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Fast Pass Inventor Had to Battle Drunken, Cigar-Smoking Muni Officials

As Muni phases out paper Fast Passes in favor of Clipper card, Ken Schmier is not mourning

Ken Schmier was the unlikely and persistent inventor of Muni’s iconic paper monthly bus pass, which was officially phased out this week.

Just a 22-year-old law student, Schmier had to do battle with drunken, cigar-smoking Muni officials, recalcitrant supervisors and dubious news reporters before the idea was finally adopted by the transit agency in the beginning of 1974.

Muni laid its colorful, metallic-highlighted paper passes in the grave this week in favor of the prosaic blue plastic Clipper card. Muni riders can still get a flat-rate monthly pass to ride the buses, but they have to load it onto the Clipper card now.

Schmier, now 60, said he’s not sad to see the paper Fast Pass go, because his idea is still living on, albeit at a slightly higher cost. It debuted at $11 a pop in 1974. Now, the monthly pass costs $60 — or $70, if you want to use it on BART too.

“The concept of making one charge for unlimited access to Muni is still there, but it’s on the Clipper card,” said Schmier, a practicing lawyer who also invented NextBus, the online system that tracks Muni vehicles for riders.

It was on his commutes to the University of California Hastings College of the Law near Civic Center from his home at Fulton Street and 21st Avenue in 1973 that he came up with the idea. Schmier said he noticed that people like him would pay 25 cents to take the bus during the day when it cost money to park downtown. But at night, when parking was free, he would drive his car to study in the law library while the Muni buses rumbled empty around the city. 

Schmier’s solution: a $10 monthly pass. He reasoned that people would like the convenience and ride more, and Muni would like it because people would likely end up paying for more rides than they actually took.

“I told my law school buddies that this has got to change,” Schmier said. “So I hit on the idea of the monthly pass and I learned that San Diego had one and it was a success.”

Schmier wrote letters to Muni chief Jack Woods — but got no response. He wrote a letter to the editor that was printed in the Chronicle. Still nothing. The Board of Supervisors didn’t like the idea either.

One day, Schmier was drinking a beer at Harry Harrington’s Pub, near Civic Center. The bar happened to be the regular haunt of Woods, the Muni boss, who was known to put a way of fifth of Scotch before driving home to Danville. The young law student pitched the idea at the bar. Woods recognized him from all the letters, but wasn't interested in making any changes.

Eventually, after interrupting San Francisco Public Utilities Commission meetings with his idea — and a big sign featuring a mock-up of the Muni Fast Pass — Schmier convinced the PUC to put the pass on their agenda.

Young Ken Schmier

Three top Muni officials showed up inebriated at the next meeting to oppose the idea, Schmier recalls: “They smoked these giant cigars and they were absolutely stone cold drunk — it was a different time.”

After a back-and-forth featuring at least one drunken speech by a Muni official, the PUC agreed to have a public hearing on the matter. Soon after, a story was printed in the Chronicle with the headline: “Fare Idea Will Get A Hearing: A Stubborn S.F. Transit Buff” with a picture of the young Schmier.

Hundreds of people packed the room at the hearing. Everyone except the city was in favor of the idea, and the PUC voted to try it out. The passes sold out quickly — and the rest is history. 

“This was the most fun thing I've ever done in my life,” Schmier said. “I’ve learned that I can push these people around, it just takes a lot of time and patience.”

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