Waiting for the train

Standing on a train platform outside Gifu I take stock of how far we’ve come. Far not in the sense of two about to be three trains this morning from Nagoya airport, or even the one flight from HKG prior. Nor do I mean far in that this is our fourth trip to Japan in twenty nineteen. Far in the sense I meant when I volunteered to live in the happening world.

I’ve come to recognize the burst of confusion that comes with this heightened motion. After forgetting my Guandong hotel room number twice my first trip with my last job, a whirlwind tour of sixteen suppliers in four days, I’ve become more careful. I pack lighter, of course, and with more regular repetition, to ease the memory requirements. And I try, always, to require less.

On Saturdays the train we are waiting for comes every thirty minutes, so we have some time to think. We stand on the platform in the shade and eat bread from a shop at the last train station, washing it down with tea from a vending machine. There are a few locals also waiting, though most have read the train schedule and will walk up to the platform closer to the train’s arrival. This station is of an older era, where tickets can be bought en route in cash, not just by Suica at the upstairs gates. The station is quiet save for a through train that clatters past on the center tracks without slowing. This is a diesel line and the train’s exhaust doesn’t help the heat. Early September is still warm here, though nothing like the heat of August in Tokyo.

Landing this morning in Nagoya Tokyo felt like a long time ago. Thinking back to that rooftop in Hatsudai is what started this reflection on pace. Since we were in Tokyo, the last time I wrote here, I have been to Taiwan. It was my first time in the country, seeing a Taipei night market, having lunch in the mountains to the north, and then wandered Taichung the following evening. Since we were in Tokyo I have also spent most of a week working in San Francisco, riding Jump bikes to the office and climbing gym. Since Tokyo, I’ve spent five separate days in Shenzhen and Dongguan, days of walking borders and visiting suppliers. All these places, not yet correctly memorized or considered, I’ve seen since our trip to Tokyo that is both the prior post and exactly one month ago.

Cue the happening world.

These bursts of motion come with the start of new things. Since the last unexpected end I’ve been in motion more than not, leaving behind a list of adventures that seems absurd when recounted. As my first summer in Asia since two thousand eight, I’m enjoying the luxury of short flights and high speed train rides more than long trans-Pacific loops. Yet I’ve done those too, three times since June. As records go I can’t yet tell where twenty nineteen will end in places slept, but I know how it will feel: like the blur of motion.

I still love the Shinkansen. For this boy from New York, the first Shinkansen was a miracle, something pulled fully realized out of an alternate world. Riding the new high speed rail link between Kowloon and Shenzhen at least once a week now, I appreciate it just as much. Fifteen minutes to Shenzhen rather than the previous hour is quite a change. An hour and a half direct link to Shaoguan is amazing. The speed, ease, and comfort with which we transition from place to place remains the same kind of miracle it was at eighteen. In this way it has been a gift, these past weeks, to go on a small tour of the region’s high speed rail lines. I’ve ridden Taiwan’s line from Taipei to Taichung and back. I took the China high speed rail from Hong Kong to Shanghai, and the original Shinkansen line from Osaka to Tokyo, all since July. Finishing this piece in Osaka again, I can now add the Shinkansen from Nagoya to Osaka to the list, the same line as a month prior in the opposite direction.

As with many things, it turns out the alternate world that I discovered at eighteen wasn’t some fantasy place of imagination. It was simply a country that invested in non-car transportation infrastructure. To my delight there are several such places within easy reach of our new home.

Which is the largest change from earlier moments where I felt part of the happening world. I no longer bust down broken streets in LA in a borrowed Mini, nor do I drive hours along the border highway just east of Tijuana. Instead I walk down the dusty streets of Bao’an to the new line 11 metro stop, and then transfer at Futian to the high speed rail back to Hong Kong.

There are cars, of course, like the one that will retrieve me shortly for a visit to a factory outside Osaka. Cars have not disappeared, but their role has shrunk so much in this new life. They now serve as occasional connectors between rail and factory, factory and hotel.

Living, as we do, in a world where lists of places seen and slept are a bundle of cities that do not share countries, it’s the long-term trends that stand out, not each individual place. On my second visit to this Osaka hotel I know where the subway entrances are. This summer I have been to San Francisco three times and only in cars as a means of exiting the airport or crossing the Bay Bridge. Once again the metal chariot is not gone, the age of the automobile is not over. There is a different way, though, and we’re finding it, while remaining all the while in constant motion.

Cue again the happening world.

Building forever

Landing in Tokyo at night, the city does not seem to end. From the air lights stretch away in all directions save where the sea still intrudes. In a bus from the airport this is reinforced, no suburban gap between airport and the city it serves. Neighborhoods change, the area around Haneda giving way to the denser residential sprawl of Tokyo proper, and then micro shifts as the gaps between train stations become the only visible breaks. Like interstate exits in the US, train stations represent the loci of Tokyo, clusters of shops, neon, and light that then spreads out, a subtle Doppler effect of dissipating commercial space, until the pace accelerates before the next station, another bunch of stores and people, taxis and signs. In this pattern we move on through the city in the night.

As many have written, Tokyo feels like the future. On this evening taxi ride, just arrived from Manila and another view of a possible future, I wonder why Tokyo, more than any other city, gets this designation.

The common reasons are obvious and true. It is clean, far more than any other city of size. Efficient too, in a way Germans and Swiss can enjoy. The city is polite in service and accommodating to foreigners, in a fashion that leaves visitors impressed and eager to return.

Our bus and then taxi each pass through separate construction areas, both calmly productive at one am on the morning of a national holiday. Lights are on, workers direct traffic, and the dirt of the digging is neatly contained by cones. Tokyo is, like New York, in constant repair. And yet there are no potholes, the average street seems five years old, and the sidewalk is level, blind strips and all. How can this city be so large and so well-maintained?

The smell, stepping out of the taxi, is what I remember most. Tokyo in the rain. So different than the smell of rain in Hong Kong, a few weeks back, or Bohol last week. So different than Shanghai, Dongguan, or San Francisco’s smells, the cities I now know well. The smell is clean, to my nose, lacking pollution and not quite of the ocean in the way Bohol was.

Now, a few days later, I think that the magic of Tokyo is not in just in the trains, or the organization, or the maintenance, but in all three. The magic is found in the attention to detail on all ends of the organism that is Tokyo. From construction to use to repair and replacement, the extra measure of care can seem robotic, idyllic. Especially after the vagaries of public transit in the Bay Area, after the impenetrable morass of Manila traffic, Tokyo’s mechanical functionality can seem impossible, the cleanliness obviously forced, drawing the inevitable comparisons to Disney or Singapore.

Instead I think, it represents what could be, not what will be. It represents what people might build, if so determined as a large group. Manila and San Francisco, St. Louis and Dongguan do likewise. All that differs are the people, and the complex intermingling of abilities, desire, and willingness to work together.

In this view the future of Tokyo is both approachable and impossible, marvelous and out of reach. It’s a city to love, I think. More than anything it’s a wonderful place. Standing on the balcony of our rented apartment, looking out at the city and falling rain, it is a place I am so glad to see.

Downtown, by the train

For the first time in the United States we have the life we had in Asia. At great but worthwhile expense, we live downtown near the train. In San Francisco this means the Mission, and this means Bart.

Three years ago we lived in a studio in the Sunset, half a block from the N-Judah, a Muni above-ground train line. The studio was wonderful. Giant west-facing windows made for perfect light, and the neighborhood was comfortingly Asian. Rent was reasonable, even with parking, albeit double what we’d paid for a 1 bedroom in Houston scant months before. As for the train, well, proximity was often its best feature. Locals refer to the N jokingly, if at all, and avoid any reliance on it’s twisting route, which is often blocked by cars at 9th and Irving and delayed at the Duboce and Church switch to underground operation. We used it first frequently and then less so, moving to bicycle or car instead.

For years though we regretted leaving that studio, at least on Sundays. Our one bedroom in the Richmond faced east, and so lost the light early in the day. Coupled with the Cigarettes Cheaper crowd next door and the Walgreens loading bay across the street that apartment became exactly what we’d hoped to avoid: a large house with poor light, loud neighbors, and a two-car commute. Looking back now, only months removed, it seems impossible to imagine. Yet for three years we both drove an hour plus each way out of San Francisco. One north, one south, far enough to make most moves impossible for one commute or the other.

And so from the Richmond we took the bus downtown, and walked Fillmore in the night. We went to shows and to bars, but not as many. We took more cabs, and drove more often to friends’ houses.

Our move to the Richmond was built on two desires. Most importantly, a cat, which our Sunset landlord would not allow. Secondly, to have a spare room for guests, even though several had braved our studio, slept on couch or kitchen floor. The living room was useful, and allowed us to easily welcome guests from all over the world. That apartment gave us Mr. Squish, fulfilling our exact request for a cat.

As I write these words he is sprawled on the couch across from me, content in his new home, only the second he has known. He is happier, though that could be the Karlstad sofa he is lounging on, a wedding present to ourselves in a blue that matches our new house. Moving with a cat has long been a dream of ours. Taking him on our adventures, if not yet rock climbing, and watching him explore new spaces are some of our favorite moments.

Why is this apartment so much more welcoming than our old one?

The answers are easy: light, size, and location.

In three months we’ve had friends come for dinner, colleagues bring lunch, and visitors crash on that couch. We’ve walked home from baseball games and taken the train to the airport. We’ve taken the train to brunch at friends’ houses in the East Bay and to work, novelties both. In the last week neither of us drove to work for two days in a row, the first time that has happened since we moved to San Francisco.

Why is this such a change, why did we ever forgo it, and how did we know we wanted it? These questions repeat themselves to me on my walks to Bart, on my train rides home.

This is such a change because we’ve each gained at a minimum two hours of mental time each day. Four hours multiplied by five days is twenty hours a week we gained as a couple with the move. Twenty hours a week, minimum, of additional thinking, reading, and working is time almost impossible to value. Another half a work week. Another two and a half days of paid working hours. Yes, rents are higher in the Mission. Yes, getting rid of one car helped keep our expenses within a similar range. But clearly, at twenty plus hours, we were undervaluing our time, undervaluing each other.

We gave up those hours initially because we had to. We’d gotten an apartment in the Sunset as the cheapest place we could find in San Francisco proper, and a good place to start our life here from. It was. We then got jobs out of the city, in opposite directions. They were good opportunities, and so we put up with the cost in cars and miles, knowing it would not be forever. When we moved to the Richmond, we shortened my commute at Tara’s expense. We balanced traffic and distance and the desire for a cat as best we could. And still we knew it would not be forever.

How did we know what we wanted? How did we know we’d be happier in a smaller apartment within walking distance of a train line, with only one car, in a more urban environment?

Shanghai.

We have lived in dense urban environments, ridden the subway or an electric scooter to work or to school, and commuted in the dense throngs of people rare for most Americans. We have lived in those environments and thrived. We have become comfortable with the benefits of dense living, of good transportation, and of shared public space rather than large private residences.

In America these lessons are difficult to learn. Apartments in dense areas with good public transit are expensive and restricted to a handful of cities. In many, like San Francisco, they are restricted to select neighborhoods in those cities. In Shanghai, in Tokyo, in Hong Kong, these lessons are simply life. They are learned on the train to grade school and in the tiny urban apartments of university. Density is not an option but the ground rule, public transportation not a luxury but the base layer of the urban environment.

We are lucky, in San Francisco, to live downtown near the train. In Shanghai it was the only place we could live, there was no other option. In Japan before that I lived in Saitama, outside of Tokyo proper, and yet on a line that ran directly into Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, Shibuya. Out of the city and yet of the city in a way rare for Americans. Able to work and shop in the global megacity and still go for a run in the mornings along the Arakawa river.

