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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Magical MUNI tour kicks off!

Posted By on Tue, Apr 22, 2008 at 8:44 AM


IF YOU GO: Snacks will be served, with shouting to follow.

By Benjamin Wachs

Julie, a manager with the Transit Effectiveness Project, points to a cluster of red lines on a white background and her head hangs, just a little. This travel speed map “is one of our most depressing maps,” she admits. It shows that most heavily used MUNI buses travel at less than 6 miles an hour.

There’s no better example of why the system has to change than slow buses – except for the buses that don’t show up at all. There are plenty of those, too.

The people in the audience nod patiently. They know that. They’re ordinary San Franciscans, who take public transit all the time. They are not impressed by the TEP staff’s assurance that “We’re been riding the buses and trains ourselves” to come up with plans to fix MUNI. (How very brave of you). But they’re also a patient crowd. In general, they support the idea of a MUNI overhaul, don’t have any concerns about focusing on express routes, and think that dedicated bus lanes and cracking down on double-parking is all for the good. That’s not their issue. Instead, they’re waiting patiently, each of them, for a chance to say the one thing they’ve been carrying with them all week.




Like an earthquake, these passionate bullet points rumble unpredictably beneath the surface of the meeting. At some point, they’re going to reach the top. The question is: how destructive will they be?

If the very first “community meeting” about the Transit Effectiveness Project – a proposed massive 5 year overhaul of MUNI – is heavily structured and organized from the top down, that’s because organizers know that any meeting about MUNI is, right from the get go, about damage control.

Give the People what the People say the People want

There’s something a little odd about the premise of these meetings, the first of which was held Saturday at the West Portal Elementary School. MUNI is presenting its proposed changes to the public … while claiming that it’s doing exactly what the public told it to. They never mention transit experts consulted, best practices that are being proposed, or successful transit systems they’re modeling themselves after: instead, they tell the members of the public how well the public was surveyed.

That is to say, the purpose of these meetings is to get our opinions of the plan that was already based on meetings to get our opinions.

The proposed changes, say the Transit Effectiveness Project, “are the result of 18 months of data collection and analysis, industry and market research, extensive community outreach, and countless conversations with MUNI customers.”

That last part is particularly puzzling. In my experience, the MUNI customers most likely to talk are also the ones most likely to say things like “Stop hassling me!” “Back door!” and “I know who really killed Kennedy.”

Just what changes to the MUNI system do these people want?

Lies, Damned Lies, and Snacks

The first thing one learns, arriving at the first community meeting … and they’re emphatic about this … is that they will be raffling off a free MUNI pass when the meeting’s over.

They have people outside the doors at West Portal Elementary School specifically to tell us that. They think it’s going to be a big draw.

Uh-huh: Because you need prizes to get San Franciscans to come out and complain about MUNI.

Inside the school auditorium they’ve filled the walls up with placards that are supposed to illustrate new MUNI routes, but that I think are actually color x-rays of the mayor’s intestines. They ask you to sign in, and then inform you that there are snacks at the back: Wheat Thins, Oreos, and Nilla Wafers.

Finding a place to sit after filling up on exotic delicacies and picking up pamphlets with titles like “Getting there on Transit” and “Making San Francisco’s Streets More Liveable” is a surprisingly wrenching process. The tables are all labeled, and while I think I’m supposed to sit at a “District 7” table, the “English Speaking” District 7 table is full, and I don’t qualify for “Chinese Speaking” District 7, and my “Spanish Speaking” District 7 qualifications consist mostly of rude words.

Giving up, I sit at a table labeled “City Wide.” Nearly everyone else who sits down afterwards asks me first if they’re allowed to sit here.

Evidently there comes a point where too many signs are more confusing than none.

The meeting begins when Julie gets up to speak. She assures us that MUNI knows what we want: that their extensive surveying has informed them that people want a MUNI system where trains and buses arrive on time and customers can adequately predict how long a trip is going to take.

Um …. Yeah. Hey, what was MUNI designed to do before that big survey? I’m just curious: did its mission statement call for each ride to be “a whimsical, unpredictable, urine soaked, adventure?” Because, honestly, I do like this new emphasis on “predictability” better. But that’s the power of 18 months of surveys.

This meeting, Julie goes on, will be divided up into 3 parts. First, she’ll present some key plans. Then she’ll “turn it over to listening” (yes, she really said that). Then, there will be small group discussions at our tables, with MUNI officials present to take notes and address concerns, and then they’ll hear a report from each table and conclude with the big raffle. So it’s a cross between Junior High and the Rotary Club.

