January 9, 2009

Easy Things Made Difficult: Volume 1 / Tale 1

by with 3 comments

Is it really that hard to make things easy? Well – perhaps. In the first
installment in Volume 1 of Easy Things Made Difficult, we travel to the New
Montgomery BART/MUNI Station in San Francisco.

To relay this story most appropriately, I will detail the conversation
between myself and an amazingly removed, disinterested, and unbearably aloof
MUNI worker. She sat behind a glass enclosure – leaning painfully forward to
speak softly into a microphone that crackled inaudibility. Turn-styles to the
MUNI train flanked her on both sides of the booth.

Ethan: “Hello. Do you know where I can purchase a ticket for the MUNI – I
only see kiosks for the BART”.

Aloof MUNI Worker: “Well – you have to use correct change – $1.50 – and
drop it in the slot above each turn-style. There is a change station over
there – next to the BART kiosk.”

Ethan: “Thank you very much.”

I then venture over to the change station. After entering my dollar twice
and having it spit back at me each time, I notice a smallish sign – nowhere
near the slot – that reads ‘Only Accept $10 and $20′. I wasn’t about to
retrieve $10 dollars in change when I only need one. So I made the long walk
back to my aloof friend sitting comfortably in her glass house.

Ethan: “It seems that this machine only makes change for $10′s and $20′s.
Is there a better way to resolve this?”

Aloof MUNI Worker: “Well – you actually need to use the BART kiosk, put in
your dollar, and press ‘H’ for change.”

Ethan: “Is it me or does that seem a little bit confusing – especially as I
am trying to go on the MUNI?”

Aloof MUNI Worker: “I tried to explain this to you but you walked

Ethan: “Even if I hadn’t walked away – you still have to admit that this
process is amazingly confusing. There is a change machine that will only give
you change for big bills and a traveler has to use the BART kiosk to get
change for the MUNI. Confusing.”

Aloof MUNI Worker: “I don’t understand? I tried to explain it to you but
you walked away.”

Ethan: “But don’t you think it is confusing that I have to use the BART
kiosk to get on the MUNI? Perhaps if the process were designed to be a little
less confusing, I would not have to bother you – nor would the other
travelers. And that would be good – right?”

Aloof MUNI Worker: “But you walked away before I could explain it” -
flipping her hair to one side.

Ethan: “If I may ask you a question – if you wanted to eat a chocolate chip
cookie from a high wire between the two highest towers in Kuala Lumpur, do you
think it would make sense to buy an apple and travel to Paris instead?”

Aloof MUNI Worker: “That doesn’t seem like it makes sense.”

Ethan: “Exactly.”

I then made my over the BART kiosk, slide my dollar bill in the slot,
pressed ‘H’, retrieved my four quarters (having two already in my pocket),
dropped them in the change slot, passed through the turn-style for the MUNI,
waved goodbye to my aloof friend, and made my way onward…

  1. I was in San Francisco in December for a couple of weeks and I have to say I agree – the BART system seems deliberately obtuse.
    For what is, by european standards, a small suburban rail/ metro system, it's really hard to use – seemingly for no real reason.

    Actually buying a ticket seems strange & backwards – instead of telling it where you want to go and then the kiosk telling you how much, you lookup where you want to go on a chart, find out the price, put your cash into the kiosk and then tell it how much change you want. In increments of 5¢. It then spits out a ticket valid for the requested amount of travel.

    Once you actually get on the train, it's pretty hard to tell when to get off. The driver announcements are often extremely quiet and the trains very loud. Each station has one, small, tastefully positioned white-lettering-on-black-background sign telling you its name. These are really hard to read from inside the train car, through the tinted windows; almost impossible at night, as the signs mostly aren't lit. There doesn't seem to be any automated in-car system to tell you where you are – no LED displays, no automated announcements.

    Fortunately, the other passengers were extremely helpful, so we managed OK but really – it would be fairly trivial to make this all a lot simpler.

    In contrast the MUNI (mostly buses) seemed very simple to us – you buy a $1.50 ticket which lasts 1/2 day and you can go wherever you want until it runs out.

  2. It all makes sense once you know :)

    Really, the system is bad (both in ticketing, purchasing and information availability). Whenever I go anywhere on Muni with friends from out of town (or locals that don't ride often), I always make sure to have plenty of change ready for them, and before we leave (wherever there is a source of change) I ask, does everyone have their Muni fare?

    Even understanding why there are Muni/Bart differences are sometimes hard to explain. I know many people who don't ever think that there is another underground train system than Bart. Muni train/underground, what is that?