Stricken metaphor spotted on Geary. Photo by Jim Herd

“We always sell what we can’t own” —Fugazi

There is a lot of talk these days about making Muni free. Talk, of course, is cheap. Muni, at $3 a pop for severely curtailed service, is less so. 

But Muni is not going to be free. Not in the short term and, likely, not in the long term either. 

There are reasons for this, both good and bad, and spoken and unspoken. We’ve heard them all. 

First, the procedural: By a 7-4 vote, the Board of Supervisors last week approved Supervisor Dean Preston’s proposal to allot $12.5 million in general fund money for three months of a free Muni “pilot program.” Now, seven is more than four — but it’s also less than eight. It takes eight votes to override a mayoral veto, and Mayor London Breed has pledged that she will indeed veto this proposal. 

Well there you go. But, as we’ve seen in the recent past, even if all 11 supervisors voted in the affirmative — even if Christ caught the 76X bus from Heaven to cast a 12th vote — the mayor was not ostensibly obligated to spend this money. And, to top it off, the (100 percent mayorally appointed) MTA Board would’ve had to accept this allocation, too — over the strenuous objections of both its own agency and board members’ appointing authority. 

So, the potential outcomes for Preston’s legislation are a little bit like sitting in a puddle on a Muni bus: There are plenty of possibilities here, but none ends well. 

In a nutshell, that’s why we won’t have free Muni, not even a three-month “pilot program:” The mayor doesn’t want it, and the agency doesn’t want it. 

There are lots of reasons for this. Some of them withstand scrutiny. Some don’t. 

Photo by Lydia Chávez.

Separate and apart from questions about farebox recovery or funding sources or infrastructure or sustainability, one of the reasons Municipal Transportation Agency officials are dead set against free Muni is fear. 

Are there fears within MTA HQ at 1 South Van Ness that, sans barriers — fares, or even physical barriers such as turnstiles — that Muni vehicles will become rolling homeless shelters? Is this a possibility that is fretted over at the agency’s highest echelons? 

“Oh God, yeah,” confirms an MTA source. “The question is, do we lose 20 percent of our ridership because we gain 5 percent homeless people? That is a real fear people have. We already have a problem cleaning our buses. We already have a problem with operator assaults.” 

Adds another MTA official, there is also “a fear of the fear of that” — a concern that, legitimately or not, the public will perceive that Muni vehicles are refuges for only those who cannot be literally anywhere else, propelling us further into the vortex of the Muni Death Spiral.  

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Top brass at 1 South Van Ness, we are told, are also hung up on the notion of giving away service to out-of-towners and tourists; if the Johansson family is going to visit from Oslo, in other words, they better be prepared to fork over their 25 Kroner fares.  

And yet, San Francisco is a place that forces many a city native into being an out-of-towner (or, for that matter, taking refuge on a bus). And, based upon Muni’s own 2017 survey data, there are not disproportionate numbers of wealthy folks riding transit who’d unfairly benefit from a fare holiday: 52 percent of riders polled earned less than $50,000 a year, and 73 percent earned less than $75,000. 

The neighborhood with the greatest Muni use relative to pre-pandemic levels, by faris Bayview Hunters Point. This is not a part of San Francisco known for its great wealth or its transit alternatives. 

Meanwhile, to qualify for a reduced — not free — lifeline Muni pass, you need to earn 200 percent of the federal poverty level or less. That’s $25,520 for an individual, maximum, meaning a full-time San Francisco minimum wage worker earns too much money. 

This is absurd and, regardless of one’s position on making Muni free, this threshold could and should be increased by tens of thousands of dollars. Arguments that saving six bucks a day in Muni fares won’t change anyone’s life come off as callous and classist: That prorates to $1,500 a year, not including weekends. 

But there are other fears fueling Muni officials’ trepidation at giving away their product for free, and these are more fact-based and grounded in reality. These are fears of San Francisco’s government. 

The J-Church train skirts the Mission for just a couple blocks on its way downtown. Photo by Anita O’Brien, 2015.

