Dave Snyder

How to fix public transit


OPINION As San Franciscans deal with the shock of ever-worsening budget cuts, it’s time we look to fundamental structural changes in the way government does business. That’s a scary thought because, as Naomi Klein warns, free market ideologues use shocks to accomplish a very damaging type of structural change that cuts public service, increases privatization, and strengthens class division. Those of us who support collective responsibility and a strong public sector had better work together to propose our own structural change.

In transportation, to reduce driving — which accounts for 47 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in this city — we must increase public transit ridership dramatically. Yet the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is cutting its budget by 16 percent. The solution is simple, but not easy: car transportation will have to cost more, in terms of money and time. Transit, walking, and bicycling will have to be easier, faster, and safer. We can use the funds from increases in driving costs to fund improvements to other forms of transportation.

The alternative is an abandonment of the great equalizer that is public transit — and a kind of privatization that provides the automobile as an option for the middle class but at the cost of miserable transportation for the 30 percent of San Francisco households who don’t have cars.

For this to work, public transit must be not just a little bit better, it must be a great deal better. It must remain affordable for families and serve the whole city efficiently, at all hours of the day. Residents should need cars so rarely that transit costs, plus occasional car-sharing and car rentals, are cheaper alternatives than car ownership.

With a higher gas tax and tolls on freeways (measures a recent San Francisco Planning and Urban Research analysis shows to be among the most cost-effective policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions), we can make public transit work better. SFMTA should implement its proposed rapid network on the routes that carry 80 percent of Muni’s passengers, speeding up the vehicles by at least 20 percent. That will cost car drivers some time: mixed traffic lanes will have to be converted to bus lanes. Turns will have to be restricted and parking will have to be removed.

The city also must make bicycling safe and easy. Our bikeways need to be safe for 8-year olds, who need systems that forgive mistakes and allow for slow and easy riding, and seniors, who are not physically able to ride fast and cannot afford to make emergency stops that may cause a fall. That means we need effective 18 mph traffic-calmed zones and a system of car-free bike paths, including one down Market Street.

Transportation is a regional issue that San Francisco cannot solve on its own. We must do a better job of matching our regional development patterns to our needs to promote walking, bicycling, and transit.

To make all this work, we must stop sprawl immediately and concentrate growth in cities and existing suburbs. More density in cities means more people to support transit (through fares and a higher tax base) and more people to support local shops so that walking to your grocery store is an option for more people.

Dave Snyder is transportation policy director at SPUR.

The new Muni plan


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

Dave Snyder is the transportation policy director for the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR).