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The Muni Death Spiral 

Your transit system is terribly inefficient, extremely slow, and wildly expensive. Here’s how you can fix it.

Wednesday, Apr 14 2010
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Solving Muni's governance problems will take more than a charter amendment. The last two amendments hoping to depoliticize Muni led to the current impasse: The agency is still politicized, but with less accountability to you, the rider-owner.

San Francisco has amply demonstrated that a 100 percent mayorally appointed MTA board is a resounding failure. The board "is not independent at all. ... It hides accountability rather than creates accountability," says transit advocate Tom Radulovich, himself an elected member of the BART board. "The MTA board looks like it's running the agency, but it's not. The person making the decisions, the person who should be responsible for the failure of MTA to meet any of its charter-mandated goals, is not held accountable." Take a guess who he's talking about.

Problematically, other methods of assembling a transit board stink, too. Both BART and AC Transit's boards are publicly elected — and no sober person could describe the work of those bodies as something to aspire to. A geographically based board, such as Los Angeles', leads to "a lot of horse-trading," according to Wachs. While Supervisor David Campos and others have pushed for a "split board" with appointments made by the supes as well as by the mayor, voters squashed just such a motion in 2005. The city's split boards have a checkered record; no reformer could seriously say, "I want the MTA board to more closely resemble the Police Commission."

Yet we are almost forced to desire any flawed system but the current one. Perhaps the most intriguing suggestion comes from Peskin: Three appointments to the MTA board from the mayor, three from the supervisors — and the mayor and board president agree on one last appointment. "How's that for fair's fair?" he says.It's hard to see how that'd be worse than what we have now.

In the world of transit, time really is money. And Muni, drowning in red ink, is the slowest major transit service in North America. Worse yet, it's getting slower — over the past two and a half decades, vehicles' average speed has dropped 12 percent. This does more than drive riders mad — it drains their finances. The slower Muni gets, the more it costs you.

Why is this? The answer is something you'd find on page one of Transit for Dummies, and was reiterated to SF Weekly by transit expert after transit expert. It's even found within Muni's in-house research.

Imagine a bus takes 60 minutes to make a round trip, and buses run on the line every 10 minutes. That means you need to run six buses to provide adequate service. But if the buses slow down to the point where a round trip takes 70 minutes, suddenly you need to add another bus to provide the same level of service. Now you're stuck paying a driver's salary as well as fuel, maintenance costs, and more, just to do what you were doing before.

Of course, this equation works both ways. If you slightly speed up your vehicles — from Muni's 8 mph to, say, 10 mph — then you suddenly have the ability to carry far more people and generate far more money. And you're doing it for the same operational costs, or even less. But that's not the direction Muni is going.

Muni's explanation is that vehicles have grown slower because of more congestion. That's true — but it's also likely there's more congestion because Muni is slower. As the service languishes and grows less reliable, those with the means to do so abandon public transportation. Fewer bus riders equals more car drivers, which equals more congestion.

"It's a very destructive trend when you go down on speed," says transit engineer Gerald Cauthen, a former Muni employee who helped plan and build the Metro system 30 years ago. "As far as I'm concerned, this should have been priority one for Muni, and it should have been for the last 20 years."

Muni knows this. Riders cooling their heels at bus stops are also aware the system is slow — but what they may not know is that in 2006, Muni commissioned a $3 million audit known as the Transit Effectiveness Project (TEP) to identify ways to speed up service and improve efficiency. After two years of painstakingly gathering data, Muni figured out where people were getting on the bus. It figured out where they were getting off. It gleaned where things work well and where they don't. And the project's suggestions mirrored many of those posited to SF Weekly by numerous transit experts.

• Transit signals and road signs in San Francisco prioritize the convenience of cars carrying one or two people over packed buses and trains that have to wait three minutes to make a left turn on red, just like the driver in an SUV. Transit-only lanes — which have worked fabulously in other large cities worldwide — either don't exist here, or are enforced so sporadically that motorists getting tickets for driving in bus lanes actually inspire news items. All 70 Muni lines interact with traffic, and transit-only lanes would allow buses and trains to drive faster without mowing down private vehicles. In a city with relatively few freeways to shunt street traffic away from Muni vehicles, this could make a difference. "You could kick up speeds faster than anything else simply by putting buses in their own lanes," Cauthen says. But since having police enforce the lanes all day is a nonstarter, he suggests handing out tickets only during peak hours, when transit lines need them most. Other experts suggest camera-based enforcement.

• Whether five people or 85 attempt to board a Muni bus, the process is the same: They must file past the driver and pay (unless they don't; Muni still loses millions annually through fare evasion). Little surprise that boarding often slows down buses more than traffic does. "Managing a line that handles 50,000 riders a day the same as a suburban bus line is insane," Radulovich says. Stationing Muni employees at the busiest stops — and Muni knows what those are; it's in TEP — to accept pay and direct riders onto buses worked in past decades. It could work now, too.

About The Authors

Greg Dewar

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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