Force pols and bureaucrats to ride the buses during peak hours, AA supporters said, and once they witnessed the crime, the filth, and the shoddy service they'd finally understand the urgency of fixing the system. Who could disagree that authentic experience leads to more creative and sensible public policy?
No one really. But officials are apparently more interested in using Muni as a campaign symbol -- standing at bus stops and shaking hands is an ever popular tactic -- than in actually riding the damn thing.
During the course of 13 interviews with supervisors, commissioners, the Mayor's Office, and department heads we learned that:
* It's thoroughly possible for officials to ride the bus to and from work twice a week -- or more;
* Few of them do so;
* And their excuses for not taking the bus are pure crapola.
(Oh yeah, a fourth thing is revealed: Some public officials are apparently reluctant to discuss their Muni usage. Among this shy lot refusing to return two weeks' worth of phone calls were two local officials running for state office, Supervisors Carole Migden and Angela Alioto.)
The most often cited excuse for ducking the bus among public officials is that they must attend so many meetings around town -- six or seven in a day in widely divergent parts of the city -- that it's impossible to make the rounds on Muni. At first pass this seems a decent extenuation. But Supervisors Mabel Teng and Tom Ammiano expose it for the canard it is.
Teng takes Muni to and from work two to three days a week. To make it to the many appointments she has all over the city during the day she arranges to have a volunteer drive her.
Ammiano also takes Muni to work and back two or three times a week. (Brave soul, he rides the 14 Mission.) The frosh supe simply schedules his day around it and has an aide drive him to far-flung meetings hard to reach by bus.
Even if officials don't have volunteers or aides willing to haul them around, they could easily arrange their days around taking Muni -- if they cared.
For instance, officials could drive their personal cars to work one day, use them for appointments, and take Muni home at night, leaving the autos parked in the city garage. The next day, the officials could take the bus to City Hall, use their cars for errands, and go home on Muni again. The next day they could take Muni to work and their cars home, fulfilling their minimum AA duties.
Not much of an inconvenience, considering the overarching goal is to make better public policy. That's their job, after all. But the simple truth is that public officials are just like the rest of us. They hate and fear Muni. They will do anything, use any pretense, to avoid riding overcrowded, overheating, frequently late buses full of too many crazies and thugs and bugs.
Supervisor Susan Leal was perfectly honest about the fear for her own safety. "Sure, I'm not going to deny it," she says. "If I'm at 24th and Mission and I want to go downtown, what am I going to take? The 14 Mission? No. I'll take BART. It's safer and cleaner."
Aside from fear and frantic scheduling, walking to work is an excuse used to ignore AA invoked by at least two public officials, Police Commission President John Keker and Mayor Willie Brown.
Keker, the hard-nosed defense attorney who beat up on Ollie North and pulled Patrick Hallinan's chestnuts from the fire, says he lives only a few blocks from his law offices at Keker & Van Nest (710 Sansome St.). He adds, "I do plan to start taking the bus often to see how police on Muni are doing."
Brown likes to stroll from Geary and Gough to the War Memorial, temporary home of City Hall, according to his press secretary, P.J. Johnston.
Surely a pleasant stroll: Geary to Van Ness, Van Ness six blocks to the office. He could even stop in at Spuntino for a latte and almond biscotti if he cared to. But the mayor, who made such a huge stink about Muni during the election, could easily garner a brief Muni experience (the 49 Van Ness) on his way to work.
But then he'd have to deal with the great unwashed. And given the fact that his man-of-the-people campaign demeanor is morphing into regal highhandedness in office, that probably isn't at the top of his agenda.
At the same time, however, Brown is hammering his staff about riding Muni. Every staff meeting includes a stern encouragement to hop the bus. "It's a volunteer thing now, but he may start checking hours," Johnston says.
Another, more frequently cited excuse among our little elected ones is that they ride the bus on the weekend. That's the fancy footwork tapped out by Leal and Supervisors Barbara Kaufman and Michael Yaki.
Sorry, weekends don't count. The whole point of AA -- why it specifies that the rides be to and from work -- is to get the public servants on buses during peak hours when everyone is stressed and the system is pushed to capacity.
Sue Bierman, a longtime transit advocate who finds herself too busy to take the bus, understands that logic.
"You are certainly conscious if you ride it at peak hours," she says. "You are conscious of the overcrowding and some disruptive behavior."
Even Kaufman aide Nancy Kitz admits that weekend riding doesn't afford officials a realistic view of the system. "It's definitely a more relaxed situation," she says.
If some supervisors, who have broad authority over Muni, disdain the bus, at least the Transportation Commission sees fit to ride the rails. Actually, they don't have a choice. A separate measure mandating Muni ridership for commissioners was written into the charter in 1994 when the commission was established. Commission Secretary Roberta Boomer says Commission President Rudy Nothenberg "has a fast pass and everything." She says he rides the bus several times a week, to and from work and to meetings.
Commissioner Kathleen Knox, who is blind, has no other mode of transportation for herself and her Seeing Eye dog, Kylie. But even the sighted commissioners take the bus at least twice a week.
Maybe the voters ought to similarly sharpen the teeth of Prop. AA. Or better yet, heed the advice of Jim Baker, an elderly Tenderloin resident, who was asked by the Chronicle for comment on Prop. AA in 1993 as he was boarding the 14 Mission:
"They'll never ride it -- not unless you take their cars away from them.