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Overcoming the Barriers to a Seamless Bay Area Transit Experience

Transit fragmentation can take many forms. Funded and managed by the City of Oakland and operated by AC Transit, the free B shuttle in downtown Oakland was a new transit service added to existing AC Transit and BART services.

Transit fragmentation can take many forms. Funded and managed by the City of Oakland and operated by AC Transit, the free B shuttle in downtown Oakland was a new transit service added to existing AC Transit and BART services. Photo: Sergio Ruiz

Ratna Amin is SPUR’s Transportation Policy Director. This piece originally appeared in SPUR’s The Urbanist.

The Bay Area’s prosperity is threatened by fragmentation in the public transit system: Riders and decision-makers contend with more than two dozen transit operators. Inconsistent transit experiences and disjointed planning and investment make our transit system less efficient, less usable, and less likely to help us meet our goals for a thriving and sustainable region.

The Bay Area economy and labor market is increasingly regional: 29 percent of Bay Area commuters cross a county boundary to get to work each day. These long commutes, many of which traverse the bay, put incredible stress on constrained transportation corridors. Two-thirds of Bay Area commuters drive to work alone, creating significant congestion on the region’s freeways and bridges. Dramatic growth in employer-run shuttles over the last few years demonstrates the demand for alternatives, both to car travel and to regional transit such as BART and Caltrain, which are running short on room for passengers. As people move further out to find affordable places to live, the expectation is that regional travel will grow.

For these reasons and others, such as managing sprawl and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the Bay Area invests heavily in transit. It is spending $21 billion over the next 25 years to build public transit infrastructure and $159 billion to operate and maintain the transit system. Despite similar expenditures in the past, overall transit ridership has not been growing in the Bay Area. Most trips within the Bay Area are still made by car, with transit accounting for only 3 percent of all trips. Part of the reason it’s hard to increase transit ridership here may be due to how fragmented our system is compared to others.

Many could benefit from more integrated transit

We have the opportunity to increase the market share for transit in places where there is significant demand for regional travel. Half as many people travel from central Alameda County to San Francisco as travel from the Peninsula/Silicon Valley/San Jose to San Francisco, for example. However, 44 percent of the Alameda County trips use public transit while just 17 percent of the Silicon Valley trips use public transit.

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Applying the Parklet Strategy to Make Transit Stops Better, Quicker

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Planners are looking to use the parklet model to deliver bus bulb-outs at low cost. Muni and AC Transit (shown) are developing programs with different takes on the concept. Image: Ben Kaufman

San Francisco’s parklet revolution has broadened the possibilities for how curb space can be used. Now, city planners in SF and the East Bay are taking the idea in a new direction: using temporary sidewalk extensions to make transit stops more efficient and attractive.

Three different names for the concept have emerged from planners at three institutions where it was conceived independently — “temporary transit bulbs,” “multi-purpose parklets,” and “stoplets.” Those terms come from, respectively, SF transportation agencies, Alameda-Contra Costa Transit, and Ben Kaufman, a graduate student at the UCLA Department of Urban Planning.

Whatever you call it, the method could allow transit agencies to much more rapidly implement transit bulb-outs — sidewalk extensions at transit stops — and reap the benefits at about one-twentieth the cost of pouring concrete, on average, according to Kaufman.

For his UCLA graduate project, Kaufman is wrapping up a stoplet design guide for AC Transit, which received a Safe Routes to Transit grant to study the idea.

Kaufman sees stoplets as a way to re-invent the bus stop. “Why can’t we create a space that people actually want to sit at, that would make people excited to wait for a bus?” he said. “Instead of being a waiting experience, it can be a relaxing experience.” Like parklets, stoplets would be “adopted” by merchants who want to improve bus stops in front of their storefronts.

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Another Day, Another Driver Blocking Muni’s Busiest Metro Line

N-Judah riders can’t get any relief from idiots who leave their automobiles in the way of Muni’s busiest line.

