Muni is finding creative new ways to blow up the system. Photo by Jim Herd.

Documents obtained by Mission Local reveal shunting drivers and buses off their runs to serve as shuttles during the Twin Peaks tunnel closure has resulted in service cuts of up to 33 percent on San Francisco’s most crowded lines.


[dropcap]In[/dropcap] the age of social media, riding on public transit isn’t what brings us together anymore in San Francisco. Rather, it’s complaining about riding on public transit that unites us all.

Years ago, the recriminations about a slow bus, a crazed passenger, or an unfortunate seating experience that required an impromptu trip to Old Navy for a new pair of pants would have once been mere water-cooler material. Now, they can be broadcast to the world. And that’s fine — until it isn’t. Instead of crying “wolf,” we’ve cried “Muni sucks” one time too many.

By perpetually berating and belittling the service of a transit agency that is — by default — among the eight to 10 best in the nation, we have lost the capacity to quickly comprehend and react to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency well and truly screwing things up and failing its riding public.

And, make no mistake, that is happening. Right now — and you didn’t hear about it from Muni management.

Thanks to solid work from the San Francisco Examiner, we know that Muni isn’t just having a bad day, as many stranded riders furiously punching complaints into their smartphones would naturally assume (“Muni sucks! #MuniFail”). Despite warnings many months in advance that pressing ahead with the planned two-month closure of the century-old Twin Peaks tunnel without ensuring adequate drivers and vehicles to make up for lost service would result in a transit nightmare, Muni’s upper management appears to have pressed ahead and created the exact morass it was warned of.

Muni either failed to plan or planned to fail — but the end result is much the same: Countless passengers have been victimized by thousands of hours of missed service. And, most importantly, these delays have not been felt merely by passengers of the Metro train lines that used to travel through the barricaded tunnel — but, even more so, by almost everyone else, across the entire Muni system, and on some of its most important and biggest bus lines.

Mission Local has obtained the missed hours of service of every Muni bus or train line for every Monday going back eight months. Since the Twin Peaks tunnel was closed for maintenance on June 25, the systemwide missed hours of service have leaped into the stratosphere. On July 2, for example, Muni missed 94 hours of the scheduled 342 hours of service for the 38-Geary bus — a de-facto unannounced 27.5-percent service cut for the city’s most crowded bus line. On July 23, the No. 8 bus missed a jarring 165 hours of its scheduled 494 hours of service — a 33 percent curtailment.

A chart documenting Muni’s missed hours of service created by Mission Local reader Steve Pepple. The yellow arrow indicates June 25, the date of the Twin Peaks tunnel closure.

These numbers are as abysmal as you’d think they are. On Oct. 30, 2017, for example, Muni reported 302 scheduled hours on the 38-Geary. It missed four. On that same day, it scheduled 484 hours on the 8-Bayshore. It missed 12.

The current de-facto cutbacks dwarf the 10 percent reductions that former Muni boss Nat Ford imposed nearly a decade ago. That was a scandal and an admission of failure, but — and this is the important thing — he told everyone he was doing it. These Muni cuts have come in stealth.

[dropcap]That’s[/dropcap] because the problem here isn’t repairing a century-old tunnel. That, frankly, is a great idea, and one Muni has long planned. The issue is that an Oct. 2017 internal Muni memo first obtained by the Examiner made it clear that Muni management knew it would pilot its entire system into the ditch if it went ahead with those repairs without ensuring adequate drivers and vehicles beforehand — and that did not happen.

But that’s just Issue No. 1: Even within City Hall, the scheduled two-month closure of one of Muni’s major transit arteries came as an unpleasant surprise; for all too many riders (and government officials), the first, last, and only news they got was this June 23 Chronicle article two days before the fact. But let’s say that you were a diligent Muni rider and researched the issue on Muni’s own website. Well, there’s a lot to learn here! There’s even a highly informative video explaining how this will affect riders of the K-, L-, and M-trains (albeit one with voice-overs that appear to have a Canadian accent, eh?). But left unsaid — seemingly everywhere and by everyone — is how this closure affects every line other than the K, L, and M.

As noted above: Badly. Horribly badly. Diverting drivers and buses away from scheduled runs and to the shuttles ferrying K, L, and M riders has created pain and confusion and fantastically crowded buses and long waits on routes miles from the Twin Peaks tunnel. Meanwhile, some of these Twin Peaks shuttles, drivers tell us, are taking off with four or five passengers aboard them, total.

