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SFMTA Board Considers New Muni Fare Discounts

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Muni fares will automatically increase with inflation as part of the SFMTA’s next fiscal year budget, but the agency’s board is exploring ways to fine-tune its fare adjustments to keep the system accessible to low-income riders [PDF]. The board is also considering higher fares for cash-paying riders in an effort to speed up boarding.

The latter measure could come in the form of delayed fare hikes for Clipper card payments, to create an incentive for riders to use the more efficient medium. About 55 percent of Muni riders still pay with cash, according to the SFMTA. Board members said yesterday that they favored the idea as a way to reduce delays caused by cash handling.

“Folks, if you’re not on Clipper card yet, you’ve gotta get with the program,” said board member Joél Ramos, who bemoaned “the delay of dwelling time that it takes to get everyone on board.”

By default, inflation indexing would increase general single-ride Muni fares from $2 to $2.25 in July, but the Clipper incentive option would apply the 25-cent increase to cash fares only. Discounted cash fares for youth, seniors, and disabled riders would go up from $0.75 to $1.00. Adult monthly passes which include intra-city BART rides are also set to go up from $76 to $78, then $81 in fiscal year 2016.

Free Muni for low-income youth, a program originally implemented as a two-year pilot, is now set to be funded for at least two more years, thanks to a $6.8 million grant from Google. The SFMTA is also considering expanding the program to include 18-year-old students (currently the cutoff age is 17), as well as free Muni programs for low-income seniors and people with disabilities. Several dozen speakers urged the SFMTA board yesterday to adopt those programs.

The push has spurred discussion at the agency about tailoring Muni fare discounts based on personal income, rather than age or physical ability. Traditionally, monthly passes for youth, seniors, and people with disabilities have been discounted at 33 percent of the regular fare. The SFMTA proposed increasing that to 50 percent, using the revenue to help fund new free pass programs for low-income riders. Board members said they liked the idea, though it wouldn’t fully underwrite the expanded free pass programs, and said finding the rest of the funding for those programs would be a major challenge.

Of the other targeted fare increases put on the table, the greatest opposition has arisen to hikes on the F-Line to as much as $6. SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin said that proposal is based on the higher costs of running historic streetcars compared to regular Muni vehicles (similar to the costs of cable cars).

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How Public Q&A Sessions Can Obscure Support for Street Changes

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A snapshot of the proposals to improve N-Judah service at Ninth and Irving. See all of the proposals on the SFMTA website.

When it comes to gauging support for changes on our streets, it’s easy to get the impression at community meetings that a handful of vocal critics represent significant opposition. But as preliminary survey results from a recent Inner Sunset meeting on improvements for the N-Judah show, public forums can often be a poor reflection of the actual level of community support for re-allocating street space to improve transit, walking, and biking.

Attendees at the meeting on N-Judah improvements in the Inner Sunset two weeks ago. Photo: Greg Dewar/Twitter

At a meeting about the N-Judah two weeks ago, planners for the Transit Effectiveness Project fielded input on route adjustments and other measures to speed up Muni service, like transit bulbs, new transit-priority traffic signals, and stop consolidation.

Having attended most of the SFMTA’s community planning meetings over the past three years, I’ve noticed a strong pattern: While a handful of people may scream about project proposals in a public forum, that doesn’t mean they represent their neighbors.

During the Q&A portion of the N-Judah meeting, the usual dynamic played out. Complainers dominated. Fear of change seemed to permeate the room.

But in the survey filled out by people at the same meeting, most respondents supported the boldest proposals [PDF]. Actual public sentiment was in favor of change. The pro-reform contingent was just less vocal during the Q&A.

Not that planning decisions that make streets safer and improve service for thousands of transit riders should come down to a vote. But too often, city agencies cave to the loudest people in the room and water down proposals in a misguided bid to appease critics. The N-Judah meeting showed that the angry people may command the most attention, but that doesn’t mean they’re representative of public sentiment.

