How to make MUNI as good as Leap or Chariot

Fancy busses are popping up all over San Francisco. Okay, mostly in the Marina. Services like Leap and Chariot are only a nudge more expensive than MUNI and somehow much more appealing. How can MUNI keep up?

1. Delegate

Wheelchair service should be its own separate thing. SF Paratransit can be expanded, or, if there are enough wheelchair users who can afford it, some private company can be formed to service them. Or maybe they can avail themselves of services like home grocery delivery. There’s no need to inconvenience a bus of 50 commuters by making them wait for the painfully slow wheelchair ramp.

2. Ensure fare payment

This will help keep busses nice in two ways: it keeps the homeless off and it increases revenue. San Francisco introduced all-door boarding when the Clipper card was introduced. While this practice supposedly “doesn’t increase fare evasion”, that could be because MUNI drivers were never that thorough with checking proof of payment. In London, the busses have an inspector at the door, making sure you either pay or get off. But on London busses, it’s easy to make sure you paid, and that brings me to the next point.

3. Make everyone use the Clipper reader

No more cash, no more transfer slips, no more paper muni passes for any group. Everyone gets a Clipper card or an RFID enabled paper ticket. No ticket purchases on the bus. Every single person must pass something over the card reader, get a beep of approval or be asked to leave the bus. With all-door boarding, this can be achieved by having human beep-checkers at each door. Job-creation, yay.

4. Friendlier bus drivers

Apparently, being a MUNI driver is a highly-paid and highly sought-after job. Fantastic. Encourage riders to text the MUNI bus number with their problem to a complaints hotline. A driver passes a stop even though the bus isn’t full? The driver is rude or grumpy? 3 strikes and you’re out. There are plenty of people lining up for that job.

5. Special lanes and light priorty

This has already started, but congested areas around the city should have MUNI only lines and stoplights that give priorty to MUNI busses.

6. Reduce number of stops

Busses should stop once every 5-6 blocks instead of every 2-3. I think doing #1 makes #6 entirely feasible. If it’s a great hardship to walk a few extra blocks, there’s probably a better service for you.

The most pleasant thing about services like Leap and Chariot isn’t what they provide, it’s what they exclude. I don’t really care about plush seats or bars or pressed juice and coffee. Wifi is great, but so is my cell phone’s data plan. The main draw is that there probably won’t be any crazy homeless people and the inevitable urine smell that clings to them. There won’t be people listening to ghetto rap so loudly (and on such crap headphones) that I’m forced to listen too. Or people who eat sunflower seeds and spit the shells on the floor. Or people who take hooker baths with makeup remover sheets then discard them all over the floor. Or old ladies on flip phones having shouting matches in an angry-chicken Asian language. Or delusional vets who scream about non-existant enemy tanks. (Yes, I have personally encountered all of these on MUNI busses).  I think #2 above might help MUNI with these things too. The fare inspector can kick people off for bad behavior or disturbing others even if I am mistaken and the examples I cited were all paying customers.

Generally, having private companies pop up in competition with public services indicates there’s something that can be done better. With a few improvements, MUNI might yet put these obnoxiously hipster little startups out of business.

Advertisements

Gayssot Act

In practice, the Gayssot Act allows the French government to fine and imprison people for questioning the Holocaust. Historians questioning details such as the figure of 6 million killed, or the use of gas chambers in certain locations have come under fire because of this law.

Most arguments in favor of the law center on the assertion that historical revisionism, when applied to the holocaust, is motivated by anti-semitism and is tantamount to incitement of racial violence. Proponents believe that this law is a moral necessity more important than freedom of speech.

I see many contradictions. If it is correct to curtail freedom of speech in order to prevent social disharmony, wouldn’t it be more efficient for France to ban all depictions of the Islamic prophet Mohammed? After all, that has been at the root of more racial unrest and violence than holocaust denial has. If, as the law states, it should be illegal to deny or minimize crimes against humanity, shouldn’t it be illegal to deny the Armenian genocide? France did briefly have a law criminalizing Armenian genocide denial, but it was overturned after some pressure from Turkey.

