Muni Rider Profile: Hoi Chong Wong on the T-Third and Stockton Buses

IMG_1407.jpgPhoto: Michael Rhodes

Hoi Chong Wong can tell you about the commute from 3rd Street in the Bayview to Chinatown or the commute in Guangzhou, China. Though retired now, he’s been making the trip to Chinatown on Muni almost daily since he immigrated to San Francisco in 1997, first on the defunct 15-Third bus line, and now on the T-Third Street light rail line, with a transfer to the 30-Stockton or 45-Union-Stockton bus line near 4th and King. In Guangzhou, he also traveled mostly by bus, plus the occasional bicycle ride.

When he went back to visit Guangzhou recently, Wong, 71, said, he was inspired by improvements that have been made on the bus system since he left 12 years ago.

"There is a huge difference in terms of the bus line services for Guangzhou and here," explained Wong, speaking through a translator since he’s a monolingual Cantonese speaker. Boarding is much more orderly than it is on the 30 and 45, and "instructions on the buses are very clear," said Wong. "They have an automated system where it’s very clear in terms of which station is next. They have a map, and the next stop has a blinking light."

Wong said Guangzhou’s buses announce stops in three languages: English, Cantonese and Mandarin. Most announcements on Muni are made only in English, so navigating the system when he first arrived 12 years ago was a challenge. "It was very difficult and confusing for him because he felt like all the instructions and all the maps are not clear as to where he should take the buses, and which of the lines goes to which neighborhoods," said Tammy Hung, translating for Wong. "So it took him quite a long time to navigate his way throughout the city."

356270123_a4c0c37fb1.jpgOn the 45-Union-Stockton. Flickr photo: SFBart

Cycling was also an option in Guangzhou, but because of the bus system’s reliability, Wong said he’d only ride his bike on occasion. He could count on buses arriving every other minute in Guangzhou, while the T-Third often doesn’t adhere to its less ambitious nine-minute scheduled peak headways, with trains often bunching up. "That also goes for 45 and 30," he adds.

He’s never witnessed violence on the buses, but the Stockton buses are often so packed that it can lead to arguments, he said. Because it’s so crowded, people only get into verbal arguments. "It’s so crowded they can’t even get into fights."

Not speaking English has not kept Wong from being an active member of the community in San Francisco. In fact, he’s now president of Community Tenants Association, an 800-member tenants’ rights organization, which helped him apply for affordable housing when he first arrived in San Francisco. After picking up a housing application at CTA, he began attending meetings and slowly became more involved in the process, eventually culminating in him becoming the organization’s president.

In Guangzhou, he worked at a management level at a sewing company, he explained, signaling his profession to me by pointing to Hung’s sweater. Now, his community activism and meetings with friends bring him to Chinatown daily. "Even though I’m retired, I come to Chinatown every day to attend a lot of community events, including this meeting," a weekly CTA meeting where he spoke to Streetsblog. Perhaps 100 individuals were in attendance at the meeting, mostly seniors, enjoying an apparent mix of activism and socializing, a far cry from the isolated lifestyle in suburban senior homes.

Senior Issues on Muni

Guangzhou_bus.jpgA bus in Guangzhou, China. Photo: Wikipedia.

Through his own experience riding Muni and stories from his friends, Wong said seniors often face extra difficulty riding Muni. At his transfer point to the 30 and 45 near 4th and King, where both lines lay over before beginning their routes, he said he often sees groups of seniors standing in the cold as bus drivers sip coffee on their breaks. "That usually creates a chaotic situation where seniors just go up on the bus in a herd," said Wong, who feels it’s not safe because seniors often trip and fall as they board all at once. Complicating matters, two buses frequently layover at once at the stop, with little indication of which is departing first, and Wong said he regularly sees buses depart without warning, leaving riders behind at the stop.

Wong is most concerned about a lack of driver sensitivity on the Stockton bus lines, but has also witnessed issues on the T-Third, including operators not noticing seniors hurrying to catch the train. On two occasions, he’s also witnessed drivers failing to stop the light rail vehicles at the station platform. "Some of the seniors actually fell down on the platform because of the level, it’s not balanced, and the driver was not doing the appropriate steps to address the situation," said Wong. "Because the seniors already have medical care, they kind of just let it go, but they never really reported it to Muni or anything." One of the injured seniors was a friend of his, he adds.

A Vital Service

Muni clearly provides a vital service to Wong, and though I mostly asked him about problems with the system, he also offers a compliment: the December 2009 service changes have been a big improvement for his visits to family near Silver Avenue. "He used to take the 9X, now called the 8X, to go and visit his relatives, and he said that actually the service has been improving because of the frequency of the services, just since December," Hung said, translating.