The entire length of the metro line was shut down for at least 40 minutes Thursday, starting at about 2 p.m., after the driver of an extra-wide pick-up with a raised chassis parked at the curb on Carl Street. The vehicle was so big it obstructed the train’s path, clearly marked by a white stripe.

The SFMTA’s Twitter account reported that the line was blocked at 2 p.m., and that it was cleared by 2:38 p.m.

This time, there were no superhuman feats from N-Judah riders to clear a path — the truck was eventually towed.

Until the streets on the N’s route get improvements like separated transit lanes and car restrictions, riders can continue to expect routine shutdowns caused by clueless motorists. The list of recent causes: Parking a vehicle that’s too wide, attempting to drive into a visibly-marked train tunnel, an angry passenger throwing out the vehicle’s keys, and the most common one — double-parking on the tracks, as exhibited below on Ninth Avenue:

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Three-Bike Bus Racks on Muni: A Solution for Late-Night Transit Woes?

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Photo: SFMTA

Muni is testing front-mounted bike racks that can carry three bicycles (instead of the usual two) on some of its most hilly bus routes. If implemented widely, that third bike space could prevent some late-night travelers from getting “bumped” when racks fill up.

Bike capacity on transit is particularly important in SF and the Bay Area, given geographic barriers like hills and, well, the bay. Late at night, when many buses cover little ground and come just once an hour, getting home can be especially difficult for people with bikes who rely on transit for part of their trip, or who are just too tired to make the ride home. Late-night buses, it seems, often attract the most bikes.

Last month, Janel Sterbentz was one of the lucky ones. She narrowly avoided waiting an extra hour at Market Street and Van Ness Avenue at 2 a.m. on a Friday morning, when the hourly AC Transit All-Nighter bus — the only way to get to the East Bay by transit once BART shuts down — arrived with both of its bike rack spots full.

Unlike Muni, AC Transit and SamTrans allow bikes on board late-night buses at the operator’s discretion.

An AC Transit bus with a three-bike rack at the Transbay Terminal in SF. Photo: Kenya Wheeler/Twitter

An AC Transit bus with a three-bike rack at the Transbay Terminal in SF. Photo: Kenya Wheeler/Twitter

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Cafe Owner, Breed, Sway Muni to Keep Two 21-Hayes Stops Within a Block

Muni’s 21-Hayes will continue to make an inbound stop for Central Coffee at Central Avenue, a short block after its stop at Masonic (seen in background). Photo: Aaron Bialick

There’s a reason Muni’s 21-Hayes still stops twice on the block between Central and Masonic Avenues — the owner of the cafe on the corner of Central demands it.

The SFMTA announced last week that it will ditch plans to remove the inbound bus stop at Central, after a persistent protest campaign by the owner Central Coffee, who insists the stop keeps him in business. As a result, bus commuters will continue to slog through the North of Panhandle neighborhood.

SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin said “we are no longer recommending” removal in an email blast last Friday. Approval of the stop removal was taken off the SFMTA Board of Directors’ Tuesday agenda.

The decision was made “based on community feedback” and a push from D5 Supervisor London Breed, according to Reiskin’s email. In a statement, Breed said she “received many neighborhood concerns about the removal of the Hayes/Central bus stop.”

“The large community contingent requested SFMTA staff and directors to keep the bus stop on Central and Hayes,” she said. “For my part, I asked SFMTA to listen to the neighbors concerns about removing the bus stop. And to look for creative solutions to address their concerns while implementing Muni Forward.”

Under Muni Forward, the SFMTA is starting to implement stop consolidations along some routes. Protests against have typically come from seniors and the disabled riders near each individual stop — not merchants.

Reiskin wrote in the email:

As we work to improve Muni citywide, selective bus stop removal is one of many tools in our toolbox to reduce travel times and create a more efficient public transit network. By optimizing the location of bus stops and reducing the number of stops, we can improve service for customers, reduce conflicts between buses and other vehicles, improve safety for people walking and bicycling, and decrease the amount of time buses spend stopped at stoplights.

