks are OK for medium distance travel (like in Paris), but for inner-city trains, hopeless.

    As for those who are down on government running things, private enterprise can be far worse. The people doing Sydney’s ticketing have fallen to pieces. Private enterprise claims that they keep prices down due to competition, but usually schemes to get much more money out of you are in place – have you been to UK lately? It’s just a gross generalization to put the problems down to government, there are incompetents everywhere.

  • hrissan

    Last 4 words are real marvel. :) I agree.