Muni Subway Closures — Can’t We Do Better?

Imagine a tourist trying to decipher this mishmash of signs at the temporary bus stop from Castro to West Portal. How about one really big sign that says: "Catch Subway Replacement Bus Here." Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
Imagine a tourist trying to decipher this mishmash of signs at the temporary bus stop from Castro to West Portal. How about one really big sign that says: "Catch Subway Replacement Bus Here." Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

Here we are in week two of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA)’s month-plus of weekend and evening closures of the core of its system–the subway tunnel from Embarcadero to West Portal. Overcrowding on the replacement bus service, as the SF Examiner reports, has left customers further peeved. In response, SFMTA is adding longer buses to its substitute routes to alleviate some of it.

Hmmmm, if only there were a second rapid transit system in San Francisco that could help with this crunch. (More on that below.)

Streetsblog would like to hear from readers about how well they think SFMTA is handling the closures (which the agency says are necessary in order to test new train cars). As can be seen in the lead image, there were serious problems with wayfinding and communications. What’s wrong with making one big sign reading “Catch Subway Replacement Bus Here” instead of the visual noise seen in the lead image? And where were the Muni workers offering directions to uncertain riders on Market Street and Castro, where that photo was taken?

“The Transit Riders have been quite vocal with our dissatisfaction of the subway shutdown. It’s inconvenient for riders, it’s confusing, and we all know the bus can take a lot longer than the subway,” wrote Rachel Hayden, Executive Director of the San Francisco Transit Riders, in an email to Streetsblog. “However, I was pleased to hear that the SFMTA listened to rider concerns with overcrowding and added the larger vehicles, and that they are working to improve signage and make it easier to find the shuttle stops. ”

Bigger buses are great, but that raises another question: what about BART?

An SFMTA spokesperson confirmed via email that they never approached BART to ask whether they could honor Muni passes in San Francisco during the closures. Streetsblog spoke with BART directors Rebecca Saltzman and Robert Raburn, who both said they would have been happy to work something out. For Muni customers who normally depend on the subway tunnel between Civic Center and Embarcadero, BART would be an easy substitute. And those who need to get to points south and southeast of West Portal could get home from downtown faster by riding BART to Balboa Park, rather than waiting around for a bus bridge to West Portal.

Map from SFMTA's website.
Map from SFMTA’s website. SFMTA knows that BART also goes to Balboa Park, right?
“My guess is that it would have complicated things more than helped,” wrote Joël Ramos, Regional Planning Director for TransForm and SFMTA Boardmember. On the other hand, “if BART is willing to honor Muni passes/tickets, regardless, that would be a great gesture. . . especially for those who don’t go all the way out to Van Ness or West Portal!”

It also, of course, would be appreciated by people who go well beyond West Portal on the M-Ocean View and K-Ingleside lines. Taking BART to Balboa Park and back-tracking by Muni trains or buses could be faster even under normal circumstances. “Yes, there are a lot of us who ‘go backwards on Muni to go forward on BART.’ I do the same when going from the Sunset to the Mission via the 28R,” said Ramos.

“We did not ask for mutual aid from BART, but given rider feedback, this is something we are looking into for the next shutdown,” wrote SFMTA spokeswoman Erica Kato in an email to Streetsblog.

“Given there are still several shutdowns to go, SFMTA should absolutely partner with BART to honor Muni passes. The shutdown is off-peak and on weekends, when BART is less crowded. This is a perfect opportunity to offer riders a faster alternative in the city. BART has honored Muni passes during previous shutdowns,” said Hayden. “This would go a long way to show riders MTA is doing everything it can to make up for the inconvenience.”

One of the new LRVs in West Portal during the subway closure. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
  • mx

    I spotted, and I am not exaggerating, 11 Muni vehicles (10 buses and one historic streetcar) backed up on a single block of Market St on Sunday. Ok, I lied. I am exaggerating, but only because they didn’t all physically fit in one block and they were blocking the box too. It was a mess. Last week, I tried to make a simple out-and-back Metro trip to the Sunset to meet friends for dinner: the N had a 25 minute gap on my way there, and I just missed the last train back home before the shutdown, so I wound up taking Lyft both ways.

    This shutdown is absurd. The Board of Supervisors should hold hearings, and SFMTA management should be held accountable. You know that officials would be run out of town at the hands of angry motorists if it was a freeway being closed like this.

    The really pathetic part of all this is that the agency really will need to shut down more parts of the system for maintenance. But they have lost every shred of my goodwill by shutting down the subway for months worth of utterly frivolous reasons like “blue light” telephone installation and testing new rail cars, situations for which no other transit system in the world would consider such extensive service cuts.

    And that ignores the reputation damage SFMTA is doing. What image of the system do you think an occasional rider gets when they plan to ride to the ballpark and suddenly discover closed signs? It looks a lot like this:

    Do you think someone who gets the impression that the subway is just randomly out of service is likely to ever give up their car or rely on public transit? Of course not. So why is this agency dead set on ensuring every single person in this city knows that Muni is a sick joke that cannot possibly be trusted? I know entirely too many people (who can afford to do so) who both live and work within blocks of a Metro line yet commute daily in their cars, sitting in traffic and paying hundreds of dollars a month for parking, because they’ve lost faith in this agency. All our talk of transit-oriented development and eliminating parking is useless if we constantly send the message that our transit is unreliable and prone to disappear at any moment.

    In conclusion: fire John Haley.

  • Eric Johnson

    This account can’t be true. Willie Brown promised he’d fix Muni in a hundred days.

  • Eric

    “This would go a long way to show riders MTA is doing everything it can to make up for the inconvenience.”

    I actually laughed out loud when I read this.

  • Kenneth L

    Why can’t new train be tested in the wee hours, say between 1am and 5am. Take all week, if needed. Trying to cut cost but the burden and inconvenience is on the public.

  • “You’ll notice that I didn’t say which 100 days.”

    [Cue Laughtrack]

  • twinpeaks_sf

    I was standing at that same spot for over 20 minutes. Many confused tourists joined me – some looking for the 37 to get up to Twin Peaks, others trying to get downtown (wrong side). In that time, I counted 10 shuttle buses inbound, none outbound. And after a 20+ min wait, only ~15 people got on the shuttle at Castro. Most had defected to ride-hail. Just wait til the week-long weekday subway shutdowns. No way they’re pulling that off.

  • There are a lot of “why’s” that will forever remain unanswered. If riders think this shutdown is inconvenient, just wait until rail replacement when hundreds of thousands of daily commutes will be messed up. Expect a surge in Uber/Lyft because I, for one, will not wait forever for a stupid bus bridge.

  • sninesix

    It’s pretty simple. SFMTA has to test the trains and they have to test them outside normal operating hours. Does that mean some employees are going to be working in the middle of the night? Yup. That’s their problem to deal with and that’s their job to deal with it. Suck it up butter cup and do your job like a good little laborer when you’re told to do it, or you know, you can quit or be fired. #zerof*cks

  • david vartanoff

    More of Muni exists for the convenience of its employees–who cares about riders, citizens? MTA was created to “isolate” Muni from the BOSupes; too bad they haven’t just ordered Muni to do this work in the off hours.

  • gb52

    This is the same problem with Market Street every weekday as well. CARS and some trucks block intersections and impede buses from stopping at the transit islands creating a ripple effect and endless MUNI traffic. Market street needs to run better and faster, and we need to pare down the number of stops for at least some of these buses.

  • gb52

    We can play the blame game all day, but the reality is, transit is important and we need it to function better. There are two ways to go about this, blame the executives (a worthless effort) or figure out what needs to be fixed on the roads. A subway closure proves how vital this link is and how many people use it. But it doesn’t mean a bus shuttle has to be a slow lumbering ride. Get private vehicle traffic out of the transit lane on Market Street and make these express buses to get people where they want to go, faster. MUNI metro riders are used to stopping at just the metro stations and not every stop on every block. We can do the same on these buses, stop consolidation.

  • SF needs to wake up and realize that investment in real transit solutions is the key to improving quality of movement around our city for transit riders, car owners and cyclists. Nothing runs efficiently on or under Market St. The $2B spent on the central subway would have been better spent on a second Muni tunnel between Van Ness and the Embarcadero (perhaps under Mission) to separate a few of the underground lines to reduce congestion. But, we can’t change that now. Cheaper yet, just run 3-car shuttles between the Embarcadero and West Portal (or Caltrain to West Portal). Combine the L-M to run on the surface between the Zoo and Balboa Park. Combine the K-L to run between 22nd/Taraval and Balboa Park. Run the J-Church only on the surface to Duboce/Church. Yes, more transfers would be required, but there would be higher capacity running in the tunnel, and the typical delays running on the surface would be eliminated (minus the N).

  • shamelessly

    I took this shuttle over the weekend from Castro to Van Ness. I knew where to go from N tunnel work in the past. I was annoyed that the shuttle worked as a local bus rather than an express — if it’s duplicating subway service, I’d expect it to stop only at subway stops, and leave the work of local service to the still-running F line.

  • The wee hours of the morning is when SFMTA does daily tunnel maintenance. Not something to skip, especially when testing new trains which may cause unexpected damage.

  • The fact that this shutdown was announced only a week before it happened meant that the SFMTA made the decision to hide it from the public. Does anyone really think Muni didn’t know about this shutdown well before it was announced? When Muni management makes such a cruel callous decision that inconveniences tens of thousands of riders, they should held accountable. It’s not a surprise this shutdown was so poorly organized. It’s not possible to have an organized shutdown of our metro system when it’s kept secret from the public until just a week before it happens. This is not acceptable.

    I would support any punitive ballot measure against Munis mismanagement over this feasco. If this is how they manage a shutdown, I have no confidence in their ability to competently handle day to day operations.

  • spencer_e9876

    a cruel callous decision

    This seems … hyperbolic. Dumb? Sure. Ill-conceived? I’ll buy that. Executed with all the skill and panache of a Trump administration cabinet member? Definitely.

    But “cruel?” Nah.

