‘Retired civil servant’ Mike Cheney’s plan is so not-crazy, it just might work

“Dude, do you know how much those things cost me? Apiece?” This is a de facto rhetorical question from Mike Cheney. Most are. He immediately answers it. “Eleven bucks! Eleven!”

That’s a fair amount of money to spend for a retired Muni diesel mechanic with multiple grandchildren — but if it leads to one of this city’s most intractable problems being solved, it’ll be worth it.

So, that’s why Cheney prepared a comprehensive “2018 Proposal To Re-align Muni Goals & Operations,” printed up a handful of $11-a-pop copies, and hand-delivered a few of the svelte, 21-page booklets to the office of Mayor London Breed. That’s her quote right on the cover: “Muni has to work well for the people of San Francisco, so that it is their first option.”

Right now, Muni is hovering closer to the option of last resort. During the two-month closure of the Twin Peaks tunnel, the agency hapazardly plucked buses and drivers off core routes to patch the hole in its system, creating gaping service cuts on some of Muni’s busiest lines. And, compounding this fiasco, it did this without informing the riding public or even the office of the mayor.

Hand-delivering a transit manifesto to City Hall Room 200 — after copious emails dutifully signed “Michael B. Cheney, retired civil servant” — is behavior that could be taken as a bit, shall we say, eccentric. It’s the sort of thing befitting folks who rail at the Board of Supervisors during public comment about vast conspiracies being perpetrated by the administrators of the Recreation and Park Department. Or sing.

Cheney is not that kind of person. Over the course of three decades and change working in, on, or under San Francisco buses, he earned a reputation as a man not only obsessed with fixing Muni vehicles, but fixing Muni itself. As a serial whistleblowerhe broke up overtime payment schemes, and exposed and helped curtail numerous instances in which the health and well-being of workers, riders, and the general public were being compromised. He’s complained to management. He’s complained to the press. He’s even complained to the FBI. And, sometimes, after years of effort, things even got fixed.

Mayors come and mayors go, but sclerotic Muni practices are forever. But now Cheney is hoping that this mayor will change all that. Many of the suggestions in his proposal are, in fact, recycled from proposals he made years or even decades ago — suggestions generated and/or ratified by experts and/or city number-crunchers many times over.

But hope, like Muni wait times of late, springs eternal.

“There is no statute of limitations,” Cheney says, “on good ideas.”

Mike Cheney, as he appeared in a 1988 Examiner article titled “Pit Bull Hounds Muni Management.”

One of Cheney’s first suggestions on how to improve Muni performance is a populist’s dream: Muni managers will surrender their car keys: “All official Muni travels to be done using mass transit. Personnel will keep log books noting each trip, equipment numbers, routes & time, writing down any defects or needed changes.”

That’s the kind of suggestion that’ll be appreciated by barstool Muni critics everywhere. But Cheney’s 21-page missive goes far deeper than that. To wit: What if it turned out Muni could speed up buses and trains — and wouldn’t even need to buy new equipment, tear up the streets, or even eliminate stops?

Well, it can. It could install skip-stop route schedules.

This is a system in which Bus A picks up passengers at Stops 1, 3, 5, 7 and so on and Bus B picks up passengers at Stops 2, 4, 6, and 8. This has worked all around the world; it increases capacity and speeds up service. All the way back in 2005, Muni proposed using skip-stopping on Geary Boulevard for a Bus Rapid Transit line: “For the purposes of this analysis, Geary BRT service was designed as a skip-stop service, with ‘A’ and ‘B’ buses each stopping at every other stop, except at major transfer points.”

Thirteen years ago, Muni predicted that “given adequate funding and no community opposition,” the Geary BRT could be “designed and constructed in five to seven years.” It’s still years away, at best. 

Well, that didn’t work out. But skip-stop could still work out. Would still work out, Cheney claims. He is its greatest evangelist. He explained it to the Hearst Examiner’s Rob Morse in 1998. He explained it to me in 2013. “You take the bumpers out of a pinball machine, the ball gets to the bottom faster, right? It’s just physics, dude,” is how he put it five years ago. “You see that bus?” he said, pointing at a packed No. 28. “There’s people hanging out the windows. Because they’re stopping at every stop. You don’t need to stop at every stop!”  

Vastly improving transit service — and doing so on the cheap — would seem to be the end goal of every transit agency. But that’s not how things roll in the real world. Muni’s status quo isn’t working out for San Francisco or transit riders or San Francisco’s transit riders. But it is working out well for someone. There is, Cheney is wont to say, a lot of money to be made in running a transit system badly.

That’s why, when queried just what reason Muni has for avoiding skip-stop busing, Cheney replies, “because it’d work.”

By December or January, the Budget Analyst aims to complete an audit of Muni it was tasked to do earlier this year by Supervisor Jane Kim. It will focus on the agency’s decline in revenue over recent years and its epic, ongoing struggles with congestion management (Muni is the slowest transit service in North America. It doesn’t just feel that way, it really is).

That promises to be revelatory. But, then, so was this 1996 audit — and, Cheney quips, that 237-page tome has served as little more than an expensive doorstop for our transit agency; many of his present-day suggestions are culled right from it. 

Maybe this time, he hopes, it won’t take 22 years for the city to not do the common-sense suggestions we paid experts hundreds of thousands of dollars to tell us to do. Cheney remains hopeful. He remains positive. Because, as he notes, there is no statute of limitations on good ideas.  

Or, as Muni has amply proven, on bad ones either.

You can read Cheney’s “2018 Proposal To Re-align Muni Goals & Operations” here.

Photo of towed Muni bus by Aaron Kitashima