What’s Next for the TEP?

2455082334_c06419a081.jpgCan the TEP transform Muni, dramatically improving its reliability and on-time performance?

Bashing Muni, an agency that has been historically underfunded, is a
San Francisco pastime. Riders are used to break downs, delays and general unreliability. Could all that be about to change?

After an arduous process of gathering ridership data, community input,
and considering best practices at other transit agencies, the Transit Effectiveness Project (TEP) — at a cost of more than $3 million —
examined what’s wrong with Muni and what needs to be done to turn it
into a more efficient transit system.  The draft recommendations were released a year ago and TEP managers then made revisions
in August, based on public feedback. The MTA says all of the changes
won’t come quickly, but Muni riders are used to waiting.

Still, the
agency insists the TEP will bring change and it wants to make a splash
when it begins to implement some parts of the TEP as early as July.

“We want phase one to be very high impact, to be very successful, but
it also needs to balance within itself,” said Julie Kirschbaum, the
MTA’s TEP program manager. 

The TEP has been billed as the first major overhaul of Muni in more than two decades. Its goals are ambitious: improve customer experience, provide better
reliability and on-time performance, attract 70,000 new riders with
existing resources and reduce daily vehicle miles traveled in the city
by 60,000, which is expected to cut CO2 emissions by 29 tons a year.

It hopes to do that by focusing on its busiest corridors, establishing rapid networks, restructuring routes and expanding limited-stop service, among other things, with a goal of shaving delays to increase speed.  

However, the TEP lacks a funding strategy, something the project’s managers acknowledge is necessary. Critics have questioned whether the agency can really turn the system around with a deepening budget crisis. Muni is facing a $100 million deficit at a time when ridership is peaking and half of its aging fleet of overcrowded buses and light rail vehicles needs rigorous maintenance.

For its size, Muni is one of the slowest transit systems in the United
States. Its buses plod along in (legal and illegal) mixed traffic at an average speed of
eight miles an hour. The 38 Geary, as one example, spends half its time stopped. In the Mission, some blocks have two stops, slowing travel time on a busy corridor. Some historic routes aren’t as journeyed because travel patterns have changed.


Route changes proposed in the TEP are "budget neutral," which means that phase will likely come first, but the initiative recommends about $200 million in capital projects, many of which will probably be shelved until Muni’s budget scenario improves or other funding sources are identified. That includes putting off hiring more staff, such as street and fare inspectors, parking control officers and maintenance crews. The agency, however, has been able to hire more operators.

"We’re developing the implementation plan with the resources we know we have," said MTA spokesman Judson True. "There’s no doubt that there will be some impact but any headlines that suggest the TEP is somehow doomed because of the budget issues are just wrong." 

Some advocates, like Tom Radulovich of Livable City, feel the two-year process that included more than 100 meetings and drew more than 4,500 written comments has largely been a waste of time and that the TEP is shaping up to be a service reduction plan instead of a long-term vision to transform Muni.

Kirschbaum contends one of the biggest misconceptions about the TEP is that it is a service reduction plan. 

"The overall service levels do not change and in fact the overall amount of service in the system increases because of the reduction in travel time. That, I think, has been an important piece of misinformation," she said. "We’re recommending reallocating service and I think in some arenas that’s been perceived as cuts but for many, many people service will increase."

The MTA’s set of recommendations for the first implementation phase will focus on improving service where it’s most needed along Muni’s 15 busiest corridors, which carry up to 75 percent of the system’s riders. Its first priority in the Implementation Master Plan, due out this spring, is schedules, considered "the game plan" of the TEP, with service reallocation and the elimination of some stops to improve reliability.

The stop-spacing recommendations, in particular, could prove to be the most controversial, politically-charged aspect of the TEP, as some riders upset about stops being removed on their particular blocks are likely to lobby their supervisors to prevent the changes.  The board technically can only accept or reject the TEP in its entirety, not make line-item changes, though the MTA is leery of political battles that could make its job more difficult.

