OPINION Every once in a while, it’s a good idea to take a look at our public utilities and see if they are still managed and operated in a way that serves the goals we have for them. So it’s a good thing that the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is assessing the effectiveness of Muni, 30 years since the last serious review.
The SFMTA’s Transit Effectiveness Project (TEP) has identified the root causes of Muni’s chronic reliability problems; gathered more data about ridership, system speed, and contemporary travel patterns than we have ever had; and, finally, proposed sweeping changes to make Muni faster and more reliable.
Muni’s routes have evolved from the extensive street- and cable-car system of the turn of the century. Back then, car use was minimal and transit service was profitable, so competing operators vied for the franchise to operate on city streets. Winning companies got their preferred streets, and runners-up laid tracks on adjacent streets.
We don’t need buses on adjacent streets anymore. We need core "trunk" lines that run service every few minutes. People need to know where to walk so that they can count on a bus always being there.
That’s one of the main ideas behind the TEP’s route proposals. It would also help deal with the problem of Muni buses being stuck in car traffic. Muni averages just 8 mph system-wide, a very slow speed that equates to higher-than-ever expenses. Speeding up buses by 25 percent is the same as providing 25 percent more service at almost no additional cost. Put another way, if a run that takes 60 minutes can be cut to 45 minutes, over three hours a single bus can cover that run four times instead of just three. The beauty of concentrating service on core lines is that Muni will be able to build "transit-priority" street designs to protect buses from traffic delays something that is realistic to do on the core rapid transit network, but not on every street that currently has a bus line.
Not coincidentally, these main routes also serve the city’s most transit-dependent populations. The TEP proposes to almost double the service on Mission Street, including expanding the 14-Limited service to all hours of the day. The 9-X from the city’s southeast side will come every four minutes instead of every 10 minutes.
These improvements are only possible because resources are being reallocated from other routes ones used by fewer riders but, of course, equally cherished. SFMTA’s planners are doing the right thing: putting service where it’s most needed today, not decades ago. And they preserved the philosophy of providing service to within a quarter-mile of every residence.
Some of us will lose a bus line. But we need to stay focused on the bigger picture: for the vast majority of people in the city, this new route plan will provide better, faster service. The kinds of changes recommended in the TEP are truly the only way Muni is actually going to be able to grow ridership significantly.
All of us who believe in public transit should support the proposals.
Dave Snyder is the transportation policy director for the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR).