Will Muni’s Largest Service Increase in Decades Have Staying Power?

“Muni Forward” upgrades coming include increased service along with branding changes. Image: SFMTA
“Muni Forward” upgrades coming soon include increased service on about a dozen routes. Image: SFMTA

Muni is making major service improvements and shoring up the basics of running buses on schedule, and this time, officials say, the improvements will stick.

“This is long term, focused and systematic,” Muni Operations Director John Haley told reporters last week, calling upcoming “Muni Forward” upgrades the largest increase in service since the Market Street subway opened in 1980.

Most importantly, the SFMTA plans to roll out a package of service increases on April 25 as part of the ongoing Muni Forward campaign, previously known as the Transit Effectiveness Project, with improvements focused on its busiest lines. As the SF Chronicle reported, nine routes will run more frequently during the morning rush and seven will run more frequently during the evening commute, with several other routes getting more service at other times.

All told, Muni says, those improvements will affect about 165,000 daily riders. Two other waves of frequency increases will come to yet-to-be-named routes in the fall and next February.

Muni is also ramping up its re-branding efforts with changes to some route names. “Limited” lines will now be called “Rapid” lines to shed the “negative connotation,” said Muni Forward Program Manager Sean Kennedy. Muni will also replace its shelter maps with a new, more legible map of the system, and install new signs to market the rapid routes.

The funding for Muni’s service improvements can largely be chalked up to rising revenue streams from a booming economy. Will it last? In 2009, when it was called the TEP, Muni’s improvement program was put on hold because of recession-era budget cuts.

Haley said the new service increases are built into the current two-year budget, and that he’s optimistic that revenue will increase in future budgets. With the greater funding provided by the passage of Propositions A and B in November, Muni plans to continue replacing its aging bus fleet, resulting in fewer breakdowns. Haley said there’s also greater pressure from the public to improve Muni as the city’s transit-riding population grows.

“The bar is being raised,” said Haley. “I’m not suggesting that we’re there, but we’re heading in the right direction.”

It’s too soon to say if the days of chronically-deferred maintenance, purchasing poorly-designed vehicles, and questionable management practices are behind Muni. Basic metrics, however, are looking up.

Since mid-March, Haley said Muni has made at least 98.5 percent of its service runs, meeting the minimum set by voters in Proposition E, which created the SFMTA in 1999. It’s Muni’s longest run ever of hitting that benchmark, according to Haley.

Muni has a full complement of bus operators for the first time in at least a decade, according to Haley, and overtime for bus drivers is down “dramatically.” Light-rail operator positions aren’t quite full, he said, but should get close by summer.

On weekends, Muni is also making it a priority to only deploy buses and trains that are in the “best of the best” mechanical shape, said Haley. The goal is to minimize Muni breakdowns on Saturdays and Sundays when many lines only come every 20 minutes, and the inconvenience of a missed bus hits riders harder.

Image: SFMTA

Muni’s on-time performance has trended upward recently, though it was still just 60 percent in March. Haley told reporters that on-time performance had increased consistently for the past six months. However, the data Muni shared with us revealed a dip in December. The 60 percent rate only looks good in comparison to the end of 2014 and is no better than what the agency sustained for most of last year.

Muni has never met the 1999 Prop E mandate of being on schedule at least 85 percent of the time.

In some cases, it seems, on-time performance can be improved simply by designing schedules to account for the realities of driving a bus all day. Haley handed reporters a chart showing how on-time performance improved on the 56-Rutland, one of Muni’s most unreliable routes: After managers scheduled in a bathroom break for operators, the on-time rate jumped from an average of about 35 percent to 70 percent.

Muni is also moving forward with ongoing street infrastructure improvements, like colored transit-only lanes and transit priority signals, which have been installed on Mission Street and Geary Boulevard, and are coming to 19th Avenue. Muni officials emphasize that those upgrades, as well as completed improvements on lines like the 5-Limited (soon to be 5-Rapid), show that transit service isn’t just being re-branded.

“This is a system that’s getting well,” said Haley.

