Muni Chief Argues Upcoming Service Frequency Cut is Targeted

4564483066_2ea558de96_b.jpgSFMTA Executive Director Nat Ford talks service hours in his office yesterday. Photos: Bryan Goebel

In just over a week, Muni will cut bus frequencies across the system by perhaps the greatest amount in its history. Roughly 313,000 service hours will be cut out of the schedule [PDF], leaving riders to wait an average of 10 percent longer for buses and trains. Depending on the line and the time of day, riders could see increased waits of one to ten minutes for each bus, with fifteen extra minutes between some overnight bus lines.

Still, Muni says the cuts, which its board approved to cover budget deficits this year and in the next two, are not random or across the board. In an interview with Streetsblog, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) Executive Director Nat Ford, who oversees Muni, stressed that the cuts would be focused on the least-crowded lines and times of day, while many of the most-used lines would be spared at peak hours.

"It is less frequent service that’s out there," Ford acknowledged, but, he said, "We didn’t just take a hatchet to the system and lop 10 percent off of every route. We used the [Transit Effectiveness Project] information … to make informed decisions. We were able to look at the system surgically."

Muni’s most popular lines are generally spared from huge frequency
changes, in part because even minor changes will undoubtedly add to
crowding on lines that are already packed. For instance, the Stockton
corridor, one of Muni’s most heavily traveled, won’t see any headway

Another example Ford highlighted is the 1-California, one of the heaviest-used lines and one that won’t see a radical slashing of service hours. Morning peak service is unchanged, midday service is a minute less frequent east of Presidio Avenue and unchanged west of it, evening peak service is a minute less frequent and late evening service is unchanged.

Yet, no matter how surgical SFMTA schedule planners are, there’s
no way to cut 10 percent of Muni’s service hours without cutting a lot
of meat. Lines like the 22-Fillmore will see changes that riders could find very difficult to stomach. On May 8, the 22 — already known for overcrowding — will run every 20 minutes instead of every 15 minutes in the early evening, and every half hour instead of every 20 minutes by 11 p.m.

4563853071_ab21d01ff0_b.jpgFord discusses service changes with Streetsblog reporters Matthew Roth and Michael Rhodes (right).

That’s going to put a lot of pressure on Muni to avoid bunching of buses and missed runs, but Ford maintains that the new schedule will be more realistic given Muni’s maintenance and staffing challenges.

"What we’ve done right now is we essentially have a service cut out there, but it’s an ad-hoc, impromptu service cut," said Ford. "You walk out there, you don’t know if the trip that you’re expecting is going to show up or not, and you don’t know if it’s because of a vehicle reliability issue or an operator availability issue."

After May 8, said Ford — and riders will certainly hold him to this — the system should be smaller, but more reliable.

"What we’re proposing is, by shrinking the system slightly, 10 percent here in terms of service hours, and being very strategic in terms of where we’re doing it, we’ll have an adequate amount of parts and equipment, maintenance personnel to maintain it, [and an] adequate number of operators to fill the work."

Rail Rehab Projects Will Spare Operators from Cuts

One quirk of the timing of the cuts is that the SFMTA may not actually need to lay off many operators, even though it had originally planned to cut 170 positions. That’s because the agency has a number of capital improvement projects on its rail system in the coming months that will require replacing rail service with bus service and that bus service will be paid for with capital dollars, not operating funds.

For the first project, the St. Francis Circle rail replacement, which also starts on May 8, Muni will need to replace each rail trip with four to five buses and thus each rail operator with four to five bus operators. That will take about 140 operators total, meaning 140 of the operators cut from regular service will be moved over to operating the bus shuttles. Then, on September 1, the SFMTA will begin the Church and Duboce rail rehab project, again providing jobs for operators cut from regular service.

"Frankly," said Ford, "without this service modification, we would have a difficult time. We would be paying overtime to run the bus substitution for St. Francis Circle."

With less service in its schedule, Muni expects to have extra buses available, which will also go toward the rail rehab projects. As for the remaining 30 or so operators of the 170, Ford expects many of those positions will be lost anyway to attrition, termination, retirement, and promotion.

