Life on the Underground Failroad

Sometimes, when you need to remember why you love San Francisco, it's helpful to visit a city where things do work. Recently I went to Hong Kong, another high-tech burg with too many people, too little space, and excellent dim sum. There, whooshing around on immaculate subways and regaling myself with the city's redundant transit options, I came to appreciate the most vibrant, humane, and absurd aspect of living in San Francisco.

The godforsaken Muni.

Yes, Muni is a decrepit network of shabby streetcars clattering through graffiti-sprayed tunnels, of trash-filled buses groaning their way up our steep hills (or at least trying to). To even catch a Muni train from downtown, you must first descend into a labyrinth of urine, feces, and amateur musicians.

But the Muni misery we endure is, I argue, what makes San Francisco great. Or at least what makes us whatever it is that we are, which often seems great. Ride our transit, and you will witness the hardiness and tolerance of the city dweller in her hostile home environment: evading the wrath of surly bus operators, fighting the urge to shush needlessly screaming passengers, maintaining a stoic outward appearance despite finding herself trapped in a metal can that reeks of stale Steel Reserve and fresh butt.

They do not have any of that in Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, the cars of a subway train are connected with no doors, forming one clean, extended, unpartitioned corridor. Can you imagine such an arrangement here? Within five minutes, some park denizen would be rolling the length of the train on his skateboard, trumpeting profanities while soliciting cash for his daily bud. Or some punk kid would relieve himself into a Snapple bottle and start a train-length bowling game, with the bottle for the ball and some techie's $300 loafers for the pins. And if the young and semi-employed were not running through the train drunk and/or in their underwear — which is unlikely — they'd be Occupying it to keep designer chain stores off Valencia Street. So I'm sorry to say it, Hong Kong, but there's more to urban life than clean, smooth, open subway trains, even ones that hold lots of people and arrive on time every two minutes. We San Franciscans prefer randomness — not just abstractly knowing that anything can and will happen at any time, but making sure that it does so on our daily commute.

Perhaps the biggest thing Muni reveals about San Francisco, though, is our incredible tolerance for failure. They say failing is the key to success? Let's remember that the next time a broken door on the inbound L-Taraval holds up the entire city's ride to work. Or when the next bus driver ends his shift in the middle of a route and leaves 40 people stranded on a hilly street in a quiet neighborhood: We're on the way to success, folks. It's about four stops ahead. The next 21-Hayes will arrive in 17 minutes, unless it doesn't.

Yet this chaos is a blessing — one we mostly fail to appreciate. Increasingly, newcomers to our city are cheating themselves out of this great unwashed Muni adventure. They live here, or claim to, and yet never plop their ass down in those puke-orange seats, never discuss the epistemology of The Little Mermaid with a 50-year-old man sporting facial tattoos and a Mickey Mouse cap. You meet a lot of crazy people on the bus here, but the ones who never ride it are the craziest. They pay all that money to reside in this one-of-a-kind circus, and they don't even bother to visit the sideshow.

Ian S. Port is the Music Editor for SF Weekly.

 
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15 comments
aliasetc
aliasetc topcommenter

The difference between Hong Kong and Frisco is that Frisco is only a third Chinese.

sfosparky
sfosparky

One key difference is that public transit in Hong Kong, or indeed Europe or Asia as a whole, is viewed as an integral part of the transportation infrastructure. So it can be designed as public transit rather than designed to try to attract people who drive cars.


I've ridden the Hong Kong system. It works well. But it does so not by striving to be "as good as" a private automobile but instead by actually being a viable, indeed often attractive, way to get around in a predictable and timely fashion.


At the most fundamental level, automobile manufacturers realize that owning and operating a car is almost entirely an onerous form of tedious manual labour. That's why each year the industry invests US$16-18 billions in advertising that painstakingly avoids the realities of automobile ownership and operation in favor of fantasies involving single cars "flying" down roadways "uncluttered" with other cars, pedestrians, red lights, or indeed any sort of intrusive reality. (Note the "invests": Advertising is not meant to be an expenditure but rather is expected to recover its costs plus generate a return in additional revenue.)


Surrendering control of virtually every public dialog to the self-interested voices of marketing and advertising may produce a narrow set of economic benefits, but it also demonstrably displaces alternatives that may be more cost effective, socially beneficial, and sustainable.  As a thought experiment, imagine that in the U.S. the automobile industry and public transit industry were somehow obliged to swap advertising budgets for say five, or better yet ten, years.

Jay Rooney
Jay Rooney

I find it so funny when people rag on Muni. I lived in Florida for 9 years before coming out here. Try catching a bus in Miami and I guarantee you'll never complain about Muni again. Yeah, it's not the NY subway, but be grateful for what you do have. It's not that bad.

Lori Jones
Lori Jones

yes it is like a rolling circus!

mateo8777
mateo8777

Apparently, you've never enjoyed a ride on the E train from Jamaica Station to Mid-town on the NYC subway.  You'd appreciate MUNI a hell of a lot better.

Meaghan Mitchell
Meaghan Mitchell

And like every other transportation system in the nation there is room for improvement in Muni, but it's not that bad. I just wish people would get over it.

Mike Ege
Mike Ege

Maybe this guy should be working over at the Bay Guardian. Since Our Canadian Overlords own both papers, as part of their campaign to subvert Real America by reducing different opinions to lifestyle choices, this can be accomplished easily. I'm still waiting for Rob Ford to move here.

Jeremy Baker
Jeremy Baker

What kind of bullshit is this person smoking?? You PREFER disgusting buses and public spaces?? Fuck right off. In other countries, degenerates and thugs are hauled off to jail and the rest of us who can enjoy nice things can do so in peace and cleanliness.

Meaghan Mitchell
Meaghan Mitchell

I think this person just wanted to brag about their trip to Hong Kong.. Pointless article.

 
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