On the Bus: A Rolling Reality Check

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency listed environmentally friendly buses as one of their accomplishments, but their survey shows passengers want cleaner, on-time buses.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency listed environmentally friendly buses as one of their accomplishments, but their survey shows passengers want cleaner, on-time buses.

When CEO Nathaniel Ford presented a “State of the MTA” report recently at the transportation agency’s eight-story gray-scale building, Muni drivers in attendance responded skeptically.

“Come ride the 14 and Mission,” Dorian Maxwell, a driver on the 14 and 24 lines, implored directors during the meeting’s public comment section. Later he added that, to understand Muni’s real issues, the directors “should be required to ride the rough lines…where buses get shot at.”

Ford’s report tended to be upbeat, but drivers suggested the reality is less so.

Minutes after the meeting broke for lunch, Mission Loc@l got on the 49 Muni line on Van Ness, heading to Mission Street. Riders filled nearly all 40 seats, and two neon-vested operators — a driver-in-training and his trainer — were hard at work as more passengers piled on at each stop.

Ford’s report included accomplishments such as reduced emissions, increased transit accessibility for disabled customers, a decrease in collision accidents and a 31 percent drop in pedestrian accidents.

He reported that security incidents were down 10 percent, thanks to “a collaborative policing model with SFPD staff and SFMTA Transit Operations staff.”

Riders and drivers agreed with some of the MTA’s findings but not others. Police visibility was one on which they differed.

“If there’s a problem, the police don’t show up,” one Mission route driver said. “They don’t deal with us unless there’s a real emergency.”

Board secretary Roberta Boomer insisted that board members do ride Muni buses, and Director Malcolm Heinicke said he rides to work and on the weekends with his kids.

Funding, they concluded, is at the root of many of Muni’s ills, and that’s unlikely to improve. Despite raising transit fares in May, the MTA still needs to increase revenue by 20 percent or more.

“We are seeing our funding sources fluctuate quite frequently,” said Ford. “We need to seek out more stable sources.”

Nathaniel Ford, CEO of the MTA, said the agency staved off fare increases and service cuts longer than other transit agencies.

Moreover, the MTA is looking to cut more than 300 positions overall, to decrease expenditures further, a move Ford acknowledged will weaken the agency’s ability to deliver on transportation projects.

Among the agency’s accomplishments, according to the report, are new road striping, traffic calming measures and signals, sidewalk enhancements and the 45 new bicycle-related projects completed since a judge lifted the bicycle injunction.

Some board members still envision a San Francisco where driving a car is someone’s “last choice” for getting anywhere. But that vision is unlikely to be achieved soon.

Ford said this year’s survey of 563 Muni passengers shows that rider satisfaction dropped from 55 to 52 percent, Muni’s lowest satisfaction rate since 2001.

A large number of Muni employees reaching retirement age will need to be replaced by new employees, like the driver-in-training on the 49-line.

“Cuts mean more work for us,” said a bus driver working on Tuesday who asked to remain anonymous. She explained that service and workforce cuts result in overloaded buses. “There is no break time for us.”

Another driver agreed as he snuck a cigarette between runs. He described the pressure to be on time.

“I don’t want them to wait 15 or 20 minutes,” he said, staring at the ground rather than the line assembling for his bus.

Passengers on shorter rides seemed the most content.

“Wait,” the experienced 49 line bus operator said calmly to her trainee near the 101 underpass. The new driver stopped and reopened the doors. A disabled woman climbed onto the bus and slowly paid her fare, then sat in the first seat.

“He’s a good driver,” the woman proclaimed warmly to the trainer after observing the pair for a few minutes. “You taught him well.”

“We really don’t have to wait too long,” said an older woman dressed in gray, one of many elderly riders at the front of the bus. “At most we have to wait 20 minutes.” She had boarded the bus near 14th Street and exited at 19th Street.

Riders agreed with the agency’s assessment that more buses are arriving on time — 75 percent of the time so far this year. “Even the timer they have is getting more accurate,” said Emerita Blanco, 37, a caregiver and frequent Muni passenger.

The buses “were always running on time,” said driver Shawn Coleman, 49, also driving the Mission Street route. “It’s just the equipment is old. [Buses] weren’t showing up because they were breaking down.”

An older woman at the middle of the bus who wanted to get off began shouting, but she was mostly drowned out by the rattle-bang noises the vehicle made.

“That’s the other thing about these buses; they’re noisy,” said Coleman, referring to Muni’s aging white bus fleet, made by Electric Transit, Inc. “So the passenger screams, ‘Stop, stop!'” he mimicked in a high pitch.

Coleman thinks the new hybrid buses are an improvement, but not good enough.

He said the hybrid bus design helps Muni meet its accessibility goals because it has no steps and is easier for wheelchair users. Hybrids “just don’t have enough room, though,” he said, noting that the older buses offer more passenger space.

Another driver also disliked the hybrids because “they break down everywhere.”

That afternoon, one of those new hybrid buses on the 49 line — the kind the agency listed as an accomplishment — broke down on Mission Street near Silver Avenue.

“Is she still there?” the 49 operator asked her driver-in-training, standing to look out the windshield to where the hybrid had been sitting more than an hour earlier.

A large tow truck rolled into view. “She’s still there,” chuckled the trainee.

3 Comments

  1. doggz

    I remember asking my local police captain at our Ingleside community meeting if the SFPD still had a dedicated Muni unit, and he said that they didn’t have a special unit any more. I think this is a mistake since I too have rarely seen police patrolling on Muni. When I visited New York this past summer, the NYPD was always highly visible on the subway and buses and I felt much safer there than here in SF as a result.

  2. Joel

    If MUNI really is getting better, it better not stop. There’s a ways to go. I got off a 48 the other day to transfer to a 10, which the electronic sign in the shelter said would arrive in 2 minutes. Wait 4 minutes, and it’s supposed to arrive in 1 minute. Wait another 2 minutes, and it is supposed to arrive in 2 minutes. Eventually it says it is “arriving,” then changes back to 2 minutes. Then it changed to 15 minutes, and I gave up and started walking. 3 minutes later, the bus passed me on the street.

  3. Johan Francis Weber

    Muni needs to start investing in European Busses and Trolley Busses, like was done with the MUNI Metro LRVs from Italy. Muni needs to look into Van Hool A330s 40 footer and AG 300 60 footers. For the electric trolley busses, Muni needs to look into Van Hool A330T. The busses are more ADA compliant that their present fleet. Also European busses are more strolley and cart friendly than the North American made busses.

    When I went to ride the F Trolley line, the vintage trollies came infrequently and were over crowded. I would like to suggest, when San Diego MTS retires their Siemens U2 LRV, SF Muni should buy them to run more frequent service on the F Line. In terms of vintage trolleys, the Boeing Vetrols are turning vintage, how about rebuilding them and running them on the F line.

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