Finding My Place on the Bus

At the end of last year, I walked on the platform of Muni Diaries Live in San Francisco. I pretended to wait for a Muni bus, which gave me ample time to tell a story and a few jokes about finding purpose sitting in the “living room” of San Francisco as an advocate for better public transportation.

Here’s my story:

I began my journey from the Midwest to San Francisco, about five years ago on the bus. I first started to explore the San Francisco using Muni, and once I got to know the Bay Area even better, I found something special on public transit: It connected me with the city and I wanted to ride even more.

Now, this may sound strange, even to an audience of regular bus riders. You might think I’ve been exposed to a rare bacteria underneath a bus seat and lost my mind. But allow me to retrace my slow, winding, and sometimes awkward route to finding my home in San Francisco on the bus as a transit rider and advocate.

Getting Onboard

I first rode a public bus in my hometown of Fort Wayne Indiana, when I was 17. I was a late bloomer in high school. I’d been dragging my feet on getting my driver’s license. My new friends from church, who went to a different school on the south side of town, were tired of driving to pick me up in their mom’s minivan. So I took the bus to see these friends that snuck on to municipal golf courses by day, played music in the evening, and went to punk shows in the dingy back room of a tattoo shop at night.

At this age, I could not decide if I identified as a preppy, a nerd, or a nonconformist. I was the weird kid who boarded the bus with a bag of golf clubs and a didgeridoo fashioned from PVC pipe. I once had a 40 of malt liquor dropped on my wing-tipped shoe at a punk show. It now occurs to me now that substances and ambiance of punk shows and buses have a lot in common.

My friends teased me about riding the bus and asked if I’d met the woman who talks to her armpits. I for sure saw some odd characters on my bus rides and the downtown station. While I wouldn’t say I enjoyed the experience, it did connect me to new places and my friends who made my feel comfortable with myself by accepting me. My friends, and no doubt the people on the bus, thought differently and my route to hang with them eventually lead me to a life in the Bay Area.

I got a driver’s license when I was 18, but I should have stayed on the bus. It mortifies me to think about now, but at the time I believed that it was perfectly fine to read a newspaper while driving along the corn-field-lined highways of rural Indiana at 60 miles-per-hour. And somehow, I found a way to argue with friends that I was the better driver. I cringe and remember my own boneheaded moves, when I see 15 — or 65 — year old behaving badly on the bus.

Thankfully, I never harmed anyone and I’ve mostly retired from driving since living in California.


The BMW Experience

When I moved to San Francisco a little more than five years ago with my partner and Muni-shaded calico cat, I was afraid that I couldn’t afford the city or be successful here. My biggest fear was that in a “big city” I’d never make friends or run into people.

Riding public transportation was easy by comparison. The “BMW experience” worked extraordinary worked well for me. BMW is San Franciscan shorthand for “BART, Muni, and Walking”. Plus, and besides BMW travel, there were ferries, cable cars, trans-bay tubs, and even more buses to anywhere or nowhere.

Ferries, Street Cars, Subways, and Buses Converge on Market St. Photo by Arushee Agrawal on Unsplash

My Rules for Riding
There are bumps along the way. I’ve had my share of odd moments, for sure, and I quickly noticed the many ways the system lets people down. I have come up a few simple rules to enjoy my ride: I watch, I listen, I mind others, and I thank my driver.

Watch and Listen
When you keep your “eyes up and your phone down” on Muni, you never know what you’ll see. I tried to think of an individual story to tell about my journeys in transit, but I realized that every time I hop on the bus a new story emerges. I like to joke that I used to read experimental fiction until I discovered that the best untold stories happen on the bus.

Riding the bus is like taking part in a psychic transfer with the mood of city. The sights and sounds seep in and you get true sense of what’s going on. It is genuinely as close as you can get to Smell-o-Vision. On a bus journey, you gaze out a window past the dramas of the street, yet you are also traveling in a rattling cage of emotions shared with 60 other adults, a few children, and a dog in a baby stroller.

Mind Others
Sometimes riders’ worlds interact in scary ways, but we riders tend to look out for one another. Once on a long, packed bus to the Mission an agitated man loudly listening to heavy metal was forced to get off by passengers for aggressive behavior. Then, he hurled a rock at the bus, cracking one of its windows. The bus was forced to stop, and we all scuttled off and around the aggressor.

It’s jarring to new riders, but people on Muni often help each other by shouting. On Muni, yelling “Step down” and “Back door” is a direct form of caring.

“People on Muni often help each other by shouting”

It is good to smile and acknowledge other people, but just don’t hold eye contact for too long unless you’re looking for an extra special ride.

There’s a literal human connection with others on the bus: Sometimes you touching 6 other people at the same time.

Thank your driver

It’s also good to thank your driver. One time on the 19-Polk through the Tenderloin, a passenger boarded and placed 2 beers in a secret a compartment near the operator as what seemed like a recurring expression of gratitude.

When I began consciously looking around at interactions on Muni, I started to recognize people and I even made friends on the bus. San Francisco was softer and smaller than I first thought.

Dream Ride

In my professional life, I’m a designer and I’m optimistic about what people can do to improve civic system. Sometimes my wishful thinking makes me dense to hard realities. For example, after riding the bus for many months, it dawned on me that there “must be a better way to move people around the Bay.” Most people, by contrast, know this after their first ride!

It has taken even me longer to learn how hard it is to actually make the system better.

There’s more frustration and suffering on Muni everyday then could ever be shown on a map.

