Editorial: Muni Needs Signal Preemption

As long as the city refuses to give trains the right of way, Muni will be slow and unreliable

As long as trains full of people have to wait for automobiles, there's no hope of fixing Muni. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
As long as trains full of people have to wait for automobiles, there's no hope of fixing Muni. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

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At West Portal, the western end of Muni’s Twin Peaks Tunnel, trains stop and start, sometimes waiting for several minutes for an opening in vehicle traffic. Muni’s acting director Julie Kirschbaum is trying to improve the situation by having staff direct and hold traffic, easing trains into and out of the tunnel.

In addition, she is putting all of the system’s bottlenecks under a “…microscope in effort to curb bus, rail delays” as reported in today’s S.F. Chronicle.

From the article, by Rachel Swan:

In the next three months, acting transit director Julie Kirschbaum says she’ll cut stalls and interruptions by 10 percent in the subway and reduce the number of major stoppages — in which commuters are stranded for 20 minutes or longer — to four a month.

But as Streetsblog has pointed out before, Muni’s biggest problem isn’t the subway tunnel itself or any single bottleneck–it’s the practice of making trains wait behind automobiles as soon as they leave it.

“Bringing in staff to direct traffic is a great start with immediate benefits,” wrote the San Francisco Transit Riders’s Rachel Hyden in an email to Streetsblog. She reports that staff seems to be giving trains priority over cars, at least during rush hour. But “…we would love to see permanent infrastructure implemented at West Portal that would give the trains priority to run without delay.”

That means when trains leave and enter West Portal, they should be on red-carpet, transit-only lanes, and any automobiles that want to cross the tracks should be forced to wait.

But even that’s just the start of what needs to be done. Once trains come out of the tunnel and start their street-level runs on Taraval, 19th Avenue, and Ocean, they have to wait for traffic and at signals, except for a few short stretches of dedicated right-of-way. In other words, everything outside of the tunnel is one long ‘bottleneck.’

Even when a Muni M, K, or L is “on time” they move agonizingly slow (average Muni speeds are only eight mph). A trip from Castro to the zoo on the L Taraval takes nearly forty minutes by Muni, but only twenty minutes by private automobile. West Portal to Balboa Park takes 22 minutes on the K, and 11 by car. S.F. State to West Portal takes 18 minutes by train and ten by car. Any advantage the trains gain from shooting through the Twin Peaks subway is negated by having to wait for traffic once on the surface.

No wonder Uber and Lyft are ‘stealing’ Muni riders–one study estimates that have driven down Muni ridership by 12.7 percent since they entered the market in 2010.

Hyden is hopeful Kirschbaum can start to turn things around. “We’re seeing much more proactive notification about problems–communication is key to building trust and understanding with the public and the riders. She has also taken concrete, common-sense steps to address long-standing mechanical challenges. Her transparency and honesty in her reporting to the Board is refreshing–we feel that at last there’s someone in charge who is taking Muni’s issues seriously and starting to put the needs of the rider first.”

Every other kind of train gets priority at intersections. Why should Muni trains be any different? Image: MUTCD
Every other kind of train gets preemption at intersections. Why should Muni trains be any different? Image: MUTCD

But, ultimately, Kirschbaum’s success at Muni will depend on the city following through on its “Transit First” commitments, by banning cars from the tracks and putting up crossing gates and other forms of signal preemption at intersections. They can start by putting up traffic signals at West Portal that will always give trains a green light as they enter and exit the tunnel.

Because that’s the only way transit is really going to be reliable, fast, and first.

Update/clarification: Paul Rose of SFMTA says the staff directing traffic at West Portal are “primarily ensuring everyone is engaged as they should. They will hold pedestrians or cars at times to all the trains to proceed. Ensuring all are following the rules is the most helpful part of what they do so the trains can get into or out of the tunnel.”

  • crazyvag

    There should be absolutely no reason why any N or T should stop anywhere aside from its station on Embarcadero or 3rd. I’m pretty sure a freshman computer science student could write code to implement that.

  • LazyReader

    Muni has been slow and unreliable since……….a while. Giving it signal priority is one positive step but it’s one drop in a bucket of neglect and agency ineptitude. The Key System (or Key Route) was a privately owned company that provided mass transit in the cities of Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda, Emeryville, Piedmont, San Leandro, Richmond, Albany, and El Cerrito in the eastern San Francisco Bay Area for nearly 50 years. Until it was sold to a newly formed public agency, AC Transit in 1960 and they ran it into the ground with debt.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Interesting alternative historical narrative. In reality AC Transit was a public bailout of the bankrupt Key System.

  • LazyReader

    And Muni is in the same fiscal ineptitude. BART is still falling apart and needs close to 10 Billion to repair it’s systems………..money it doesn’t have.

