Simple changes to the Muni experience can cause big behavior change.
On a recent trip to Taipei, I was struck by how small design decisions had such a noticeable impact on subway riders’ behaviors, which translated to an experience that was heads and shoulders above the one I have on Muni every day. Now, it’s pretty trendy to rail against Muni (and recently Muni has been getting real with its haters), but joking and ranting aside, Muni has a ton of room to grow, and it doesn’t even have to cost very much.
Riding the MRT metro was such a pleasure. It was very clean, both in the stations and on the trains themselves (no urine smell!). The trains were wide and had plenty of handholds. The priority seats were open to those who needed them. As a rider, I felt calm and safe. So why is it that in San Francisco, a modern US city, my daily experience on the Muni has to be so unpleasant? As much as I enjoy having a workable public transit system in place, Muni can take simple steps to greatly increase its riders’ satisfaction.
It was such a relief to have a 2-week break from the urine smell pervasive on Muni and in Muni elevators. How nice not to have that stench pierce through my nostrils on a daily basis. No candy wrappers or puddles of fluids in the train, no dirty floors. How does the Taipei MRT do it? FINES. The Regulations for Use of the Taipei Metro System stipulates that offenders of this regulation are subject to a fine of the equivalent of $46-$231:
Drinking, eating, chewing gum or betel nuts within the revenue area of Taipei Metro premises; spitting phlegm or betel nut waste; littering paper scraps, cigarette butts, gum, food waste or other rubbish;”
Meanwhile, the SFMTA Rider’s Guide finger wags, vaguely warning of a potential fine, but doesn’t state what the fine is. The entire page is framed as a set of “rules and suggestions.”
The Taipei MRT has a reputation for being tough on food and drink. They follow through and enforce their regulations. Riders understand the consequences, so nobody breaks the rules.
Let’s take the pre-ride experience. Everyday, as I wait for a Muni train underground, I feel some anxiety around my place in ‘line’. There is no marking on the ground, so even if I am at the front of the line, people walk right up to the front and stand next to me. They rudely get on the train before I do. And when riders exit a train, they have to push against the tide of riders getting on the train. In Taipei (and I’ve seen this in other metro systems too, including BART), the floor is marked so that riders queue up on either side at a diagonal, and the middle is left for riders to exit the train. In the front of the car where there is more space, there are even different markers for bikers and parents with strollers to queue up.
In a queueing-friendly culture, marking lines for queueing restores order to the station and alleviates everyone’s anxiety (subway rage, anyone?). It also makes boarding and exiting the train more efficient. Cost? The cost of tape, and replacement tape.
Having been pregnant twice, and because I use public transit to shuttle my daughter to preschool several times a week, I am especially attuned to the use of the priority seats on transit systems. When I was in Taipei in 2012, I was 5 months pregnant. Every single time I rode the Taipei MRT, someone immediately jumped up to give me their seat. Even when I was 9 months pregnant in San Francisco, it was always a toss up whether I could count on my fellow passengers’ to be considerate. This time around, I noted one possible reason why: the priority seats on the Taipei MRT are a very different color than the other seats, a dark blue instead of a light blue. Also, the sign above the priority seats shows a pregnant lady and a parent pushing a stroller. When there were plenty of seats available, everybody chose the light blue seats, whereas on a light ridership day on Muni, I notice people (confession, myself included) sitting anywhere that’s convenient.
My conjecture is that due to the obviously different color of the seat, anyone who chooses to sit on a dark blue seat who doesn’t fall into the category of being a priority seat rider would feel like a real jerk. They would also feel the wrath of the rest of the car if they did not give up their seat for someone more in need of it. Social pressure. Culture could also play a part in it, as I’ve heard that Taiwanese riders would have no qualms about calling you out for sitting in a priority seat if you do not obviously fit into the priority seating category. The flip side of this is that women in the early stages of pregnancy could be mistakenly vilified in Taiwan.
The simple act of assigning priority seats a different color can have a dramatic effect on human behavior. Cost? Negligible.
Safety and comfort.
What other aspects of the passenger experience are important? Having a safe and comfortable ride ranks highly. My husband, who has a history of dislocations, dislocated his shoulder on Muni. He was holding onto a handhold and the train jerked suddenly. Individual handholds on Muni trains are spaced about five feet apart. Had he had one to hold directly above his head, or directly in front of him, perhaps that would have been less likely to happen. That’s an extreme example, but the paucity of handholds, compounded with how crowded the trains get, results in riders left with nothing to hold onto at all in a sea of commuters. On the Taipei MRT, individual handholds are spaced about a foot apart. There are also three-pronged poles that both provide more points for riders to hold onto and discourage riders from leaning.
As for comfort, in peak hours the cars get packed full of bodies. Not comfortable. Most Muni trains have rows of two seats on each side of the aisle. The large number of seats takes away standing room. Often people don’t play an optimal game of human Tetris, leaving way too much room in the middle of the car, so that the space by the door is unbearably crowded. Muni seems to be experimenting with a few cars that take away one column of seats so that there is more standing room, as well as a pole next to each seat for standers to hold onto. This is a step in the right direction.
Providing enough handholds and poles keeps riders safe. Cost? Negligible compared to medical costs and litigation.
Public transit, when executed thoughtfully, is such a godsend. Simple changes to the system can make a huge difference in the experience people have on a day-to-day basis. This 3.5-year old gives the Taipei MRT experience a thumbs up!
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