16 May, 2015

Two people are late but the bus is fine

Even though the San Francisco public transit system is very extensive compared to other cities, I'm having a lot of trouble using it. When I lived in Cincinnati, I was rarely late, but since moving to San Francisco I have been chronically late to work. I almost was fired from one of my early jobs here, and the only reason it hasn't been a bigger problem in the Dream Job is that we're on a very loose schedule. I am nearly always late.

Aside from the problems wheelchair users face on SF buses and trains (which I'm obviously pretty familiar with), the transit system is inaccessible to me as someone with cognitive disabilities, not only because buses and trains don't come at predictable times, but because they don't even have a goal of coming at predictable times. The Muni schedule isn't an actual schedule with times, but just a promise that the 24 Divisadero bus will come every 10 minutes in the afternoon, every 15 minutes in the evening, and so on.

The biggest problem with this is making connections. If my other bus drops me off to catch the 24, I could catch the 24 right away, or I could have 10 minutes to wait. It's hard to plan my commute when I don't know if my transfer will take 0 or 10 minutes. Obvously, in real life the bus doesn't always adhere to the schedule--I could be pleasantly surprised by two 24 buses arriving only minutes apart, or stuck waiting for 15 or 20 or 25 minutes.

This is a huge problem for me as an Autistic person. I can't respond quickly to surprises and changes, or make snap decisions. I mean it's theoretically possible and I try really hard to be more flexible, but there's only so much I can do about the way my brain is. It would be so great to be able to leave for work at the same time every day and know when I would arrive, or to be able to rely on a Google Maps estimate. Instead, after living and working in the same two neighborhoods for almost three years, I am still almost paralyzed by confusion on the way to work.

For example, what if I arrive at the 24 bus stop, and the LED sign says the bus isn't coming for 15 minutes? Now I'll probably be late. I consider walking to Castro Station and trying to catch the 35 bus, because it might happen to come sooner. But sometimes the LED sign is wrong, so as I'm walking along in between bus stops, I see the 24 bus coming by after all. I usually can't process this information fast enough to start running after the bus or trying to get the driver's attention, so I miss the bus and feel stupid because if I had just stayed where I was, I would have caught it and I wouldn't be late.

Or, I am waiting at the 24 bus stop and the sign says 7 minutes, but it suddenly changes to 14 minutes. I'm wondering if the sign is malfunctioning, if the bus is briefly delayed and the sign will go back to 7 minutes when the bus starts again, or if I should try to walk to Castro Station to catch the 35. I sit and wait for a minute because I'm overwhelmed, and the sign goes up to 20 minutes. I decide to walk to Castro Station and when I am just a block away, I see the 35 going by. If I had just made my decision faster instead of sitting at the bus stop, I would have arrived in time to catch the 35.

Or, I have written down the ID number of the Castro Station stop, so I call the transit information number on my phone, and it tells me when the 35 is supposedly coming--a long time from now. I frantically study the bus map for another option, and decide to walk a few blocks and catch the J train, since I see it on the map. When I get there, there aren't even any train tracks and I realize that in my anxiety, I forgot that the J is an underground train in this part of the city.

I feel bad because if I was a little smarter or tried a little harder these things wouldn't happen, but I think we have to admit that our ratio of supercrippery to exhausted hopelessness is maybe set in stone by the mid-twenties. I don't know how much better I'm going to get at handling constant surprises and setbacks; and even though it's usually not a problem at work, I know every time I arrive late, and I feel stupid that I can't succeed at such a simple goal.

The public transit in Cincinnati is pretty spare and slow. If I could have driven to my job, it would have taken a half hour; instead, it took almost two hours because I rode two 35-minute buses with a 30-minute wait between them, and had to walk a little bit to get to work. People I knew acted like this was a shocking and awful commute, but I was almost always on time, and I seriously miss having control over this. It's so frustrating that in San Francisco, I can't just choose to be on time, and nothing seems to work.

The lack of a real schedule annoys me not just because it is inaccessible to me personally, but because it's such a transparent attempt to avoid being held accountable for not being on time. Yes, people who ride Muni know that it is late a lot, but we can't really be aware of how much. If a bus that's supposed to come at 8:00 comes at 8:10, everyone will know the bus is 10 minutes late. But if there's no set time for the bus to arrive, then people won't notice it's late unless they either know when the previous bus arrived, or if they got to the bus stop more than 10 minutes ago.

Last month Muni decided to change the names of a lot of buses, for God knows what reason. I guess it seemed cooler than fixing their actual problems. My favorite bus, the 71, was changed to the 7; the 71L, which has the same route but makes fewer stops, was renamed the 7R. The 16X, a bus with a totally different route, was renamed the 7X, and we can all guess whose dumb ass got on it by accident and ended up wandering around downtown in utter confusion, trying to figure out how to get where I was trying to go. Otherwise no improvements, but I hope they had fun painting the new names on the bus stops (covering up the stop ID numbers half the time and making it harder to call transit information when the LED sign is broken or absent).

We know I'm Autistic and will tolerate anything for public transit--the relaxing sight of a dog's urine slowly dripping along the bus floor and onto some beautiful Doc Martens; the excitement when an old man starts beating up five people because they made fun of his boombox; or the thrill of being offered whisky by a startup intern who looks like he's in third grade. Constant stress, and inconveniencing people who have done a lot for me, is no big deal compared to these treasured moments. But straight talk: if I had the motor skills to ride a bike or a skateboard, I'd be on it like white on rice.


  1. I hear you. I have no idea what would help, but I can see how each tiny 'inconvenience' would be additive, and you'd be in a bad state by the time you got to work.

    The constant recalculating you have to do must leave you frazzled. The very skills you bring to your job - being comfortable with routine, focusing on the moment - make it harder for you to get there.


  2. I find that non-autistic people get less anxious about these things because they simply don't try to work out all the options and come to the best solution like a computer. The only thing for it is really to leave earlier so you have more buffer time and only stick to one or two routes rather than constantly trying to figure out the best route in a pinch. It can't be done. You cannot predict the future (when the bus will come). You are only human.