Ideally, said Ford, most of the operators working replacement service would still be around when Muni expects to have enough money to restore the cut service hours, so it won’t have to hire and train new drivers. (Of course, there’s hearty debate already about Muni’s ability to minimize the service cuts immediately.)

The SFMTA also points out that the service changes on December 5th actually resulted in a modest increase in the total number of service hours it delivers, even as it saved money on scheduling efficiencies. But this time around, the cuts will be to the bone, and Muni riders will be waiting longer no matter how well the system is managed.

Looking to May 8, Ford said, "I’ve got a smaller system here, so I’ve got to make sure every run is making it out there every day."

How will your Muni lines be affected on May 8? Are you getting hit hard by headway increases or spared the worst of it? Check out Muni’s comparison chart [PDF] and let us know in the comments section below.

  • Muni turned the 18-46th Avenue into some kind of freak show. When they first announced their proposal to slash service, they only mentioned the 18 line saying it will be changed to 30 minute frequencies. They didn’t even mention that other lines which would only get a small increase of a few minutes. 33% cut for the 18, others got less than 10%. Fair? I think not.

    Muni didn’t exactly take the 30 minute threat that seriously, instead of 15 minute frequencies during commute hours, it will now be 20 minutes; for 20 minutes, it’s now 25 minutes.

  • Nick

    It’s nice the MTA sat down with Streetsblog. Often I feel like their reporters are yelling in the wilderness.

    I picked up a pamphlet on the May 8th service changes today. Honestly, they don’t look that bad on paper. I guess that’s how the Mayor and everyone on the Board of Supervisors who doesn’t ride MUNI can justify it to themselves.

    The experience of a bus breaking down or a driver calling in sick have real impacts on the person waiting out in the cold. Their schedule can only be viewed with rose colored glasses. Any deviation from it means people are late for work or school or a job interview or a doctor appointment.

    And as a side note, there needs to be one seamless system map. It’s so absurd to have to carry around paper copies of the old MUNI map, the Dec 8th service changes pamphlet, copies of the stop-ID numbers, and now the May 8th service cuts brochure.

  • Caity

    Yes, I agree with you, Akit, what MUNI has done to the 18 line is terrible, both in term of changing the route (so it no longer goes by the Cliff House and the trails nearby) and the timing. That line is heavily used by children, youths and old people.

    Not to mention the business-killing elimination of the 2 Clement west of Park Presidio. That area used to be full of old people shopping at the inexpensive produce market or going to have lunch at one of the small restaurants — too old to hoof back and forth from deadly and distant Geary Street.

  • JohnB

    The Muni chief claims it is great that he won’t have to lay off that many operators due to a gimmick whereby he uses capital dollars for rail improvement projects to buy their salaries while they run substitute bus services.

    Hmm, I am the only one who thinks that’s not a good thing at all? Surely the point is that we need to get these guys off the payroll to save not just on their pay but also on their benefits.

    And once the capital improvements are done, he’ll have to fire them anyway as the money still won’t be there.

    Moreover, firing a good number of them will give those who remain a wake-up call in terms of getting them to agree to new work practices and reductions in pay and benefits.

    Spinelessly kicking the can down the road is bad enough, but bragging about it as if it is an achievement is galling.

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    One minute more headway on the rush hour 1-California is capitulation. How can you cut service on a line during an hour where every vehicle is crush loaded? You’re just admitting that Muni cannot even run a successful, popular line.

  • He was not hired at 300,000/year to ruin the system. He’s a liar and a failure. Time for him and Newsom and the MTA board to go!

  • JohnB


    Anyone in the Richmond who is in a rush to get downtown doesn’t take the 1 anyway. It’s electric (i.e. slow), goes up and down every hill en route, makes various baffling turns, crawls through Chinatown and eventually, if you’re lucky, ambles into the financial district on the wrong side for most people.

    While if you walk just a block south, you can take the fast, frequent, higher-capacity 38 or better yet, one of its express variants to the heart of downtown.