Just the Facts, Ma’m

The truth, of course, is that anyone who wants to learn the details of the Transit Effectiveness Project can do so without a public meeting. They’ve been heavily covered in the news, and the Chronicle. They’re also available in full at So far they’ve gotten 10,000 individual hits, and 700 comments by email. If you really wanted to know by now, you would.

Still, Julie was a good sport and went through most of it again, so here are some highlights:

• Changes are scheduled to begin (if approved) in 2009;

• There will be a significant investment in more MUNI “street level” personnel – which will mean more people to run buses and trains so that fewer holes will develop;

• Most focus will be put on the most heavily used commuter lines, turning them into new rapid routes;

• Double Parking is going to become a bitch in SF: the TEP calls for dedicated parking control officers to keep people out of bus lanes, and giving MUNI buses forward mounted cameras to catch the license plates of anyone parked in their way. Tickets can be sent out the next morning.

• MUNI has recognized what people who live in the City’s southern sections know: there’s really no way to get from neighborhood to neighborhood down there. In theory, MUNI would like to fix that. On the other hand, if there were any political will to fix that, it would be fixed by now, so don’t hold your breath.

The fast acting, bitter pill

Much to my astonishment, Julie and the other TEP representatives move quickly through question time and hit the small group segments almost exactly an hour after we started. This is the first public meeting of its kind in San Francisco that I think could be described as “tight.” I’m damn impressed.

The people around me are not so impressed.

“Here’s our plan, here’s a rubber stamp. Feel free to use it,” someone nearby mutters.

“It’s easy to stay on schedule when you don’t give people time to do what you promised they could – ask questions and discuss,” someone else says.

Really? Because, honestly, I don’t see it. I’ll grant you that often their answers to questions weren’t very specific (Question: How much will it cost to install the necessary trolley-wire to give the 6-Parnassus additional stops? Answer: we’re still pricing that out), but I don’t hear any big challenges to the proposal, and it seems like most of the questions either get a good-faith answer or are the kind of questions that can’t really be answered: yes, a hypothetical disabled person might have a harder time carrying their groceries if the 36 no longer serves a given stop. But what can they say about that right at this minute?

Once we’re broken into small groups, a MUNI representative asks us … bizarrely … to tell him our names and how we got here. Only one woman says “I drove,” and then she immediately adds “a hybrid.”

Unfortunately the room is loud and the tables aren’t round, so only half the group can hear each other at a time: this is a great way to get your own, personal question answered (Mine: is there any plan to extend the frequency of MUNI late at night when I want to go home from a night of drunken journalism? Answer: No), but a poor way to get a sense of what you’re table’s thinking. MUNI officials take notes … directly on MUNI maps … and then report back to the TEP organizers.

Can everyone be a winner?

It’s only now, when the meeting’s just about over and the raffle about to begin (remember that?) that the shouting starts. It starts off with the idea that a man near the entrance is angry that the 66 could be cut, but in fact, he’s angry that any line, at all, could be cut, ever.

“No service should be eliminated in this city!” he shouts. “This is one of the wealthiest cities in the world, and it shouldn’t tell members of the public ‘you can’t get bus service!’”

People clap. It starts getting ugly.

“Where’s the member of the Board of Supervisors who was here?” he asks, referring to Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, who showed up early to make a few remarks and then, apparently, ducked out so as not to waste his Saturday among the voters. “He’s not here now, when we have questions that need to be answered!”

“Yeah!” shouts the crowd.

“Where’s Mr. Lee?” he asks. Does he mean the City Manager? “Why isn’t he here? Someone who can answer questions?”

“Where’s the mayor?” shouts someone from the crowd?

Oh, like that would happen. We’re nowhere NEAR pretty enough.

An MTA spokesman tries to explain that, with limited funding, MUNI is trying to serve the most people possible in the best manner …

“But that’s the problem with your philosophy!” the shouting man shouts back. “For the most people! If you’re going to charge more, especially if you’re going to charge more, it should serve everybody! No one should be cut!”

I’m surprised it took almost 2 hours for us to reach this point. But it’s the one that really matters: the moment when the Transit Effectiveness Project hits its real opposition – an opposition that can’t be addressed through public meetings like this. Nobody who had nuts and bolts questions for the TEP walked away with a bad experience: but for the people who believe that a MUNI revamp should have no losers, at all, did not leave satisfied.

Not even by a raffle.

The next TEP/MUNI overhaul public meeting will be held Thursday night. For a complete list of meeting times and locations, click here.

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Benjamin Wachs


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