Muni on the Rise

An overview of the Transit Effectiveness Project

Urbanist Article

We already know that San Francisco needs a faster, more reliable Muni system. Voters recognized this last November when they passed Proposition A, which gave the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency more power and more money to help improve service.

What many of us don’t realize is that the most important effort to improve Muni is already well underway. Dubbed the Transit Effectiveness Project, it began more than a year ago as a joint project of the SFMTA and the Controller’s Office. It has provided more information about our system than we’ve ever had, and it is on the verge of recommending more significant changes to the system than we’ve seen in nearly 30 years.

The TEP has provided much data on Muni’s speed, or lack thereof. On average, a Muni bus or train moves at only 8 mph — faster in the tunnels and on the freeway, and slower than 5 mph on downtown streets. In addition, we know exactly how many people are on which buses, and when. It turns out that Muni service on just five corridors account for half of all bus ridership. And yes, Muni is late 30 percent of the time.

SPUR believes the TEP can fix these problems. Our reason for our optimism is that the TEP is blunt in its analysis — and thorough, specific and bold in its recommendations.

This article and our work to maintain last November’s victorious “transit not traffic” coalition are both part of SPUR’s attempts to build public support for the TEP’s key recommendations.

Four key things the TEP has showed us about our transit system

The TEP has gathered more data about San Francisco’s transit system than ever before. Global-positioning satellite systems tell us about the movement of every bus in the Muni system at all times, including a vehicle’s exact speed, how long it spends at stops and whether it adheres to its schedule. Automatic passenger counters, including sensors on the wheelchair lifts and bike racks, tell us exactly how people are using the system. Thorough surveys of comparable systems tell us how we stack up to other transit systems around the country.

In very general terms, the data have confirmed what SPUR reported in its reports Reversing Muni’s Downward Spiral and Muni’s Billion Dollar Problem. The TEP is much more specific, however, detailing exactly the implications of Muni’s structural deficit, and the effect of changes to operations and service plans. The wealth of information gathered by the TEP makes clear four key lessons:

Our Muni system has maxed out its existing resources, including its capacity to store vehicles overnight. The Potrero yard, for example, does not have room for the additional vehicles necessary to expand service.

Lesson #1: Muni cannot be reliable with current funding.

The TEP makes it clear: There is no way Muni can provide reliable service with current resources. The current schedule simply promises more service than Muni can reliably deliver. The agency’s annual budget increases of about eight percent since 2001 have been a few percentage points higher than the inflation measured by the Consumer Price Index, but have not been enough to cover the higher inflation rate in labor costs (which represent 75 percent of Muni’s costs), increases in fuel costs and decreases in efficiency due to worsening congestion.

Policy-makers have been unwilling to either raise the funds or make the service cuts necessary to balance the resources Muni actually has on hand with the service it has promised. As urbanists committed to reducing sprawl, SPUR believes that balance must be achieved by increasing funds to facilitate not just current service, but more service.

TEP planners haven’t mentioned a specific amount, but SPUR’s own analysis estimated Muni’s operating deficit to be in the range of $50 million-$100 million. When you add in the capital deficit (rail and vehicle replacement, etc.) the total deficit approaches $150 million per year. Proposition A, passed by San Francisco voters in November 2007, helped with an infusion of $26 million, but that’s clearly not enough.

The TEP explicitly states where Muni is underfunded and where the SFMTA should direct new resources.

Staff Shortages

Most importantly, Muni simply does not have enough operators to run its vehicles. Saddled for at least a decade by a shortage of about 150 operators, it will take years for Muni to recruit and train operators to fill those vacancies and new ones caused by imminent retirements. Fortunately, the City hiring freeze announced in November of last year does not apply to Muni operators.

The operator shortage has compounding repercussions. At times last year, Muni’s “extra board” carried zero operators. An extra board is
the industry term for operators who report to work to cover for other operators who call in sick or otherwise miss a run. Without an extra board, if one operator calls in sick, the system misses a run. If the system misses a run, it means more riders will be waiting at each stop by the time the next train or bus arrives. The next vehicle to arrive must wait longer for passengers to board at each stop, so it gets delayed and may end up carrying more passengers than it should. Its driver gets blamed by passengers for being late. Its run takes too long, cutting into the operator’s break time. The operator either sacrifices his or her break time, which is necessary for sanity and safety, or the break time cuts into yet another run.