San Francisco’s government is great at taking things from Muni. It’s great at siphoning transit money into mayoral staffers’ salaries; city departments are great at pillaging Muni to balance their own budgets. And, while all this was happening, San Francisco politicians have been great at proposing that Muni’s service be made free for broader and broader swaths of the population. 

But San Francisco’s government is not as good at giving things to Muni. Namely: Operating funds. In 2013, a city task force identified some $10 billion in needed infrastructure investments by 2030. The mayor’s office identified several bold methods of allocating a fraction of this amount (focusing, as always, on capital costs, not operating costs). 

To date, an even smaller fraction of that fraction has actually been generated: dimes on the dollar. 

And this, says a Muni insider — more than enmity for the Johanssons or dubious, knee-jerk worries about homeless battalions besieging the buses — is the real fear for MTA officials when politicians begin suggesting Muni be made free: “In this city, funding promises don’t come through.” 

Preston stresses that his proposed pilot would only be a three-month hitch; unlike eviction moratoriums, this is not something he intends to renew again and again and again. He points out that there has never been a more economical time to attempt such a program: Muni ridership is around a quarter of the level it was prior to the pandemic; if you’re going to forego farebox revenue, you’ll never forego less. 

“In this city, funding promises don’t come through.” 

And, while Muni management has expressed concern about driver availability, the drivers’ union hasn’t. “We want runs to be running,” said Transit Workers Union executive vice president Pete Wilson. “We like to work.” 

The agency, after all, has been given funds to not run over the past year, and the city continues to not only be solvent, but flush with money. The $12.5 million Preston proposed allotting to Muni was, again, from the city’s General Fund, not Muni funds. 

Yes, $12.5 million represents around 1/500th of the general fund. 

Supervisor Aaron Peskin likens temporarily waiving transit fares to landlords hoping to entice tenants into vacant city apartments by offering several months of free rent. It’s not so wild a notion: BART is offering 50 percent off all rides in September in an attempt to woo back its wayward riders. 

That makes some sense: But Muni officials aren’t buying it. And that’s simply because they don’t see the proposed pilot as a one-off or a loss leader so much as a stalking horse for permanent free Muni. 

Even as a so-called pilot, it’s not ideal: You’d have to expect more folks are going to be on Muni in the coming months than the preceding ones regardless, because society is opening up. More than 70 percent of San Franciscans have had their first vaccine shots and mandatory distancing on Muni vehicles will be curtailed in June. 

Parsing ridership data for the next few months and pinpointing a single for a jump cause would figure to be nigh impossible. And, when you’re done, you’re right back where you started, with free-Muni proponents potentially claiming a mandate for more.

Free Muni or not Free Muni? That is the question. It’s also, sadly, the epitome of San Francisco politics: A flashy and limted proposal that does not address the city’s real and looming problems, induces poor arguments for an untenable status quo, and monopolizes time as a municipal obsession. 

Because, make no mistake, Muni is in a bad way: Returning to full service will also bring about a return to an estimated $155 million operating deficit by 2022 (even assuming normal farebox recovery). And, keep in mind, eventually the Central Subway will open — sometime — and be the predictable and predicted disaster everyone has foreseen for damn near 20 years, draining money and resources from a system with too little of both. 

If these and other problems aren’t addressed, the system will have greater problems than its fare levels. Free admission to a crappy and unreliable system is no prize: If things go truly badly, you’ll have trouble giving away this service. And the only people who’ll take it will be those without options. 

We are told that Muni has polled revenue-generating measures we may be voting on in the coming years. Good luck: San Francisco’s electorate is a generous lot. But Muni’s nasty habit of willfully punishing its riders and then hiding behind its hyperbolically bad reputation (while, in fact, enhancing it) may not be remembered kindly when Muni asks San Franciscans for gobs more money. City politicians’ squabbles about Muni will, also, not benefit a ballot proposition that will likely require unity to have any real hope of success. 

That’s how things roll in San Francisco, where our leaders still talk about how we’re a “transit-first city.” Because talk is cheap. It’s transit that’s costly.  

