Which Muni Lines Will be the Next to Go?

With California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger poised to raid transit funds yet again, and the MTA facing a mid-year budget in the tens of millions, it’s looking increasingly likely that the December 2009 service changes will soon look relatively benign compared to what lies ahead.

In light of this, SF Appeal had the guts to look into the eye of the storm and identify which lines are most in danger of getting axed or reduced in the next round of cuts: "These predictions are based largely on a ‘report card’ that Muni recently released, featuring data about all of its routes: ridership levels, on-time performance, daily cost, and more," writes Appeal reporter Matt Baume. "We crunched those numbers, analyzed past performance, and developed an algorithm that assigns a ‘health rating’ to each Muni line."

Here’s what they came up with:

The line with the lowest health: the 39-Coit. It’s unlikely that the line would be eliminated altogether, but recent analysis by Muni indicates that they may cut the number of buses assigned to the line from two to one.

The 24-Divisadero is also perilously high on the list. The recent streetscape improvements may speed up service; and Muni may see that as justification for reducing the number of vehicles to the route. One of the main problems with the 24 is its expense: it costs $41,730 per day, or $3.90 per passenger. That means that Muni loses $1.90 every time you board the 24.

The passengers on the 24 aren’t Muni’s most heavily subsidized; that honor goes to the 56-Rutland, where Muni pays a startling $9.70 subsidy for each of the 200 daily riders.

Not a single line is "revenue positive," the Appeal notes, though critical transportation infrastructure rarely is. Unlike subsidies for highways and parking, of course, transit funding often looks like an appealing target for legislators who rarely ride it themselves and need to balance a budget.

While the December 2009 service changes were largely informed by the Transit Effectiveness Project, and in some cases were even revenue neutral, future changes will almost certainly cut deeper to the bone. Check out SF Appeal’s full Muni line risk chart.

  • mcas

    Generally, a good analysis, but your framing that every subsidized ride is money ‘lost’ is inaccurate. All transportation is subsidized- roads, bridges, highways, bike lanes, and buses.

    It’s just really hard to *quantify* per use subsidy for anything other than transit, since its a pre-determined cost (fare) even though farebox collection was never intended to cover 100% of the operation cost.

    So, great article, but your language choice is unfortunate in the light that it casts on public transit in the larger picture..

  • Actually, the SFAppeal article was really really good. Kudos!

  • Thanks for reading! I agree that the wording that I used in the article is not the most technically precise, but that’s not unintentional.

    One of the big challenges in writing about transit for a general audience is putting very complex, unsexy facts into a framework that makes sense to “normal” people.

    As you point out, the real backstory is harder to grasp than a plain make-money/lose-money dichotomy. I could’ve spent more time exploring how nebulous transit funding really is; but that kind of sausage-making isn’t what the article is about. The point of the article is far simpler: that politicians have put public transit into serious jeopardy.

    Going into serious detail about how all of Muni’s moneytubes work is a worthy endeavor — Streetsblog does just that every day, and they do a fantastic job. It’s invaluable for folks like us who are heavily invested in smart, sustainable transit infrastructure.

    But writing for a less-knowledgeable, less-interested audience requires a bit of simplification so that their interest can be piqued. The challenge is finding an appropriate balance between granular facts and splashy outrage. Vegetables versus candy.

    Ultimately, I went with the word “lost” because I thought it had the best chance of conveying to a lay-person what’s going on: money is being spent, and lots of it, and the situation is dire.

    Also, I’m pretty lousy with math, and if I’d tried to nail down the exact details of the accounting there’s a pretty high likelihood that I’d have gotten it wrong.

  • @mcas — it’s mostly the SF Appeal article that talks about ‘losses’ — the article is quoted.

    ‘revenue positive’ is a bit better.

    really, we just need to do the hard work of continuing to educate about highway subsidies.

    other than that, we need to build more rail so we can get voters to support public transit. towns like Denver have done it. maybe ‘progressive’ SF will eventually follow suit.

    and it’d probably be a good strategy for advocates to start talking about obvious solutions — like raising taxes on the wealthy. and charging more appropriately for auto externalities, like pollution. it’d be easy to grab folks entering and leaving the city — easy.

    maybe San Jose has the right strategy – charging builders to study the damage that cars are doing – but i’d rather the auto industry pay.

  • I think we should be very careful of ever saying something like “Muni loses $1.90 every time someone boards the 24.” For one thing, this isn’t true. If Muni ran with no passengers at all, it would save little money as drivers would still have to be paid, maintenance serviced, diesel bought, etc. (It’s not the passengers that cost Muni money–it’s providing the service.) For another, many, many people’s first response (especially anyone in business world) to the “Muni loses $1.90 per passenger” statement would be “oh, that means we should shut that line down.”