In 2009, Muni reported that 70 percent of Muni stops are closer than its own policies dictate. A 2010 SFMTA survey found that 61 percent of riders said they would consider walking farther if it made their overall trip faster and more reliable.

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Muni Double-Berthing Still Delayed Pending CPUC Approval

The ongoing delays for double-berthing in Muni Metro stations continue, as Muni waits for its training plan to be approved by the CA Public Utilities Commission.

After Muni officials demonstrated double-berthing for the CPUC in December, expecting the green light, Muni Operations Director John Haley told Streetsblog that CPUC needed to sign off its training plan, which Muni officials apparently didn’t anticipate. In early February, Haley told us he was in talks with CPUC and hoped to have approvals in place within two to four weeks.

But CPUC spokesperson Terrie Prosper said it was only on March 27, last Friday, that the agency received all of the documentation needed.

“We had already done the training,” said Muni spokesperson Paul Rose, “but the CPUC requested that we get signatures from each operator. We have done that and are awaiting a response.”

“It is too early to provide a date for launch,” he added.

Prosper told us on Wednesday that CPUC would send a written reply “in the coming days” to “allow SFMTA to place the system in service.” Rose said Muni hasn’t received it yet.

The SF Transit Riders Union “has been eagerly awaiting double berthing for quite a long time, and we’re very happy that the SFMTA is ready to move forward,” said spokesperson Reed Martin. SFTRU “urges the CPUC to move quickly and approve the plan, allowing Muni Metro riders to finally experience double berthing in action!”

We also have a few more details on some of the limitations of double-berthing, also known as double-train loading. According to Muni Deputy Director of Operations Jim Kelly, double-berthing will only be possible at Civic Center, Powell, and Montgomery Stations because the platforms at the rest of the stations are too short for two trains to load safely. Each train which loads behind another train will also stop a second time at the front of the platform.

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All Muni Buses Now Have Transit Lane Enforcement Cameras

Image: KRON 4‘s People Behaving Badly

Muni has installed front-facing cameras on every Muni bus to ticket drivers who double-park in transit-only lanes.

Muni is the first major American transit agency to have enforcement cameras on every bus. The first transit lane cameras were installed as part of a pilot program in 2008. Like system-wide all-door boarding, the idea could spread to other transit systems.

Muni didn’t publicize the milestone, but we checked up on the effort with SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose, who said it was completed last fall (a few months off the target date of spring 2014). Equipping the whole fleet marks a major milestone in the effort to make Muni service more effective, and it nicely complements the city’s growing number of red-painted transit lanes.

So be warned, drivers: If a Muni bus weaves around your parked car in a transit lane, you will get a ticket in the mail. The base fine is $110.

Unfortunately, state law prohibits the cameras from being used to cite moving violations, so drivers cruising down a Muni lane can still only be penalized by the SFPD.

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Muni Expects to End Operator Shortage for the First Time This Century

Muni officials expect to have a full staff of bus and train operators this spring, finally ending a shortage that has led to canceled runs and excessive overtime spending since at least the 1990s.

Photo: SFMTA

Muni Operations Director John Haley said Muni has ramped up its operator training to fill the backlog by April or May, though he’s more confident on fully staffing bus operators than streetcar operators by that point.

“We have two training classes in the pipeline, so we should be in good shape on the rubber tire side,” Haley told Streetsblog in an email.

Currently, Muni is short 40 rail operators — 30 for Muni metro lines and 10 for the F-line streetcars, Haley said. For buses, Muni needs 75 additional drivers to make currently scheduled runs, and will need an 30 more operators for a planned service increase in April.

Muni canceled between 55 and 73 runs each day over a three-day sample period in mid-May, the SF Examiner reported last June. Haley said the rate of missed runs has recently run as high as 6 percent.