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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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35 Comments

  1. Empathy would and should be the result of the wealthy riding the same bus as the homeless .

    1. The number one reason more people don’t ride Muni per SFMTA polling is that it’s too infrequent and unreliable. What’s the plan to fix that?

      1. “per Muni polling…..”

        All the Muni public meetings and outreach have been a hot mess, the bring the same people who say, you don’t give us enough credit for our brilliance, we taking our ball and moving to Miami, Austin and otherwise Texas. I wouldn’t believe Muni polling.

        But give Muni credit for what they changed, they’ve wrecked transport by private cars, and are building a Monopoly for segmented transportation with Ubers. Horray

    2. Empathy has resulted in San Francisco becoming a third world slum and death camp for hundreds of addicts. 713 last year, over 200 so far this year. The wise adage, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” has never been so apt and the result of this has been anyone with the ability to make a choice, has escaped the madness for Tahoe and Marin. Not any different than the people who choose to leave the violence in central America. When things really fall apart, people leave if they can.

  2. The napkin math is highly misleading. Daily Muni riders can avail themselves of the monthly pass, which can be paid for with pre-tax money if they earn income or with discounted Clipper cards bought from eBay at between 15-20% off. It is not 6*365.

    Where is the alternative revenue source to fare increases which Dean got Muni to skip last year? Why should we trust him on anything while that money is unaccounted for?

    1. That doesn’t mean they are necessarily riding for free. Someone who paid a cash fare earlier has a paper transfer. Other people have their fare stored on their phones. And some people with monthly passes don’t bother to tag up. Yes, a lot of people ride for free, but not as many as people assume.

  3. Free transit requires rethinking on a broader level. Transit should be considered a basic civic service that is provided to the citizens. Looking at operating and capital budgets and robbing one for the other while feeding city coffers, is not the vision. A city service that determines success by ridership, quality of service and pride in the service offered should be the measure. Free transit means you have to free SFMTA from city hall and rethink the model. MUNI is our lifeline, our commuter line and our school buses. How you fund that basic civic/regional/national service needs greater vision from beyond the current balance sheet.

  4. Why not ask the big SF corporations (Twitter, Salesforce, etc) to donate to a tax-deductible foundation that would then fund Muni. In exchange, Muni can provide lots of annoying advertising for those behemoths. Reduce the fare to $1 for those who have a Clipper card (i.e. local SF residents) and $2 for cash riders. The homeless already ride for free.

  5. Bit of a slight of hand here. If you commute on Muni the annual cost is $1000, not $1500, because you’d buy a fast pass rather than pay cash each time. Commuting with a lifeline pass costs $500/year, so you save $500/year if you qualify for one.

    I do agree we should raise the income threshold for a lifeline pass, make the application process much easier, and perhaps even make it free; I just want the argument to use accurate numbers.

    1. People who are desperately poor don’t buy monthly passes. It’s expensive to be poor.

      JE

      1. People who are desperately poor (i) qualify for Lifeline or (ii) don’t pay at all. Or are you referring to the desperately poor who earn $1 more than the 200% poverty level income and don’t work full time at minimum wage?

  6. “Preston stresses that his proposed pilot would only be a three-month hitch; unlike eviction moratoriums, this is not something he intends to renew again and again and again.”

    That’s absolutely not what he said during the hearing; he was quite clear that he wants the pilot program to become permanent.

  7. Fares triple over the past 20 years, service deteriorates until the pandemic when it is slashed and won’t be back for 2 years. Meanwhile, population has grown to near 900K as the City has been approving luxury condos for 12 years now.

    The Central Subway has been a capital disaster, tripling in cost while being “value engineered” down to uselessness, over its 2 decades of planning, engineering and construction. Two BRT lines (remember boosters promise: but for the mere cost of a bucket of paint!) have likewise taken 20 years to not complete. Just this past week, the MTA just said “fuck it,” and after all of that planning and engineering wants to “value engineer” this half-assed treatment.

    The MTA sees fares as “demand management” and will not let them go. I’d wager that the savings on dwell times alone would come cheaper than most all of the SFMTA’s time saving engineering projects.