  • Jesse Richmond

    I do think they should get signal preemption, but I also wonder which has a bigger impact to the slow speeds: red lights or the constant stop signs through the avenues? It’s crazy that we make the trains stop every couple of blocks regardless of traffic. There aren’t that many red lights anywhere on Taraval, so surely they aren’t the main reason the L is so slow.

  • jd_x

    True, but every little bit helps. The L-Taraval may not be the most effective place, but signal priority would drastically improve most lines. I know the J-Church is just brutal going from 18th up to Market. That section of that line really needs signal priority. And buses can use it as well.

    As for the L-Taraval, the roads are so wide in this area that they could easily add roundabouts with the train tracks through the middle. It would be more expensive, but you can then have gates that come down when the train goes through the intersection. I’ve seen this around, like this:


    though it could be done more compact, but the idea seems sound.

  • Roger R.

    “constant stop signs through the avenues? It’s crazy that we make the trains stop every couple of blocks regardless of traffic” Couldn’t agree more. Jd_x’s traffic circle example from Australia (I’ve seen similar traffic circle/rail crossings in the Netherlands) might be a good solution. Or replace the stop signs with a flashing red signal that turns solid red for cross traffic and green for the train direction whenever a train approaches. But, yes, having a train stop at stop signs is ludicrous and it’s amazing it’s gone on for so long.

  • p_chazz

    Pretty hard to give Muni signal priority when there are no signals at West Portal and Ulloa…

  • p_chazz

    I doubt that a proper roundabout would fit in at an intersection without demolishing the houses on the four corners to make room for it. Roundabouts take up a lot of real estate. What passes for a roundabout in San Francisco is basically an intersection with an obstruction in the middle.

  • david vartanoff

    Along the Embarcadero, the TSP hjardware was installed when the tracks were laid–but are not in use!!! As to delays at WP, yes, needs traffic signal work. That said the time sink at Embarcadero Station is the major disruptor of tunnel service. Six minutes to reverse a train??? Insane. The procedures need to be changed/tightened up. Unless Ms. Kirschbaum tackles that, little will change.
    Otherwise, the often suggested radical shift to forcing transfers at WP will becom,e necessary.

  • crazyvag

    Maybe simple rule is to let me ride the train while it reverses. Time spent yelling at passengers is better spent reversing the train. Also passengers learn quickly after getting delayed for 6 minutes – well, hopefully less.

    Kinda reminds why fewer people dodge fares on Caltrain. At best, they get kicked off at a random station like Hayward Park late at night and have to wait an hour for the next train.

  • Flatlander

    Are you going to apologize for your misleading comment or double down?

  • Jesse Richmond

    There’s no traffic signal at West Portal & Ulloa. There are traffic signals farther down West Portal, but it’s absurd how long the L sometimes has to sit at the stop sign waiting on the intersection to clear.

  • Jesse Richmond

    Also, a roundabout would only improve things if we can drop the stop signs, but the one nearby at Taraval, Claremont, and Dewey has stop signs.

  • Roger R.
  • Roger R.

    True. If we’re going to do roundabouts, we actually have to do them, not build some confusing hybrid.

  • LazyReader

    Neither, I’ll just wait til Muni and the transit industry inevitably collapses.

  • jd_x

    Yep, agreed: the abomination that is the way the SFMTA implements roundabouts (so-called “traffic circles”) is to avoided at all costs. True roundabouts are what are needed, i.e. no stop signs (only yield signs) but also the right size island in the middle (too small and cars can still blow throw at high speed, too large and cars can maintain high speed and/or there isn’t enough room for sidewalks and bikelanes). For example, this island is way too small: https://sf.streetsblog.org/2018/06/19/eyes-on-the-street-the-mcallister-makeover/

    I don’t know why SFMTA can’t just learn from pretty much all of Europe on how to do roundabouts right.

    As for having enough room, @disqus_xAyKh6iUKV:disqus gave a good resource on how it could be done. It might be a bit tight, but narrow lanes are good for slowing down cars.

    In this particular case with the L going through the middle, either gates or traffic signals which go red when the train approaches and otherwise flash yellow would work, whatever is cheaper. My guess is that the gates would be safer though.

  • Ziggy Tomcich

    Having trains not have signal priority is extremely costly. A delays of 5-10 minutes is 1-2 extra trains that are required to move the same number of passengers at a slower average speed. Spending this much money to have slower less efficient transit service is insane. If the trains operated efficiently by only stopping when passengers are boarding, Muni would need fewer trains and would move more passengers.

  • Mike

    When I take transit to work, I take the 5R. The bus already crawls around the circle at McAllister and Lyon. Making it larger would slow down the bus even more or prevent it from getting through without having to drive into the crosswalks.