The Muni Death Spiral

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

This is perhaps the most maddening thing about the situation Muni finds itself in. The solutions presented in this article to make service speedier and more reliable weren't gleaned via divine inspiration. Muni management knows this stuff; much of it is in TEP. But, other than hoping for Hail Mary funding from the state and relying upon the mercurial wills of city politicos, the one budget remedy the agency's management has pushed, repeatedly, is to slash service and hike fares.

"Across-the-board cuts are absolutely the worst way to solve a budget problem for Muni," says Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR). "There needs to be some strategy about it."

More maddeningly still, Muni knows that, too. But TEP-based service adjustments take time; across-the-board cuts are management's quick and easy, although messy, solution. Muni needs arthroscopic surgery, but settles for a battlefield amputation. "I'm watching it start to unravel," said Kiesling, a daily rider of the 45 Stockton. "I've been watching brand-new scooters popping up in my neighborhood. I think Muni is becoming a service of last resort."

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.

This is an especially visceral fear in San Francisco, as opposed to many other major cities where the transit agency already is the service of last resort, and by design. Muni's data reveal that its ridership is among the most socially and economically diverse in the nation. Passengers aren't on the bus simply because they're too poor to afford cars. In many cases, they don't want cars, or at least don't want to drive. They're on Muni because they want to be. But they don't have to be. As speed and reliability falter, as breakdowns become commonplace, as trains and buses arrive in bunches and fill to capacity, and as fear of crime on underpoliced vehicles grows overwhelming, riders will opt out. This leads to more traffic congestion, which leads to slower and costlier service, which leads to more riders opting out. It's a downward spiral.

And yet no one is holding Muni management accountable to make the big changes to reverse that course. The agency can neglect its riders' long-term needs because of the fragmented nature of its ridership. At a recent "Muni summit," transit experts — some of whom have decades of experience working with Muni — shared time with speakers who saw the consolidation of bus lines or even bus stops as a plot against minority communities; wild-eyed revolutionaries whose worldview began and ended with seizing funds from downtown and St. Francis Wood taxpayers to pay for Muni; and, naturally, people comparing the members of the MTA board to "Hitlers." Transit activists' aversion to allowing anyone into the room not dead-set against the Central Subway cuts them off from Chinatown residents — a bastion of Muni riders. And organizers' insistence on labeling transit reform a progressive issue needlessly invites hostility from other political factions. A functioning transit system benefits everyone, even car users and Republicans. Good luck to Snyder starting up his Muni riders' union. He'll need it.

This leads to the last group of people responsible for Muni's woes: its owners, we the riders. We enjoy boasting about how you never need to walk more than two blocks to find a stop, but we don't seem to ponder how costly and inefficient this is. We are quick to rail against moves affecting the most vulnerable among us — but we seem to accept hardships affecting everyone, which render the system unreliable. And we revel in the variety of buses, trains, trolleys, cable cars, and more — but don't seem to realize how expensive this is.

Once again, Muni exists for you. Not the drivers, not the managers, not the politicians — you. And you have some difficult decisions to make about what kind of transit service you want to have, and what, if anything, you'll do to get it. Complaining about Muni is easy. Owning it is not.

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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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