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Switched Off: Muni's Switchback Solution Conceals Other Problems 

Wednesday, Mar 20 2013

Earlier this month, newly minted Supervisor Katy Tang was feted for targeting Muni switchbacks as one of her first moves. This was wise: There's little that infuriates Muni-riding voters more than switchbacks, the practice of dumping passengers, mid-route, and sending the empty vehicle back to patch holes in spotty Muni service. If Muni had a policy of dripping boiling oil onto passengers' hands as they reached to pay their fares, Tang would have done well to object to that, too.

District supervisors reacting to their put-upon constituents' daily complaints is the essence of local politics. But it's not the best way to solve deep, systemic problems. In the transit world, switchbacks are the sore throat that reveals a crippling sickness. They're the symptoms of longstanding Muni mismanagement and neglect. To Muni's credit, though, switchbacks have been substantially curbed in the past year — especially in the Sunset, home of their newest detractor, Tang. As the Examiner revealed last week, more switchbacks occurred on the KT-line than the N and L combined in January. And Bayview's Armstrong Avenue, along the T-Line, was far and away the site where riders were most frequently jettisoned during switchbacks. Asked if this was a good place to loiter, Bayview Supervisor Malia Cohen responded with an emphatic No. "It's not good to be there at night. Or in the morning. It's not a good place to be put off a train, period."

While it's cold comfort to someone cooling his heels at Third and Armstrong, there are tangible reasons why Muni is making progress on switchbacks. One is that managers observing Muni's entire system in real-time on computers have been making switchback decisions since last year — a step up from on-the-ground personnel employing the latest in pencil-on-clipboard technology. The last three months of 2011 saw 517 Muni rail switchbacks and 151 during peak hours. In the last three months of 2012 there were 381 and only 44 in peak hours. In three months, Muni will run about 90,000 rail trips; currently, there will be a switchback on about one of every 238 rides.

After years of neglecting maintenance, in 2013, an additional $17.6 million has been allocated for maintenance-related activities; in 2014, that's slated to rise to $29.1 million. Breakdown statistics indicate that — for now — rehabilitated trains are conking out less frequently.

Muni's self-styled "investment in maintenance" is only guaranteed through 2014, however. And as the supervisors attempt to shoehorn more people onto Muni vehicles for free or cheerlead the creation of the Central Subway, funds that would have gone to maintain Muni's aging vehicles and crumbling infrastructure will be diverted. But that's seldom discussed when populist legislators agitate against practices like switchbacks — which are really annoying.

Understandably, the plight of vulnerable riders — in the rain and cold with coyotes howling — is more compelling than maintenance issues and transit nerd rubrics. It's all connected, though. Muni is saddled with shabby vehicles which it further strains by packing them with riders and motoring through a hilly and congested city. Muni trains are notoriously difficult to couple and decouple — robbing the agency of the ability to add or remove cars according to demand.

Muni exacerbated this by institutionalizing the practice of skimping preventive maintenance and understaffing mechanics. Accordingly, the agency's breakdown rate is higher than those in other cities; so, short of trains and buses (and sometimes drivers), Muni is forced to boot riders and send vehicles the other way.

This would be less of a problem if Muni vehicles moved faster and could complete more runs — but, with an average speed of 8 mph, Muni is the slowest transit service in North America.

There are 20th-century fixes that could greatly speed up transit vehicles — but Muni has been slow to adopt them, even when the price tag is a small fraction of what it takes to bore a hole in the ground (as it longs to do with the Central Subway).

Decades ago, maverick Muni mechanic Michael Cheney was advocating for "skip-stopping" on Muni's longer routes — a plan in which an "A" train picks up and drops off at every other stop and a "B" train hits the others. Muni itself proposed skip-stopping in 2005 for its future Bus Rapid Transit lines, and the system has worked to decrease travel times and increase carrying capacities worldwide. But it's never had a trial run in San Francisco.

Prioritizing Muni vehicles at traffic signals and segregating buses and trains from general traffic would also be a breakthrough; Muni spokesman Paul Rose notes that "on-street congestion" is the major factor rendering the KT-line particularly vulnerable to switchbacks. "It's just ridiculous that a train or bus with hundreds of people on it can get stalled in traffic," says former Muni engineer Jerry Cauthen. "It shouldn't be that way. It's just medieval."

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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