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

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

“Thankfully, the bus driver allowed me to board the bus with my bike, as she had allowed the four other cyclists on the bus with their bikes,” Sterbentz wrote in an email. Otherwise, “I would have had to wait an hour for the next bus to arrive at 3 a.m., alone at Market and Van Ness.”

“The only option would have been an expensive taxi ride across the bay,” she added.

Muni officials haven’t publicly indicated an interest in allowing bikes on Owl buses. But SFMTA spokesperson Ben Jose wrote in a recent blog post that the agency has “been thinking about how we can quickly help more people biking conquer some of these hills without breaking a sweat.”

Muni posted an online survey to field input about its three-bike racks, which are being tested for six months on the 7-Haight/Noriega, 18-46th Avenue, 25-Treasure Island, 29-Sunset, 36-Teresita, 37-Corbett, 44-O’Shaughnessy and 49-Mission/Van Ness routes.

When three-bike racks aren’t enough, adopting the “operator discretion” policy on Muni’s Owl buses could save some riders from a miserable experience when there’s room. Muni’s night buses tend to be busier than AC Transit or SamTrans.

Three-bike racks on 40-foot buses became legal across California in January, after Governor Jerry Brown, at the urging of Los Angeles Metro, signed a bill to accommodate the increasing number of people combining bikes and transit. A few years ago, a separate bill was passed to give AC Transit a special exemption to the limit.

The issue of bikes on buses didn’t get a lot of attention in the SF County Transportation Authority’s February report on improving late-night transportation, “The Other 9-to-5.” The report’s only related recommendations were to expand Bay Area Bike Share and to publicize the little-known fact that AC Transit bus operators can allow bikes on board.

More Bay Area residents are discovering the convenience of combining bicycling and transit. It lets commuters speed up the last mile of a trip and avoid the costs (in both time and money) of transfers.

BART decided to foster that trend by allowing bikes on board at all hours, at least when it runs. All-night service, however, would require a second Transbay tube, and that might take a few decades.

“This lack of bicycle accommodation after hours probably deters people from biking after BART stops running,” said Sterbentz.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    One of the reasons AC Transit can allow bikes on board is they have actual low-floor buses, unlike Muni. They do not limit this courtesy to after-hours operations. I’ve had an NL operator let me aboard with my bike at the last westbound stop in Oakland at the peak of rush hour, just because the bike rack was full and there was enough room.

  • Dexter Wong

    Only Neoplan and Vanhool make transit buses that is flat over the whole length of the bus. That requires using a flat engine and transmission so the floor can be completely flat. (But that could create a need for extra parts for those special engines.) Other bus makers use conventional engines and transmissions but this results in a raised rear section that is two steps above the low floor section.

  • Andy Chow

    Some agencies like SamTrans and VTA have always allowed bikes inside buses as far back as the late 90s, before the front loading racks became popular.

    Increased bike capacity and flexibility to store bikes inside is needed particularly on highway/bridge corridors where biking is not an option.

  • Prinzrob

    Some AC Transit bus operators are not aware of the policy to allow bikes on board when the racks are full and there is room inside, between the hours of midnight and 5:30am on weekdays or midnight at 9am on weekends/holidays. I’ve even had some drivers try to deny my bringing a bike on board an almost empty bus at 4am, which would have meant me waiting for the next bus over an hour on a desolate Oakland street corner.

    As such I have printed out and carry a copy of this AC Transit bike policy with me, which has saved me on a number of occasions: http://www.actransit.org/basic-rider-guide/#bikes

  • Chris

    I am still surprised that not many have thought of getting folding bikes. It would solve a lot problems including theft.

  • the_greasybear

    I have both a regular and a folding bike. Folders are very bulky and heavy. The one time I took one on the bus (in Reno, of all places) it was very much in everyone’s way.

  • murphstahoe

    They are great but not a panacea. Caltrain has consistently pushed for people to get folding bikes to solve the rack capacity issue, but if 40 people tried to bring folders on instead of bikes that can be efficiently stacked in the racks, it would be more difficult, not less.

    For things like mass transit, it’s great if you get a folding bike. But it’s awful if *everyone* gets a folding bike.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    There’s folding bikes and then there’s technically-folding bikes.

