Transportation in San Francisco: From an Alabamian

Here’s a little bit of background about me first. I’ve been driving a car for about 17 years. Before that I rode in a car for 16 years. You need to understand that I do not have a lot of experience with public transportation. I’ve visited Chicago a number of times and only in a handful of those times was I required to use public transportation. That was also several years ago the last time I visited the Windy City, so my knowledge of getting from point A to point B was limited to following the signs on the “L” and asking helpful CTA employees how to get somewhere.

WordCamp SF (v1)

In 2013, I attended my first WordCamp in San Francisco. On this trip, I decided renting a car would be the best way to get around since I’d be staying quite a bit aways from the Mission Bay Conference Center (where WordCamp was being held). I got a great deal on Priceline on a very nice Kia Optima, so I was pretty excited. That excitement quickly turned into frustration when I arrived at the event on the first day. Being in a city I’ve never been to, I gave myself ample time to account for traffic and locate a place to park. The first day was also on a Friday, so it was business as usual in San Francisco. After much driving around, I couldn’t locate a single parking spot, so I finally ended up just parking in one of those lots that simply asks you for a body part on your way out of the lot. I went with my left arm and thought ‘Ya know what, it’s just for 1 day, not that big of a deal. Tomorrow will be better.’

On Saturday, as I got on the highway to head towards Day 2, the roads were nearly empty! I thought ‘Ahh, this was the relief I was looking for!’ as I sped down the road to the next toll. Somehow in my complete and utter joy, I apparently had a disregard for the speed limit and for how fast I was going. So yep, I got my first souvenir on my trip: a nice big fat speeding ticket from the great city of San Francisco.

WordCamp SF (v2)

Fast forward to WordCamp San Francisco 2014. I know right, you would think I learned my lesson, but nope, I was back for more! This time I said no to driving a rental car. I hadn’t quite figured out how I was going to get around, but I figured Google Maps would help. As I’m planning my trip into the city from the beautiful office in San Mateo, I quickly realized the journey that was ahead of me. The advice I had been given was to take the Caltrain into the city where I’d then have about a 1.5 mile walk. Piece of cake! Ok, Google, give me directions to Mission Bay Conference Center from my location in order to arrive sometime around 8:00 AM. It appears that in order to get there before registration ended, I was going to have to leave at 6:15 AM. Now, this wasn’t that terrible, mainly because I had gained 2 hours on the flight in anyway, so it was a struggle just to stay awake ’til 10 PM.

Caltrain vs. Bus

After plenty of rest, I took a shower and got ready to head out at 6 AM. I walked the 2.5 blocks to the place where I thought Google said there was an entrance to the Caltrain. It’s dark, raining, and I saw other San Franciscoans San Francisconians San Franciscites Californians on their way to their own morning commute. I looked up and down where this thing was supposed to be and could not find it. I asked another gentleman standing around (waiting for someone or something) “Excuse me, do you know where the entrance to the Caltrain is?”

“Sure.” he replied, “Go to the end of this block and make a left. It’s 1 block up.”

With a “Great! Thanks!” reply from me, I felt I was on my way. 1 block.. then a left… Still no Caltrain entrance. At this point I had 2 thoughts go through my mind.

  1. This guy’s first language wasn’t English and completely misunderstood what I asked him.
  2. This guy was a jerk and just lied to me about this Caltrain thing.

So I pull my GPS back up thinking it’s going to give me some new wonderful information that will lead me where I’m supposed to go. As I’m looking at it, I see the #292 next to the train icon. Hmm. In the back of my mind I’m thinking ‘That seems a bit odd for trains to have numbers…’. But hey, this is San Francisco, not Chicago, so I didn’t think anything else of it. The GPS ended up taking me back to the original location where my new friend was still standing. As I’m walking I see a Bus Stop sign that has some numbers on it (like 215 or something). It was at that moment I realized Google was telling me to get on a bus, not a train. It was all making sense now. 47 stops, 1.5 hour ride to San Francisco. Ahhh!

Now, in my defense, this is the icon for bus: bus. Without any context, this feels like a train. And here’s the Icon for the train: rail. These are just WAAY to similar, in my opinion.

I luckily made it around the corner just in time to get on the correct bus. I figured what the heck, I’ll get to see parts of the city I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. Walk onto the bus and D’oh! This thing costs $2.00. I ask the driver how do I pay if I don’t have exact change? I have a $20 bill and check card. She looks at me and I can see it in her eyes that she knows I’m from out-of-town as she gives me this “WTF” type look. She allows me to go ahead and sit down anyway. YAY! Thank you bus driver lady! And finally after the hour and half ride through the city, I was finally at the place where I needed to start walking only 2 miles to get to the conference center.

Uber vs Lyft

So, as I was planning this commute, I looked at some options. I considered calling a taxi, but the cost could have been $60-$70. Didn’t seem worth it to me at the time. I had heard about Uber and Lyft, but when I went to look into these options, the only way to do anything was to install the app on my phone. Well of course as soon as I decided to download them, ALL my other apps felt like it was a great time to run updates.  So I went to bed before these apps could ever get installed. Finally by the end of the last session, the apps were installed and gave me a few more options for my ride home after the after-party.

My buddy Brian Krogsgard had mentioned he uses Lyft and since I trust his recommendation, I went that route first. I started to fill out the registration and it seemed pretty simple enough (name, email, etc), then it asks for a credit card number. Ug. I don’t feel like getting my wallet out right now and punching those numbers in on my phone while I’m standing there with armfuls of swag and my laptop bag. I’ll deal with this later.

The after-party was a lot of fun and now time to go home. I noticed a lot of other people using Uber, and since I had decided to stay later I had planned, I missed the train (yes it was a train this time) I was planning on riding. I opened up Uber and I’m presented with a button that reads “Login with Google+”. Sweet, that’s easy! Done. Time to setup payment. “Connect with Google Wallet” was the next button I see. Wow! Click. Done. Then after verifying my mobile number with a text message, I was ready to Uber in less than 1 minute.

I did whatever it is you do in the app to tell someone to pick me up and within a few minutes, some dude was there in his very nice Toyota Camry to give me a ride back to the office. The conversation was pleasant and the guy was even learning AngularJS in order to move out of his current career into a tech career.

Live and Learn

So there are definitely a lot of lessons to be learned when it comes to planning transportation in an unknown city and making good decisions, but I think the biggest thing I learned is how important the tiniest detail is when it comes to user experience. It can be the difference in looking for a train vs. a bus, or it can mean your company making the sale or not. Uber seemed to make it as easy as possible for me to get a ride and while Lyft’s process really wasn’t all that much more difficult, and they had the upper hand from recommendation, I still ended up getting my ride from Uber because the setup was just a bit more convenient and sometimes that’s all it takes. And because of that decision, I’ll be taking Uber back to WCSF today and probably using it to return to the office where I’m staying; and I’ll definitely be using it to get to the airport for my flight out on Monday. So that tiny difference resulted in the loss of 3 rides with Lyft.

It definitely encourages me as a developer to really put myself in my customers/visitors/users shoes and really try to get a feel for how they’re experiencing my application or website.

Write a Comment