In San Francisco, in the Mission, guests from out of town drop in for single night and leave early in the morning for meetings in the Financial District, or to tour the Embarcadero. What was once an hour away by bus is ten minutes by Bart. Waiting twenty minutes or more for the N has been replaced by taking any train out of dozens on a workday morning. We often do not drive for an entire weekend, and soon for an entire work week.

Yet in many ways this feels like avoiding the problems. The N still goes 30 minutes between trains on the weekends. The Richmond is still 40 minutes from Powell by bus, an hour twenty or more from the East Bay without free transfer. That we no longer care is a symptom of the problem, and a reason public transit remains a fractured experience. In Shanghai all the trains are run as one unit. In Japan a variety of companies with huge networks work together on train time tables and station infrastructure. In San Francisco there are only three stops on Bart in residential neighborhoods.

Yet 
I no longer complain about transit in San Francisco, instead promoting Bart to arriving guests. Limited, yes, but effective, and valuable, as was my line in Saitama. These visits and easier commutes, then, are the benefits of living here. And in many ways we are at last at home in San Francisco in a way we have not felt before.

Limited visibility

The feet of the Sutro Tower are planted in the ground, its tips lost in the clouds.

“I have limited visibility on this,” he says. His voice crackles with the static of a VoIP connection from an unnamed location. Looking out at the marina in the dense fog of a Petaluma morning, I nod. Limited visibility is something we’ve grown used to in Northern California.

Coming over the bridge in the morning the water is clear out to the horizon, towards Japan and Taiwan. To the right Angel Island and Alcatraz look like good spots for lunch, and I promise myself again to get to both of them. I will. They’re not far, just over the hill, out in the bay. From my house though they are invisible, beyond the park, beyond the hills. My house has limited visibility.

“I only have another seventy years, at most,” she says, as we walk down Irving on the clearest of Sundays. On my tiptoes I could see the ocean. “That’s all I’ll get to see,” she tells me. “I want to see more of it, I want to see it all.” She is reading a book about the far future, where the phrase ‘the world’ has to be clarified with a name, because there are many.

“Limited visibility.” It comes out under my breath, lips almost unmoving.

“I won’t ever know,” she says, and that ends the conversation the way only a horizon can.

“What do you hear?” I ask my consultant, who could be in Panama, or Dubai. Sometimes he is, and sometimes he tells me so. Usually I don’t ask, because it’s better, in a world where I can’t see the highway that crosses the river just north of the marina, to pretend he’s in San Francisco high up on a hill. Nearby, with better visibility.

“They have no schedule,” he says, and the fault is clean, not belonging to either of us. Like the fog.

When I drive north in the mornings, after the bridge, there is a clear spot, several miles of sunshine. I watch the oncoming traffic for headlights on or off that speak of Petaluma’s weather far ahead. By mile fifteen mine are often on too, an indication of how long I’ll be on this road, that the sunshine is not my destination.

I wonder at those who have fought, over years, for small changes. The right to serve without lying, the right to vote, the freedom to believe. The freedom to move, or to settle down and stay. I marvel again at the building of cathedrals, the dedication to any goal, real or ideal, that will only be true at the end of a lifetime.

Fighting like that, the gradual protest and continual argument that keeps those in power honest and allows, when the truth at last becomes obvious to all, the world to move forward, seems perhaps the hardest thing. This is the truth of the future though, and what growing up means: when the day comes, and it will, it will not be for us. The idea makes me weary.

“This problem has continued for much of this decade,” an email I get about San Francisco transit problems begins, my eyes skimming as I delete it.

After less than two years here I have purchased a car. I did not fight for decades, though I still give money to the cause, still give time.

Perhaps I am yet fighting. Perhaps I will still be, at the end of this decade. Or maybe mass transit will have flourished here, and the future come. In Shanghai the subway now covers the city, and trains spread out to cover the country. These are my ways of saying the future does come, and is worth working towards. These are my ways of saying that we may not see what we so long to, but that isn’t all that matters.

These are ways of growing up.