    The 1 is a local service not a commuter special.


    He’s paid 300K to keep to his budget and make tough decisions when he doesn’t have the money to fund every service that everyone would ideally like. He’s paid to determine how to cut 10% off the budget while only affecting maybe 2% of actual journeys made.

    I don’t like his gimmick, as I explained above, but you can’t do that job if you’re a idealistic rose-tinted bus enthusiasist.

  • david vartanoff

    “SFMTA…the service changes on December 5th actually resulted in a modest increase in the total number of service hours it delivers,”

    FALSE, Daily absenteeism stayed around 20%, not outs did NOT disappear, and as to “targeted”, yeah if you mean specific routes badly cheated of buses on a given day.
    Did anyone ask Ford to name a SINGLE day in his tenure when the full schedule operated?

    side note to JohnB, If the 1s are crush loaded, they are clearly serving a market. Whether you think the 38L is a better choice for a quick trip downtown is irrelevant. The 1 serves the shorter distance trips LOTS of them! As such, cutting service is exactly counter to the supposed logic of TEP.

  • d

    some ## from this AM’s Daily Report
    Yesterday PM Mission Street was cheated of 5 each 49 and 14 + 2 14L. This AM5 14s, 2 49s, 2 14’XL’
    So much for targeted and protecting the high usage routes.

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    JohnB: Thanks for the west side perspective. The fact that it takes eons for a coach to run the entire 1-California line is true, but many riders live east of Fillmore St. Going from 3 to 4 minute headways in the 5pm hour is a 25% service cut any way you look at it, and will definitely cause many riders to seek alternate means of getting downtown to work.

  • Nick

    So on Tuesday May 11th, an invesitgative reporter could add a new column to the PDF file above called “Actual.”

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    david/d where do you get the daily operating report?

  • JohnB


    I already said we should cull the least used 10% of services. If the 1 really is that popular, no matter how odd I find that, then those numbers should determine that other routes by cut first.

    But generally I will trust a 300k p.a. subject matter expert over either an over-politicized Board of Supervisors or a narrowly-focused single-issue activist to determine the most appropriate service reductions.

    I struggle to sympathize if the new wait time is really just one minute longer. Isn’t waiting an extra minute worth it if we can not raise fares, fees or taxes?

  • Oh JohnB, have to get your “single-issue activist” jab in there? Transit planning has a lot to do with a myriad of other topics – e.g. city planning/layout, senior mobility, childhood obesity, accessibility, asthma, sustainability, economic viability, peak oil, oil spills, climate change, etc.

    I know you probably don’t believe in most of those things, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t issues that we are all trying to address in someway, shape or form.

    And Nat Ford is a subject matter expert, but he really isn’t impressing anyone with his vast knowledge because he is only applying it to cut service. He hasn’t righted the ship that is MTA management or addressed work orders or even found new revenue streams.

  • You can find the daily ops reports here, at the moment they are several days behind.

  • Fran Taylor

    Muni’s been chanting the “it’s only a minute more” mantra since the days of Michael Burns, ignoring the cumulative effect. If a bus starts a minute later at one end of its hour-long run, each stop will have more riders waiting, eventually leading to an overcrowded bus. The crammed buses then slow to a crawl, as riders have to swim over each other to get on and off, or they start passing riders by. One minute, my ass. It becomes more like an extra 15-20 minutes at that point.

  • JohnB


    You forgot “world peace”.

    But we’re not trying to solve every problem on the planet. We’re trying to address the fact that we don’t have the money to do what every pie-eyed activist in San Francisco orgasmicaly lusts after.

    And Nat is impressing a lot of people. Maybe not you. But those who don’t want to endlessly fund public-sector excesses and prefer to make their own choices about where their money gets spent.

    From my POV, we are paying him 300k and he is saving us 30 million. That is a 10,000 percent return on capital. What’s not to like?

  • @JohnB – part of his job is to find revenue. He’s failing in that regard.

  • JohnB, you just aren’t worth it. Yeah, we don’t see eye to eye, but I think you are just arguing for the sake of arguing.