It’s a fair bet that heaps more riders than that were inconvenienced when a bus was removed from a major service line and placed into ferry duty. In order to make up the missed runs on the K, L, and M, Muni robbed Peter to pay Paul — and, it would seem, came up short on the deal. Muni operators tell us some 25 runs have been summarily cut from each of the agency’s bus barns. The image below is a poster hanging in Muni’s Kirkland bus yard, near Pier 39. It informs drivers of “18 runs that may be canceled on any given day in order to provide support for the Twin Peaks 60-day shutdown.”

Muni has not yet returned our query about how, when — and which — riders were informed of the pending tunnel closure, and its ramifications. But, as the poster indicates, Muni knows which buses are being yanked from regular service to backfill the riders of the K, L, and M. And — albeit with minimal notice — the drivers know. But the riding public? We don’t know. If you’re a watcher of morning news shows, you’re told, dutifully, that Muni is on time. This would come as a surprise to the people waiting for buses that won’t come — that Muni management knows won’t come.

[dropcap]There[/dropcap] is, after all these  years, something of a feeling of Stockholm Syndrome among longtime advocates of Muni — and not just because a ride across town feels lengthy enough that you could get to Stockholm. In San Francisco, unlike other locales, public transit isn’t supposed to just be a ride of last resort for people who’d be in cars if they could afford them. But that feels less and less true with each passing year, as venture capital-subsidized transit services aim to cannibalize a public transit agency increasingly defined by its shambolic conditions.

If San Francisco is a store, Muni is its escalators. And, right now, those escalators are jammed — with you-know-what. Muni management’s crashing of the system is painful, not just for the obvious reason that a transit agency is not able to provide reliable transit. It’s also a sad assessment of the state of the social contract here in San Francisco: The VC-subsidized modes of transit now eating Muni’s lunch shunt workers into malthusian, low-paying gigs and result in extraordinary profits for a handful of high-tech middlemen who don’t actually do any of the labor. Muni, meanwhile, not only provided mobility for San Franciscans, but upward mobility for its employees, many of whom were — and are — locals and people of color.

Twenty years ago, Mayor Frank Jordan was accused of allowing Muni to deteriorate prior to an attempted privatization move. In 2018, however, there’s an app for that.

The city has never needed Muni more, but the system has never made itself less palatable — or available. Our calls to Mayor London Breed and her office have not yet been returned. But our City Hall sources tell us she’s angry — as she should be. Her appointee, District 5 Supervisor Vallie Brown, has called for an investigation. It remains to be seen what that investigation will turn up and what our new mayor will do.

But hopefully, unlike Muni, she moves quickly.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. “Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior...

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14 Comments

  1. Imagine, hypothetically, that you wanted to run a city where people drove as much as possible. What might you do?

    – Cut bus service by up to a third, secretly, so that nobody can plan around it. Just let everyone decide the bus is generically unreliable and find other ways to get around
    – Shut down a major transit artery for months. Provide inadequate service to compensate
    – Have a subway that suffers from regular “traffic” congestion and awful reliability
    – Block bikeshare expansion, even near major transit hubs
    – Sign an exclusive contract with a bikeshare company that can’t put e-bikes on the street (there’s precisely 1 GoBike e-bike for the entire city available at this moment) and cap the number of Jump bikes at a low number
    – Take all the scooters off the street. Claim they’ll be back in the end of June. When it’s August, shrug.
    – Fail to build bike lanes and fail to fix deadly ones.
    – Have nearly no traffic police on duty. Do nothing about rampant double parking endangering cyclists and slowing traffic and transit.

    I keep hearing we’re a “transit first” city. But when everything we’re doing winds up making a car the best choice to get anywhere, it’s time we stop repeating that lie. I don’t actually think there’s a conspiracy to push people into cars, Uber, and Lyft, no. But what we’re doing is nearly indistinguishable from the policies you’d enact to do that on purpose, and the amount of traffic on our streets is proof that it’s unsustainable.