    The the message London Breed and the SFMTA have been sending to San Franciscans is clear: “go fuck yourselves.”

    It is time for San Franciscans to return the favor and simply stop paying Muni fares for such crappy service offered by a government that holds us in sheer contempt.

    NO FARE IS FARE.

    1. How is a market rate condo a “luxury”? People have to work hard and smart to swing that kind of purchase. True luxury is winning a condo lottery and getting others to pay for all or part of your condo.

  8. What about making Muni free for children under 18?

    It has always been an ask from families (and SFUSD) but I suppose it’s also not on the table?

    Come August, there will be students riding Muni again, hopefully.

    1. SFMTA voted to do just that in Spring of 2020. Board of Supervisors killed it because they opposed other component of fare package that would’ve raised the adult Clipper fare by 25 cents to $2.75.

    1. Hey, this comments section is free. Any idiot can post here. Even those who seem to have missed any and all points made in the story.

      Yours,

      JE

  9. Joe, Thanks for prudent analysis. Not what many, of different political stripes, want to read; but worth reading. Also, done without raising the specter of BART suffering further ridership decline if people crowd onto the Mission Lines, a scenario posited by Jeff Tumlin.

  10. Muni is so bad, if it was free, it would still be overpriced. And am not talking about the riders that so many hate, but about the service. Late buses, dumping people out of a full bus to wait for another full bus, buses and trains that breakdown, ghost buses, buses that just don’t come….

  11. This is why I drive a 55-year-old Dodge.
    The old girl may be well past her prime. She’s lost much of her glitter. She’s definitely not environmentally sound.
    But unlike MUNI, I can get from point “A” to point “B” in a reasonable amount of time. And I don’t have to be concerned if the bus I’m waiting for even still exists.

  12. Joe, I think you missed the point of this whole exercise, which was to give Dean Preston an opportunity to virtue signal. Mission Accomplished!

  13. There is another option, make it work properly, that will attract transit riders

    “Muni has to work well for the people of San Francisco, so that it is their first option.”

    To the Honorable Mayor London Breed,
    Quoting your declaration in 2018, but as we come out of the Covid-19 ‘Wormhole’, things have changed. I still believe it is achievable but will take major overhauling.

    Commute car traffic has returned to over 80%.
    Tele-commuting has taken on a life of its own.
    No commuting for businesses and employees of those who lost their jobs.

    Muni is down to a fraction of its past 700,000 plus boardings a day.

    TRANSIT FIRST – Turn it into a reality.
    This can best be achieved by utilizing ‘State of the Art GPS, accurate to within 2-3 cm, combining all Transit Vehicles with San Francisco’s ‘Arterial Stop Lights’ with a master computer too synchronize, anticipate and regulate Muni. This can also be used to assist Police, Fire and Emergency equipment.

    TRUST – Establish
    ‘Sea Cliff’ Restaurant, ‘Louis’ Diner & ‘Seal Rock Inn’ have all been put out of business from Covid-19 restrictions.
    38 Geary busses park within walking distance, yet their seating is not marked off for ‘Social Distancing’, nor do the bus stops have proper ‘Social Distancing’ markings for passengers to follow.
    Despite American Public Transit Association (APTA) advisories, along with multiple transit authorities actions to make the riders safer, Muni has ignored them. This must change, we are not out of the woods yet, even Vice President Kamala Harris advises so.
    Harris tells UN body it’s time to prepare for next pandemic

    Marking ‘Social Distancing’ on buses & bus stops, will act a a reminder of this disaster & a future preparation.

    RELIABILITY – Performance times need to improve.
    3rd Street Rail being the most egregious. Coupled trains stopping every posted stop, the worst culprit. Skip-Stop utilizing ‘A’ & ‘B’ trains will get all passengers to their destinations with far less delay.
    Muni 28 line is in the process of skipping stops, leaving all passengers still crowded onto a single bus. Skip-Stop with A & B buses, splits the ridership and speed of transit times for all.

