Archive for August, 2018

Salesforce Transit Center, opening day

August 12th, 2018

Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day
 

After years of construction it seemed like the new Transbay Salesforce Transit Terminal Center would never open; and yet today, it finally did… sort of. It’s clearly unfinished, and construction workers were still there today (a Saturday) working on the gondola. The underground train platforms weren’t open, and no physical work has been done to even build the tunnel to the station.

So perhaps it’s best to think of this as opening day, with a few major caveats. For now only a few local transit agencies serve Salesforce Transit Center via bus, with bus operations to and from the East Bay to start tomorrow. Permanent restaurant and retail space is also still also on the to do list.

But enough about the future for the moment; let’s start with what’s there now.

 
Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day
 

The building itself is hard to miss; it’s a wavy undulating mesh hovering over several streets, with trees popping out from above. Heading in just past Salesforce Tower is an enormous lobby, with monolithic signs everywhere pointing to different transit agencies. Filled with natural light, the lobby is bright, clean, and frankly looks like a transit station. Not all the displays showing departure times were hooked up yet.

I kind of expected just to walk in and check the place out, but little did I know many others had the same idea. Turns out I’m not the only one who likes to see new things. Despite getting there early I had to wait in a long line for the escalator. SFPD acted as crowd control, only letting groups up at a time.

It seems the crowds weren’t expected; the lines leading up to the escalators and elevators were ad-hoc, taking up so much space that a group of dancers gave up on dancing and began posing for photos instead.

 
Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day
 

When I finally got on the escalator I looked straight up and saw a skylight… with shadows of people standing on it. Normally standing on a skylight is a bad idea, but this one is intended to act as a floor.

The main escalator skips the second floor, heading straight to the bus stops on the third floor. Here you’ll be able to take a bus to the East Bay and beyond. For opening day it was a sort of museum exhibit with presentations from local transit agencies.

 
Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day
 

AC Transit showed off their new double decker bus. Various transit agencies had well-preserved antique buses on display. Someone had brought in an old car from Hupmobile, a semi-obscure defunct car manufacturer. I confess I thought it was a Ford Model T at first glance.

I was a little thirsty after waiting so long to get up to there. The vending machines were largely not operational yet. Fortunately SFMTA had a table with free Hetch Hetchy water and cups to match.

 
Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day
 

The real star of the show on the third level is the suspension bridge. This is a bus-only bridge over Howard Street that can be easily spotted from Second and Howard. They were letting people walk onto the base of the bridge to get a peek at it, but no further.

It’s too bad they didn’t incorporate a sidewalk with space for people to take photos, I could imagine this funny little bridge being a popular selfie spot for travelers.

 
Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day
 

The entire third level was open to let people walk around. Normally you won’t be able to get up close to the metal lattice “skin” of the building on the bus level, but for opening day there was no risk of getting run over by a Greyhound.

I’ve watched the lattice go up in sections for what felt like ages, so it was neat to finally get a peek outside from within.

 
Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day
 

Obviously people hadn’t flocked here to see a bunch of buses. The real draw was to see Salesforce Park, the city’s first elevated park.

Despite crowd controls this was wall-to-wall people, gawking at the scenery. It’s a bit of a head trip — you look one way and there’s a green park with trees and grass, you look the other way and it’s office towers and skyscrapers. Unless you look over the ledge there’s not much visual indication that you’re above ground at all. This dissonance may grow with the trees and shrubs themselves.

Plaques throughout the park explain what you’re looking at — a fountain (it was off), seismic joints in the building, plants in the garden, etc. There’s a playground for kids, a couple of plazas, and a few grassy areas for lunches and picnics.

The park connects directly to both Salesforce Tower and 181 Fremont. The sky lobby for Salesforce Tower hasn’t been completed yet; I could see construction workers and unpainted drywall behind glass windows.

I’ve heard this park was inspired by New York City’s High Line Park, but I’ve yet to visit NYC so I’m not able to make any comparisons.

 
Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day
 

For opening day there were a few vendors in one plaza, selling food, coffee, beer, and oddly enough cookie dough. Stands with free to borrow books and board games were available as well. There were a few tables to sit at, though not nearly enough to meet demand. When the novelty wears off I could see this park as a place for nearby workers to take a lunch break.

Bands and DJs played at two stages in the park. Due to all the buildings around it, some parts of the park were shady whereas others were sunny on an unusually warm San Francisco afternoon.

One big question that kept lingering in my mind was how this new station would outlast the one it replaced. Although the old Transbay Terminal was once touted as the “Grand Central Station of the West,” by the time I was around to see it the place was kind of a mess. The “terminal” aspect of it largely referred to the trains that once arrived at the station coming over the Bay Bridge. The building’s restaurant and bar had closed ages ago, and the waiting area was essentially used as a homeless shelter.