"One of the things we’ve committed to do for our board is to bring them a policy document and approach to stop spacing before we roll out a specific list of possible changes," said Kirschbaum. "Getting their buy-in at the policy level we think is important. That way, we’ll be able to address the specifics."

The recommendations outlined in the implementation plan must also go through an environmental review, along with a Title IV assessment, to ensure it doesn’t discriminate against low-income or minority residents.

Advocates remain hopeful, but skeptical about the TEP. The implementation plan will be a good indicator of whether the TEP can live up to what it promises. We’ll be following its progress on Muni Monday.

Flickr photo: illeetyu

  • dannnnny

    jeez, how much money do you have to spend to figure out that having 2 bus stops on the same block is a dumb idea? if there’s one consistent remark i get from out-of-town visitors about transit here is how amazed they are by the number of stops the buses make.

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    The TEP has =always= been a service reduction plan. The premise of the TEP is to “do less with less” because the MTA and the Mayor have come to an agreement that Muni will slowly wither and die. The TEP is the first step to trimming service while making it look like it balances the books. The next step is to cut the budget again, so the lines can be cut back again with TEP 2.0. The only purpose of the TEP is to select the victims.

    Once a majority if tax-paying, voting citizens forget that Muni exists — because Muni no longer serves their neighborhoods — it can be killed off by recasting it as welfare for poor people, the same way transit systems are viewed in most other American cities our size.

    A plan for Muni progress, by contrast, would be radically expanding bus service into underserved areas, taking road share from cars to improve level of service and establishing new lines to make Muni a practical alternative to people from all parts of the city.

    From my neighborhood, the Sunset may as well be in Japan. I could drive to Mendota in less time than it takes me on Muni to get to Fort Funston. As long as Muni remains a system that only serves specific areas of the city, it will continue to be viewed by many citizens as an expendable service.

  • There are concerns with the TEP, but to characterize it as a service reduction plan is simplistic. In some cases, if the theories hold, service is increased in frequency and reliability, in a few areas, it is reduced in proximity and frequency.

    There are new routes into the Bayview, so some underserved neighborhoods are getting a boost.

    But the prime focus of the MTA in the TEP has been bringing people from the hoods downtown rather than providing a reliable transit network for San Franciscans to carry out our daily chores and leisure.

    One other concern is that the TEP dissolved the CAC right before the time that the major political decisions were being made. Said they could be handled by the MUNI and MTA CACs. That is a cop out, as there are significant trade offs that should be made with the folks who are well versed in TEP tradeoffs rather than staff or the broader CACs.

    One success of the TEP has been that they’ve listened to members of the public and adapted their initial bold plan to one that is informed by community concern. I’d hope they could continue to build on that record of responsiveness as they move to implementation, because if they want to move controversial proposals, they’ve probably not got it right on the first, try and would do better moving through the process with political allies who helped get it right.


  • The service improvements are all for Muni’s busy downtown trunk lines, and the service cuts are all for neighborhood feeder services. The net effect is to regionalize Muni even more than it already is today.

    It doesn’t really matter that the TEP was undertaken methodically by well-meaning staff members. Strategically, it’s still “less with less.”

  • The TEP prioritizes the lines with the highest ridership and dumps some routes with low ridership while still ensuring those riders have a bus they can use within walking distance. Some of the lines getting more buses are lines that have had issues with overcrowding to the point that people couldn’t board. So it comes down to what do we prioritize? Lines that people are riding or lines with less ridership?

  • That’s exactly the point Manish. The premise of the TEP was always how do we reshuffle the same or fewer resources to do something else, rather than how to we bring more resources to bear on the problem of moving our citizens around. The TEP can theoretically find local maximum Y amount of service for X amount of resources dedicated, but because of the way the question is formulated the TEP is incapable of finding global optimum level Z of service that efficiently provides transit services to all or most San Franciscans.

