The Last Time We Tried to Fix Muni

Interview with John Kirkwood

Urbanist Article June 1, 1999

John Kirkwood served on the BART Board of Directors from 1974-1988. His principal business has been the purchase, restoration, and operation of privately-owned railroad passenger cars in his company Rail Ventures, Incorporated.

As we go to press, volunteers with Rescue Muni and the Environmental Organizing Committee are gathering signatures to place a charter amendment, written by SPUR, on the ballot. This proposed restructuring of Muni aims to repair the structural problems of Muni's governance, management, funding, and relations with other city departments. It would also significantly strengthen the city's transit-first policy-reducing congestion not by building more auto capacity, but by making it attractive for more people to get out of their cars.

For long-time SPUR members, these efforts are reminiscent of an earlier attempt to fix San Francisco's public transit system. In March of 1973, after two years of work, SPUR published a major report entitled, "Building a New Muni." In March 1999, Gabriel Metcalf interviewed the leader of SPUR's first Muni Task Force and principal author of the 1973 report, John Kirkwood, about the history of Muni's problems and attempts by the citizenry to get a decent public transit system.

John, will you talk a little bit about your background and how you got involved with SPUR?

In 1972, I had just gotten out of college and I had done some work in summertime for People For Open Space and Greenbelt Alliance, and had been in and around SPUR because of the cross-pollination between these groups. John Jacobs was the director of SPUR and Mike Fisher was the associate director. I started here I think partly at the initiation of my brother, Bob Kirkwood, who was president of the SPUR board. I didn't have a job, so I came to SPUR as a full-time volunteer. I commuted every day from the Peninsula on Caltrans-in those days it was SP-and put in quite a bit of time, more than 40 hours a week. I've always been fascinated by the Muni and by trains and buses, but trains first, and streetcars and so on, and the idea of working on Muni as a project appealed to me.

The SPUR Transportation Committee had at least 30 very committed people who were daily riders on the Muni and who had a real concern about its well-being and were willing to work. And so between that and Mike Fisher's ability to mobilize volunteers-he did a brilliant job of doing that-we were able to get not only my time and effort but about a third of Mike Fisher's time when we needed it. Our Muni group met at least once a month in the early part of the study-the report, by the way, took a year. We met for strategy sessions with the full Transportation Committee at least once a month, and literally 30 people would show up.

What was Muni like at the time? What were the visible problems that made it clear that SPUR needed to work on Muni?

Muni had never dealt with the issue of a deficit, but from the mid-'50s to the mid-'60s, the Muni was going through a transition from being break-even or making a slight profit, oddly enough, to losing money and requiring subsidy. It's hard to realize quite how they got to that profit number, but Muni was getting virtually all of the electricity for the trolleys from Hetch-Hetchy for free and so there was a subsidy. Then as the Supervisors and the Mayor saw looming city deficits, Muni's general fund allocations became a target for cutting. In the early '60s, Muni was really just beginning to go through a period where there was no known source of funds. It was a pinch every year, just the way it is now. The general fund was, I think, $25 or $30 million by 1971 or 1972, plus probably $20 million of indirect revenue sources from Hetchy and other departments.

And the service was deteriorating. The bus fleet was old and falling apart, the management was a bunch of old hands who weren't particularly well trained to be managers. They came up through the ranks, they had good intentions, they were hard working, but they really didn't have any tools or any training to be managers. And when we first started looking at Muni, more than 25 percent of their runs weren't getting out the door in the morning. The same thing we see now. Service was abominable, it was a mess. Mike Fisher and I went out and looked at the car barns and went to the bus yards at 5:30 and 6:00 in the morning, and we would find 15 guys who were supposed to be mechanics playing cards and drinking in the yards. It was just totally out of control.

What was your approach to the study during that year and a half? What were the steps you went through in putting together the report, "Building a New Muni?"