In general, I don’t see the actual harm of holocaust denial as being serious enough that it needs government intervention. It’s more or less the harm of being offended: there’s no evidence that holocaust denial has caused any violence against Jewish populations. People deny the truth every day: there are the flat-earthists, those who believe the universe is 6000 years old or created in 7 days, people who thought humans co-existed with dinosaurs — the list goes on. Though their opinions offend me in their ignorance, they don’t do much actual harm. There are widely publicized beliefs which do result in actual harm, such as “vaccines are dangerous” — and it would make more sense for the government to ban these types of statements (because they result in actual harm and sometimes actual deaths) before banning holocaust denial.

In fact, I think such laws, when enacted to protect only very specific groups (though the Gayssot Act technically covers all crimes against humanity, has only been used to prosecute holocaust deniers) tend to increase racial disharmony. It’s an obvious question: why is the government giving this group special treatment? Why is freedom of speech more important than the Armenian genocide, but not as important as the holocaust? It looks like the French government privileges some groups over others.

For a more thorough treatment and similar conclusions, see this article from Humanity in Action.

BMR and the paradox of “low income”

Let’s start with what BMR is: it’s a requirement of some new housing developers in San Francisco to rent or sell 12% of its units at below-market rates. This creates perverse incentives as I’ll show in the following example of below-market rental units at Rincon Green Apartments.

A one person household’s income can’t exceed $23,310.00 [1], or else they don’t qualify for the BMR units. Let’s take a look at the market rates of the units that a one person household would qualify for.

Studio
According to Rincon Green’s current leasing/floor plans page, studios go for $2,395 – $2,950 per month [2]. By [1], the BMR rate for these same units is $550, giving a savings of between $1,845-$2,400 per month.

On the low end, a person who makes $1 over $23,210 would have to pay an extra $22,140 in rent to live at Rincon Green. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to make an annual salary between $23,211 and $45,350. But the max salary is, in practice, even higher than that: the difference in federal income tax (assuming use of the standard tax table [3], and filing status single) is $4,220 in 2013. So, for it to be worthwhile you’d have to make more than $52,623, and that’s not including the taxes on the extra $4,220, and not including any state/local taxes.

This is just the low end.

1-Bedroom
One bedroom apartments with the same floor plans as those available through the BMR program range from $2,796-$3,470/month at market rate and $581.00/month through BMR.

On the high end, you’d be paying an extra $34,668 in rent. Meaning that it wouldn’t make sense for you to make between $23,310 and $65,348 — again, probably more than this to account for differences in taxes on the extra money and state/local taxes.

tl;dr
With programs like San Francisco’s inclusionary housing, I’ve found one example where it doesn’t make sense to earn between $23,210 and $65,348 per year. All of that extra money would be going to rent that would otherwise be swallowed by the housing developers. And I’m sure it’s not an isolated example.

Should we really have programs that encourage people to work part time at Starbucks rather than get a job that requires them to actually think?

References
[1] Mayor’s Office of Housing and Development page on BMR units at Rincon Green
[2] Rincon Green floor plans
[3] IRS 2013 Tax Tables

Tipping: let’s not

This entry was inspired by Wait But Why’s unsurprising blog post on the necessity of tipping (linked below). In the lead in on Wait But Why’s Facebook page, he says

Tipping is about making sure you don’t mess up what you’re supposed to do.

I call his blog post unsurprising because he admits to having once been a server. He claims he was “undertipped” — but I disagree that undertipping is a real thing. I disagree with the tipping system in general, but we’ll get to that. Lots of things make no sense:

Pricey restaurants

When I was in grad school, a fellow grad student told me that he had spent years as a waiter at a high-end restaurants making $100K per year (tax-free). He reported only enough of his tips to make it appear that he was making minimum wage. It was hard for him to leave that lifestyle behind — he only worked dinner hours and was free to party and sleep in the rest of the time.

Sure, he was providing a needed service. But was his work really of more value to society than, well, that of most people? The median income of an American worker is far below $100K, after all. And if your meal at a cheap restaurant costs $10, but a meal that took similar efforts on the part of the waiter cost $100 at a fancier restaurant, does the fancy waiter really deserve 10x the tip?