  • spencer_e9876

    Oh that *is* pretty dumb.

  • spencer_e9876

    do your job like a good little laborer

    Rank condescension is always so effective at getting people to see things your way.

  • sninesix

    We’re all laborers and if I have to get on calls at all hours of the day these laborers can do their work at all hours of the day too. They’re the few and they don’t get to inconvenience the masses. If this was a regular occurrence I’m sure they’d be rethinking career choice, but given this is a special case they need to suck it up and get shit done and not disrupt the system like good little laborers that like to get a paycheck.

  • spencer_e9876

    And none of that contradicts my point in any way, which is that saying “do your job like a good little laborer” makes you come off as a giant ass who no one will listen to.

  • sninesix

    You’re listening and responding my delicate little flower and I appreciate you taking the time to hear me.

  • mx

    I agree. The week’s notice is one of the most infuriating things about this project. It shows that SFMTA is run for the convenience of its management and employees, not the public who pays for it.

  • mx

    I’m going to play the blame game. John Haley has been SFMTA’s Director of Transit for seven years. He is, objectively, bad at it. He should be replaced.

  • The city would never tolerate totally shutting down a major road like Portola for extended periods like this — and, in fact, would spend whatever it takes to keep it open. Why are transit riders treated differently in this supposedly “transit first” city?
    First, there is no excuse for disrupting passengers twice in as many years when both the Blue light work and the new car testing could have been conducted over a longer period early in the mornings. To the best of my knowledge, Muni did not even ask their customers what they wanted. I think most would vote for testing them late at night over an extended period, and entering into service a few months or even years late.
    Second, for the track replacement project where a shut down is necessary (though Muni should further explore single-tracking or on-way commute service on a single track while the other is being replaced), Muni needs to try to duplicate the tunnel on the surface. That is, one lane in each direction on Market / Portola should be dedicated exclusively to Muni with physical barriers to keep cars out, and lights should be timed to give busses absolute priority.
    What about traffic? What about it? No one is concerned about disrupting thousands of train riders at the drop of a hat; it’s the turn of drivers to make due with less. The bottom line is, this public transit rider cares what driver need about as much as most drivers care what public transit riders need — that is, not at all.

  • How many cabs and Lyft vehicles are cluttering up the streets because of this? A lot, I would guess. Since the replacement bus service is such a joke, I’m using both.

  • I fully agree. The bus bridge needs exclusive use of a lane in each direction and timed lights for the duration.

  • But they have lost every shred of my goodwill by shutting down the subway for months worth of utterly frivolous reasons like “blue light” telephone installation and testing new rail cars, situations for which no other transit system in the world would consider such extensive service cuts. Exactly. If Muni management can’t or won’t run the trains, we need to hire executives who can or will. While it will play havoc with my budget, I plan to use cabs and Lyft pretty much exclusively during the track replacement. I don’t drive and time is important to me.

  • Ethan

    SFMTA – MUNI needs clearly MARK all stops
    They need to figure out Castro and MUNI stops.
    *ALL* Inbound, shuttle buses and the 37 should stop in front of Chevron. (Due to “main stop” being NOT accessible)
    *ALL* Outbound buses and the 37 should stop in front of Pottery Barn
    *ALL* Inbound, shuttle buses should stop at Portola Dr & Clipper St
    *ALL* Outbound, shuttle buses should stop at Portola Dr & Burnett Ave

  • keenplanner

    Stoopid service. We caught the N-bus on Market a couple nights ago. When we got to Church and Market, I asked the driver whether he drove up Haight or Duboce. He said “I only go to Church/Duboce.” Great. When we arrived, there were 3-4 buses, all marked KLMNJ, and no wayfinding, so we just said fuck it and walked.
    Why aren’t they testing these new trains at night?

  • City Resident

    Your suggestions make sense. I’d also like to see Muni’s subway replacement shuttle bus stops only at subway stops (i.e. Castro, Church, Van Ness, Civic Center… instead of every block or so). The F-line is the local.

  • Schad

    The trains still operate on the surface during the weeknight and weekend shutdown periods.
    No train line travels along Haight St. (the 6 and 7 bus routes, do, however). N (and inbound J) trains from Church/Duboce would travel along Duboce, west to the N Judah terminal at La Playa. I know it’s a little late to tell you this now, but in the event you were to repeat the trip you referenced above, hopefully this will help.

    As for the headsigns, those were mistaken and should have read “KLM” if they were part of the bus bridge from West Portal to Embarcadero.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Isn’t Reiskin the more relevant bureaucrat?

  • neroden

    Well, I’m glad they’ll do this next time, but *seriously*, what is wrong with them that they didn’t think of this *immediately*? It’s the *first* thing any transit rider thought of.

    Agencies in SF are way too siloed and introverted.

  • neroden

    $2Bn? Geary subway could have been built for that.

  • theqin

    Why can’t they run all of the subway lines above ground on Market street during this testing phase? All of the subway cars support high and low platform boarding. They have all of the tracks built to allow N and T cars to turn and follow the F line above ground, some of these tracks are already being used by the E line.