The Unpleasant Side of San Francisco

BART Arrives - San Francisco, California

BART Arrives – San Francisco, California

Our trip to San Francisco didn’t start on the right foot. We stayed in a decent enough neighborhood a few blocks east of Union Square — it’s a very touristy area. However, this part of town is right next to the Tenderloin, which is not the best part of the city. While we were headed for BART, the subway system, our smartphone walking directions lead us through a few unpleasant blocks.

I immediately went into New Yorker mode, quickening my walking pace and avoiding contact with dozens of homeless people and dodging poop on the sidewalk. I then realized that I was leaving the rest of the family behind. My wife and two boys were visibly uncomfortable and I made sure to fall back to their position.

Now, I know all cities have their challenges; even a world-class city like San Francisco. Homelessness is a problem all over the U.S. and even in Austin. I also know that life in San Francisco is especially challenging with the high cost of housing; many people on the margins are being forced out. But, I wonder how many tourists, especially from abroad know this. I know my wife and teenaged boys certainly started with a negative impression, within an hour of their visit.

I also made this a teaching lesson for my boys. I let them know how difficult it is for many to live in such an expensive area with wages stagnating relative to the cost of living. Ultimately, I view this as positive, having my sons experience something that they don’t usually see. I also stressed how lucky we are. I don’t think we were ever in any danger. It was midday and the folks on the street kept to themselves. Still, it’s something jarring for people usually confined to the suburbs.

We made it to Powell Station for our ride up to the Mission District. For all the times I’ve visited San Francisco, I’ve never been on BART. I actually love trains and public transit systems; I was looking forward to my ride. I wasn’t expecting anything close to what Japan and Singapore has. After all, they have some of the best transit systems in the world. However, I was surprised that BART scored poorly even compared to the old and dirty subway in New York City.

Ironically, for being next to Silicon Valley, with all the advanced technology and user interfaces, the BART ticket machine is the worst I ever experienced. It took us a few minutes to figure it out. The station itself is dated but it was at least wider and more generous than the truly outdated New York City ones. But the trains were the real disappointment. BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) opened in the early 70’s and the trains look like they haven’t been updated since. Even the much derided New York City transit have regularly updated their cars.

On the positive side, the rest of the trip was great. We all enjoyed the wonders of San Francisco. While I still love the city, it’s worth noting the negatives. I know everything has its downsides; we just happen to experience them all upon our first hours in the city.


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7 thoughts on “The Unpleasant Side of San Francisco

    1. It’s too bad. I do like the old restored Muni trains though. On the positive side, at least the do have a transit system the covers a lot of the city; or more than most cities in the U.S.

  1. Hi there, I am in London, England. It is all too easy to end up homeless through no fault of your own. A woman I saw yesterday rented a flat and went to work as a nurse – until her Mum became ill. She had to move in with her Mum to nurse her 24 hours a day, until her Mum died. By then she had lost her job, her flat had to go when her job was lost, and the housing association wouldn’t let her live in her Mum’s flat. She ended up on the streets asking for change each day to get her into a shelter for that night, while grieving for her Mum. That was some time ago. It is hard to get out of the situation once you are there.
    While this sort of thing happens every city will have rough sleepers.

  2. You mention the age of the BART trains. How about the 70+-year-old streetcar and trolly bus castoffs from other cities that SF uses not to mention the age of the cable cars. I understand that a lot of this is for the tourist attraction but the cost of maintaining this fleet makes for very high fares for the locals to get to and from work. On the other hand, as a visitor, I immensely enjoyed my first ride on a Green Hornet since I was a 12 and they were discontinued in Chicago in 1959, even though it was a narrower Philadelphia castoff.

    1. Tom, you make a good point. Perhaps its my exceptions or the obvious use of nostalgia that makes the difference.

      The cable cars are obviously for tourists; this unique piece of nostalgia is a key identity of San Francisco. However, I doubt that any native San Franciscan uses them for transport. The lines are too long and the price, too high.

      The Muni trolleys are a different story. They do have wonderfully restored old cars, in a mix of different ages, as well as modern cars. Clearly, they are deployed for interest, both historical and showcasing something different. However, even the old cars are fresh and nicely restored. They are not shabby.

      The BART, however, just looks dated. If they are clean and run on time, I suppose that will be fine, as a service. Maybe in twenty years, the 70s aesthetic will look cool and the BART will transform, at least my eyes, as a working nostalgic service.

      Ultimately though, from the veneer of wear on the trains and stations, BART just looks dated and was a disappointment to me. Maybe it’s just suffering from the blandness of the 70s.

      1. My comments were mainly about the age of the transit inventory but full disclosure requires me to say I have not used the BART trains but I did use the light rail system both at street level and below ground and those were very clean. My family and I were almost arrested because on the return trip from the zoo we did not understand the method of payment which was different than when we departed from the downtown area to go to the zoo.

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