Take the Polk Street redesign, which the SFMTA watered down last year to appease merchants who fiercely oppose any removal of parking for protected bike lanes and sidewalk extensions. As it turns out, a recent survey of people who live, work and shop on Polk showed that safety for people walking and biking is a far greater concern than the supply of car storage.

So what were the survey numbers on the N-Judah improvements? According to 101 responses at the meeting:

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Watch: N-Judah Riders Lift Car Out of the Way of Their Train

Maybe Muni ought to start paying riders for getting cars off metro tracks.

Last night, the N-Judah train I was on with my fiancee (whom I happened to meet on the N) was approaching the east portal of the Sunset Tunnel when my fellow riders and I spotted a set of tail lights up ahead. We pretty much all knew what it meant — another driver tried to enter the transit tunnel.

We all got out to find the woman’s car lodged on the edge of the concrete. Pretty soon, another train showed up headed in the other direction, and she was blocking Muni’s busiest line, both inbound and outbound. Fortunately, some good Samaritans from our train decided not to wait for a tow truck — seven men lifted the front of the car back on top of the ledge, allowing the woman to drive the car away (I don’t know if she got a citation).

Despite all of the signage and even raised bumps signaling “Do Not Enter,” drivers — especially drunk drivers — try to enter Muni tunnels surprisingly often. Haighteration posted a photo of folks lifting a drunk driver’s car at this same spot last June. I didn’t exactly examine the driver in my case, but she appeared sober as far as I could tell (she simply apologized repeatedly).

This is also not the first time I’ve personally encountered N-Judah riders moving a stuck car out of the way of their train. In 2012, I saw a group push a pickup truck off the tracks on Irving Street — the driver’s girlfriend apparently threw his keys out, and he had gone to try to find them.

There’s got to be a better way. Does the Muni-riding experience really have to include occasionally moving private automobiles out of the way with your bare hands?

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Market Street: Transit Paint Upgrades Coming, but Car Bans Still Missing

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New intersection markings could help reduce the number of drivers “blocking the box” on Market this spring, but the SFMTA has continued to postpone proposals to get cars off Market altogether. Photo: Bryan Goebel

Despite calls for more measures to get cars off of Market Street, and the benefits brought by the forced turns already put in place, the SFMTA still has yet to propose any new restrictions on private autos.

Market will have its transit-only lanes will be painted red, and cross-hatched markings will be added to discourage drivers from blocking intersections. Photos via SFMTA

Market will have its transit-only lanes will be painted red, and cross-hatched markings will be added to discourage drivers from blocking intersections. Photos via SFMTA

The agency does, however, plan to make some paint upgrades to help keep Muni moving this spring or summer. Existing transit-only lanes will be painted red, and a cross-hatched paint striping telling drivers not to “block the box” will be added at intersections where cars chronically back up and block cross traffic. SFMTA staff told its Board of Directors this week that the agency and the SFPD would also develop a plan to step up nearly non-existent enforcement of transit lanes and box-blocking on Market.

Yet the agency has repeatedly delayed its promises to put forward proposals for new forced turns or potential bans for private autos on Market, to the frustration of car-free Market champions like Malcolm Heinicke, an SFMTA Board member, and Supervisor David Chiu, who introduced his second resolution urging the SFMTA to move the efforts along. The resolution was approved unanimously by the Board of Supervisors this week.

“I want the people who ride those buses on Market Street to have something close to the experience I have underground of a real right-of-way and real capacity,” Heinicke told SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin at a meeting on the agency’s Strategic Plan and budget Tuesday. “I’m not suggesting any malice or obfuscation here, but my question is, what’s the delay?”

Heinicke had requested that SFMTA staff present a proposal for car restrictions at the previous planning meeting one year ago, and Reiskin said it would come by this winter, but then postponed it to Tuesday’s meeting. Now, Reiskin says the proposals will be ready to be considered as part of the SFMTA’s two-year budget, which is scheduled to be finalized by March.

Reiskin chalked up the delays to the complications caused by ongoing projects like the construction of the Central Subway. “While we have identified some preliminary proposals along with costs and impacts, there’s more work that needs to be done to figure out the interaction with all the various projects that are currently happening on Market Street.”

“I share the frustration, and take responsibility for the fact, that we don’t have something by now,” he said.

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Transit Researchers Want Your Videos of Tech Shuttles at Muni Stops

The public debate about the proliferation of tech shuttles, and the fees they should pay to use Muni stops, has thus far been driven more by emotion than by data and empirical analysis. But two city planning researchers at UC Berkeley are looking to change that by studying crowdsourced videos of private shuttles in bus zones, which they’ll use to gauge the delays they impose on Muni.

Photo via Mark Dreger and Dan Howard

Photo via Mark Dreger and Dan Howard

The $1 fee that the SFMTA will charge shuttles every time they use a Muni stop, as part of a recently-approved pilot program, has outraged gentrification protesters who view private transit as a cause of skyrocketing rents and evictions. They want higher fees. But the fee is limited by state law to an amount that recovers the costs of administering the program, and $1 is what the SFMTA has estimated to be the cost of enforcement and permitting.

By amassing videos of shuttle stops, Cal researchers Mark Dreger and Dan Howard think they can demonstrate the costs of Muni delays due to shuttles blocking stops while loading.

“We would like to find out what it really costs to provide this service, and no data exists to set a precedent for a fair market price for the use of these stops,” Dreger and Howard wrote on a Facebook page about the study, which includes instructions on submitting a video.

Of course, as we’ve written, Muni and private shuttles — which make it easier for commuters not to own and drive cars — wouldn’t be fighting for scraps of curb space if the SFMTA re-purposed more parking spaces for transit stops. The SFMTA has implemented a few of those in a pilot, but it’s not a widespread practice yet.

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TEP Update: Muni Behind on Transit Signal Priority, But the N Is Near

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Half of San Francisco’s traffic signals were supposed to have transit priority installed by this spring, according to the ambitious schedule set out by managers of the Muni Transit Effectiveness Project two years ago. This may not come as much of a surprise, but the SFMTA isn’t quite meeting its target.

Muni TEP improvements are coming this year to the N-Judah, particularly along Irving Street in the Inner Sunset. Photo: Telesle17/Flickr

Of the 600 signals to be upgraded, the SFMTA expects to have 170 completed in the spring, according to agency spokesperson Paul Rose. Installation of those signals, which are all along the 14-Mission and 8X-Bayshore routes, began last fall, with the N-Judah next in line. The on-board equipment needed for the signals to detect the buses and trains, then turn or stay green, has been installed on the 316 vehicles stored at the Flynn and Potrero Muni yards, said Rose.

There are a couple bits of good news for Muni riders. Transit-only lane enforcement cameras are on track to be installed on every Muni bus by this spring as planned, Rose said. Transit priority signals and bus-mounted cameras “will help to give riders a more reliable ride,” said Jim Frank of the SF Transit Riders Union, which “strongly supports installation of TOLE cameras on all buses and TSP on all signals in the city.”

“Double-parked vehicles and waiting at red lights slows down the bus considerably,” said Frank. “We commend the MTA on being on track with the bus cameras and encourage them to get the TSP program completed as soon as possible.”

The next transit priority signals are set to be installed along the N-Judah, Muni’s busiest line, over the coming year. The signals are part of a package of proposed TEP upgrades for the N, which the SFMTA will explain at a community meeting Thursday in the Inner Sunset. In conjunction with those improvements, the SFMTA also plans to replace rails and other infrastructure in the Sunset Tunnel during 15 weekend closures, which will be the focus of another meeting on Wednesday in the Lower Haight.

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Hampered by Tunnels, Center BRT Lanes on Geary Limited to the Richmond

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A rendering of the recommended plan for Geary BRT at 17th Avenue in the Richmond. Images: SFCTA

Correction 12/17: The next community meeting on Geary BRT is tonight, Tuesday, at 5:30 p.m. at the Main Public Library.