The adage that efficient operations are light in middle management does not apply to transit systems. Muni employs roughly half the number of supervisors it should based on a survey of comparable systems in the United States.

The shortage extends beyond operators. Schedulers are SFMTA staffers responsible for constantly adjusting vehicle schedules to accommodate changes in driving times and to maintain reliable service. Muni has only half as many schedulers as the industry average. Increasing congestion has steadily lengthened running times without corresponding adjustments in operator’s schedules.

Muni also has fewer division managers than it needs. Of 14 agencies surveyed, Muni had the lowest ratio of managers to operators in its rail and bus divisions. Division managers are responsible for ensuring that operators show up on time and pull their buses out of the yard on schedule. Given the lack of supervision, operators are making their own decisions about compensating for missed runs and poor schedules. Buses usually “bunch up” due to schedule problems, traffic congestion, and private vehicles illegally occupying transit lanes and stops. Sometimes, though, buses leave the yard bunched up because no division manager is there to prevent it. Excluding Muni, the industry average ratio of managers to bus operators is 1:32; Muni’s ratio is 1:61. In the rail system, the industry average is 1:22; Muni’s is 1:52.

Muni’s budget deficit also affects infrastructure. Muni’s control center is a marvel of 1980s technology. There is $110 million in anticipated revenues from the City’s self-imposed transportation sales tax — Prop. K, passed by voters in November 2003 — for bus rapid transit and transit-preferential street treatments over the next 30 years. The Geary and Van Ness bus-rapid-transit projects alone will cost more than that. Essentially, there is no budget for systemwide construction of new bus lanes, bus bulbs and transit-priority treatments. Rails need to be replaced. Muni is out of space to store its buses.

Muni’s structural deficit is a systemic toxin. Muni’s front-line employees take the brunt of public dissatisfaction and, not surprisingly, morale is low. The stress is real, and it is perhaps one reason why the percentage of Muni’s workforce that reports unable to work is about 50 percent higher than most agencies. In an understaffed environment with low morale, employees “game” the system, and managers could find it difficult to discipline operators by denying them work when they have no other operator to cover a shift. Solving the structural deficit is key not just to reliable service, but also for improving employee morale and making further improvements in efficiency.

Market Street’s traffic signals are timed so that buses load and unload their passengers during red lights. Vehicles blocking the boarding islands force buses to wait for the light to change, causing a delay that lasts a full signal cycle, usually 60 seconds. The cumulative effect costs Muni hours of service time and millions of dollars.

Lesson #2: The system is slow. Very slow.

Muni is getting slower. This exacerbates the funding problem, because slower service costs more to provide. Consider this hypothetical example: If one run that used to take 45 minutes now takes 60 minutes, in three hours you only get three runs, where you used to get four. Providing that fourth run in three hours increases labor costs by a third. Conversely, speeding up a run from 60 minutes to 45 minutes yields a “bonus” run at the same cost. Average system speed in 2007 was just 8 mph, with some segments operating at less than 5 mph. Compared to the national average of 12.8 mph for bus systems, our speed of 8 mph, including the surface rail and Muni subway, is slow indeed.

As SPUR pointed out in its 2005 paper Muni’s Downward Spiral, speeding up service on the lines that carry most of the people not only will provide better service, but also will produce impressive savings. Appropriately, the TEP is looking at a variety of ways to improve speed.

A survey completed by 3,000 passengers showed that San Franciscans are relatively satisfied with system coverage, but they want Muni to be more reliable and provide shorter travel times. Reliability and travel time are related because passengers who cannot afford to be late add extra time to their typical trip to account for the possibility the bus may be late.

history of transit

Recommendation #1: Build true transit priority routes

Transit-priority treatments, where the traffic signals and traffic management are designed to expedite bus travel, are the most important thing the city can do to speed bus travel. The following is a list of improvements, in priority order, that will speed up Muni service.