  • Wait, Jeff do you really believe that TEP is part of a conspiracy to slowly ween the citizens off of public transit… Or is that just some good ol’ fashioned San Francisco over-acting to emphasis a more subtle point?

  • Section 8A.109 of the Charter commands the MTA Board, Board of Supervisors and Mayor to diligently pursue new revenues for MUNI.

    Prop A was half-assed pursuit that succeeded. And what happens? Newsom raids MUNI for who knows what.

    Newsflash: current set-aside reform proposal could undo Prop E’s MUNI set aside…who wants to go back to MUNI in 1996 when the rolling stock was decreipt before they spent $500m on new vehicles as we allow our current well maintained fleet to be consumed for savings?

    Do you really want to see Frank Jordan naked on the radio, showering on a bus coming to a stop near you? I don’t think so. Protect MUNI funding, save the set aside.


  • At all of the many TEP community meetings that I attended, the promise we heard repeatedly was that reliability would be improved first, before any route changes would be implemented. This made sense, as better service would increase trust in the riders and make us all more willing to cope with the inevitable trade offs. Now, however, it sounds like some big route changes will happen in July, while reliability remains in the toilet. Gains in reliability will never come from just route tweaks or even major shifts without adding all the new operators, line inspectors, and maintenance crews the system needs.

    Julie Kirschbaum has done yoeman work on this project, but she can’t push TEP in the promised direction without help from Greenwash Newsom and the MTA bigshots who don’t rely on Muni themselves.

  • The route changes were but one component of the TEP. Labor reform and work rule changes were another and capital funding the third.

    Prop A gave the TWU a salary floor, and in exchange for that, we were to have seen changes in work rules with an eye towards increasing reliability. For example, one thing i learned at the TEP was that it was not consistent with the culture of the metro division for streetcars to wait until the designated time to depart the terminals of rail lines. The TWU is not evil but the contract has holes in it in places as relates to employees’ timely and reliable performance of duties. The TWU contract was renegotiated last year, but there were no changes to work rules that I am aware of which would help with reliabilty.

    As far as capital planning goes, there does not appear to be anything of substance in the pipeline. Without reliable long term sources of funding, MUNI cannot dig itself out of a hole much less improve service from the acceptable baseline. Set aside reform would further harm the reliability of regular MUNI funding, further hampering efforts at reliability. In addition, Prop A which contained $26-odd million in funding for MUNI to implement TEP has been raided by Newsom.

    There is no way that the route changes of the TEP can increase reliability without parallel tracks of labor reform and capital and operations funding commitment.


  • Perhaps the single most effective and least expensive way to improve speed and reliability is to remove bus stops. On most routes, MUNI stops on every block, about 350 ft between stops. This is much less than the optimal bus stop spacing of 1200 ft, or about every 4 blocks.

    “One of the things we’ve committed to do for our board is to bring them a policy document and approach to stop spacing before we roll out a specific list of possible changes,” said Kirschbaum. “Getting their buy-in at the policy level we think is important. That way, we’ll be able to address the specifics.”

    Instead of creating policy documents, reviewing them endlessly and then presenting to the board of supes, getting their buy in, defining specifics and so on, why not just select a bus route or two and do a trial where bus stops are reduced by 50%. Do this for one month and see how trip time, customer satisfaction and other metrics are impacted. This is very simple. It involves creating some signs that say, “BUS STOP CLOSED. Nearest stop is…”.

    By doing trials, the “policy document” will have real data from which intelligent decisions on stops can be made. Is there any chance this could be done, not in 2 years but NOW? We would likely see tremendous improvment in MUNI performance.

  • jdub – nextmuni.com lists all the bus stops, I doubt they could start closing them without modifying nextmuni, which would take forever I am sure…

  • The TEP is modeled after the revamps of VTA and SAMTRANS. They got rid of the lines way out into the neighborhoods in order to put more service on the central lines. Even the data collection methods were the same (just like a business market analysis).