    In order to achieve this, to your stated end, will require even more operators.
    No layoffs should take place, even more working personnel will be needed.

    FOREMOST GOALS –
    Committing too carrying out and achieving the voters will, when they passed Proposition ‘J’ in 1995. Few if any of the proposals were ever enacted (PDF attached)
    One Coach one Driver – Skip-Stop – Adopting ‘Bar Coding’ for inventory & repair tracking – A complete review of the Proposition ‘J’ will reveal even more.

    Most prominent advisory from Proposition ‘J’ – ‘Stop wastefully idling buses, was addressed and put to bed under your watch.

    Let’s make your vision of ‘Muni as the first choice’ a reality.

    Sincerely,
    Michael B. Cheney – Retired San Franciso Civil Servant

  14. This article fails to mention that the primary problem of public transit in San Francisco is lack of reliability. People want frequent, reliable transit service. Only then will ridership increase substantially. Free MUNI is merely a distraction from solving our reliance on cars.

  15. At 65, I am less concerned with the cost of MUNI but rather the breadth of service. I’ve ridden the J Church and the 24 Divisadero and the 38 Geary and the 14 Mission my whole life, really miss the 26 Valencia and the 10 Monterey, and rode the 10 Hoffman and even the 27 as both the 27 Noe and the 27 Bryant. And what I have experienced is the continual reduction of community service with expansion of commuter service, without downtown corporate employers adding compensatory funding, especially since the dotcom boom. And I’ve watched as Muni reduces stops along routes just to satisfy commuter impatience. It makes sense at MTA, but less in the neighborhoods.

    1. It’s funny that you think employers should be responsible for funding residential Muni service instead of, say, residents who currently enjoy free or nearly free parking throughout the city.

    2. Thank you, Mr. Holub! The SFMTA’s answer to so many things is to reduce stops. Do they actually ride the buses? Do they have any idea how hard it is for many riders to walk those extra blocks? People with groceries, people with children, people who live on hills, people who are not as as fit as joggers & bike riders.
      Project after project brags about cutting a few minutes on the downtown office commute. But when you really look at it, most of the improvement in time is due to eliminating stops. It is very unfair to burden the rest of us for benefit of the unencumbered.

      1. Skip-Stop does not eliminate any stops, it just alternates everyother bus to everyother stop. You are correct, making Muni accesible is the best option, just not with every transit vehicle. A & B Buses & Trains will travel faster, each one being an express. Hence two birds with one stone, passengers get there quicker without eliminating any stops.

  16. First of all, anybody can ride the system right now for free. Fare gestapo patrols are minimal, and there is no ability to actually force people to pay fines.

    Secondly, the service has been cut, so riders need a discount for inferior service. The crazies wanted to raise prices last year as well!

    Third is a question: How much are the total fare revenues MINUS the cost of enforcement, ticketing, administration?

    I’m pretty sure that these three eat up a large percentage.

    The service is truly awful these days. I don’t think that many of these lines are coming back!

  17. Given the violence and anti-social behavior that I’ve seen on Muni, I actually think that vigorous enforcement of fares and rules in general would encourage MORE ridership of the system. CalTrain has conductors. Everyone pays their fares and I don’t see anti-social behavior like littering, graffiti, playing music, etc. Instead, Muni is a free for all with no accountability for bad behavior. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that most of the anti-social behavior is caused by people who don’t pay fares in the first place.

    And Muni has to address their economics. The nominal $3 fare only covers 25% of the cost of the ride, which implies that the full cost is about $12. Given the experience, that’s a pretty high cost.

    It’s a shame that Muni used its regulatory dominance to crush competition like Chariot, which offered clean and safe $3 express rides to downtown with no taxpayer subsidy.

  18. Joe does a good job of laying forth the entire depressing scenario.
    Mayor London Breed doesn’t give a darn about the climate crisis. If she did, she never would have allowed the blatant pilfering of MUNI funds described above.
    San Francisco transit should be the best. Mayor Breed needs to support and fully fund MUNI as a reliable, free, and world-class service. If she doesn’t, she deserves to be the laughing stock of the entire USA.

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