As any regular rider knows, Muni does a lot to earn its abysmal 57 percent on-time performance. For many of its 300,000 daily riders, the only thing that makes Muni workable is real-time arrival information accessed via websites, mobile apps, or NextBus displays at transit stops. But soon after the new year arrived, the system started showing wildly inaccurate information.
Today when you pull up NextBus for a bus route, you’ll see longer than usual wait times, often more than 90 minutes. NextBus simply isn’t tracking more than half the buses on the streets.
In the photo above, the system showed that the next bus wouldn’t arrive for 45 minutes. But the bus pictured clearly was there—and it was followed by two others that showed up within 10 minutes. Last week, Muni fixed the problem in its light rail vehicles, which now reflect accurate NextBus information. But fixing the buses will take the rest of the month.
The problem started when the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) failed to upgrade a key piece of equipment before a January 1 deadline.
Each Muni vehicle has a Global Positioning System (GPS) device. The equipment, originally installed in 2002, relayed information over AT&T’s 2G wireless network. In 2012, more than four years ago, AT&T announced it would shut down its entire 2G network on January 1, 2017.
Despite the deadline, Paul Rose, a spokesperson for the SFMTA, said the agency had planned to upgrade Muni’s 2G modems after January 1. “Our understanding was that we had more time to continue with our current upgrades.”
But a spokesperson for AT&T said otherwise. “For the past four years, we have provided frequent communications to all 2G customers and worked closely with them to manage the transition to newer technologies,” said Leland Kim.
When the 2G network was switched off, Muni’s problems began and more than two thirds of their roughly 1,000 vehicles needed an upgrade.
Why NextBus Is So Important to San Francisco
We need NextBus because we can’t count on Muni. With an on-time arrival rate of just 57 percent, many Muni riders plan trips by considering several options. Real-time arrival information helps us make good choices.
“NextBus is an absolutely essential component to being a regular Muni rider without losing your mind,” said Aaron Leifer, a J-Church rider who lives near Dolores Park.
In my own case, I check the Routesy app to chose the fastest of three lines. If none of my Muni options are coming soon, I often hop on my bicycle. But the bike is only an option when the weather is good.
On Wednesday evening it was raining, making it even more difficult to traverse an already gridlocked city. When NextBus displayed wait times in excess of 80 minutes for some of Muni’s most popular lines, I decided to hop into a shared Uber.
I asked the other passengers if they ever ride Muni. Both women said they had planned to take Muni that night. But when NextBus data showed excessive waits, they called an Uber—and we all ended up contributing to an already bad traffic situation.
Destroying Trust In Muni Makes Gridlock Worse
“Most people I know have opted to drive, bike, walk or take Chariot because they can no longer rely on Muni to get them to work on time,” said Amy Constable, who works in the Financial District. “It’s hard to fathom how San Francisco is the tech capital of the world and yet our public transportation system doesn’t reflect that.”
In Mayor Ed Lee’s 2030 Transportation Task Force report, it calls for half of all trips in the city to be made by transit, biking, or walking by 2018. The report points out that our streets cannot be widened, we have a growing population, and our economy is booming. San Francisco has no choice: the streets we have must move more people.
While this fancy report recognizes that we need to attract more San Franciscans to public transportation, the reality is that the dramatic improvements Muni needs remains a low priority for our mayor and elected officials.
The NextBus disruption is a case in point. The one thing that makes our public transportation system usable to thousands of people no longer works. Yet this calamity has led to absolutely no public outcry from officials at City Hall, not even a tweet.
If our mayor and elected officials are serious about reducing gridlock, they must commit to a major transformation of Muni into a world-class system, one that people like Amy Constable can count on. And that will take significant new monetary investments, even as the city faces a fast-growing deficit and threats from President-elect Donald J. Trump to remove federal funding from sanctuary cities.
How to survive the NextBus Fiasco
Upgraded last week, Muni’s trains already reflect accurate NextBus information. But for buses, the information at outdoor NextBus terminals and in apps like Routesy won’t be fully accurate for several weeks.
To cope, Muni suggested checking their frequency table, which lists how often buses are scheduled to come. And how good is that information? As mentioned, the most recent on-time rate was 57-percent. But a couple of mobile apps could make navigating Muni a little easier.
The Swiftly mobile app uses NextBus data when it’s available. It also uses the Muni timetable to fill in the gaps and insert vehicles where they’re supposed to be, in theory, if they actually arrived according to the official timetable. While it’s not perfect, it’s useful to know that if you’re seeing a 90-minute wait at a bus stop, there may actually be a few buses scheduled to arrive sooner. You can tell the difference between real-time and scheduled arrival times thanks to a radio wave icon that flashes above the real-time NextBus predictions. Bonus: Swiftly tweaks NextBus predictions to deliver more accurate arrival times than other apps.
The Transit mobile app also combines real-time and timetable information, distinguishing the two with a radio wave icon. Their special sauce is their new Go technology, which transforms their users’ phones into GPS transponders. When a Muni rider opens the app and enables Go, their location and speed are tracked, helping the app give better predictions. While it’s only useful when there are Transit users to track, Jake Sion, the company’s Chief Operating Officer, says that about 10-percent of their San Francisco users are already enabling the Go technology.