The Muni Death Spiral

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

In 1912, San Francisco founded its municipal railway as the realization of a radical notion: In an era of private for-profit rail lines, the residents of this city were given a publicly funded transit service formed specifically to serve them. Ever since, Muni has been dubbed, unironically, “The People's Railway.” Muni exists for you. It was created and continues to run for your benefit and to make your life easier. So, congratulations are in order: You don't just ride Muni. You own it. No, really.

And how does that make you feel? Odds are, not so great.

A poll released last month by David Binder Research revealed that 57 percent of riders believed the transit agency was rolling down the wrong track; only 13 percent felt it was improving.

For San Franciscans, complaining about what Herb Caen used to call “the Muniserable bus” stands somewhere between a pastime and a religion. And Caen didn't have to deal with viral online videos of passengers beating each other, or battalions of tweets tagged “#munifail.” But today's gripes emanate from more than just the perception that things have grown worse — they have. In the course of a generation, Muni's service, reliability, and speed have all waned. Not surprisingly, so has ridership.

Riders' joy in excoriating Muni often reveals entitled San Franciscans' lofty expectations of the transit agency, which provides more service than all but a handful of its big-city counterparts. But the city's much-ballyhooed “transit-first” aspirations — and the Municipal Transportation Agency's $761 million budget — demand more than the fallback excuse that we should be grateful for whatever the workhorse agency provides, simply because public transit is generally abysmal elsewhere. Any honest accounting of Muni reveals a number of severe problems crippling its ability to adapt to and overcome daily challenges.

As the owner of a municipal transit agency, you ought to know:

• Your labor force and its union have jealously fought to preserve a number of rules regarding drivers' work conditions that actually reward nonproductivity — and drive Muni's overtime costs into the stratosphere. According to the city controller, over the last six months of 2009, 45 cents of every overtime dollar the city spent went to a Muni worker.

• Recent efforts to insulate Muni from political pressure and ensure transit decisions are made by transit professionals have been abject failures. Now more than ever, the agency is an extension of the mayor's office, which stands by as other city departments siphon millions of dollars from Muni's budget — compounding huge cuts in state funds. Multiple sources confirmed to SF Weekly that not only does Mayor Gavin Newsom's office dictate the agency's budget down to the line item, it also demands Muni fudge its fiscal shortfalls into “politically palatable” deficits.

• Your Muni is slow. With an average vehicle speed of 8.1 mph, it is far and away the slowest major urban transit system in the nation. While some of this can be blamed on San Francisco's congestion and density, there are myriad methods of speeding up service other agencies have adopted that Muni hasn't. This isn't just an inconvenience for Muni's declining ridership; it's a major financial drain on a beleaguered system. Slow vehicle speeds force Muni to spend more money to provide less service. Muni's lethargy is literally costing it millions.

• For these and other reasons, Muni spends more to operate its vehicles than virtually any comparable transit agency. For every mile Muni runs a bus in this city, it spends $19.21; comparable agencies nationwide pay between $10 and $13. For every mile Muni runs a light-rail vehicle, it throws down $24.37; comparable rail services spend between $12 and $22.

Service, performance, and ridership are declining — costs are not. But it doesn't have to be this way.

Most riders' interactions with Muni employees begin and end with the drivers. Many critiques of what's wrong with the agency do the same. That's unfortunate; Muni's fiscal and managerial woes shouldn't be blamed solely on operators, who have some of the toughest jobs in the agency, and deserve fair compensation.

And yet drivers' self-serving contracts and extreme work rules limiting what they can be asked to do create a situation that ensures spiraling labor costs and service gaps management can't control. The result is that you, as a rider-owner, pay with your money — and time.

Attempts to overhaul the byzantine pay structures and labor stipulations have been greeted with charges of union-busting in a labor-friendly town like San Francisco. But even a cursory examination reveals drivers' financial well-being is putting the viability of Muni's service in jeopardy.

Need more part-time drivers to beef up rush-hour service? Can't do it. Work rules place strict limits on the number of part-time drivers — which means more full-time operators end up working overtime. That'd be at a cost of roughly $45 an hour.

Need to hire more Muni Metro train operators? Can't do it. You have to promote current bus drivers and train them; you can't hire experienced operators away from another agency.

Perhaps the most inexcusable work rule — and the one that taxes Muni riders the most — allows multiple “unplanned leaves” for drivers. With no warning, operators can simply not show up for their shifts. And, yes, they still get paid.