Well, first we had to identify the problem and find out why Muni was deteriorating. We interviewed all the Supervisors, and several of Mayor Alioto's staff. We interviewed the PUC (Public Utilities Commission) -the General Manager of the Public Utilities, and his assistant, Jack Christianson, who was particularly helpful throughout the process. Although he was very stung by some of our criticism of his management, he stayed right in there with us. Within Muni we interviewed everybody from the General Manger down to car cleaners, and we asked everybody what they thought on the first go-around. We found that a lot of people had a lot of misconceptions, particularly the Supervisors, so we re-interviewed, frequently with our new information.

The other thing we did was interview all the union representatives. They were initially, of course, very hostile, and we were turning up a lot of negative information about some of their people and how they were protected by the union rules, and, really, we didn't feel they should be, the bad apples ought to be allowed to get out. And we made several recommendations about what the union agreement should have in it.

Another big thing that we did was line checks. We got the schedules from the Muni and we sent out committee members, and on dark nights with rain and everything else, we had SPUR members out on street corners all around San Francisco checking the buses and streetcars against their run numbers and their run times. It gave us an independent assessment of Muni's performance. We were the first ones that I know of who could statistically document the bad performance on the street, and we did it by having 40 volunteers out there. In addition, we had a postcard printed for the public to record their experiences.

The upshot of all the data and analysis indicated that Muni needed a fresh start, it needed to be reborn, and the only way that that was going to happen was from an outside influence, and we felt that SPUR was the ideal one to do it.

The process started for me in the end of 1972. And we reported every month to the board on our progress. It was clearly a key issue for SPUR; for that whole year it was the one lighthouse issue. As other things went along in the board, even in the most crowded board agenda, we got 10 minutes to talk about where we were, and for that whole year, the momentum built and built. Mike and I had been in every car house and every bus yard in the city, and we had ridden endless different parts of the lines at different hours of the day and night, and we were drafting the chapters one at a time.

Then we took all of that, including a lot of hearsay and gossip and opinion, and boiled it down. We produced a draft in November, 1972. We circulated the draft to the SPUR board, and all the parties had seen it except Muni and the Board of Supervisors. When Muni reviewed it, they were very angry at some of the things we had said, but they got over it.

I would draft something and Mike would work it over, and then John Jacobs would be more severe with it, and then when all of that was done, it usually faced my brother, who was quite an editor, and then it would go to the Transportation Committee and get chopped up royally.

During this time we were constantly in the face of the Mayor's office and the Supervisors, telling them that they needed to find more money, that they needed to rationalize Muni and make a commitment to it in the future. So we spent not only time drafting and interviewing, but also actively at City Hall, and we interviewed all the Supervisors to find out what they thought about it.

What were the major findings of the report?

The major findings were:

That they had little or no management control over the employees, little or none.

They had a lot of very dedicated employees, and they had a few lazy uncooperative non-working stiffs on the payroll.

They had no understanding of what the "patrons" wanted-they still used the word "patron" instead of "customer."

There was no phone information available. The only type of information you could get about Muni was you would call the number and wait forever, and then a driver who was on light duty would try to tell you where that bus ran.

There were no schedules, certainly no printed schedules, so nobody in the public had any idea whether a bus was on time or not.

And what we found in the car barns was the most disturbing, particularly Geneva, where we found a lot of drinking going on and nonperformance on shifts.

We didn't look particularly at safety issues, but whenever we saw something that was unsafe, we would report it to management. We didn't put it in the report; we told the people who could fix it.

So then by January of 1973, the findings and draft had been looked at by everybody, and that's when we got down to the fine work of putting in the report the things that we thought were significant and refining it and really presented it to the board and then it was printed. And luckily North Baker, who was always a big SPUR supporter, paid to print it and suggested the insertion of the "blue pages" that make the report easily readable. (They're the summary pages at the beginning of the report and for each of the major segments. They made it so busy people could get the guts of content-the Supervisors could hand it to their staff and say, "Here, you tell me what the rest of this says, I get the gist of it.")