The latest iteration of the plan for bus rapid transit on Geary Boulevard includes center-running bus lanes only on the Richmond District segment between Arguello Boulevard and 27th Avenue — about a quarter of the street’s length. East of Arguello, where Geary’s center traffic lanes run through two tunnels designed to whisk cars past Masonic Avenue and Fillmore Street, planners say center-running transit lanes are too problematic and expensive to engineer. Instead, they propose side-running colored transit lanes all the way to downtown.

Planners from the SF County Transportation Authority maintain that their recommended plan [PDF] for Geary’s Richmond segment, previously called Alternative 3-Consolidated, will still produce significant gains for riders on Muni’s busiest bus line. Along that segment, the project is expected to cut travel times by a quarter, make the line 20 percent more reliable, and increase ridership by up to 20 percent. The current estimated cost for the project is between $225 million and $260 million.

That comes out to $35-40 million per mile, and with more than 50,000 riders every weekday already, planners say Geary BRT is worth it. “It’s a really cost-effective investment to make because people are going to start using it if we make this set of improvements,” said SFCTA planner Chester Fung.

Filling in the Fillmore underpass to raise Geary’s center lanes back to street level would cost an estimated $50 million and could add years to a project that has already been delayed extensively, planners said. Geary BRT was originally supposed to open in 2012, and the SFCTA says its current proposal could be implemented by 2018, the same year as Van Ness BRT — an improvement over the previous 2020 timeline.

“It’s not what I’d like it to be,” said Winston Parsons, a member of the Geary BRT Citizens Advisory Committee, though he said the SFCTA’s reasons for limiting the center-running lanes are “understandable.”

“I initially advocated that both tunnels be filled, but it’s simply not in this project’s budget and would drastically increase our timeline,” he said.

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I’m Getting Married to the Girl I Met on Muni

Therese and I at Inner Sunset Sundays in 2011.

Six years ago today, I struck up a conversation with Therese as we walked through the fare gates into Powell Station to wait for the N-Judah. I’d seen her there before, since we both regularly took the train after our late-night retail shifts in Union Square through the holiday shopping season. Last weekend, while waiting for the N at the same place on nearly the same day, I asked her to marry me, and she said yes. She still has the Muni transfer from the day we met (pictured right).

Obviously, we’re really excited, and I wanted to share it with our readers. But I also think our story is a testament to the social connections and opportunities that are fostered by using public transit, walking, and biking. Therese and I would have never met if we commuted by car.

Therese’s transfer from 2007.

In fact, one of the main reasons Therese and I both happened to move to SF from the Los Angeles area is because it’s a relatively easy place to live car-free. The chance for everyday social interactions while traveling is one of the greatest benefits of living in a walkable city. I’m sure you all can share countless stories of coincidental run-ins while making your way around on Muni or walking down the street.

A bit more introduction: Therese and I earned our degrees together at SF State, and today she still takes the N to her office job in SoMa. (She says she would take her bike, as she has to other jobs, but getting to South Beach is a bit far and feels pretty dangerous.) We share an Inner Sunset studio with our cat George (who is actually a girl).

That’s all for my little personal announcement. I also wanted to thank everyone who’s donated to keep Streetsblog going, both in our current fundraising drive and in the past few years. (And that reminds me – please give if you haven’t already!) Here’s to a bright new year ahead.

– Aaron

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Columbus Safety Plans Vetted By Community, Opposed By Merchant Leader

The SFMTA is looking to implement plans based on the concepts approved in a Columbus Avenue study three years ago, such as this vision for the Green and Stockton intersection, but removing traffic lanes may still face some opposition. Image: SFCTA

Over two-thirds of the space on Columbus Avenue is devoted primarily to cars, yet only one-third of the people on the street are typically in automobiles.

That’s according to a 2010 study of how to improve the design of Columbus, in which residents and transportation planners came to the conclusion that North Beach’s thoroughfare needs calmer traffic and more space for pedestrians, transit, and bicycling. Now, three years later, as the SFMTA looks to finally implement the ideas laid out in the plan, some merchants and residents are pushing back, dismissing the extensive analysis and community planning already done.

