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For this Muni operator, a silly horn is a serious solution to keep buses moving

Illustration | Leo Cooperband

By Mc Allen

Here’s something a lot of people don’t know about Muni. To help keep red transit lanes clear and enforce bus zone parking policies, its buses are equipped with cameras and operators have a button labeled “Event Marker.” Pressing it captures an image that SFMTA can use to issue a citation

Operators never know when the use of this button results in a fine, though. The offending driver has no way of knowing that this button has been pressed, either, so a valuable learning opportunity connecting cause-and-effect is lost. I’m told that such citations are rare, although I’m unsure why that might be. In my opinion, Muni should pursue these fines vigorously—especially with structural budget deficits that are set to worsen

We could go even further and trigger citations with a secondary horn instead. It should not be as loud as our main horn, which can be quite jarring when alerting people to the presence of an entire bus. But the secondary horn would sound very distinctive. It should be different from every other beep and clang and toot that together comprise the hectic music of a busy streetscape, so that everyone who hears it knows exactly what is happening. This secondary horn should go “Ah-Ooh-Gah!” 

Let me explain the genesis of this idea. In my line of work, I rely on red paint at the curb to reserve space for my bus to turn, to keep my bus zones open so that I can properly serve my passengers, and to protect the transit-only lanes that help me provide timely, reliable service. I love transit-only lanes, and driving into the clear right-of-way helps me feel that the city values both my work and my passengers’ mobility. The fine for a driver who violates these restrictions is fairly hefty. Yet it happens, every day.

It’s perhaps the bus zone that I cherish most, a stretch of curb by the bus stop that should be clear for me to load and unload passengers. Particularly in the case of passengers who may need the ramp deployed, getting the bus to the curb is vital to providing safe and accessible transit service. For a person who gets around with the assistance of a cane, a walker, or a wheelchair, a car in the bus zone makes it difficult or impossible to board. It’s no different from an able-bodied driver taking up a blue handicapped-parking space.

Recently, while driving the 27-Bryant, an elderly man with a cane was standing on Jones Street, waving for me to stop. There were cars parked in the bus zone, and a double-parked car was in the adjacent travel lane. I blasted my horn, to no avail. In order to serve this passenger, I was forced to stop in the second travel lane from the curb, an unsafe place to load and unload. The man had already put his safety at risk simply to communicate the desire to board. I stopped and knelt the bus for him, and as he struggled aboard, I reflected bitterly on how even if pressing the button resulted in citations for all the illegally parked vehicles, none of those drivers would know what an anxious ordeal they had created for this man. 

Have you ever sat bolt upright in bed, panicking because you can hear, faintly, the street sweeper making its way past your building? The panic is because you know what that sound is, really: It’s the sound of $85 leaving your bank account forever because you forgot to move your car. In the morning that envelope will be waiting. Your neighbors will tut-tut, chiding you for the arc of street litter sweeping around your vehicle: tell-tale evidence of where it rested, in costly slumber. 

In the case of a blocked bus zone, “Ah-Ooh-Gah!” is the sound of $100 leaving someone’s bank account forever so that the necessary conditions for an essential service can be preserved.

It’s important that the horn be distinctive. It should sound silly. I favor an old-time klaxon sound, that “Ah-Ooh-Gah” heard now mostly in cartoons. This auxiliary horn could become legendary, an icon right up there with the foghorns, cable-car bells, or the hibernating Tuesday noon alarm. And it would mean something. It would mean that San Francisco is willing to arm Muni operators with a tool that prioritizes transit in a Transit First city. 

Bus passengers, when they hear that “Ah-Ooh-Gah,” would know that Muni is getting quicker, safer, and more reliable. These days San Francisco is investing in red paint, on April 1st Van Ness will debut new BRT lanes, BRT lanes are coming to Geary and temporary emergency transit only lanes that proved their effectiveness during covid are being made permanent (hopefully!) We should celebrate these successes, and to protect this investment, we should raise the profile of the expected behaviors that will make the red paint more valuable to every driver, transit rider, and operator. 

When a driver is holding up the bus, one person is inconveniencing dozens of people unfairly. Anger is of no use in this situation, but if we can have a little fun while we make the ride swifter, smoother, and safer, I say “‘Aah-Ooh-Gah!' 

Mc Allen is a transit operator in San Francisco. His opinions are his own and do not necessarily represent the SFMTA's positions, policies or opinions. 

Mc will appear at Muni Diaries Live on April 7 at the Rickshaw Stop

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