The Muni Death Spiral

Your transit system is terribly inefficient, extremely slow, and wildly expensive. Here’s how you can fix it.

Muni's explanation is that vehicles have grown slower because of more congestion. That's true — but it's also likely there's more congestion because Muni is slower. As the service languishes and grows less reliable, those with the means to do so abandon public transportation. Fewer bus riders equals more car drivers, which equals more congestion.

"It's a very destructive trend when you go down on speed," says transit engineer Gerald Cauthen, a former Muni employee who helped plan and build the Metro system 30 years ago. "As far as I'm concerned, this should have been priority one for Muni, and it should have been for the last 20 years."

Muni knows this. Riders cooling their heels at bus stops are also aware the system is slow — but what they may not know is that in 2006, Muni commissioned a $3 million audit known as the Transit Effectiveness Project (TEP) to identify ways to speed up service and improve efficiency. After two years of painstakingly gathering data, Muni figured out where people were getting on the bus. It figured out where they were getting off. It gleaned where things work well and where they don't. And the project's suggestions mirrored many of those posited to SF Weekly by numerous transit experts.

At an average speed of 8.1 mph, 
Muni is the slowest major urban 
transit agency in North America.
Steven Rhodes
At an average speed of 8.1 mph, Muni is the slowest major urban transit agency in North America.
Supervisor Sean Elsbernd’s 
legislation would remove Muni drivers’ pay rates from the City Charter.
Eartha L. Goodwin
Supervisor Sean Elsbernd’s legislation would remove Muni drivers’ pay rates from the City Charter.

• Transit signals and road signs in San Francisco prioritize the convenience of cars carrying one or two people over packed buses and trains that have to wait three minutes to make a left turn on red, just like the driver in an SUV. Transit-only lanes — which have worked fabulously in other large cities worldwide — either don't exist here, or are enforced so sporadically that motorists getting tickets for driving in bus lanes actually inspire news items. All 70 Muni lines interact with traffic, and transit-only lanes would allow buses and trains to drive faster without mowing down private vehicles. In a city with relatively few freeways to shunt street traffic away from Muni vehicles, this could make a difference. "You could kick up speeds faster than anything else simply by putting buses in their own lanes," Cauthen says. But since having police enforce the lanes all day is a nonstarter, he suggests handing out tickets only during peak hours, when transit lines need them most. Other experts suggest camera-based enforcement.

• Whether five people or 85 attempt to board a Muni bus, the process is the same: They must file past the driver and pay (unless they don't; Muni still loses millions annually through fare evasion). Little surprise that boarding often slows down buses more than traffic does. "Managing a line that handles 50,000 riders a day the same as a suburban bus line is insane," Radulovich says. Stationing Muni employees at the busiest stops — and Muni knows what those are; it's in TEP — to accept pay and direct riders onto buses worked in past decades. It could work now, too.

• Simply put, San Francisco has too many damn bus stops. The fewer you have, the faster buses will go, while incurring less wear and tear. "It'd be nice to see Muni get rid of a third of the stops in this city," transportation planner Michael Kiesling says. "That'd save some money." It also might spark riots — "Every bus stop has a constituency," Radulovich groans. Muni proposed consolidating its bus stops last month, but it will be interesting to see how hard it fights the inevitable backlash. Along with streamlining or eliminating bus routes tracing the former rail paths of World War I–era private trolley lines, bus stop consolidation is the surest method of inducing shouts from the loudest riders. Muni management has long had the ability to unilaterally eliminate extraneous stops. But it doesn't, because it'd rather not rankle vocal riders and give Board of Supervisors members a chance for cheap populism.

There were scores of such suggestions in TEP; think of instituting them as the remedy for death by a thousand cuts. And yet, two years after its completion, the $3 million study has hardly been used. Muni management had the foresight to commission it, and Muni's rider-owners have indicated they want transit experts making transit decisions — until some expert suggests removing their bus stop. Perhaps that's why the will to implement TEP is lacking.

San Francisco is a city in which a roomful of hipsters actually managed to push the Planning Commission to keep an American Apparel retail store out of the Mission District. As the gripe goes, if you can get a battalion of enraged people to crash a city meeting, you'll get what you want. In a way, the same goes with Muni. While advocacy groups representing the disabled, elderly, and others are able to shoot down changes affecting their constituencies, no one makes a fuss when Muni management's proposals work against the best interests of hundreds of thousands of riders. Legions of people are affected when Muni reduces its maintenance budget, but good luck finding even a handful of them to go to an MTA board meeting and complain. Even the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, which represents a smaller constituency, wields more power than any Muni advocates. The city has gone to court to implement its Bicycle Master Plan, but Muni's aforementioned TEP — which could benefit far more San Franciscans — has been neglected by agency management, except when it's wheeled out to justify service cuts.

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olpe1919 1 Like

Why complain about yet another California waste of money?

All SF will do is raid the federal taxpayers from other states to fund their waste and corruption, like they use federal dollars to support free housing, food, medical care, etc. for the millions of illegal immigrants they support.  

Corruption is so massive it makes Greece look like an economic paradise.

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