Paying someone to not work is bad enough. But that's just the start of it. A bus or train run has to be canceled, because no one can fill it, or an operator has to be pulled in — on overtime, naturally — to keep the system rolling. According to a recent in-house report, operators' rate of “unexplained absenteeism” has reached an all-time high of 15 percent. These de facto service cuts cost Muni millions.

And finally: Good luck firing all but the most spectacularly incompetent employees. In fact, good luck firing all but the most brazenly unfit supervisors, too. Astoundingly, supervisors and drivers are in the same union — a bizarre situation that provides ineffective managers with the same ironclad job protection as bus and train drivers.


Is there a way to fix these problems? Possibly — but it won't be easy, and you'll have to withstand a lot of entrenched, well-funded antagonism. That's because Muni operators — unlike every other union in the city — have unaccountably had their pay rates locked into the City Charter, San Francisco's constitution. They're guaranteed the second-highest wages among comparable transit agencies in the nation, with a current base pay of just over $29 an hour. It also means drivers don't participate in collective bargaining — again, unlike every other union in the city.

If enshrining just one union's pay rate in the local constitution ever made sense, it sure doesn't now. The Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA) was forced to make harsh cutbacks last year, including laying off unionized parking control officers, vehicle washers, and mechanics. Slashing maintenance costs, while politically expedient, has dire consequences. Overhead wire failures, breakdowns in the Metro tunnels, the growing number of vehicles unable to “make pullout” in the morning — these are not unrelated. Meanwhile, all operators took home a $3,000 bonus. This year, drivers will also receive an automatic pay raise costing $8 million, regardless of the agency's finances. That's essentially nonnegotiable — unless voters are willing to amend the City Charter. There's no other way to change this.

Supervisor Sean Elsbernd has been pushing just such a charter amendment for the November ballot, which would do away with Muni operators' mandated pay rates and have them negotiate like every other union. Would this result in lower pay for drivers? Perhaps. But that's not really what Elsbernd is after. He wants leverage to get rid of the worst work rules.

With drivers deprived of their charter-determined pay rates, “If we go to collective bargaining, like we do with every other municipal union, we have a level playing field from which to negotiate fairly,” Elsbernd says. Should his amendment be voted into law, its most powerful provision is tucked away on page 10: If the city and the Muni drivers go into binding arbitration, the union would have to justify why its existing work rules “outweigh the public's interest in effective, efficient, and reliable transit service and [are] consistent with best practices.” With the aforementioned rules, that'd be a stretch, to put it mildly. Charter provisions precluding city employees from striking, meanwhile, remain in effect.

Elsbernd's amendment isn't the draconian, antiunion measure opponents wish to portray it as. It basically aims to alter the charter so drivers have to negotiate, instead of relying on a formula that nonsensically gives them an exalted position and mandates raises regardless of Muni's fiscal reality. For Elsbernd's measure to make the ballot, let alone pass, it requires the support of Muni rider-owners fed up with delays, service cuts, and spiraling costs — and unaffected by a potential flood of mailers and union-beholden politicians tying themselves in knots to explain why we should stick with our untenable status quo.

What suits transit agencies in the long term and politicians in the short term are rarely the same things. As you'd expect, the latter often win out — and not just here. “The goal of more autonomy [for a transit agency] is a noble one,” says Martin Wachs, the former head of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Berkeley, who is now a transportation expert at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit think tank. “But it's virtually impossible to separate transit politics from the rest of politics.” As a result, politicians susceptible to influential or vocal groups' wheedling — or who consider picking what suit to wear at a ceremonial groundbreaking to be a “transit decision” — are often the ones calling the shots.

That goes doubly here in San Francisco — and not just because politics runs in the water like fluoride. Unlike any other major system, Muni is not a stand-alone transit authority like Boston's MBTA or the New York MTA, but a glorified city department. And while San Francisco politicians' heavy-handed interference to advance their pet projects or pander to their constituents is standard operating procedure with city departments, it's a hell of a way to run a railroad.

There's an upside to being a political football. Muni is the beneficiary of some $300 million in annual general fund dollars and parking revenue, subsidizing a system that recoups only a quarter of its costs via fares. Over the past three years, the state has reneged on providing $179 million to Muni; even the $36 million so-called “windfall” it recently gave the agency was only a fraction of the transit funding originally approved by voters, after the state government filched the rest. That means the agency's city funds are more vital than ever. But the city's largesse comes with strings attached. A proposal that would get a transit planner laughed out of the room suddenly becomes brilliant when it comes from a city politician.