    We might like the average taxpayer to think “Oh, this means we should give transit more money so that all the passengers on the 24 aren’t turned into car drivers clogging the roads,” but just presenting it in terms of Muni “losing money” makes Muni seem bad, wasteful, a losing proposition. Though the article may be trying to point out the dire situation facing Muni, the conclusion the average taxpayer will draw is that public transit is a hopeless sinkhole and that fares should generally be doubled and the heavily subsidized lines shut down ASAP. Basically, the argument presented can be horribly misinterpreted and turned into enemy ammunition.

    Public transit should always be presented in terms of the benefits it provides the city and its populace–people moved, roads kept unclogged, carbon dioxide emissions avoided, etc. That value is what deserves funding. It’s fine to tell people their bus lines are at risk, but framing it in terms of subsidy per passenger actually reinforces the idea that Muni should not receive any subsidy or funding, that rider fares should cover all costs. Muni should not be expected to entirely pay for itself out of rider fares! It’s providing a public good! Do we frame schools as “losing” $8000 for every student that enrolls? No, we pay for the schools to provide a service to society. We need to keep reminding that an enlightened community pays for public transit collectively because everyone benefits from the cleaner, less congested, less polluted, more economically-viable city that results.

  • I definitely agree with Taomom. I would love to write an comparable article that compared the cost of a Muni ride with the cost of a car trip.

    Does any data exist about the real costs of a car trip in San Francisco? I’ve never seen any.

  • Nick

    The elimination of the 26 created about 40 on street parking spaces on Valencia (currently unmetered). This could bring in a $1000 a day for the city not including parking fines. I wonder if this factors into their decision since a lot of their planning is cost based.

  • Gregorio

    I couldn’t tell from either article; is this data for after the recent service changes? I would imagine that it’s not (there doesn’t seem to have been time to collect sufficient data), but I don’t want to jump to any conclusions. It would be interesting to see how TEP changes have affected the chart that SF Appeal put up.

    As someone who used to live in Parkmerced, and who regularly visits friends who still live there, I can confidently say that the 17 should be one of the first to go. I don’t really understand why it exists in the first place. Just make sure the M inbound doesn’t continue to run with those occasional 45 minute headways it’s been known to produce and I think few people would notice if the 17 were not around.

  • Eve

    Matt’s editor at the Appeal, here. Thanks for reading!

    Gregorio, this data is based on TEP-based information released by Muni as they announced the service changes to the media in December — therefore, it’s not reflective of last month’s service changes.

    However, since another TEP is not planned, it’s doubtful that Muni will be able to do a completely new and comprehensive review of all its lines in advance of any additional cuts. But as soon as they release new information, we’ll be all over it.

  • Gregorio, there’s a six month review that comes along with the service changes to see how well things went. And you’re right, even if there was data available already on the service changes it would only reflect the first few weeks when everyone was still getting used to it (three weeks is the minimum) and it would be from over the holidays when we’re not on our regular routines.

    And the december changes are not the planned TEP changes, but it’s because of the TEP data collection that we have that chart in the first place. Three years ago we wouldn’t have ridership counts for every stop or the detailed costs of operating each line. The data from the TEP helped service planning make changes which hurt as few riders as possible and putting more service on some corridors within a block or two of a lot of the cuts so at least there was a trade off.

  • Jamison, TEP did that in theory. But MUNI didn’t implement TEP when it made the changes in Dec. It only made cuts with very limited increase of service to adjacent routes.

    While I think using the term “loss” to show the cost per rider on certain routes isn’t the best, it was mentioned immediately after in the article that roads receive heavy subsidies as well. Drivers need to realize how highly subsidized their cars are (even after the gas tax, registration, parking – all greatly under priced).

  • SFMTA cut roughly $15 million in service while adding $9 million in new service. Data collected during the TEP (such as ridership and boarding counts) was used for planning the December changes.

    The full TEP plan (including reclassifying service into rapid, limited, local and special service categories) is still moving forward and is going through the environmental study process. The next step for the general public is going to be the publication of a draft Environmental Impact Report for public comment and that will kick off a new round of outreach meetings.

  • Oh ok, I see where you are coming from Jamison. But didn’t MUNI claim fiscal emergency on these last cuts so that they could bypass environmental review? And what would prevent them from doing that in the future?

  • EL

    Love the article. It paints a icture as to what transit service might look like if it were privatized and not subsidized.

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