  • Build physically separated transit lanes where possible, like those already in place on Third Street and the Embarcadero, and which are proposed for Geary Boulevard and Van Ness Avenue. Lanes separated by medians or curbs are self-enforcing. They represent a physical manifestation of our transit-first policy and act as a bold advertisement for transit service.
  • Stripe exclusive transit lanes on every major transit corridor in the city, where physically separated lanes are not possible.
  • Implement transit priority signals on every major transit corridor. If you ride the T-Third south of King Street, you’ll notice that the train never stops except at stations. That’s because San Francisco’s “SFgo” traffic-synchronization system monitors the trains and adjusts the traffic signal timing to ensure that the light is green when the train approaches. The system is not in place along the Embarcadero, a stretch of the T-Third where riders experience long waits at red lights. Transit priority already exists on sections of Mission Street and sections of Geary Boulevard, Church Street and other streets.
    It’s important to note that in San Francisco, the opportunity to build transit priority treatments at some intersections is limited by the need to safely accommodate pedestrian crossing times. Los Angeles achieved a spectacular speed enhancement on some of its bus-priority routes because it eliminated the pedestrian crossing cycle at intersections, and signals are set to change very quickly in response to an approaching bus on the assumption that no pedestrians are stuck in the middle of the intersection.
  • Build bus bulbs throughout the system. Building bus bulbs on key routes will enable a bus to serve a given stop without having to wait for a gap in passing traffic to pull back into the road. It also improves the waiting environment for passengers.
  • Rationalize the placement of bus stops, stop signs and traffic signals at intersections. At intersections with stop signs, the bus stop should be at the near side of the intersection, where the bus has to stop anyway. Muni has mostly conformed to this rationale, but in many places bus stops are located on the far side of such intersections, in part because the Board of Supervisors could, until recently, veto the slightest adjustment of stop placement if it chose — and the board often has done so when residents have complained about losing “their” on-street parking spaces in front of their houses. The passage of Prop. A in November 2007, however, put this authority entirely in the hands of the SFMTA.

Many stop signs should be replaced with traffic signals. In some cases, especially on the N-Judah and L-Taraval street car lines, a Muni vehicle will stop for 30 seconds for passengers to get on and off, and wait another full minute for passengers to walk across in front of the train. Replacing the traffic signal and moving the bus stop to the far side of the intersection would allow the vehicle to get through the intersection before dropping off passengers. To mitigate the negative impact on pedestrians of traffic lights in lieu of stop signs, the lights could be set to flash red — essentially functioning as a stop sign — at off-peak hours, and only change to green (with appropriate “don’t walk”/”walk” controls) for transit vehicles.

Recommendation #2: Keep the transit lanes clear

Market Street provides the most egregious example of illegal occupation of bus lanes in San Francisco. Every car that prevents a bus from pulling into the stop typically forces that bus to miss the next green light, causing a one-minute delay. Multiplied over many routes all day long, it costs Muni millions of dollars. Thanks to new state legislation, Muni is installing cameras on the front of all its buses that will be used to photograph motorists illegally blocking transit stops. Bus-stop violators will receive citations in the mail.

The legislation is very limited, however. The SFMTA won’t be authorized to issue tickets to motorists illegally moving in transit lanes because that, according to current law, is under the exclusive purview of the Police Department. San Francisco should pursue state legislation to follow London’s example, where their bus system is authorized to use cameras for moving violations. The SFMTA also is seeking state legislation to enforce bus priority as a matter of law. Motorists would be required to yield to buses in order to let buses into traffic.

Recommendation #3: Speed boarding

There are two reasons why subways are fast. One is the provision of an exclusive right-of-way. Building and enforcing separated lanes (recommendations no. 1 and no. 2) are attempts to capture some of those benefits with surface transit. The other reason subways are fast is because of pre-paid, all-door, level boarding. When the train comes, people simply walk on and off.

Above: Muni’s new diesel-hybrid vehicles not only reduce air pollution, they also are easier to board for all passengers, especially those in wheelchairs.

It is possible for surface transit systems to re-create this convenience. Hence, the TEP is recommending several steps to speed boarding.

  • Facilitate “all-door” boarding. Passengers with valid passes — which constitute proof that they have paid their fare — should be able to board at any bus door, just as they are able to board any train door in the subway system. At major stations the SFMTA should install ticket machines to provide proof of payment, which would permit passengers without monthly passes to board at rear doors. The TEP will test all-door boarding on at least one line this year.
  • Use low-floor vehicles. Climbing stairs delays everyone, especially passengers with mobility impairments or those who use wheelchairs. Muni’s new hybrid diesel-electric buses have low floors. The TEP has concluded that all of the SFMTA’s future bus purchases should be low-floor vehicles. With optical guidance, buses can be guided by stripes (as if on rails) to come to within one inch of the platforms. Wheelchairs and strollers will be able to roll right on to the vehicle without a second of delay.
    Converting the entire train fleet to low-floor vehicles is a bigger challenge. Existing surface stops would have to be rebuilt at a modest cost. The underground stations would have to be retrofitted, too, at somewhat greater cost. Interestingly, many of the stations were originally built for old streetcars with immovable steps, and so there are low floors below the existing higher floor. Surface lines could be converted one at a time, and the subway stations are so long that they could operate in “dual mode” for years, with part of the station dedicated to high-floor trains and another part dedicated for low-floor trains.
  • Consolidate stops. The TEP recorded the amount of time a bus “dwells” or remains at a stop, and compared that time to the number of passengers who get on at each stop. The data showed that the dwell time per passenger is only four seconds when at least seven passengers board at a stop, but nine seconds when just one passenger boards. It turns out that when more people get on at a single stop, people move more quickly, reducing dwell time per passenger at the stop. The next two recommendations address how to consolidate stops.

