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."
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
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.