Police Transit Sweep, Mission Street (Daily Prompt: We Built This City)


Good Evening:

“…What do you like the least about (the city in which you live)? If you were mayor, what would be the most important problem you’d tackle? How would you tackle it?”

Like most wildly booming cities, San Francisco has to endure wildly booming “most important” problems. With the current population boom, our public transit system, drastically underfunded during the previous bust, has too few buses to handle the rise in riders, causing slower and slower service. To speed up the service, the City resorted to something a bit different; it legalized previously illegal behavior. Our buses have the usual system of entrances and exits; one door at the front for embarking, and another in the middle of the bus for disembarking. It used to be illegal to board from the rear even if you intended to pay for the ride. To speed up the boarding process, the SFMTA (San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency) installed something called the Clipper Card system (too complex to explain) and allows people to board in the rear.

So we’re working on the honor system here.

Except when we’re not.

The City also imposed transit sweeps, such at this one I encountered at the intersection of Mission Street and 11th Street on a recent Friday at dusk.


A bunch of transit officers backed up by the SFPD sweep through the buses checking to see if everyone can prove that they paid for the ride. If not, they have to leave the bus and receive a ticket. Originally, the police did not take part, but evidently, someone saw a need.

Perhaps the need was legitimate, but I can’t tell; people stopped yelling “Fascist!” or “This is how dictatorships start!” or some such words a long time ago and learned to tolerate just another minor annoyance. Today, these sweeps have become a part of the minor annoyances that so plague San Francisco’s public transit every single day. I haven’t seen any protests in months.


A word about the photographs. The light was very poor for my Nikon S9100 point-and-shoot using the Landscape setting. If I had the chance to hold still, maybe I could have take a decent shot or two, but in a tense situation like this, no one, I mean no one, wants someone fiddling with the controls of his camera in the middle of police, transit officers and civilians, all of whom are not in a good mood. If anyone had spotted me, life would have gotten ugly, therefore I kept moving. So most of the pictures are frankly not that great and rather blurry.

Especially after this guy shoved-rushed past me.


He tried to sneak out of the bus and through the crowd, but one of the transit officers confronted him at once. Which led to this interesting little scene.


I cannot say for certain, but it sure appears that he at least thought about taking the police officer’s gun–look at the man’s blurry right hand. Seems like he was reaching, doesn’t it? Perhaps a warrant for his arrest exists? But he didn’t try to grab the gun, and I’m glad I don’t have an exciting story to share.

San Francisco has so much weirdness going with transit. The much-hated (by others; I don’t hate them) “Google buses” use our bus stops as theirs. Now I appreciate and approve of private buses taking 50 cars off the highways and reducing pollution. But the City allegedly (as in, don’t take my word for this) has a law on the books stating that any driver of a non-City vehicle who even stops in a bus zone will get fined $271, even if you stopped in one to take a friend home who was too drunk to drive himself.

The bus firms and tech companies claim that they had worked out a “handshake deal” with the SFMTA allowing them to use the bus stops without getting ticketed (as reported in the San Francisco Examiner, and naturally I just misplaced my copy).  The deal, however well-intentioned, sounds pretty much like the Golden Age of San Francisco corruption in the late 19th Century. This news did not go over well with the people who live and work in San Francisco and can only afford public transit. The private bus services hired by the Silicon Valley tech firms (not just Google) caused so many people to complain that the firms and the City worked out a new deal; San Francisco gets $1 for each time a private bus uses a bus stop. Which is a $270 less than the fine the rest of us pay.

And is probably a lot less than whatever this woman will pay.


Take a closer look at her. She’s a nurse, and she’s handcuffed. I wasn’t there when that went down, but an ordinary middle-class worker who makes about as much money as I do got arrested for whatever she might have done while the tech companies and their private bus firms avoided millions (yes, millions) of dollars in fines and now pay only 1/127th of that in fees because of a “handshake deal.”

It’s almost as if someone doesn’t want middle-class people in SF anymore and has decided to drive us out.

I realize that most other Americans who visit San Francisco think we have an amazingly good public transit system (sentiments that never fail to shock the people who live here). But the contrast between tech workers travel to work and how the rest of us get to work keeps getting greater and greater. Much like the contrast between the very rich and the rest of us.

The San Francisco bus system: microcosm of modern America. Who would have thought?

In conclusion, no mayor can do anything about the rising inequality in the United States as a whole, but San Francisco can do something about its public transit. The answer could be as crude and effective as throwing money at the system; during the Willie Brown years, Mayor Brown did just that and it worked out quite well. But the real answer lies is a total redesign of the buses, bus routes, bus stops and especially the bureaucracy; as a City employee, I know how bad the morale is over there at that agency.

These transit sweeps practically shout, “Our system is screwy!”

I will let others debate inequality in American today, but I have to ask one question: does it seem like Americans could easily adapt to life in a dictatorship? Are dictatorships just minor annoyances most of the time?

Vonn Scott Bair

PS–To give you an idea of the difficult lighting conditions for photography, here is the above picture before I edited a copy. That blue is just so wrong and the light was much darker and greyer.



10 responses »

  1. I had no idea the transit system had gotten so broken. My (adult) daughter rides it nearly day and hadn’t mentioned anything, but then again she doesn’t have the perspective of 25 years ago (i.e., before Google buses, and when it was still illegal to enter from the back) like I do. Good touch point. Thanks for sharing. :>

      • Wandering Voiceless: And as if on cue, a few stories in the local papers Friday editions highlighted: coming improvements to the system; the increase in SF ridership; and astonishingly, a recent huge rise in public transit use nationwide, as more transit systems add lines across the country. Vonn Scott Bair

  2. Pingback: of the perceived smallness of the world | Anawnimiss

  3. Great point VSB. And it does look as though that guy was thinking of going for the cop’s gun, which would have been pretty scary. I just wonder how the city can afford to have so many cops doing this job? I mean is it really such a crime? OK the bus company may lose a bit of money from people not paying (though I think your fees are very reasonable), but how much does it cost for one of those cops doing the job?

    We don’t have these problems where I live. We don’t have much public transport where I live. I don’t know how people are expected to live in the countryside and NOT use a car. Or how elderly people cope who no longer drive / can afford a car. A good (no make that Great) public transport system is essential.

    • Heyjude: Good point; adding the SFPD must significantly add to the cost of these operations. Certainly their presence added to the tension on that night. Interesting paradox; the presence of the gun could have led to greater trouble, not less. Vonn Scott Bair

  4. Would the honor system work if there were never any enforcement?

    Or should we simply make buses free (I would support this)? If so, where should the money come from?

    By the way, did you know that nurses in the Bay Area make an average of $110,000 a year? I think they should get paid more, but frankly, that puts them in the same class as “tech workers” for salary. Definitely NOT middle class.

    • Some Icon: Thanks for the excellent questions. Your first question might be unanswerable; people were sneaking in the back door before the recent Clipper Card changes. Should we make buses free? That is an astounding idea, one that had never occurred to me. But how would we pay for that? Would voters approve taxes that would pay for the privilege? I don’t know. Still, your idea deserves serious consideration. Nurses might be middle class or upper middle class by San Francisco standards, if not by San Francisco Bay Area standards; the profession is also experiencing a boom, esp. in elder care. I just wish I had seen what led to the arrest. Vonn Scott Bair

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