Take the Culture Bus, a gaudily decorated yellow embarrassment that rolled about town in 2008 and '09. The buses, which purported to ferry tourists among the city's cultural institutions for a hefty $7 fare (later $10), were the brainchild of Newsom. They were clean. They were fast. They were virtually empty.

Without even consulting the MTA board, Muni CEO Nat Ford catered to Newsom's whims by yanking six buses out of regular service, to be piloted by Muni's best drivers, selected for their skill and courtesy. The bus line was awarded a $1.6 million budget — which was also yanked out of Muni's regular funds, at the expense of core transit service. In the first five months of its existence, the Culture Bus cost Muni 10 times as much as the fare revenues it brought in; along with the line's jarringly low ridership, this did not escape notice. Muni claims the Culture Bus was a victim of the down economy. Perhaps — but what it really demonstrated is that Muni itself is a victim of political vanity projects no transit agency should be encumbered with.


Perhaps the most striking example of Muni being leaned on to make an indefensible transit decision — other than the politically charged boondoggle-to-be that is the Central Subway project — comes via San Francisco's most heartfelt symbols. To borrow Tony Bennett's line, it's those little cable cars climbing halfway to the stars. Unfortunately, the cost of running them climbs even further — and Muni is stuck paying the toll.

Even with their exorbitant, $5 one-way fares, cable cars are a financial runaway train. According to the 2008 statistics Muni reported to the National Transit Database, cable cars brought in $24.2 million in fares — but required $51.3 million in operating expenses. The century-old cars and cables break down frequently. And when they are running, on a mile-per-mile basis, they have long accounted for more accidents and injuries than any other form of mass transit in the nation.

San Franciscans will not tolerate any talk about dismantling the cable cars. Yet making Muni — and only Muni — foot the bill for a rolling city monument makes about as much sense as asking Paris' mass-transit agency to start subsidizing the upkeep of the Eiffel Tower. San Francisco's cable cars may well be a financial benefit to various city players, but the one agency they certainly aren't benefiting is the one stuck paying for them. From a transit perspective, it's bizarre for Muni to bleed core funds to underwrite what is essentially a pleasure trip for tourists.

Simply put, this is not sound policy. Twice in the last decade, San Francisco voters have approved measures purporting to take the politics out of Muni and let transit professionals make transit decisions: Proposition E passed in 1999, and Proposition A was successful three years ago. Yet things may now be worse than ever.

Take Prop. A: Voters approved redirecting $27 million in parking meter revenue from other city departments to establish “dedicated funding” for a more independent Muni. But that's not what happened. Rather than abide by the will of the voters and take their lumps, city departments — police, ambulance drivers, and others — began jacking up the rates they charged Muni for services via “work orders” that quickly ate up that $27 million and then some. This was no coincidence. With the consent of Newsom and the MTA board, work orders have skyrocketed from $36 million in 2006 to $64 million today. Even if Elsbernd's charter amendment saves Muni millions, there's no guarantee the money won't be gobbled up by other departments.

In addition to work orders, Muni is now required to earmark $5 million for San Francisco General Hospital in its claims budget for Muni-related accidents (by this logic, Muni could just as easily charge other city departments for the services it's funded to provide anyway). Additionally, General Hospital has presented Muni with a bill for $1.8 million for a single 2007 accident on Geary Boulevard. The agency is mulling whether to pay.

On paper at least, the mayorally appointed MTA board runs the agency, with Ford reporting to the board. But then, Muni timetables are printed on paper, too. That the board would acquiesce to being pillaged by other city departments points to the inescapable flaw in attempts to render the system “independent.” Muni has been largely freed from the oversight of transit matters by the Board of Supervisors — and that's a good thing. But it is, more than ever, run to service the caprices of Newsom. “The mayor completely controls Muni,” said Dave Snyder, a transit expert attempting to kickstart a Muni riders' union. “The whole goal of Prop. A, to get politics out of decisions so transit professionals could make them efficiently — it hasn't worked.”

The mayor appoints all seven board members — and contrarian voices such as Leah Shahum, Peter Mezey, and Mike Kasolas found themselves to be ex-members. “The mayor is very schizophrenic about the way he claims that he has nothing to do with how Muni runs,” said former Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin, the driving force behind Prop. A. “He generally says he has nothing to do with Muni, except when it's abundantly clear he's micromanaging the living daylights out of it.”