After indulging his interviewer for nearly half an hour, it was time for Wong to return to business at the CTA meeting, where he’s a model of the engaged retiree, able to meet with friends and fellow activists thanks to Muni.

  • jonas

    Amazing. You’d think that SF would have better service that Guangzhou. But this makes Muni seem 3rd world and Guangzhou a dream. the bunching of buses,which creates inefficiencies and inconvenience for all is inexcusable. The lack of care from our highly paid drivers is also inexcusable. Yes I have too waited in the cold while a driver sleeps on the bus and have see buses pull away from 4&townsend with passengers waiting in the wrong place. Think the driver could help out, of course not.

  • I rode buses in Xining, Beijing, Chengdu, China. They dont have to worry about fare evasion being a police state, so they have baskets of 1 yuan bills as fareboxes. You just throw one in a open top basket. Boarding is much faster this way. However,im not anywhere close to being a senior but I had a ton of stuff to carry, and the driver sped from stop to stop and my knuckles ended up getting scraped up against the sides of the bus.

    Guangzho must have more bilingual services as its near Hong Kong, but in Beijing most everything was only in mandarin and simplified chinese characters. All the buses had a number, but the few of the bus route diagrams even had pinyin, the romanized version of the characters that allows us westerners to sound out the placenames. With the new subway line, they are going for a more western look, I look forward to the fascinating take on English translations in signage.

  • I agree that the 30/45 situation at 4th & Townsend could be much much better. It doesn’t help that their stops are some 200ft apart. But I will say that once they added the nextbus feature, you can find out which bus is leaving first.

    So the 8x doesn’t work for him to get up to Chinatown? One would think that is faster then taking the T and transferring. Also, did you talk to him about the Central Subway? I guess if he is already on the T, then he would benefit from it. But not if he needs to go the northern end of Chinatown. I’m really really interested in hearing the average Chinese citizen’s opinion about the CS as oppose to Rose Pak’s “official” standing.

  • “He could count on buses arriving every other minute in Guangzhou, while the T-Third often doesn’t adhere to its less ambitious nine-minute scheduled peak headways, with trains often bunching up.”

    Amen to that … that non-adherence to the schedule along with the confusion created at Embarcadero Station by N-Judah not running on through to Caltrain on Saturdays and Sundays are the reasons I believe the N-Judah weekend service between Embarcadero and Caltrain should return. How much time is wasted corralling uninformed folks to get off of the N-Judah at Embarcadero on the weekends, holding up inbound trains behind it?

    Anyway … I like these Muni Rider Profile posts .. nice work!

  • Michael Rhodes

    @mikesonn: I did ask if he’s looking forward to the CS, and he said, “Yes, of course.” Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to ask why he takes the T-Third instead of the 8X, but I’ll follow up and see.

  • Thanks. On that note, maybe talking to some of the Chinese merchants along Stockton if they have been approached about the impacts would a nice step too.

    But glad to hear he is able to use MUNI and get around city (though difficult at first). Also, kudos to him for being so active in the community.

  • Andy Chow

    One thing about China is that Chinese buses run very much like light rail in mixed traffic. Stops are generally further apart, but with better amenities (shelter) at each stop. Each stop has a “station name” associated with the local landmarks, not like here where we refer to places by intersections.

    http://www.tbsh.info/Beijing_Bus_Stop_Sign-t-s.jpg

    What you see on the signs is that the stops are listed vertically. The number of columns are the number of stops the bus will make. Overall that’s not a lot compared to what you see on most routes in the US.

    Stops generally have big signs showing where the buses go and stop.

    In China, buses stops at every scheduled stops, and there’s no stop request cord. In some bigger cities, there are conductors on board to collect fares, but more and more are being replaced by buses that require riders to board in the front and pay fare at the farebox.

    I give presentation to Chinese visiting students about riding buses in the US, and they’re fascinated to know that they need to request stop to get off the bus.

    Of course most Chinese cities have different street layouts than in the US, especially with older cities like SF.

    It would be interesting to find out how Muni will perform if it runs like buses do in China.

  • Mark Ballew

    Idle buses waiting to go into service are supposed to allow waiting passengers in during inclement weather. “Vehicle as a bus shelter.” There may be some SFMTA rules being broken here, submit a complaint to 311.

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    Like I always say, there’s basically no limit to the nice infrastructure you can build in a murderous oppressive dictatorship.

  • …the the trains run on time Jeff, right on time…

  • I’ve spent some time living in Guangzhou. Their urban subway and bus system is miles ahead of what we have here. Their regional bus and transit (rail) system is light-years ahead of what we have here.

  • Andy Chow

    I think Jeffrey W. Baker is putting a false analogy here. Not everything the government does in China is always controversial. We don’t have nice things here because we don’t fight enough for it. We don’t have smooth operation because we tolerate poor practice from the labor side and the passengers (vandalism and people not paying fare).