    1. In 1999, Willie Brown, SPUR and “Rescue [sic] Muni” put a measure on the ballot, Prop E, that created the MTA as an “independent” agency comprised of Muni and DPT and streets engineering under a seven member Board of Directors appointed by the Mayor, confirmed by the Board of Supervisors.

      It is that governance model that has failed San Franciscans. There have been several attempts to change the model.

      Each was fought vigorously by successive Mayors and their political operations. One might think that there might be some manner of corruption involved in contracting that would lead to such jealous guarding of a billion dollar agency that appears to deliver transit on occasion as an optional side effect of some other project.

  2. The agency failed and is failing the people. The Operators are doing their best to fulfill their part of service even with low morale and being underpayed. Operators appreciate the patience of riders.

  3. Well, not sure anything is really that surprising here, frankly. And it’s only going to get worse. Overcrowded urine-soaked busses, (possibly) overpaid operators, (possibly) overpaid management…nothing to see here – keep moving along (no pun intended).

    I wonder what kind of ballot options there are for dissolving the current organization structure and starting over. Does that even make sense? What would that look like? Is there a model of success out there? How does a public transit authority compete with all available options? You can’t raise prices because it becomes too expensive/ridership drops, you can’t cut costs because let’s face it that’s not reality. Does the city/taxpayers kick in massive amounts of $ for infrastructure improvements and the SFMTA simply manages buses/lightrail/operators? Should there be 2 authorities – one for infrastructure, one for operation?

    1. Thanks for reading. Please resist the temptation to equate this self-imposed disaster with everyday mismanagement, as noted in the very first words of this article.

      Best,

      JE

      1. What is wrong with having a Canadian accent?

        Isn’t San Francisco a multi-cultural/racial/lingual liberal paradise? Hmmm….

        1. Sir —

          Your attempt to make this into a “liberal paradise” issue indicates you’re feigning some manner of outrage. I’m not impressed.

          There’s nothing wrong with having any sort of accent, but it is something one notices regarding voice-over work. Muni, notably, has hired a very well-spoken local to do its in-service announcements, which, for years, have featured mispronounced street names. There’s nothing wrong with mispronounced street names, either, but it might be seen suboptimal for this sort of work. http://www.sfexaminer.com/voice-behind-citys-newest-transit-announcements-sf-native-speaks-fluent-muni/

    2. SF MUNI Operators are UNDERpaid and OVERworked. Operators get the brunt of all the complaints anger and frustration the public rightfully has face to face, while managing all the psychos that ride carblanche daily hoping that all of these interactions don’t result in an assault that will be denied by worker’s comp. All of this transpires while management folks sit in their offices pushing out same day memos
      (like the one posted here) given out when you arrive for your regular shift. Do you recall when the red carpet on Mission Street opened and many stops were eliminated? It was on a weekend…there was no notice given to the operators or the public. The riders were angry and the Operators took all the abuse because management does what it wants whenever and however at Everyone’s expense. Many operators cannot afford to rent or own a home in the SF. Approximately 80% commute here daily. Operators don’t make nearly as much as the techie transplants crying about it being hard to survive here-comparing the 100,000 to what welfare recipients get. TOP PAY base operator salary with no overtime is 60,000 if they make more it’s overtime and they get a little more $$ and the public gets more service. Newspapers vilify operators getting overtime but then complain about service. There has always been an operator shortage because it takes a special kind of crazy to drive a bus here in SF and not go “postal”. There are so many other issues but I don’t have the time to write a novels worth of information here.

  4. It was completely predictable that those shuttles had to come from somewhere. Canceling the NX line was hardly going to provide enough extra coaches and operators to run buses along two major Muni metro lines for 2 months.

    A big breakdown was that the only outreach was on the Metro lines. The riders using the 38 and 8 may never set foot on a Metro train, so probably heard little to nothing about the project. Signs should have been posted at bus shelters city wide.

    I hate to even say this, but for those who exclusively ride the Metro from Castro east, the service has been above average during the closure. Fewer trains in the subway means fewer jam ups and its often easier to get a seat. I dread going back to being passed up in the morning because the train is already full.

  5. Thank you to Mission Local for covering this and keeping our local officials accountable to the public and to standards. This kind of service is unacceptable in a major metropolitan area. I take the bus to work over a 1.2 mile distance. It look me 40 minutes one day!!! This poor performance is what makes people give up on transit and hurts those who can’t switch the most.

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