In San Francisco it’s almost as cliche to kvetch about Muni as it is to misquote Mark Twain about chilly summers, but what can possibly be done to fix a transit system that seems to have so many problems and almost no solutions that everyone can agree upon?
The city’s sitting mayor and several former mayors have vowed change for the better, but in just the last year the city has seen fare increases, service cuts, and layoffs of maintenance and cleaning personnel that make riding Muni less attractive, less reliable, and more expensive. What gains may have been made in the past decade since restructuring Muni and the Department of Parking and Traffic into the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA) are arguably slipping away amid budget cuts, which are forcing cutbacks that the agency and the riding public will feel for years.
Getting concessions from Transport Workers Union (TWU) 250 will stave off the worst of the budget shortfall for the next six months, but large deficits loom, with an expected gap of more than $100 million over the next two years. While members of the Board of Supervisors toy with the idea of changing appointment criteria for the MTA Board of Directors and some advocates are working in Sacramento to stop the governor’s raids on transit funds, many people are trying to figure out a local solution that might have traction.
"It is an extraordinary crisis. Ideally it would be great to see everyone come together," said Tom Radulovich, Executive Director of Livable City, a transit advocacy organization. "We all want a functioning transit agency in town."
As the MTA holds a series of town hall meetings that have elicited the expected anger of riders who are already feeling the burden of cuts and hikes and who can read the writing on the wall, another group is organizing what it expects to be a large Muni Summit in early March. The summit is being coordinated by members of San Francisco Tomorrow, whose long-time Muni champion and critic Norm Rolfe passed away recently, members of Savemuni.com, who have long opposed building the Central Subway, and members of the MTA’s Citizens Advisory Council (CAC).
"There’s definitely anger," said Gerald Cauthen, a civil engineer and former employee of Muni who helped found Savemuni.com. Cauthen has attended numerous MTA Board meetings and the two recent town hall meetings, where he said some of the testimony is hopeful, despite the frustration riders feel. "Many people don’t know what’s wrong with Muni, what it will take to make Muni better, but a lot of people are throwing out ideas."
The Muni Summit organizers have reached out to numerous groups around the city and have more than 40 confirmed, including the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods, which represents most of the city’s community organizations, the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council, The Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association, Telegrah Hill Dwellers and regional transit advocacy group TransForm.
Cauthen and other Muni Summit organizers hope the focus of the event will be broad, without getting bogged down in minutia of individual lines or stops. Though Cauthen said he didn’t want to prejudice the discussion before it started, he offered several topics that he assumed would be debated.
One issue routinely lost in the MTA’s and the press’ obsession with on-time performance is the declining overall speed of Muni buses, which Cauthen said has diminished significantly in the last twenty years. "20 years ago, the average speed was 9 mph, now it’s down to about 8 mph," said Cauthen, who noted that what appears to be a small reduction on paper has huge impacts to ridership and the agency’s business model. The reduction, he said, "makes service less attractive to people and makes it more expensive because you have to put out more buses to improve service."
Another issue likely to come up at the summit is prioritization of capital improvements, which Cauthen says is way off base. "The Muni hierarchy has neglected badly needed capital improvements. I don’t think [the Transit Effectiveness Project] even noticed them," he said, noting that the agency is scrambling to get federal funding for the Central Subway while maintenance and fleet improvements go nowhere. "All they can think to do is cut service, raise fares, and lay off people. That’s not very creative."
Acknowledging that the Central Subway is a contentious issue for many, including organizations in Chinatown that Muni Summit organizers would want to participate, Cauthen said the issue will not predominate the discussions. The bigger concern of losing the ability to travel in San Francisco on a functional public transit system takes precedence. "San Francisco is a unique place because it has very comprehensive service that allows people to live without a car. Now people are in a place where they will have to buy a bike or buy a car because they can’t rely on Muni," he said.
A Muni Riders Union
A frequently discussed option among transit advocates for improving Muni is to directly organize riders as they commute. Unlike organizations like the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC), which counts over 11,000 members, there is no effective member organization dedicated exclusively to making Muni better.
Without the kind of political pressure from an SFBC or the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), the political class in the city and management at MTA don’t feel enough heat to take the actions that are mandated of them in the City Charter. Hundreds of Muni riders may come out after service cuts and fare increases, but affirmative pressure to reorganize the agency or to demand substantive revenue sources like increased parking meter hours or residential parking permit fee increases never gets backing beyond the transportation wonks who routinely read Streetsblog.
Although the SFBC recently added a Muni organizing page on their website to encourage members to write the Mayor and urge action on Muni, which generated hundreds of emails in a matter of days, transit advocacy is not the core mission of the SFBC and won’t be in the near future.
For SPUR, Executive Director Gabriel Metcalf said, "We are going to be working hard on Muni, but there still needs to be a riders union."
As it happens, Metcalf’s former Transportation Policy Director, Dave Snyder, is organizing just such a riders union. With experience building up the SFBC to become a political force and work on numerous political campaigns, Snyder says he is ready to step into this void and hopeful the effort becomes a permanent organization that represents diverse riders across the system.
"I want an organization that inspires riders and is a bonafide representative of riders, respected by riders and policy
makers alike," said Snyder, who cautioned that the initiative is still early in forming and that he hasn’t selected a name. Still, he said, he has two-thirds of the organizations he’d like on his steering committee signed on. Though he wouldn’t name groups, he said they would include a mix of neighborhood organizations, transit advocacy groups, unions, and other advocates whose interests dovetail with the MTA’s mission.
Though Snyder has written numerous policy papers for SPUR on the MTA’s concerns, he said he didn’t want to determine the issues or the agenda of the group. That is up to the steering committee, he said.
"We will have bold policies in the future, but I can’t say what that is
right now. I want all the goals to be determined by the steering committee," he said. Unlike many of the transit, bicycle and pedestrian groups that meet with MTA Executive Director Nat Ford on a regular basis, Snyder said, "I don’t want to be behind the scenes. There are plenty of organizations that meet with Nat Ford and the Mayor."
Organizing a riders union would require the help of all of those organizations, and Snyder expects they will participate, given how important Muni is to the health of the city.
"I think there’s enough excitement and import that a lot of organizations will participate," he said.
As for bridging the gaps between the disparate interests of Muni’s constituencies and coming up with meaningful solutions? "I foresee disagreement and debate, but I don’t foresee conflict."
The Muni Summit will be held at the Women’s Building at 3543 18th Street, between Valencia and Guerrero on Saturday, March 6th, from 9:00 am – 1:00 pm. The new Muni riders union is in formation, but a Google Group has been set up under the name "Muni Riders."