Columbus is set to be re-paved next summer, presenting an opportunity to cost-effectively implement the concepts in the SF County Transportation Authority study, which include bulb-outs on Columbus’ narrow, crowded sidewalks and an on-street plaza — dubbed “Piazza St. Francis, the Poet’s Plaza” — on an adjacent block of Vallejo Street. At the intersection of Columbus, Green, and Stockton Streets, traffic islands would be added to simplify motor vehicle movements, diverting traffic off westbound Green and southbound Stockton (converting it to a one-way street north of Columbus).

With a road diet, one stretch of Columbus, between Green and Union Streets, would get transit-only lanes, while 8-foot-wide buffered bike lanes would be installed between Green and Washington Streets (although the bike lanes weren’t included in the SFCTA study, the traffic impacts of a road diet were).

“Columbus is being re-paved, and probably won’t be re-paved for another 20 years,” SFMTA planner James Shahamiri said at a meeting with the Telegraph Hill Dwellers in October. “We have some funding, and we want to see what level of improvements we can make based on the community plan that was adopted by the TA.”

The “primary liaison between the [SFCTA] and the many stakeholders” involved in the development of the study, as described in the study itself, was Renew SF — Revitalize and Energize the Northeast and Waterfront of San Francisco. Wells Whitney, the organization’s founder, said neighborhood support for the plan still seems strong. “Almost everyone I’ve talked to is enthusiastic about wider sidewalks, more bulb-outs, bike lanes, and calming the traffic and making it more of a neighborhood boulevard than a thruway,” he said.

Leading the opposition to the safer street design is Daniel Macchiarini of the North Beach Business Association. Macchiarini told Streetsblog he doesn’t believe a road diet on Columbus will result in the kind of boost in livability and business that came with a similar, widely-lauded project on Valencia Street because, unlike Valencia, Columbus lacks alternative parallel routes for drivers. “This is another project that will stall traffic on Columbus Avenue,” he said.

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Mayor’s Task Force Proposes Solid First Steps to Fund SF’s Transport Needs

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The funding measures recommended by the Mayor’s Transportation 2030 Task Force are a promising step toward building out the safe, reliable networks for transit, walking, and biking that San Franciscans need. Only a portion of the $10.1 billion needed for improvements identified by the task force would be funded by the measures, but if approved by voters on the November 2014 ballot, they could build traction to help city agencies obtain the rest.

“It is encouraging to see the city beginning to address the capital investments needed to keep our transportation system running,” said Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City. “State and federal funding for transportation continue to decline, so regions and cities are increasingly on their own, and need to make smarter choices about what we fund and how.”

A lack of dedicated funding is currently a major hurdle to building out the SFMTA’s Pedestrian Strategy, the Bicycle Strategy, and the Muni Transit Effectiveness Project, not to mention filling a $3.1 billion backlog of Muni vehicle and infrastructure maintenance. The Mayor’s Task Force proposals, which were developed in meetings over the past year, would be a start towards realizing those visions, as the SF Chronicle explained:

The Municipal Transportation Agency expects to receive $3.8 billion in revenue over the next 15 years to pay for transportation needs, but that leaves the city $6.3 billion short. To close the gap, city leaders should ask voters to take three actions that would raise almost $3 billion and help attract federal, state and regional funds to pay the rest, [said Monique Zmuda, deputy city controller and co-chair of the task force].

The task force will recommend that the Board of Supervisors put before the voters three ballot measures that would each raise roughly $1 billion:

– Two $500 million general obligation bonds — one in November 2014 and another in November 2024.

– A measure to raise the vehicle license fee from 0.65 percent to 2 percent — in November 2014. State law allows San Francisco voters to restore the fee, which was cut by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

– A proposition that would increase the sales tax by half a cent — in November 2016. That would raise the city sales tax from 8.75 percent to 9.25 percent.

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