Claims that waiters rely on tips

According to US Federal law on tipped workers:

If an employee’s tips combined with the employer’s direct wages of at least $2.13 an hour do not equal the federal minimum hourly wage, the employer must make up the difference.

Though the rest of his article seems … if not well researched then at least researched … his claim that in the case of some tipped workers, “customers are in charge of paying the professional’s salary”. He even goes on to emphasize that for waiters and bartenders:

Your tips are literally their only income.

That is literally not true, unless the businesses they work for are violating federal law.

In what sense can we agree that service workers “rely” on tips? Only in the sense that they are gambling on their salaries: counting on the tipping system to get them more than minimum wage. Because, I’ll say it again, minimum wage is guaranteed by federal law. Even if a tipped worker doesn’t receive a single cent in tips, he will make the maximum of federal/state/local minimum wage, and furthermore, it will be his employer that pays the difference, not the customer — as it should be!

The entitlement

Now that we know tipped workers are guaranteed minimum wage, let’s examine the entitlement. I’ve gone to dinner with foreigners here and let them refuse to tip. We’ve been chased out into the street by angry servers asking if they did something wrong. I’ve been told “the standard tip is 15%” when I had paid the check separately and was intending to leave the tip on the table. I’ve had discussions with people who have been tipped workers, and the attitude is that customers “owe” them at least a 10% tip — and that’s the low end that’s supposed to be reserved for totally crap service. The blog post below claims that it’s never acceptable to tip below 15%.

Why do tipped workers believe they deserve a certain amount? A simplistic answer is that the broken tipping system in America has given them that expectation. It’s the norm to tip. There’s social censure if you don’t. People call you cheap and waiters follow you down the street. But is it reasonable for a service worker to expect more than minimum wage? Most service positions don’t require much in the way of specialized skills or education. They are not any more demanding or dangerous than other minimum wage jobs (WalMart workers, for example). There isn’t a shortage of willing waiters. Maybe I’m missing something, but it seems silly that they should expect more than minimum wage. And if they could get it with their skill set, I’m sure they would work elsewhere — where the salary was guaranteed. Yet, they willingly work for tips — probably because it’s easy to underreport them when it comes time for income taxes.

An alternative

Just don’t tip. There should be a business card that people leave in place of adding a tip. One that says more or less:

Your service was [Excellent Good Fair Poor], but in any case, I don’t tip because your wage should come from your employer, not the customer. If you believe your wage is unfair, you should take it up with your manager.

Maybe there could also be a link to some kind of Anti-Tipping Society with more info on politicians/labor unions/etc that they can become involved in to demand a fair salary that doesn’t rely on tips.

Remember: if you believe that it’s the restaurant’s responsibility to pay the tipped worker and not yours, then you shouldn’t tip — because the restaurant only has to pay $2.13 an hour if you decide to be Mr. Moneybags and leave a generous tip. That’s right — the restaurant paid your server $2.13 while you paid $20 for that $100 meal. Why on earth should you be paying 10 times as much as the actual employer? Why should someone with no special skills or education be making $100K/year, tax-free? Everyone who tips is contributing to the problem we have today. I think the only way to motivate anyone to change this system is to stop tipping.

Everything You Don’t Know About Tipping

 

Marlise Muñoz

Marlise Muñoz is a pregnant woman who is being kept on life support against her and her family’s wishes because of the Texas Advanced Directives Act which states, in part,

A person may not withdraw or withhold life-sustaining treatment under this subchapter from a pregnant patient.

Her doctors have already declared her brain dead, and their reports claim that the fetus (14 weeks gestation at the time of Marlise’s death) is already so deformed that sex cannot be determined.

Today, I’d like to try to figure out who benefits from the law. It isn’t Marlise herself. She was an EMT, and her husband claims that her wishes were clear: she didn’t want to be kept on life support. It isn’t her family. Her parents and her husband want to honor her wishes, and her parents even expressed an interest in overturning the current law. It isn’t the hospital. Though there is some profit to be made on keeping her in her current state, the reason given by the hospital sounds like it’s based on the fear of legal repercussions if they don’t.