Driving back across the bridge one afternoon, after giving my grandfather his first computer, the air is thick and the sun, setting over the hills by the ocean, litters everything with pink. That light might be made tangible by a place is an amazing idea, and is so much of this city. The Transamerica pyramid cuts through the mist, its sharp edges fighting to remain distinct.

On top of the hill the Sutro Tower’s base is shrouded in fog. Hundreds of feet up its points catch the last true rays of sun and leap forwards, shadows writ large on the pink clouds far out over the Castro.  Their streaks are colossal reminders of how much we can build, given time, and how beautiful it can be in the right weather.

Problems with Translink/Clipper Card

Translink, recently renamed Clipper, is a contactless payment system for transit companies in the Bay Area.  It is theoretically usable on Bart, Muni, and for bridge tolls.  This seems at first to be a great idea.  Similar cards are in use in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo, and London, and work very well.

Unfortunately, San Francisco, sitting at the heart of the US tech industry, did not simply deploy one of these solutions.  Instead, they hired someone new, who gradually developed a system with the capabilities of those already in place elsewhere. This process was slow and involved many intermediate steps that would have been uneccessary had the city merely looked abroad before starting.

The first problem with Translink/Clipper is that the machines used to load value onto a card are only available in the downtown stations.  This means that a user with no value on their card at a non-downtown station has to pay cash fare, ride downtown, and then load their card.

The second problem is that the value adding machines are incredibly slow.  This slowness is due to their use of a dial-up modem to communicate with the Clipper computer network and perform credit/debit card checks.  A dial-up modem in the year 2010 for brand new machines installed in the heart of America’s tech industry seems not only stupid, but absurd.  Each transaction takes upwards of four minutes, and may fail if the dial-up connection isn’t established the first time.

To circumvent (not solve) these two problems, Clipper provides a service called Auto Load, where by the user can input a credit/debit card on their site and associate it with a Clipper card and money will be automatically added to the card when its value drops below $10.  This means the user does not need to go downtown or use those slow machines, though it does not remove the 72 hour transaction processing time, which is due to the fact that all trains do not dock every day, so their onboard terminals may not be updated for 72 hours and they may incorrectly reflect the card’s balance until then.  This is a problem only solvable if each terminal was networked, rather than only the downtown stations, which presents, I imagine, a significant cost barrier.  Thus the 72 hour transaction time is unavoidable.

However, the Clipper site is not without flaws.  First of all, it does not send out receipt emails for purchases.  Instead it sends out a generic email stating that “You attempted some action with the Clipper website that will take 72 hours to process.”  This avoids claiming a successful process when none has yet taken place, but also doesn’t tell the user what the action was.  Also, when the 72 hours have elapsed, the user is not notified if their transaction was successful or not, and are not given any receipt of charges in either case.  This means that, without re-checking the site, the user has no way of knowing what Clipper has done.

Should the transaction fail and the card not be loaded with money, the user will not be able to board a train.  And here in lies the real failure of the Clipper system.  There is no solution to this problem.  The staff in the station can not do anything about Clipper cards.  The online phone support staff can not do anything without a 72 hour delay.  The only solution is to either use the slow value add machines if at a downtown station, thus forgoing the entire Auto Load feature, or purchase a physical ticket, proceed to a location with internet, log on to the site, check value, try again to add value, and wait for 72 hours.  If this fails or succeeds no email or notification will be sent.

In Clipper San Francisco finally has some semblance of a modern contact-less payment system.  However, because the city hired a third party to build one from scratch rather than purchasing one that had already been deployed, the system is slow, opaque to the user and completely unresponsive to support calls.  Because it has never been tested in a different city the residents of San Francisco are forced to deal with the growing pains of a company that does not consider the transit rider its priority, and whose computer systems are woefully behind the times.  Dial-up, 72 hour transaction processing, and no email confirmation of purchases are reminders of 1995 rather than parts of a modern contact-less payment system.

Hopefully Clipper will improve, because the city has invested in it without considering better options, and residents are now forced to live with that choice.