Until train tunnels are built — this time from the Peninsula side, and eventually perhaps a second Transbay Tube — it’s hard to see how the Salesforce Transit Center will be much more than a fancy elevated park. The bus level is nice and all, but you don’t need much space for a bus stop. It’s also worth pointing out that the new low-cost bus operators like Megabus and Flixbus haven’t announced plans to stop at the Transit Center.

Perhaps the most odd omission is the lack of connection between the Transit Center and Montgomery Station. It’s a very short walk, hopefully some signs will appear soon directing travelers between the two. Should be easy enough to fix.

If the new Transit Center has one thing going for it, it’s the neighborhood. Between when the original Transbay Terminal was built and today, the surrounding area has grown tremendously. Factories and shipping businesses were replaced by offices filled with knowledge workers. Moscone Center opened, expanded — and is being expanded again, right now. New hotels sprung up, new subways, a new baseball stadium… the list goes on. This version of the Transit Center seems more likely to succeed; at least if its underground train platforms ever see service, that is.

 
Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day
 

Of course, all of this will have been for nothing if the Millennium Tower — currently sinking and leaning towards Salesforce Tower — comes crashing down.

Perhaps that should be addressed before the next earthquake, let alone before any new tunnels are built in the area.

 
Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day
 

By the time I made my way back to the escalators to leave, the crowds had grown immensely — I was glad I’d arrived early. It also seemed unintuitive to me that so many folks wanted to check out the new Transit Center when the city was also hosting Outside Lands, the Filipino Parade, and a Giants game all on the same day.

With all of those activities going on, who knew the opening of a new Transit Center and park would attract such a large crowd? Not me, that’s for certain.

Strangest aspects of Europe’s bathrooms

August 11th, 2018

Stockholm
My Airbnb’s bathroom in Stockholm
 

For those of us used to North American bathrooms there are many oddities about European bathrooms that tend to stick out. I don’t mean to scare anyone away from making a trip to Europe but there are some aspects to be aware of in advance. These are mere observations from my own travels, the list is by no means exhaustive.
 

Shower wands

Most showers in Europe have a “wand,” or a shower head attached to a hose. There’s often a place to clamp this to take a hands-free shower, though the freedom of the wand can be useful to clean hard to reach areas.

It can also make a giant mess if you’re not used to showering with these things. Try not to spray the entire bathroom with water.
 

Really small showers

Shower stalls in Europe seem to vary between the size of a phone booth (if you remember those) to the size of a bathtub. For the most part you’ll be dealing with the phone booth showers. If you’re lucky there will be shower walls, if you’re not so lucky you’ll have a tiny curtain wrapped around you.

Some older bathrooms don’t have a shower enclosure at all. It’s just you naked in the corner of a bathroom spraying yourself with water.
 

Shower rope/chain

Some hotels have a rope or chain in the shower that you should pull in the event of an emergency, such as if you slipped and hit your head. If it’s not an emergency though, don’t touch it.

Newer hotel bathrooms usually don’t have these, and in older hotels… who knows if the thing still works?
 

Central drain

Most European bathrooms have a drain in the bathroom floor. This can be an advantage if you spill something, the sink or toilet overflows, etc. In some cases the shower drains into here as well — or even the sink. Look closely at the photo above for an example of a drain that does all three.

If you get the floor all wet showering it may take a while for the water to reach the central drain, so be careful not to slip in the meantime.
 

Hot water switch

In private home bathrooms (friend’s places, Airbnb apartments, etc.) the hot water heater isn’t intended to be run all day. Instead there will be a switch — usually a circuit breaker — that activates the hot water heater. If you can’t get hot water you probably need to ask where to find this switch.

Remember to flip the switch off when you’re done as energy is expensive in Europe.
 

Mysterious knobs on the wall

Hotel bathrooms in particular often have a pair of hot and cold knobs on the wall that don’t appear connected to anything. I think these are shut off valves? Whatever they do, leave them alone.
 

Toilet flushing mechanisms

There are so many different types of European toilets I could probably make a long blog post just about how to flush them, but I’ll break it down quickly here:

  • Toilets with a tank above your head. You’ll either have to push a button on the tank or pull a chain to flush these. Shorter people and children may have trouble with these.
  • Tanks on the toilet with a metal circle featuring a larger button and a crescent button. These are two options, you push the crescent shape for a small flush and the larger button for a bigger flush. Save water and only use what you need.
  • A rectangle on the wall. This is common in newer bathrooms where the tank is hidden in the wall (Europeans love hiding stuff in walls.) Just like above there are two buttons; one for a big flush and one for a small one. In public bathrooms the big plastic buttons are occasionally broken off by vandals, but you can still flush them by tapping the exposed levers.

 

Ancient toilets

If you’re in a very old European building the toilet may just be a hole in the floor. It’s easy for men to pee in, but for all other purposes you’ll need to assume a squatting position as there is no seat. These aren’t commonplace though on rare occasions you might still find one in a restaurant or bar. Typically these are flushed by pulling a chain.
 

Standalone bidets

Those used to traveling in modern Asian cities (or working at Google) will be familiar with bidet toilet seats, but some European bathrooms have standalone bidets. These look like a cross between a sink and a toilet.

Part of the reason these are common in some parts of Europe is because…
 

Small garbage cans for toilet paper

Old sewer systems can’t necessarily handle toilet paper. This is true worldwide though in Europe the state of the sewers varies wildly from one place to the next.

If you occasionally forget and flush a few pieces of toilet paper it’s no big deal, but if you don’t know about this and try to flush a lot you’re in for a world of trouble. Those garbage cans are there for a reason — and they need to be taken out regularly.

Always ask if you can flush toilet paper before using the bathroom.
 

Horrible smells

Dirty toilet paper aside if you look under the sink in any American bathroom, you’ll see a U-shaped pipe connected to the drain. This is called a “trap” because it traps a small amount of water, which prevents bad smelling sewer air from wafting into the bathroom.

In Europe these are often not present which leads to bathrooms that smell not just like a sewer, but like an old sewer. You’ll want to keep the bathroom door closed at all times if this is the case.
 

Washing machine in the bathroom

Again on the theme of private home bathrooms if there’s a washing machine in the home it’s most likely located in the bathroom. Washing your clothes in the bathroom makes some sense, but if it’s a foul smelling bathroom you may want to consider alternatives.

Don’t expect to find a dryer at all — Europeans tend to hang dry their clothes. Look for a rack in the home to hang your damp clothes on. Running an extra spin cycle in the washer can help dry out your clothes too.
 

Public pay toilets

Public bathrooms in Europe often charge money. Some take coins, others take credit cards. You’ll find these everywhere from standalone restrooms in public plazas to train stations.

Bathrooms in cafes and restaurants are usually free if you make a purchase so try to strategize bathroom breaks while you’re out.

Oh and PLEASE don’t just pee on the sidewalk to avoid pay toilets. The locals will hate you, and if enough people do this they’ll develop a (legitimate) grudge against tourists.
 

Pissoirs

It’s sexist in a way, but if you’re a guy and not concerned about washing your hands you can often find a free urinal-like toilet. Sometimes these are drains in the ground, they may be temporary structures, other times they look like a sink without a faucet. The name says it all — it’s a place to piss.
 

Unclean tap water

Most of Europe has excellent tap water but that’s not true everywhere. On Greek islands for example you shouldn’t even use the tap water to brush your teeth. Always ask if you’re unsure. One sign that the water may not be clean is when the hotel includes free bottled water.

How I was financially compensated for a delayed flight from Europe

August 2nd, 2018

My flight home from Oslo had a prolonged delay. The kind of delay where it slips so many times you start to lose track of which gift shops you’ve already browsed, and you have more than enough time to think about which restaurant you want to use your meal voucher at.

It turns out that delay earned me a pretty significant discount — more than 50% off in my case.

How? A couple days after the flight I got an email from TripIt, a free website I use for scheduling trip activities (hotels, flights, tours, etc.) The email said I might be eligible for compensation due to the flight delay. They included an estimate of the compensation and offered to direct me to a third party that would help me collect.

Immediately this sent off some alarm bells; it sounded too good to be true. The flight cost just under $800, and the compensation amount was about $450.

I did some sleuthing online and it turns out there’s a law in the EU called EC 261/2004, also known as “Flight Compensation Regulation.” The goal of the law is to squeeze airlines for poor performance, sending the penalties straight to the consumer. As a skeptical person I’m always happy to be proven wrong though there was a catch — according to the Wikipedia page I was owed 600 euros, or around $700 USD at current exchange rates.

Obviously these third parties that collect compensation on your behalf will take a cut, but $450 on a $700 windfall seemed like a bad deal. I spent the next couple hours digging around trying to figure out how to submit my claim directly to the airline. While their claim submission form was easy enough to find their website didn’t really explain how to use it or what information they wanted. I thought about giving them a call, but at this point the phrase “sunk cost fallacy” was already swimming around in my head. I gave in and let the third party collect and take their cut.

As you might imagine these services make it a snap to enter the information they need, upload the required documents, and presto — a couple days later they’d organized my documents, filed the claim, and soon they’d transferred the money into my checking account as promised.

I still would have preferred getting home on time to getting money back, though there’s something to be said for getting a discount on a sub-par experience. More countries should consider implementing penalties like this, and they should make it easier for consumers to collect in the event of a delay.