After a year as a regular rider, I started looking for ways to connect with people in transportation and city planning. One night, I took the 38-Geary downtown to a meeting of data geeks, programmers, architects, and designers who were given a bunch of data collected from Muni buses. I joined a team who decided to take that Data and create an interactive map that visualized people’s frustration on the bus due to delays, crowding, and slowdowns.

The concept of collective pleasure and pain has long fascinated me. I also knew first-hand that there’s more frustration and suffering on Muni everyday than could ever be shown on a map. But I knew planners should see the frustration too.

Frustration Index, a map detailing the frustration experienced by passengers of the public transportation systems of three cities (San Francisco, Geneva and Zurich).

Meeting experts I learned that Muni is the little engine that could: It serves the densest population of people in the US with the smallest fleet. One of the coolest transit-related things I ever went to was the International “Bus Roadeo” at Cow Hollow, It is an annual, all-day event where bus drivers competed in feats of bus skill and and safety, including a time trial where the bus tries to speed pass obstacles. It was amazing to see drivers with so much talent and pride in their work.

Photo by Emma Chiang, San Francisco Examiner

Transit and government experts don’t have all the answers. Often, working for years in government agencies can take away planner’s vision. (Maybe that’s why they all wear glasses.) Experts too often forget that the transit system is all about people. And yet, if you complain to them, ask the right question, or offer a well-timed suggestion, they might say: “Oh really, we can fix that.”

Around this time, I met a rag-tag, grass-roots group of advocates called San Francisco Transit Riders who met at the Church Street Cafe to scheme ways to make Muni suck less. I met veterans and geeks who remembered the BART regional system at a time, when it was ambitious in scale and nearly impossible politically. The system, despite bing fifty years overdue for an upgrade, is still neat in a space-age sort-of way— a reminder to those stuck in transit that we can dream big and shoot for the moon.

BART “The City on Wheels,” “Not just another transit system.”

I joined this group as they grew tired of fighting transit agency bureaucrats. We wanted to do something bigger and bolder that would resonate with everyday Riders, so we challenged the San Francisco Mayor and Board of Supervisors to ride the bus for an entire month. We made it a competition, which politicians love, and all the politicians did it!

Moments from the 22-Day Muni Challenge.

This stunt lead to some good conversation about how to improve our transit system, but the best thing about advocacy is having people in power listen to those who rely upon the system.

More Watching and Listening

Today, my friends think I’m obsessed with transit, but I’ve meet so many people with even deeper love and knowledge of systems that move the Bay Area. I’m reminded of a man on my morning bus route who is watching videos of professional billiard players on his mobile phone every time I see him. His fixation leaves me with so many questions, but it is also this way with transit geeks, planners, politicians, and advocates. They are fanatical about our system and its layer of infrastructure. And—believe it or not—everyday these people are trying to make it run better, if not always successfully.

I’ll never know as much as these experts and dedicated pros, so I’ve shifted my own obsessive tendencies toward watching people in transit and trying to understand how they can have a better ride. Planners may be on the same train, but they too infrequently talk to one another. So as advocates we ask the experts questions on behalf of everyday riders and try to inspire them to escape their tunnel vision.

As an advocate for a couple years now, I’v spent a lot of time asking people about their experience on the bus. If you’re into buses like me, there’s nothing better than talking about transit it while you’re in transit!

Perhaps these fellow riders have caught the same bus bug as me, because you’d be alarmed by how positive everyday riders can be:

  • Riders say that “ Cars suck” and “driving is yuck”
  • They’ll give a positive spin to even late buses. It is fair to say the bus is slow, but they prefer to call it “easy going.”
  • Folks use ride sharing too, of course, but they know the probability of getting vomited on is greater in a Uber pool.
  • They can read a book, meet a new person, or look out the window and contemplate the universe.
  • They rightly know that transit is convenient, cheap, and good for planet earth.

I want to be among these people, so I ride with them everyday. I want their ride to be easier, more fun, and connect them to new possibilities. I believe positivity can be contagious to create the system we deserve. A future where every person has their own private driver stakes me as incredibly lonely and selfish world.

It’s funny to say, but I feel like I’m missing out on something when I don’t ride the bus. Buses are the arteries of the city’s heart, swirling with with everyone’s blood, sweat, and tears. We all flow together in big and small moments and then we move depart to the next thing. It’s a place where I find myself comfortable with the ineffable and stark realities of city life, including that part of myself who’s still a dorky teenager.

When I take a morning bus past Glide Memorial church, I think about how we’re all wandering through this busy commute called life, and imagine the bus as a place where people can a rainbow on an otherwise cloudy day. A few days ago, this took the form of a merrily drunk rider who claimed to “be from Jupiter” who was telling other passengers that “life to short not to smile”.

Imagine if the bus was the way we started our days together. A time when we are aware of our connection with other people and try to be kind. Riding the bus can be the exact opposite of instant gratification, which is why it’s a the best vehicle for practicing patience and compassion. If kindness can start on the bus, it can go everywhere.

Riding the bus can be the exact opposite of instant gratification, which is why it’s a the best vehicle for practicing patience and compassion.

The bus is a place to acknowledge the dignity of everyone trying to make it and a place t opay attention to unfolding stories. It a place to to be grateful for what you have, and for me that’s a simple as thanking my driver.


Young rider thanking her bus driver I meet doing outreach with riders.

Thanks to all the riders and drives that make our system go and thanks to you for taking a ride with me.

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You can listen to more live Muni Diaries Stories here. They also have a new podcast called San Francisco Diaries all about people who’ve been shaped by living in San Francisco.