It’s not clear when the last time Muni had all the operators it needs to make its scheduled runs, but according to a 2008 SPUR articlethe shortage has lasted since at least 1998. The numbers have fluctuated over the years, often running as high as several hundred missing operators as attrition outpaced hiring.

If the backlog is filled this spring, the question then becomes how long Muni can hold the line. An end to the shortage has been predicted before. In May 2011, an SFMTA spokesperson told CBS the rail operator backlog would be filled by July of that year.

Back in June, Transport Workers Union Local 250-A President Eric Williams told KQED he estimated the shortage at 200 full-time and 251 part-time operators.

Muni wasn’t allowed to hire part-time operators until voters passed Proposition G in 2010, though the agency has since struggled to maintain its part-time staffing. In 2012, Muni management converted most of its 95 part-time operators to full-time to make up for a drop in full-time operators. Without the flexibility that part-time operators provide, Muni must pay full-time workers expensive overtime to make up for gaps in service.

Muni’s on-time performance has worsened over the past year, dropping from 60 percent to 54 percent, though Haley says Muni officials aren’t sure why. The operator shortage is just one of the chronic problems plaguing Muni service, along with vehicle breakdowns and delays caused by car traffic. The City Controller’s Office has estimated that Muni delays cost the economy at least $50 million each year.

Haley said the operator shortages lead to a downward spiral as drivers who pick up the slack work overtime more often and get burned out from the stress of the job. When bus runs are canceled, the buses that do show up get more crowded, riders get more frustrated, and drivers become more worried about staying on schedule.

“You’re digging a huge hole for yourself,” said Haley. “There’s nothing good that can happen from it.”

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Eyes on the Street: 3 Blocks of Bus Lane on Haight — How About One More?

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Photo: Jason Henderson

The SFMTA extended the red Muni-only lane on the east end of Haight Street last week, adding a third block to the red carpet rolled out for the 6-Parnassus and 71-Haight/Noriega lines in November. The lane, which includes a contra-flow block connecting directly to Market Street, lets Muni riders headed downtown bypass the queue of cars turning toward the Central Freeway.

Street Fight author Jason Henderson, who lives on the block of Haight with the bus lane extension between Buchanan and Laguna Streets, said “it works well.” But he also noted that Muni buses are still delayed by queued drivers between Webster and Buchanan Streets, so it looks like the lane should be extended upstream another block. Henderson photographed a 6-Parnassus bus that he said “took about two minutes to crawl half the block to the bus stop.”

Since there is a curbside stop on that block, Henderson suggested that the Muni lane there may need to run along the curb, where there’s currently a car parking lane. Of the three blocks of transit lane on Haight so far, two were carved out of former traffic lanes, and the contra-flow block replaced a parking lane.

Plans to speed up Muni on Haight approved by the SFMTA in November include a transit-priority traffic signal at Haight and Buchanan, replacing the existing stop sign.

Between Webster and Buchanan, drivers still block buses on Haight. Photo: Jason Henderson

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Muni “Double Berthing” on Hold Two to Four Weeks, Pending CPUC Approval

Muni may finally launch “double berthing” in its Metro stations in two to four weeks, “barring anything we can’t think of,” according to Muni Operations Director John Haley.

Muni riders were first promised simultaneous loading of two trains in underground stations in October 2013. More recently, the launch was scheduled for December, then delayed again.

Muni demonstrated a live test on December 13 to officials at the CA Public Utilities Commission, who were expected to sign off on a launch scheduled a week later. But CPUC officials then said they also need to sign off on a training plan to ensure that operators know how to use the new system, Haley said.

“The test worked fine, and they said, ‘OK, but we want to see the training plan before you actually activate it,'” said Haley. When asked whether the SFMTA anticipated the CPUC’s request for a training plan, he said, “I guess not.”

CPUC’s press office hasn’t responded to a request for comment on the project’s status.

Once the CPUC gives Muni the green light, Haley said, “We’re really ready to go.”