Learn, Muni, Learn

You can tell a lot about a system by how it adapts to failure.

I live in SF, I use both BART and Muni regularly. When they work, they’re decent. When things go wrong, it’s an N Judah-flavored apocalypse. If you’ve got an alternate, you take it. If not, you get a cab or walk. It’s a decent bus town, there’s usually a bus a few blocks away. It’ll probably show up within half an hour, and it’ll get you within half a mile, and it’s probably a nice walk anyway. Unless you’re trying to get back to the Sunset, in which case it’s more like a mile and the walk might be foggy. But anyway, there’s half a dozen good noodle places on the way, and you can bitch on your blog later if you swing thataway.

The last week, though, I’ve been staying in Zurich, and using the SVV tram system a lot. Let’s set aside incidentals like perfect adherence to schedule and good coverage and accurate ETA signs. The other day something melted down on the 11 Auzelg/Rehalp line, which runs roughly north/south along the eastern edge of central Zurich. Residential stuff out on the far-northern Auzelg end, shopping and S-Bahn connections a bit closer in, restaurants and bars towards the middle, and gradually more suburban and residential down South towards Rehalp. The nearest analog in SF would probably be the N-Judah or K-Ingleside.

Around 10pm, I’m at Bellevue station waiting for the 11 back to my apartment. Ten minutes is a long time to wait for a tram here, but after about that long, someone comes on the PA system to explain something long and dire sounding. My German isn’t remotely up to this — they don’t do bilingual announcements here, and all Spanish will get you here is some good fondue over by Paradeplatz. They repeat the announcement, whatever it is, every couple of minutes. I start walking — it’s about a 2km walk and starting to cool off. I’ve made it about ten yards when a tram shows up, its sign reading “11 Rehalp,” but coming northbound, which is wrong, plus it’s on the wrong track. It stops, lets its passengers off. Its signs change to an unrelated route. Various other aspiring 11 riders talk to the operator, who answers (still in German) and gestures at a bus stop just a bit down the block. They head over there, and I, half oblivious, follow them.

We wait another, oh, two minutes, and a bus shows up, its signs also reading “11 Rehalp.” It lets us on, sticks around a few minutes collecting stragglers, and takes off, following the 11 Rehalp’s usual route. It makes the same stops, getting pretty full after a couple because people were waiting down the line too. Then the driver takes a turn off route.

He drives a couple blocks, carefully drives the bus over a tram-pickup island in the street, parks on the tram tracks, and announces something (in German) over the PA. Half the people on the bus get off. He repeats it for the drunker half of the bus, and they get off too. I follow them, and it turns out he’s parked on the tram tracks right in front of a waiting tram, whose signs are also reading “11 Rehalp.” It’s a huge tram — five sections, roughly equivalent to joining three Muni metros together. The display panels inside, which normally show the stops coming up and your ETA at each, even though we’re not where an 11 Rehalp would normally be. A moment of waiting and it takes off, rejoins the correct track for the 11, and finishes the route; when I last saw it, it was looping back on the end to do the northbound route.

Total delay? About 20 minutes. That is, 20 minutes delay for a failure that required bringing in a large shuttle bus and an oversized train (through a construction zone that already has had train reroutings for the past week, too). Total extra walking? About 30 meters. Both the shuttle bus and the rescue tram had their signs lit up with the route they were covering for — even the bus showed the proper route signage, despite that the route it was covering isn’t even a bus route. Their drivers answered questions and waited appropriate amounts of time. The Swiss are a pretty calm lot anyway, but they were relaxing and chatting away, with no more overt upset or rudeness than slightly elevated levels of text messaging. And the route was back to normal by 9am the next morning.

That, Muni, is how you handle a failure. Flexibility, adaptation, planning, resource management and decent customer service. Try it sometime.

– Devin

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