Can Anything Be Done to Fix Muni?

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."

  • The SFBC emails are now up to over 650– let’s get it to 700 by end of day!

  • Once upon a time, seven planned freeways in San Francisco were cancelled. Why not the Central Subway???

  • Erik

    Step #1 should be to prevent the city and the state from using Muni’s budget as a rainy day fund, and to get back the money that was already taken.

  • patrick

    I noticed savemuni.com says “First, riders would experience longer trips by subway than by today’s surface buses,” is that true? What bus lines are they comparing to?

  • andrew

    Not every Muni advocate opposes the Central Subway. A simple search of Rescue Muni’s blog would show this to you. (http://www.rescuemuni.org/category/central-subway/)

    Savemuni.com was founded to stop the subway.

  • Andy Chow

    Rescue Muni used to be very powerful and influential. They got Prop E passed (which resulted in the current structure of MTA) and the organization was no longer active.

    I think groups like Rescue Muni heavily relied on one or may be two very dedicated volunteers. If and when these volunteers left the group to pursue other things, then the group can’t resume full functions. SFBC and others do well because they’ve employees to coordinate membership and performs other housekeeping activities, basically facilitate willing activists to do what they want to do.

  • Patrick: Save Muni seems to focusing on perceived travel time as opposed to actual travel time, with the theory that time spent waiting walking to a station of waiting for a vehicle is 2.3 times as annoying as time actually spent on the vehicle. At least on that page they don’t seem to cite any cases where the actual elapsed time is longer for the subway than for buses.

  • andrew

    Rescue Muni is very much still in business, Andy.

  • Make that 651 SFBC emails to the mayor and the SFMTA board.

    http://blog.fogel.ca/2010/02/11/cuts-to-muni-are-not-the-answer/

  • Nick

    I live 5 miles away from where I work. I wake up at 4AM and am at the MUNI stop at 5AM.

    My coworker also wakes up at 4AM. However he lives 90 miles away and frequently beats me to work by driving.

    Can anything be done to fix MUNI? Funny stuff.

  • patrick

    Ah… thanks Eric. Personally I have the exact opposite feeling, I don’t mind walking to a more distant stop, I just hate waiting. At least when I’m walking I feel like I’m making progress towards my destination. I also prefer walking to a more distant location, or taking a somewhat longer trip, if the actual ride is more pleasant.

    Personally I support the CS, even though it’s far from ideal.

  • Sue

    You are all invited to join the Facebook group: Muni First! There is power in numbers.

    http://www.facebook.com/?sk=messages&tid=1356904611141#!/group.php?gid=255388633423&ref=ts

    Sue

  • Troy

    Well, it’s obvious that the Central Subway is a dumb waste of money. If a subway is to be built, there are routes that would garner higher riderships, Geary being the first and most obvious choice (except for Mission, which has BART).

    It’s a shame the $ can’t be re-routed to more deserving projects.

  • Boris Garner

    In response to Patrick’s comments:

    The reason perceived trip times instead of actual times are included in the SaveMuni.com website is because perceived trip times are what drive transportation behavior. Longer walks and waits are more annoying that longer riding times. In countless studies across the nation it has been found that a 10 minute wait for a bus or train is a lot more likely to send us into the garage for our car than a 10 minute longer transit ride.

    In the case of the Central Subway, the longer walks to stations, the extra time required to descend five to seven stories down into the subway and the additional waiting times for LRVs destined to arrive less frequently than surface buses combine to discourage patronage. For those who must transfer the disadvanges of the subway are compounded. Transfers from the Central Subway to any of 25 east-west Muni lines would be significantly slower and less convenient than from today’s Stockton Street bus lines.

    The anemic projected ridership of the Central Subway speaks for itself. Except for the future denizens of the new highrise warrens that are likely to rise along the subway route, virtually no one who now drives his car would be attracted to a tunnel 50 to 100 feet underground. In fact one can predict with certainty that if this boondoggle were ever built, it would soon be regarded as both absurdly short and exasperatingly inconvenient.

  • Nathanael

    And why no Geary subway?….

    Seriously. Everyone who looks at SF says “Geary needs a subway.” It’s wide enough for surface median rail out at the end, but closer to downtown, it needs a subway.

    If there’s no money for a Geary subway, then there shouldn’t be any money for silly, poorly designed projects like the Central Subway.

  • richard

    Some ideas for Fixing MUNI:

    1. Realize that the basic problem of MUNI is a management
    problem.

    2. Drivers and mechanics and most others who work for the
    system want to work for an organization that they can be proud of and feel that
    their contributions are useful and appreciated. No one wants to work for an
    organization that is constantly being trashed as incompetent.

    3. So what is wrong?
    My sense is that the basic problem is old style top down dictatorial
    management is at the heart of what is not working at MUNI. Most MUNI drivers I see are trying to do a
    good job in what must be a very difficult environment driving large buses in a congested
    city. The maintenance people from what I
    hear are frustrated and would love to work where they feel supported. Something needs to give because a lot of
    money is spent, a lot of people are unhappy and things are basically not
    working. This combined with SFMTA’s
    complete lack of interest in running a quality transit system.

    We also need to face the idea that the SFMTA is basically not
    doing the job it was created to do and has been hijacked by a few people who
    have a vision of the city where public transit no longer works and the only way
    to travel is by bicycle – we need a more balanced approach where the priority
    should be affordable quality public transit, bicycle friendly streets and
    appropriate use of private vehicles.

    What do MUNI workers think – would love to offer more
    constructive feedback. We need good
    ideas and need to name names about who is doing their job and who is not.

    http://www.zpub.com/fixmuni/

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