    The thinking behind it is still old school too. They are not trying to compete with the car in terms of time of the trip. They simply want to make sure everyone can ride the bus if they really want to at the cost of speed. I guess this is similar to what J. Baker was saying but not that they are trying to get ride of MUNI altogether. There’s way too much money in public transit to cancel it altogether.

    But try to get rid of a bus stop and a whole load of people come out and complain that their G-ma can’t walk an extra half block. So the TEP put everything and the kitchen sink in so that they could give away the things that were really unpopular and still have some things left to make changes.

  • Yes, we always get the grandma complaint. There is the ParaTransit system which is supposed to take care of this situation. I’m not sure why it is not used. We need to account for those with limited mobility but not optimize for it as we currently do.

  • Those who come out to complain are much more justified if their stop was removed on a whim without a good reason. Without a plan guiding those removal choices, taking out stops could speed up service but leaves you with a faster line that doesn’t stop where you need to go or creates too much political fallout for the elected decision makers.

    Removal is the nuclear option for a stop is causing delays. If a delay is due to busses having to pull in and out of stops, a bus bulb could fix that. Signal timing can cause delays if the bus is done boarding just in time to sit at a red light for the next two minutes, signal priority is one option. Another option is moving the stop to the far-side of the intersection, after the light, which can also make transfers easier by putting both stops on the same corner. And on like that…

    These options cost money, and need to be studied on a stop-by-stop basis (and how many thousands of stops do we have?) to see if there is a better option than outright removal. The policy work is probably dealing what resources get devoted to a stop based on how many riders use it.

  • jdub

    Here is a web post related to a study on bus stop spacing:

    “Bus stops are usually located to provide a balance of bus passenger convenience and vehicle operating efficiency. Having too many bus stops along a bus line results in slow and unreliable service, whereas too few bus stops means that many passengers will have to walk a long way to get to their bus.

    A number of research efforts have concluded that the optimal bus stop spacing for most transit routes is somewhere between 1000-2000 feet (300-600m). Many transit agencies have developed guidelines for preferred bus stop spacing. In Seattle, Washington, King County Metro’s guidelines call for an ideal stop spacing of 4-6 stops per mile in an urban environment, to achieve the proper balance of service coverage and vehicle performance. TriMet, in Portland, Oregon, uses bus stop spacing guidelines of every 3 blocks or 780′ (240m) in dense areas, and every 4 blocks or 1000′ (310 m) in medium to low density areas. The Public Transport Council in Singapore uses a guideline of 400m – 350m (1300ft – 1150ft) spacing between bus stops. The Milwaukee (Wisconsin) County Transit System (MCTS) has bus stops every two (2) blocks. In Pittsburgh, there are parts of the city in which there is a stop every block. In Ann Arbor, the stops are about a 200 m (660ft) apart

    In most U.S. cities, however, the typical bus stop spacing is between 650 and 900 feet (200-275 m), well below the optimal. Often the existing pattern of stops is the result of a reactive process spanning many decades. New bus stops are commonly installed in response to citizen requests or complaints in a reactive manner without consideration of the corridor-level context. Then, as people become accustomed to established bus stop locations, removal of existing bus stops can be a painful process, even if the original purpose for a bus stop is no longer an issue. After several decades of reactive process without corridor-level vision, an over-saturation of bus stops can result.

    Transit agencies are increasingly looking at bus stop consolidation as a way to improve service cheaply and easily. Bus stop consolidation is the process of evaluating the bus stop pattern along an established bus route and developing a new pattern for optimal bus stop placement. Bus stop consolidation involves evaluating each bus stop and identifying critical stops, stops that could be removed or combined, and stops that could be moved for better service. The goal of bus stop consolidation is to create a good balance of service accessibility, transit vehicle performance/schedule reliability, and investment in public facilities. Bus stop consolidation has been proven to improve operating efficiency and ridership on bus routes.”

    MUNI bus stop spacing is about 350ft, well below the optimum. Perhaps a new spacing policy will be defined, not by politics but by reasonable transportation engineering, resulting in better MUNI service for SF.


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