The front summary pretty well says it all, but the body of the report was still required, of course, to document and to broaden all of the opinions.

You published the report in March of 1973 and what happened?

It got a fairly good amount of play right away. SPUR got instant credibility on Muni and the budget. Four or five Supervisors immediately adopted Muni as their pet project. In fact, we'd been coaching a couple of them at the time. John Molinari was one of the ones who did that and really became quite a champion for Muni. He was caught in a funny bind because he was also very noted for his budget cutting, and so he would go out and champion "transit first," and then he'd turn around and you'd have to argue with him about whether Muni really needed to have six heavy-weight trucks to service the bus fleet. But overall, all the Supervisors got in line. I can't think of any who didn't, but of course there were some that were more enthusiastic than others.

The Mayor's office moved positively about it. The Muni learned by that point to trust us more, and for the budget cycle from when the report came out in March until June, we were in every hearing and every meeting at City Hall stating a position, clarifying, supporting Muni where we could, and it had a tremendous impact. To the credit of everybody involved, the city for the first time in a decade funded Muni at a higher level and found ways to move even more money over from Hetchy and do other things, and to stabilize the amount of income from the ad valorum tax.

But that was really the end of it, you know, it was like a really great shot in the arm, but over time it dissipated, there is no question about it.

If you were looking back on it from now-it's been 26 years-what would you say changed at Muni or in the way the city dealt with Muni as a result of the report?

They got more money.

They were able to modernize their bus fleet with more efficient buses.

They were able to buy trolley coaches, which they wouldn't have gotten otherwise.

They were able to proceed with the light-rail improvement programs, which were huge capital projects.

They had credibility they'd never had before.

In 1974, we also took the report to MTC (Metropolitan Transportation Commission) and advocated for Muni. The MTC had just been created and there was a lot more money available than before, including state gas sales tax money and other things. So Muni, which was always the poor member of the family around the Bay Area, actually gained credibility during that period. Now, the one thing we didn't do – and we mentioned it, but we didn't do it in any effective way because there was no way it was possible at that time to promote it – was to try to come up with an independent funding source or a new commission arrangement that was workable and saleable at that time, and those are two problems today. Muni actually did pretty well for a while, because there was a lot of capital coming in and because the city committed itself to the operating side of the program. But looking back, it was destined to slip backward again after having a little resurgence, which I think it had for three or four years.

And why did it slip back?

It slipped back because people lost their commitment. Other squeaky wheels got louder and the Muni got quieter. We didn't build in a mechanism to sustain the effort. I think the only way that could have happened would have been if say, two years after the Muni report, we had come back with a recommendation for solidifying or combining transit properties or creating an independent commission. I still don't think that any of that would have sold at the time, but at least SPUR could have gotten the idea out there. I was no longer involved because in 1974, I ran for the BART Board and I won. So my time commitment shifted substantially over to BART.

As you know, SPUR has drafted a proposed charter amendment to fix Muni. We're at it again. Looking back at the lessons of the first time we tried to fix Muni, what do you think are the key components of a long-term solution for our transit system that will make it stick over time?

Well, I think some of the reforms are obvious and they require changes to the charter. You certainly have to get the route structure and headways out of the political arena. You have to let a planning organization within the Muni decide where the buses are going to run and how often and where the market is, and you have to get an agency that thinks of the market not in terms of where the line ran in 1928, which is now the case.

Peter Strauss and others at Muni for years fought this battle and they did get some good cross-town routes and they did make some changes, but it's like pulling teeth, and Muni obviously needs to have more of the ability to plan its own fate without political interference from the Supervisors and the Mayor's office, and, frankly, from every person on the street with an idea. MUNI needs to be able to say, "We're going to run a bus down this street," and not have the idea derailed because they're going to do something new. I think Muni needs to be able to start almost with a clean sheet of paper, decide where it's going to run its buses, and get all those restrictions out of the charter. That's one main element.