  • Liz Brisson

    Aaron, do you have any data regarding frequency that late night bikers get bumped from Muni buses? During the study, we did ask SFMTA transit folks about this, and they believed it was a very uncommon occurrence for bike racks on Muni buses to be full late at night, while AC Transit noted it to be somewhat a frequent occurrence. The study did not have a chance to do extensive data collection or analysis, but this issue was not brought up in the survey we did or a common discussion at the Working Group or the hearing. Though of course I’m all for 3-bike racks on Muni, but i suspect this will solve more of a daytime need than a nighttime one.

  • Thanks for weighing in, Liz. I don’t know of any data on late-night bike bumps — good to hear that it didn’t seem to be a common problem. Hopefully, three-bike racks will someday provide stronger assurance for those who bike + bus regularly that they can rely on having a spot.

  • murphstahoe

    That sort of data falls prey to the fact it’s self-fulfilling. If the threat of a bump is high (2 racks) and the *cost* of a bump is high (no bus for another hour or a dark bike ride) – then anyone with sense will primarily plan to never have to rely on the bus. The net result is that the racks end up mostly being unused – the primary use being some sort of emergency say for example if you planned on riding but had a mechanical.

    Golden Gate Transit’s buses have space for 2 bikes. I take my bike on the bus all of the time. For a while I dreaded the day when I would be bumped off the bus like had happened dozens of times on Caltrain. To date, this has never happened to me, I rarely if ever see another cyclist, and only once have I observed someone get bumped. I take the express bus from SF to Santa Rosa – with 2 bike racks it’s not a super reliable option and the cost of getting bumped can be enormous (not gonna ride back to Santa Rosa!) so basically nobody takes a bike. Works out for me as that means I always have space.

    Transit agencies fall prey to this all the time. Caltrain doesn’t extend their AM and PM bullet trains to later trains or expand midday service in part because that is when ridership is lower. But the ridership is lower because of the lousy service in those timeframes. The people running the show apparently can’t conceive of a population that would demand the service they aren’t currently offering.

    Going from 2-3 isn’t really a game changer that makes this a reliable option – but what it can do is make riding in general more palatable, because the probability you won’t be completely screwed in the event of a mishap is lower by 50%.

  • Liz Brisson

    @murphstahoe:disqus i don’t disagree – but i do believe this is more of a regional than local issue and the different operator experiences is telling.

  • Dark Soul

    Because San Francisco Muni dont want bike over people. Each Person = Money.

  • murphstahoe

    each person actually = loss of money. All trips are subsidized.

  • Justin

    Pretty cool and nice and I was on a bus that had a triple rack while on the 44-Oshaughnessy, the best part I live near three of the eight selected routes, two of which I use daily. It just makes it more convenient and more encouraging to bring a bike on Muni assuming one lives near those routes. Hopefully they will expand it to all bus routes. I know if I ever take a bike on Muni it will make it that more easy and convenient to do so, especially the fact that I live in a pretty hilly neighborhood and biking up those hills is no easy chore.

  • Dexter Wong

    According to Wikipedia, Vanhool makes low floor buses (floor completely low), while others make low entry buses (the area between the doors is low, but the rear axle area is high).

  • anbudmor

    Does one extra passenger mean the subsidy goes up? Surely it means the number of rides is higher and therefore the subsidy per ride is lower.

  • murphstahoe

    Extra passengers slow the bus. Slower bus, requires more runs because the bus can’t turn the run as fast, requires more drivers, requires more equipment, etc…

    This becomes even more acute when you consider that if someone buys a monthly pass – the number of rides add nothing to the bottom line.

    On the margin this is hard to quantify, but if you look at it this way, it would be a heck of a lot simpler to run an efficient bus system with zero passengers.

  • Last I looked, Muni’s rules for folding bikes pretty much excluded every model ever made. They have to be collapsed and fit under a seat.

  • I actually have a top-of-the-line folding bike, totally light, rides great, folds up very small. Even so, when Caltrain went through that particular summer of gas price hikes, I and others with folding bikes were denied boarding because space for folded bikes was full.

    They just push it out of habit, it seems.

  • Gillig builds low-floor buses in nearby Hayward. Their promo material shows local AC Transit buses, albeit with the old 2-bike Sportsracks.

  • Dexter Wong

    Yes they do build low-floor buses, but of the low entry variety. When you go past the rear door there are steps that lead to a raised-height rear section that houses the engine compartment. New Flyer builds similar buses. Van Hool and a few European manufacturers use flat engines to allow a totally flat floor (which is not that common in this country). I’ve ridden Gilligs and New Flyers, but no Van Hools.

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