Multiple sources within Muni independently confirmed to SF Weekly that the mayor's office dictates the transit agency's budget down to the smallest detail. More disturbingly, Muni insiders intimately involved in the budgeting process claimed the agency's deficits were deemed by the mayor's office to be “too high” for public consumption, and that Muni is cajoled into presenting “smaller numbers” that are “politically palatable.”

Calls to Newsom's chief of staff, Steve Kawa, were returned by mayoral spokesman Tony Winnicker, who said Newsom's involvement is a good thing. The mayor has “a great degree of day-to-day interaction” in crafting Muni's budget, he said: “That's appropriate and what the people should want.” But Winnicker denied the mayor's office orders Muni to spin its numbers. “In terms of their deficit this year and next year, it's pretty transparent.”

But is it? A Muni manager flatly told SF Weekly that the mayor's office “makes the deficit numbers smaller.” Another key figure involved in budgeting said, when it comes to presenting deficits, “We're told, 'This is the number we want. Make it happen.' 'Make it happen' is the mayor's favorite phrase.”

Budget numbers published by Muni last November state the service was running a deficit of $19.5 million, but this relied upon factoring in $25.5 million in budget “solutions” (some, but not all, came to pass). Yet the unpalatable but honest tabulation of a $45 million deficit was nowhere to be found in Muni's report (though it was buried in an April document). Similarly, in Muni's February assessment, the service pegs itself as running a $12.1 million deficit in fiscal 2010. This, however, assumes a number of monetary trick shots, including a dubious $5 million reduction in overtime and a supremely optimistic $11.2 million bonanza from selling taxi medallions. Muni's April 6 assessment similarly relies upon highly uncertain taxi money and overtime reductions. It also leans on $20 million in hypothetical labor concessions in fiscal years 2011 and 2012 and savings of $58 million via service cuts that Newsom already put out a press release congratulating the MTA board for nixing.


Solving Muni's governance problems will take more than a charter amendment. The last two amendments hoping to depoliticize Muni led to the current impasse: The agency is still politicized, but with less accountability to you, the rider-owner.

San Francisco has amply demonstrated that a 100 percent mayorally appointed MTA board is a resounding failure. The board “is not independent at all. … It hides accountability rather than creates accountability,” says transit advocate Tom Radulovich, himself an elected member of the BART board. “The MTA board looks like it's running the agency, but it's not. The person making the decisions, the person who should be responsible for the failure of MTA to meet any of its charter-mandated goals, is not held accountable.” Take a guess who he's talking about.

Problematically, other methods of assembling a transit board stink, too. Both BART and AC Transit's boards are publicly elected — and no sober person could describe the work of those bodies as something to aspire to. A geographically based board, such as Los Angeles', leads to “a lot of horse-trading,” according to Wachs. While Supervisor David Campos and others have pushed for a “split board” with appointments made by the supes as well as by the mayor, voters squashed just such a motion in 2005. The city's split boards have a checkered record; no reformer could seriously say, “I want the MTA board to more closely resemble the Police Commission.”

Yet we are almost forced to desire any flawed system but the current one. Perhaps the most intriguing suggestion comes from Peskin: Three appointments to the MTA board from the mayor, three from the supervisors — and the mayor and board president agree on one last appointment. “How's that for fair's fair?” he says.It's hard to see how that'd be worse than what we have now.

In the world of transit, time really is money. And Muni, drowning in red ink, is the slowest major transit service in North America. Worse yet, it's getting slower — over the past two and a half decades, vehicles' average speed has dropped 12 percent. This does more than drive riders mad — it drains their finances. The slower Muni gets, the more it costs you.

Why is this? The answer is something you'd find on page one of Transit for Dummies, and was reiterated to SF Weekly by transit expert after transit expert. It's even found within Muni's in-house research.

Imagine a bus takes 60 minutes to make a round trip, and buses run on the line every 10 minutes. That means you need to run six buses to provide adequate service. But if the buses slow down to the point where a round trip takes 70 minutes, suddenly you need to add another bus to provide the same level of service. Now you're stuck paying a driver's salary as well as fuel, maintenance costs, and more, just to do what you were doing before.

Of course, this equation works both ways. If you slightly speed up your vehicles — from Muni's 8 mph to, say, 10 mph — then you suddenly have the ability to carry far more people and generate far more money. And you're doing it for the same operational costs, or even less. But that's not the direction Muni is going.

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.

• 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.

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.”

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.

Tags: , , , ,

Related Stories