  • JohnB


    Nat did find revenue. He increased fares last year.

    But he realizes that the public only has so much appetite for hikes in fares, fees and taxes. And has learned, like most politicians eventually do, that endlessly throwing good money after bad at a problem is self-defeating.

  • I’m with –> mikesonn

  • david vartanoff

    From Saturday’ AM Daily Report, Friday PM rush, Mission miss outs 49s 7, 14 3, 14L 4

  • Nick

    I think the most people can tolerate is a 12-15 minute wait. All these local bus lines that now have 30 minutes between busses are likely to cause the most complaints.

    All the telecasts said the changes were effective May 1st. May 8th then… At least the MTA were able to keep the ship from sinking.

  • Kavin

    How about the 35 which during rush hour has gone from every 15 min (2008) to 20 min (2009) now 30 min at rush hour on May 8! Its already jammed at rush hour on a 30 ft small bus

    Plus instead of starting at 530am its now 710am weekdays

  • JohnB


    How many people took that 5:30 a.m. service? Was it usually “jammed”?

    Assuming the 5:30 a.m. service usage puts it in the least-used 10% of services, then it is right that it be cut. The alternative would be cutting a service that is much more used, and so inconveniences a much larger number of people.

    Are you asserting that there should be a different methodoly used to identify cuts other than actual usage statistics?

  • david vartanoff

    @ JohnB and all, Transit is only credible if it is available beyond the AM and PM rush service on the trunk lines. Not all of us can live on Geary and commute only to Market at 2nd. Once transit outside the crush load times and routes becomes onerous a serious percentage give up because they MIGHT need service in the less busy hours. That IS the death spiral while teaching the citizenry in general that transit is not a reliable method of travel.
    As to route and service standards, part of SF’s commitment in better times was some minimal transit service within several blocks of EVERY resident. Kinda like having fire hydrants near ALL buildings.

  • Nick

    David, you just summed up why transit is not a good first choice for resident in SF’s outer neighborhoods (excelsior, sunset, ingleside, bayview, visitation valley).

    Add the lack of safety many feel from standing around for long periods of time (read sitting duck) and you can easily justify people’s decision at 19 or 20 years old to abandon transit except for limited uses (getting to and from work downtown during business hours).

  • Harry

    Nate makes $365,000 a year, not $300 K. And the buses will stop running at 11:30 PM!

  • JohnB


    Your point is more an argument to make no cuts than the topic here, which is a discussion of how we can best and most fairly achieve the 10% cuts already decided upon.

    The consensus here is to cut the least-used 10$ of routes. If you’re going to argue to keep those, then it is incumbent on you to nominate which are the 10% that you do wish to cut. Otherwise it sounds more like denial than a genuine cost-cutting strategy.

    So, where do you think the 10% cuts should fall if not on the very early and late runs, and/or the outlying routes? And why would you prefer to impact more people rather than less?

  • Nick

    Funny, MTA says “every bus stop has a constituency” as an argument against consolidation.

    Yet they do not realize every time frame also has a constituency. So if your bus line stops running at 7PM, those customers will abandon you.

  • JohnB


    Every taxpayer dollar has a constituency too. Tax people too much and the taxpayer will abaondon you too. It’s about balance.

  • david vartanoff

    JohnB, you are right, IMHO, the next round of cuts are just wrong. We have already cut too much. Time to do the real changes necessary, starting withrefusing ALL BS work order embezzlement.

  • Chris Reyes

    MUNI does need serious audit. MUNI is not being picked on. As an operator, management constantly does things without thinking without the impact it will have on the REGULAR WORKING PEOPLE OF SAN FRANCISCO. The suits who makes this rediculous schedules rely on someone from revenue department standing on the corner checking off the times the bus arrives. These suits don’t even take the bus themselves let alone knows what it feels like. When the do take the bus they notify the media and make a big hoopla with photoshots taken by the minute. Come one are you serious? In my opinion theres waaay too many people up in management. Definitely audit MUNI.


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