New sign posts coming to a stop near you. Image: SFMTA
  • Dexter Wong

    If Muni Forward will not work, in your opinion, why aren’t you moving to some other burg with better transit?

  • OneSF

    Band-aid tactics? What do you suggest they do then, given the very limited amount of extra money they have?

  • Andy Chow

    For the last 30 years if not more, Muni is a symbol of mediocrity. Muni purchased equipment that they never liked (such as Breda) and didn’t really maintain them. Things like double berthing and Central Subway end up to be less than what people expected them to be. Muni drivers have not enforced fare policy for a long time and are able to get away from it now because of proof of payment policy.

    I don’t necessarily blame all of it on the front line employees or the management. Politicians are partly responsible. While there have been ballot measures to increase funding for Muni, other city departments charge Muni more money.

    Voters have been more than generous. They approved ballot measures to reform Muni and created SFMTA, discontinue automatic pay raises to drivers, and providing more funds to Muni. While on one hand voters were promised a change in outcome, but more or less the outcome has been the same.

    There are others who think that they can increase transit use by offering a different product, and actually putting their ideas into action with private funds (such as Leap Transit). Rather than praising them to offer more choices and frees up Muni resources, there are some people dissing those options because they are better than mediocrity, or somehow would harm Muni by taking away fare revenue (even though fare loss is insignificant and that they will still pay taxes for Muni). I think a healthy competition is good. I think people generally want more than one type of restaurants, bars, cafes, and grocery stores. I think people should have more choices in mass transit, and not a choice between Muni or driving.

    Given the past history I don’t have a lot of confidence with Muni. Relabeling routes should be one of the last things to do.

  • SFnative74

    Thank you Muni for these recent improvements, and please keep it up! I’ve had much better experiences lately, including trips involving transfers. I’ve seen more buses and lower wait times. Buses are still too crowded sometimes so more buses and runs are appreciated. It’s easy to hate on Muni but with the changes mentioned in the article and the key on-street changes I see (red transit lanes, all door boarding, Haight St changes at Market, Lincoln Ave at 19th Ave) it finally seems Muni is making real improvements and it shows. Drop the schedule metric and replace it with a predictable headway and spead of buses. That’s what people care about, especially with Nextbus available.

  • SFnative74

    Ridiculous band aid tactics? Are you referring to “tactics” like more buses, more operators, cameras on buses, better street designs, bus only lanes, transit signal priority, all door boarding, and silly things like that?

  • Muni Forward is the implementation of the TEP, which was only finalized and certified last year. This is not a restart or a new project.

    The “smoke and mirrors” is probably because it hasn’t been rolled out.

  • Has double berthing started?

    I suppose ‘the thing that they can’t do yet because of CPUC’ is less than expected…

  • mx

    Not yet, but they’ve been screwing around for years not delivering. More significantly, I can’t imagine how double berthing will provide a significant improvement in subway service (and how it won’t make things worse in some ways). It helps a tiny bit in the very specific case where you’re stuck in subway traffic as the second train in one of three stations and you want to get off before the train reaches the front of the platform. Otherwise, it doesn’t help make anything move faster or do anything about the fact that “subway traffic” is an actual thing.

    In any case, it’s the SFMTA’s responsibility to keep its regulator happy. Even if delays are CPUC’s fault, Muni hasn’t exactly jumped to resolve them.

  • AndreL

    MUNI could be disbanded and substituted for whole-service contractors with strict performance requirements and non-unionized workforce.

  • Have an example where this has been done?

  • lunartree

    Really? The central subway is what you’re going to call waste?….

  • Justin

    Most of the service changes seem to be route number and destination sign changes with no direct impact to Muni service. Though it’s still cool to see that Muni will be adding service and more later on, I have my doubts that it will improve or enhance the efficiency and reliability of it too. That is in my opinion the main core problems with Muni. But don’t get me wrong, adding service and rebranding the “Limited” into “Rapid” does sound good along with rebranding and modifying the bus shelters along those routes with a bike rack, better lighting and better signage will help

    As said once more it doesn’t look like it is aimed at enhancing efficiency and reliability at all, those two areas are very important and it isn’t getting the amount of focus it deserves.

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