The other one is a dedicated funding source. Muni can never make it using general fund monies, it just isn't going to work. No transit system that I know of in the United States still relies so heavily on general fund money. Virtually all of them have independent funding for themselves. Some of them have sales tax money, some of them have other funds. Muni and other systems benefited in the past from federal operating funds. Now, of course, capital funds are available, but not much operating funding. But somehow or another San Francisco needs to figure out how they're going to fund Muni over the long term.

The third thing is one I think goes against what a lot of people think: I don't think Muni has a good future as a stand-alone agency. I'm a really strong advocate of combining transit properties in the Bay Area, and to me it's a travesty that we have 28 different agencies in the seven major Bay Area counties. It just doesn't make any sense.

So even if Muni remains a stand-alone agency and has, with luck, a new independent commission as in the proposed charter amendment, I think for its long-term success, it has to find ways to coordinate effectively, and I would hope save some management costs by working with Sam Trans and perhaps with Golden Gate Transit, and perhaps with AC Transit. There's got to be some commonality of transit properties.

Frankly, I think Muni should consider spinning off the trolleys to a rail operator. Muni could still have control over routes, but they wouldn't have to deal with day-to-day running the rail operations. I'm not advocating privatizing, I'm just advocating a public rail authority that could oversee San Jose, they could oversee Muni and oversee light-rail projects that may come in Marin and the East Bay.

So if we do manage to resuscitate Muni this time with our proposal, the next step, once it gets up and running, is we've got to be ambitious about long-term independent funding and looking at some sort of regional transportation agency?

I think so. I've never felt more strongly about it. But whether it has political legs or not, I don't know. Right now the divisions are too great, and we continue to foster them in our funding fights at MTC and in lobbying in Washington for funds. There's got to be another way to rationalize the way we handle transit properties in the Bay Area.

In your report, SPUR proposed that the city adopt a transit-first policy. How did you come up with that idea, and how well do you think it's worked?

"Transit first" in its initial form was really a club that SPUR used to beat up the Department of Public Works. One of our biggest observations was that everywhere in the city where it became an issue between a car and a bus, the car won, and that it was a structured internal policy of the Department of Public Works to make the cars the king. And Muni was so disorganized that they had no countervailing weapons to fight that.

So in it's initial form "transit first" was a tool to use on DPW to get them to concede street space for the buses, and its first application was to create transit-only lanes on certain streets downtown. Now, those lanes have a very mixed history. Sometimes they're pretty effective during rush hour. When they're heavily policed, they work pretty well, but it wasn't a big concession. It was like pulling teeth to get the DPW to give up traffic-lane space in downtown, but it got through. And then secondarily, after that, it became sort of the catchall for getting more funding for all the policy declarations that the Board of Supervisors could do to make transit the most important of the city services that dealt with the roads and the infrastructure, and it worked at that time fairly well.

I think, again, Muni lost focus. It stayed in the PUC, and, you know, it didn't gain greatly from the subsequent charter change creating a separate Public Transportation Commission. And now, of course, it's meeting the same resistance from the Parking and Traffic people that we used to run into from DPW. So I don't know how it will get resolved, but the transit-first policy was exactly what it says: a way to put transit on a higher priority than the individual motor vehicle in this city, and, you know, it's been mostly the exception not the rule, but there are a few tangible signs of it. I think it's a good rallying cry to come back to.

The unrealized promise of transit first.

Yes. There's still a place for it, and I hope that there will be some rational discussion about the charter amendment to combine Parking and Traffic into a transportation agency with Muni, not just as a funding source but as an operational imperative in this city that the whole city, and access to it, is a combined issue for both cars and transit, and they shouldn't be competing.Spur logo

About the Authors: Brad Paul is a SPUR Board member

Get The Urbanist

Join SPUR and get our magazine in your mailbox

Become a member