“This bus is too crowded! This bus is too crowded!”
It was 4 p.m. on Sunday, April 19, and we had just left the 19th Avenue station when the operator stopped the inbound N-Judah line and began shouting at passengers. The 30-foot coach was far too small to allow for proper social distancing, and the riders — primarily seniors — were already uneasy. Upon the driver’s announcement, a few let out shrieks of fear. Eventually, enough passengers volunteered to exit and the bus continued on its way.
The panicked and confused scene aligns with the narrative that emerged in the weeks following the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s decision to cut about 80 percent of its bus and trolley lines in an effort to protect riders and operators during the novel coronavirus pandemic. In complaints aired on social media and to local news agencies, riders and drivers claimed that the massive reduction in service had led to unsafe conditions on crowded buses where it was impossible to maintain the minimum six feet of separation called for under social distancing guidelines.
But as Bay Area residents brace for yet another month of mandated social distancing, the SFMTA — the body that manages Muni — is easing off the brakes. On Saturday, the transit agency restored service to seven high-ridership lines and increased the frequency of two more. In a press release issued on April 20, the SFMTA listed concerns about social distancing as a reason for restoring several routes and increasing the frequency of others. The move was also aimed at ensuring connections to essential services, such as grocery stores and hospitals.
The restoration is certainly welcome. On April 25, a week after my scary experience on the N-Judah, the restored 5-Fulton and 38R-Geary Rapid lines provided riders with enough room to remain six feet apart.
And yet Muni riders are still complaining about bumps in the road — namely a 12 percent fare hike, scheduled to take effect Nov. 1, which the SFMTA board of directors approved last week. Single rides on Clipper cards will go up from $2.50 to $2.80, a monthly pass with BART rides included will increase from $98 to $103, and the cost of a Muni-only monthly pass will increase from $81 to $86.
“It’s really outrageous that the MTA just approved fare hikes in the middle of a pandemic,” says District 5 supervisor Dean Preston, himself a regular Muni rider. “I thought at least in the midst of this emergency that the MTA would not be so out of touch. I overestimated the MTA’s sensitivity.”
But the SFMTA counters that they are being sensitive — at least to its drivers.
“It’s important to us to pay our hard-working operators a living wage,” SFMTA spokesperson Erica Kato says. “As the cost of living increases in the Bay Area, so must our operator wages. If we can’t raise fares at the same rate as our labor costs, our only alternatives are to cut service or find new sources of ongoing revenue.”
It may be that the SFMTA is simply caught between a rock and a hard place. After all, the agency already had budget problems and driver shortages before the COVID-19 pandemic. Concerns over driver and passenger safety have only exacerbated the situation.
“It’s this horrible catch-22,” says Cat Carter, spokesperson for the grassroots nonprofit advocacy group SF Transit Riders, which opposes the fare increase. “Either they raise the fares or you lose the service. We do want a fare freeze. But we realize the reality that losing service is a really poor outcome for people that depend on transit. They’re more stranded, and buses will be more crowded.”
For his part, Preston acknowledges that “it’s not an easy time to be running a public transit agency.” Still, he believes SFMTA could have been better positioned to deal with the current crisis.
“MTA clearly did not have a good disaster plan in place,” Preston says. “You’ve seen operators who for weeks lacked the most basic things they’ve needed: hand sanitizer, masks, wipes, basic protective equipment. These are folks who we’re telling to work and operate their vehicles as essential workers, and then we’re not providing them the basic protections they need.”
This shortage of protections is leading more drivers to stay home for fear of infection. That’s resulted in fewer operators trained to drive the jumbo-size, 60-foot “articulated” buses that would be more appropriate for major lines like the N-Judah and L-Taraval, on which we’re currently seeing smaller buses and crowded conditions.
“You need more buses, or bigger buses, or both,” Preston says.
Speaking in defense of the fare increase, the agency’s spokesperson says that in addition to helping properly staff routes, the hike will also help support new benefits for low-income riders.
“The approved budget includes an expansion of our low- or no-fare programs, allowing us to support the people that need our assistance the most,” Kato says. These benefits include expanded free Muni for youth and people experiencing homelessness, and the introduction of a full All-Day Pass that’s available for $5.60 at the cash fare box (a feature currently only available on the MuniMobile app).
Furthermore, Kato observes, the fare increase will not go into effect until November, which gives riders a chance to plan and for the region to gain more control over the pandemic.
Still, Preston maintains, even if the novel coronavirus were to vanish overnight, the actions of the SFMTA amount to illegal price gouging.
“There’s a state anti-price gouging law that makes it illegal to raise the cost of certain necessary goods and services during a state of emergency,” he says. “There is no question that if a private transportation company increased its fares in the middle of a pandemic by 12 percent, that they could be fined and prosecuted for that.”
While Preston remains opposed to the Muni fare increase, he and the SF Transit Riders continue to support Muni, its riders and its staff. Preston’s office recently delivered 500 bottles of free hand sanitizer to operators. Similarly, SF Transit Riders has ramped their mask- and face shield-donations to drivers and Muni yard workers, and went out distributing paper masks to riders this week.
Muni recently received a $197 million infusion of cash from the Federal CARES Act. The money is sure to help, but getting through this crisis will still take plenty of sacrifice and understanding.
“If you don’t have to get on Muni, don’t get on Muni if there’s any way you can avoid it,” Carter advises. “Which is something that I would never say otherwise.”