I think that covers all of the parties who are directly involved. Does it benefit society? It’s hard to see how a law that overrides a woman’s wishes for end of life decisions can be generally positive. In this case, it isn’t even clear that the child’s best interests are being served, since a brain-dead body cannot properly regulate hormone levels (or other factors necessary for the normal development of a fetus). A society in which we are forced to use legally dead women to incubate fetuses sounds less than ideal — I think we can all agree to that.

Who does benefit then? Why is this law in place? Apparently, laws of this type were a response to advance directives (living wills) — an attempt to appease the Roman Catholic Church. Now it begins to make sense. Rather, it becomes clear that it shouldn’t be a law. Laws apply to everyone, regardless of religion, so they should be formulated on principles that are not based on religious beliefs.

When I talk to people from western Europe, they think it’s quaint that being an atheist is something worthy of discussion. The way that I think it’s quaint when someone from Kansas thinks that being gay is a big deal. This is an example of why the discourse on religion still matters here. American atheists have to live with religiously motivated laws that benefit no one!

More info on this topic:

Pregnant, and forced to stay on life support (NYT) 

Marlise Munoz On Life Support Sparks Controversy And Lawsuit (Huffington Post)

Brain-Dead Marlise Munoz’s Fetus Is “Distinctly Abnormal.” (Slate)

Dying wishes

I recently read what was supposed to be a touching story about a wife’s dying wish for her husband and family (linked below). I didn’t find it particularly moving. Neither her words, nor her wish. What was kind of neat in this story is her husband’s ability to see patterns in the randomness — to interpret things like rainbows and large seagulls as the spirit of his wife. In general, human ability to read meaning into meaningless things. Maybe it’s like how when you love someone, they’re in every song you hear.

I remember hearing about the elaborate wishes that dying children got from the Make-a-Wish foundation and being jealous. I remember wishing that I was terminally ill so I could have a wish too. I think programs incentivize the wrong thing. You shouldn’t want to die as a child.

One of the things I will do when I am rich is have a wish fulfillment non-profit but it won’t be restricted to people who are dying. I will restrict it to people who are doing things that I would like to incentivize. Or maybe just to people whose wishes I like. Or people I like. Depending on how wealthy I am, I may even be able to fulfill completely illegal wishes like “Please blow up the entire NYC skyline to tune of Tchaikovsky’s 1st piano concerto”! Why should dying kids have all the fun? Amuse me with your wish or with the force of your personality and yours can come true too!

Wife’s dying wish for husband’s new family

 

Sand dollars and silly laws

There is a law on MUNI busses. I think it’s a California law. That certain seats at the front of the bus have to be surrendered to the elderly or people with disabilities. I don’t think there should be designated seats or a law.

People should just be considerate of others without legislation. The other side of it is that people who have taken seats that aren’t designated as special feel like they should be able to just ignore the people who are standing, no matter how much they need to sit down. It’s an abdication of any consideration towards one another.

One day I had a seat on the bus during rush hour. A man got on with a large, heavy box. He had a hard time balancing it in one hand and trying to hold onto the railing with another, so I offered him my seat. He was grateful and relieved, but asked me if I was sure. Of course I was. Here’s the strange part. He must have found my act so unusual that he felt the need to somehow repay me for it. He dug in his box and handed me this sand dollar:

I thanked him for it. I don’t think I’ve ever found a whole one. “Where did you .. is the whole box full of them?” I asked. “Yeah! They were all over Baker Beach… and another beach further south of here.”

Instead of the law we have, why not encourage people to just use their judgement? The man with the sand dollars wasn’t elderly or disabled, but he was clearly having a harder time than most of the people with seats. It’s sad that it wouldn’t even occur to most people to get up for him. It’s sad that some elderly people who are able to stand just fine demand seats (sometimes from students with heavy backpacks) simply because they can. It’s sad that we need a law to tell us when someone might need our seat more than we do.