We recently moved to San Francisco. I’ve been struck by the ways in which people are pre-criminalized by the city. There is a sense that anyone who uses public spaces and public services are already-always a potential criminal. For instance, soon after we moved here, SF outlawed playing chess on the side walk. A dear friend of ours who left home at the age of 11 learned to play chess on the streets of NYC (mostly in Union Square). He did it so he could hustle a few dollars to feed himself and maybe find a place to sleep – he went on to become a Grand Master (incidentally, he also ended up at the Olympics, but that’s another story altogether). Today, he is an MSW and works with at-risk and homeless youth, often teaching them chess.  He is not the first or the last person to find a home in a game of chess. Indeed, many cities in the US have a culture of public chess games.

We don’t play chess. But we do ride public transportation. San Francisco has a peculiar fare enforcement program. They place ride fare enforcers, who are independent (read: non-city employees) within the paid area to check fare. Fair enough. Except that if you are more than 50 cents short on your fare, you get charged $106. We found out the hard way – i tapped in, realized i was short and assumed i would pay the balance (like i had done in London, LA, and DC in the past 12 months) once i got off the Muni train. Instead, we were stopped on the platform. When i learned i would be given a $106 citation, i refused to hand over my I.D. As far as i understand, that I.D. belongs to the U.S. government and i am responsible for it (i was raised in the military – you  don’t hand identification over to anyone for any reason, except authorized police and border patrol – the laws are quite straight forward on that). We ended up in a rather unpleasant confrontation with a poorly trained agent who felt she could bully me into giving her the I.D. rather than explain whether or not she had the authority (after a phone call, several emails, and a number of complaints filed, i still haven’t been given a straight answer). I went home and immediately sent letters of complaint to every government official and employee that i could imagine would care (including the Governor, the CA State Transportation Agency, the Board of Directors at BART, my City Council Representative, London Breed, Muni). I received only one response. A very poor one from Christopher Grabarkiewctz, the Proof of Payment Unit Manager, one month later which gave two links to the law.

Fare inspectors were paid $35/hour in 2010 (the last time i could find data), adding up to $3.6 million in income paid for only $900,000 in fare evasion fines collected on the whopping 4.7 fare evasion rate. And this with an already overwhelming deficit that Muni has continually blamed on fare evaders, when in fact, it can be blamed on poor management and oversight. Who is winning what war? It is one of intimidation, really. In fact, Muni had to make a formal announcement in 2012 that they were not actually law enforcement officers. And yet their uniforms look suspiciously police-like. And they engage in harassing behaviors and worse. In fact, both Jason and i have been bullied, and Jason was even chased out of the station, down the street and across two crossing lights while being called ‘asshole’ for insisting that their jurisdiction ended once he was out of the fare pay area. In fact, the Muni website says so:

Muni Transit Fare Inspectors may ask you for Proof of Payment on board any Muni rail line or bus route, or in the paid area of Muni Metro subway stations between the Embarcadero and West Portal stations.

Why do i care so much? As far as most people are concerned, it’s a case of “pay or walk.” And would that it were so easy. I sit at the window in my apartment in Lower Haight, facing a block of the $3,000 a month apartments that are famous in SF (we lucked out with a 12-year rent controlled apartment). Young people, many under 30, get picked up and dropped off by town cars. Others get their Mazdas, BMWs, and Mercedes’ out of the garages below their buildings, as they head to work at 10 a.m. On the week-ends, they come home in town cars with shopping bags, piling out with friends. Limousines pick them up and drop them off on Friday and Saturday nights. San Francisco has some of the highest rents in the country, driven by the growing tech community, creating new forms of segregation. This is as much a class issue as it is a race issue. But leaving aside the question of which (or both) is a decided push against public transportation riders. So who rides the public transportation buses and who is being effected? Certainly not people who work at the high tech companies – they have their own private luxury buses that use Muni stops to pick up their employees throughout the city.  Their buses don’t have to deal with ‘switchbacks,’ either.

No. This is a  question of social equity. It is a question of harassment. And really, it’s about common decency. As Mr. Grabarkiewctz put it in his email to me, “As much as we wish we could rely on voluntary fare compliance, that’s just not the reality of our situation.” And yet, in a number of cities i have lived in and visited over the past five years, there are exit pay stations on the platforms. Didn’t have enough money on your card when you got on? That’s okay – top her up when you get off – that negative balance will be deducted from the amount you add. They even have one at the Berkeley BART Station. But not in San Francisco. In SF, you can’t go to more than 50 cents below (in London, i’ve gone as low as seven pounds in the negative). Rather than treating people like criminals, how about giving them the opportunity to pay the difference? And if there is no machine on exit, then let it go until a person can top up again. The Clipper Card costs $3 – the transportation authority already have the fare. If a person wants to keep using it, then they will pay the difference. That Muni rides cost $2 means the organization actually makes a dollar from a person who tries to avoid paying fare by buying a new one.

And stop harassing people. It’s a 30 minute car ride to Berkeley Campus from our apartment – it’s an hour and fifteen minutes on public transportation. Each way. And we live right near a major public transportation hub. For people who live in cheaper neighborhoods that are further from the core, transportation times grow even longer. Guess who is exhausted and cranky when they get off the train at 10:15 p.m. after a 12 hour day?