Recommendation #4: Improve and expand limited-stop service

The fastest lines in the entire Muni system are the “limited” services, so called because they make a limited number of stops. As the fastest lines, these provide the most transit service for the least cost. They also tend to be more reliable.

The TEP recommends a dramatic expansion of the limited service and a “rebranding” of the limited lines as “rapid” service. Only a handful of lines have limited-type service and none run the service all day. With better marketing, a “rapid service” with few stops and aggressive measures to give transit priority in traffic will attract many more passengers.

For pure efficiency, the buses would never stop. For pure access, the buses would stop in front of every passenger’s door. Finding the “sweet spot” between those extremes is the goal of every transit agency.

Recommendation #5: Consolidate overly close stops

A SPUR review of stop-spacing around the country indicates that if Muni’s stops were further apart, the system would attract more passengers due to increased speeds. The TEP examined how Muni’s stops are spaced and the policy for setting the stops. While stop-spacing varies widely, on many routes stops are probably closer than they ought to be for providing fast, efficient service. Where Muni’s current policy calls for bus stops to be about every 800-1,000 feet apart and rail stops to be every 1,000-1,200 feet apart — closer where there are steep hills — the typical stop spacing is closer than that. For example, buses typically stop at every 580-foot-long block in the Mission, every 485-foot-long block in the middle of the city, or every other 280-foot-long block in the western portion of the city. Occasionally, Muni has two bus stops on the same block. Just as the 1979 plan required more passengers to transfer to improve cross-town service and reduce the total number of transfer, the 2008 TEP should require more passengers to walk an extra block to reach their station in order to provide faster, more convenient service for everyone.

Lesson #3. Schedules and routes must be updated to reflect new travel patterns.

Muni hasn’t completed a wholesale review and revision of its routes and service pattern in more than a quarter of a century. In this overdue review, the TEP has provided reams of data about travel and measured every Muni line in detail. New travel patterns have been researched and future travel patterns predicted. Muni planners now know how each line performs in terms of passengers per revenue-hour, passenger miles per route-mile, and net revenue or subsidy per passenger-boarding.

Muni’s schedules have not kept up with changing conditions on the street in part because the SFMTA does not employ enough schedulers to make those necessary constant adjustments.

Among the findings: Travel patterns have changed, with less focus on the downtown and more travel among outer neighborhoods and between San Francisco and the surrounding region. Many routes take longer to run than they did five or 10 years ago, when the schedules were last adjusted, making it impossible for drivers to complete runs on time. Another key finding is that Muni carries 75percent of its passengers on just 10 main bus corridors and six rail lines. Improvements made to these lines will be noticed by nearly every passenger.

The TEP also provides lessons and hints for service improvements. By increasing service on routes that are already busy, Muni can attract passengers to the system and get cars off of the street at very little or no cost. The most important recommendation is the expansion of the “limited” and “express” lines into new “rapid” service. This innovation, spreading quickly throughout U.S. transit systems, will reap huge benefits for the system and its passengers if it’s implemented on Muni’s busiest routes.

Lines with high demand could see more-frequent service, while lines with very low demand may see less-frequent service. For example, a frequency that’s supposed to be every 15 minutes but in fact varies between 15 and 30 minutes could be changed to a scheduled frequency of 20-30 minutes, depending on demand, with a bus that actually comes when it’s supposed to. The TEP also will recommend a handful of new routes and route changes. For example, it is recommending extending the 14-Mission to the Daly City BART station.

Another innovation the TEP identified is the utility of larger vehicles. Where passenger demand warrants it, a bigger bus or train can carry more passengers for the same labor cost. The TEP is testing a double-decker bus not because it’s cute or provides nice views for some of the passengers, but because it carries more people than an articulated bus and takes up less room in the storage yards. Remember, Muni is running out of storage space.

