Muni Switchbacks Stink, But What’s the Real Root of the Problem?

Photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/sf2006/5938257382/##Confetti/Flickr##

The San Francisco Civil Grand Jury released a report [PDF] today blasting Muni’s regular practice of dumping riders and turning vehicles around early.

Known as a “switchback,” the practice is used by Muni management as way to alleviate delays when buses and trains are bunched together by redirecting a vehicle to another point in the system where it’s more needed. The practice was scrutinized by the Board of Supervisors last spring, and SFMTA Transit Director John Haley says the agency has made progress in reducing them and warning riders of them in advance. Members of the SF Transit Riders Union say focusing on switchbacks distracts from the root of Muni’s problems, like getting stuck in traffic and poorly-maintained vehicles, which make the measure necessary in the first place.

The Grand Jury said Muni officials’ use of the practice “shows a callous disregard for the welfare of riders,” claiming that few other major transit systems practice it regularly except in cases of breakdowns and emergencies.

At a press conference called by the SFMTA today, officials presented a document (summary [PDF], detailed [PDF]) responding to the Grand Jury’s claims, saying that the report ignores evidence and defending the use of switchbacks when necessary to alleviate problems.

“They don’t suggest an alternative,” said Haley, adding that Muni intends to propose scheduled switchbacks on some lines within the next six months, similar to regular practices on many other systems, including BART. Still, he said he doesn’t think unscheduled switchbacks “will ever be at zero.”

“If you look at the unevenness of where the demand is,” said SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin, “and people getting on and off the buses, it just doesn’t make sense to run every bus to the end of every line on every run.”

Ben Kaufman of the SF Transit Riders Union said switchbacks are just one symptom of Muni’s greater structural problems, and that a holistic approach is needed to improve the system. “The only way to minimize the amount of switchbacks is through a network of lines that don’t have to deal with external factors, like traffic congestion, getting stopped at stop signs and red lights,” he said. “That’s what we should be focusing on, not condemning the MTA for making switchbacks.”

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