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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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• Simply put, San Francisco has too many damn bus stops. The fewer you have, the faster buses will go, while incurring less wear and tear. "It'd be nice to see Muni get rid of a third of the stops in this city," transportation planner Michael Kiesling says. "That'd save some money." It also might spark riots — "Every bus stop has a constituency," Radulovich groans. Muni proposed consolidating its bus stops last month, but it will be interesting to see how hard it fights the inevitable backlash. Along with streamlining or eliminating bus routes tracing the former rail paths of World War I–era private trolley lines, bus stop consolidation is the surest method of inducing shouts from the loudest riders. Muni management has long had the ability to unilaterally eliminate extraneous stops. But it doesn't, because it'd rather not rankle vocal riders and give Board of Supervisors members a chance for cheap populism.

There were scores of such suggestions in TEP; think of instituting them as the remedy for death by a thousand cuts. And yet, two years after its completion, the $3 million study has hardly been used. Muni management had the foresight to commission it, and Muni's rider-owners have indicated they want transit experts making transit decisions — until some expert suggests removing their bus stop. Perhaps that's why the will to implement TEP is lacking.


San Francisco is a city in which a roomful of hipsters actually managed to push the Planning Commission to keep an American Apparel retail store out of the Mission District. As the gripe goes, if you can get a battalion of enraged people to crash a city meeting, you'll get what you want. In a way, the same goes with Muni. While advocacy groups representing the disabled, elderly, and others are able to shoot down changes affecting their constituencies, no one makes a fuss when Muni management's proposals work against the best interests of hundreds of thousands of riders. Legions of people are affected when Muni reduces its maintenance budget, but good luck finding even a handful of them to go to an MTA board meeting and complain. Even the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, which represents a smaller constituency, wields more power than any Muni advocates. The city has gone to court to implement its Bicycle Master Plan, but Muni's aforementioned TEP — which could benefit far more San Franciscans — has been neglected by agency management, except when it's wheeled out to justify service cuts.

This is perhaps the most maddening thing about the situation Muni finds itself in. The solutions presented in this article to make service speedier and more reliable weren't gleaned via divine inspiration. Muni management knows this stuff; much of it is in TEP. But, other than hoping for Hail Mary funding from the state and relying upon the mercurial wills of city politicos, the one budget remedy the agency's management has pushed, repeatedly, is to slash service and hike fares.

"Across-the-board cuts are absolutely the worst way to solve a budget problem for Muni," says Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR). "There needs to be some strategy about it."

More maddeningly still, Muni knows that, too. But TEP-based service adjustments take time; across-the-board cuts are management's quick and easy, although messy, solution. Muni needs arthroscopic surgery, but settles for a battlefield amputation. "I'm watching it start to unravel," said Kiesling, a daily rider of the 45 Stockton. "I've been watching brand-new scooters popping up in my neighborhood. I think Muni is becoming a service of last resort."

This is an especially visceral fear in San Francisco, as opposed to many other major cities where the transit agency already is the service of last resort, and by design. Muni's data reveal that its ridership is among the most socially and economically diverse in the nation. Passengers aren't on the bus simply because they're too poor to afford cars. In many cases, they don't want cars, or at least don't want to drive. They're on Muni because they want to be. But they don't have to be. As speed and reliability falter, as breakdowns become commonplace, as trains and buses arrive in bunches and fill to capacity, and as fear of crime on underpoliced vehicles grows overwhelming, riders will opt out. This leads to more traffic congestion, which leads to slower and costlier service, which leads to more riders opting out. It's a downward spiral.

And yet no one is holding Muni management accountable to make the big changes to reverse that course. The agency can neglect its riders' long-term needs because of the fragmented nature of its ridership. At a recent "Muni summit," transit experts — some of whom have decades of experience working with Muni — shared time with speakers who saw the consolidation of bus lines or even bus stops as a plot against minority communities; wild-eyed revolutionaries whose worldview began and ended with seizing funds from downtown and St. Francis Wood taxpayers to pay for Muni; and, naturally, people comparing the members of the MTA board to "Hitlers." Transit activists' aversion to allowing anyone into the room not dead-set against the Central Subway cuts them off from Chinatown residents — a bastion of Muni riders. And organizers' insistence on labeling transit reform a progressive issue needlessly invites hostility from other political factions. A functioning transit system benefits everyone, even car users and Republicans. Good luck to Snyder starting up his Muni riders' union. He'll need it.

About The Authors

Greg Dewar

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Bio:
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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