Reliability — the chance that a vehicle will arrive no sooner than one minute early or four minutes late — has hovered around 70 percent for the last five years, nowhere near the 85 percent target set by voters in 1999.

It’s important to note that the TEP is not changing the service philosophy established in 1978. Muni will continue to provide service to within a quarter of a mile of almost every address and a route system that requires no more than one transfer for most trips. The TEP will propose changing headways — the interval between buses — and look at changing the operation of some lines from a schedule-based service to a headway-based service, where supervisors instruct drivers to maintain gaps between buses rather than stick to a predetermined schedule.

Lesson #4. The transit system should be better integrated with pedestrian and bicycle systems.

Finally, the TEP has noted that more than four out of five people walk to access Muni. There are 27 locations with 500 or more transfers each day, yet most of these places have no special treatment to make the pedestrian experience comfortable or safe. Improving pedestrian conditions will be especially important if the system is successful in attracting new riders to expanded rapid service with fewer, but busier, stops. Walking is key to a successful city; transit must serve and celebrate the pedestrian.

Bicycling is likely to have a bigger role in accessing Muni if certain new lines provide very fast service. Muni should provide secure and comfortable bicycle parking at key “rapid bus” stations which might attract passengers to come by bike. The SFMTA, as the agency responsible for all transportation, should also emphasize safe bicycle routes to major transit stations and stops.

Phases of the TEP

TEP planners envision two or three phases of implementation. All phases assume an infusion of additional money.

Phase 1: Fix the current system

Improve reliability with increased funding. Update schedules to be reliable. Ensure 100 percent service delivery, meaning that there is always a vehicle and an operator available to begin every run. Manage congestion to prevent unpredictable delays. As noted, Phase 1 requires more operating funds than are currently available.

Phase 2: Increase ridership

Implement the new, improved service plan to attract new passengers. Here’s where policy-makers will have a choice: a) a “resource-constrained” option which re-allocates but does not increase service hours, attracting a few more passengers at the same cost, by cutting back on poorly performing service and enhancing efficient service, or b) a “resource-enhanced” option which increases service hours, making transit attractive for substantially more trips. Phase 2 b) is the scenario that supports the rest of SPUR’s agenda to build more housing and attract new jobs to San Francisco, to prevent sprawl and its devastating impact on our planet’s fragile ecology.

It is important to note that this Phase 2 question is moot if Phase 1 is not successful. As a recipe for mitigating the impact of a cut in service hours, the TEP will not prevent Muni’s “downward spiral.” A failure to find additional funds to improve Muni reliability will force more people into their cars, further congest the streets and prevent San Francisco from living up to its ideals as a leader in building an ecologically sound, transit-oriented, modern city.

New bike parking or bike-sharing systems, like this one in Lyon, France, would extend the effective range of Muni’s rapid transit network.

Let’s do this!

Even though implementing the recommendations of the TEP would represent San Francisco’s most cost-effective transit improvement, SPUR is concerned that the SFMTA might not make it a priority. Implementing the TEP calls for a thousand small changes — hundreds of stop relocations, signal enhancements, bus bulbs, ticket machines and camera installations — not the sort of improvements that generally capture the attention of politicians or the media. However, the collective sum of these small changes adds up to a huge improvement in San Francisco transit service that a policy maker or transit agency director can be proud of.

It is critical that the SFMTA not implement the TEP in piecemeal fashion. We do not have the time to wait for one small grant after another to implement one category of improvements at a time. The TEP should provide the summary cost of all of the little changes that must be made to speed up Muni. The resulting bottom line will define the scope of the project, its budget and its shortfall — providing a target for the public and policy makers to meet. It also provides an opportunity for the SFMTA to determine how important these improvements are relative to other tempting transit improvements that may be far easier to visualize, yet which are not effective in realizing systemwide change.

Similarly, we cannot afford to wait several more years before we find the additional resources necessary to provide reliable service. SPUR has already listed numerous funding sources that we support to fully fund Muni. The SFMTA is authorized and instructed by the city charter to place any funding measure directly on the ballot.

The TEP has taken SPUR’s recommendations for a faster and fully-funded Muni one step further by spelling out exactly where extra resources should go and exactly how Muni can improve service. Thanks to the TEP, we don’t need more analysis or information; we need action. Let’s do this.

Dave Snyder is SPUR's transportation policy director.