Some common-sense ideas for Muni

Got any ideas of your own? Are we being unfair, or too forgiving? Let us know! After all, this is a work in progress.


``The next K train will arrive in 5 minutes''

In the past several months, Muni has taken baby steps toward addressing one of our major complaints: the lack of regular announcements about which Metro trains are coming and when. BART, the London Underground, and other subway systems have automatic displays to tell waiting passengers when they can expect the next train to arrive. Some systems, notably those in Russia and Eastern Europe, even count down the seconds to the next train.

Last summer, Muni introduced a computerized public-address system that informs passengers which trains are coming into the station. We have to give Muni some credit for trying, but the new system really isn't what we have been looking for. First, it is extremely unreliable. More often than not, the announcements misidentify cars, advertise trains that never come, or fail to announce a train. Second, even if the new system worked, it would do nothing to give us an idea of how much longer we must wait for our train.

Ideally the station display panels should show the next three trains and their expected arrival times. In lieu of this, each station agent needs to make specific announcements as to the trains arriving in the next ten minutes.

Stop the guessing game

Why can't operators take care to ensure that the signs on the streetcar or bus indicate the correct line? How many riders have seen cars whose signs are in conflict with each another and with the station display panels?

It's really pretty basic. It takes at most a minute to check whether the signs are correct and fix them if they're not. At the very least, if drivers notice the signs are out of whack, they could make announcements to the passengers at every station, telling them the true destination of their car. Passengers shouldn't have to debate each other to figure out what line a car is.

The same principle applies to signs within stations. Major Metro stations have precious little information on where to find bus connections.

Say what?

Muni has a public-announcement system that needs major improvement. When the speakers happen to work, you often can't understand what the Muni employee is saying. Why doesn't Muni management require employees to attend public-speaking courses? The job of an operator is not just to drive a vehicle, but to be a knowledgeable professional who is responsive to public questions and able to communicate effectively. SamTrans has great speakers on their buses which the operators use to make clear, concise announcements.

Speak up

  • Why don't drivers make announcements about problems as soon as they as they occur, instead of leaving passengers to guess? Similarly, when when delays occur in the Metro, why don't station agents get on the phone, find out what's going on, and tell the waiting passengers? A respectful, apologetic tone -- instead of the more typical harsh announcement -- wouldn't hurt, either.

    A major Muni problem seems to be a near-total lack of communication internally. Muni operators are frequently left out of the loop themselves, in which case they're hardly in a position to transmit useful information to the public.

    Honesty in scheduling

    If there aren't enough vehicles to maintain the scheduled frequencies of service, why can't Muni at least be honest and give realistic frequencies on the Muni Map? Before the riding and tax-paying public can be expected even to consider giving Muni more money, City Hall must allow -- no, must insist -- that Muni publish completely honest schedules that it can meet day in and day out.

    This is (we think) what Willie Brown was trying to say on July 16. We just wish he hadn't also called on riders ``to live in the real world.'' As Erin McCormick of the Examiner wrote, ``Most riders said they already live in the real world and have long since abandoned any hope that buses would run on their published schedules.''

    Honest scheduling may mean Muni will have to abandon its goal of reaching within two blocks of every address in the city. This is a silly goal when many of the lines are so unreliable. Most passengers would rather walk an extra block or two so long as they are assured a bus will come swiftly.

    The 26-Valencia bus, for example, doesn't do much for most Mission residents. It's so infrequent that most passengers take the extra couple of minutes to walk to BART, the 14-Mission, the 49-Van Ness-Mission, or even the J-Church, hardly a paragon of reliability itself. Why not cancel the 26 and improve the reliability and safety of the 14 and 49?

    As part of his analysis of the Muni network, RESCUE Muni member Bryan Ceja has proposed the consolidation of certain routes. The possibilities include:

    In the same vein, Muni may have to think about redistributing bus stops. If stops on certain routes -- the N comes to mind -- were every three blocks, rather than every two blocks, the streetcars could move faster than their current snail's pace.


    Thinking about dispatching

    Apart from better communications with passengers, better dispatching is probably the improvement that would do the most to fix the system at little cost. Every day when we're waiting in the Metro, say, for a K car, three Ms will go by (the second two nearly empty), an L, another M, and finally a K (jam-packed).

    How hard would it be for dispatchers at Embarcadero Station to alternate J-K-L-M-N trains on a regular basis? This would instantly reduce the bunching problem that is so infuriating for Muni riders.

    One beneficial byproduct of a regular sequence of cars would be that riders would know where to stand on the platform to catch a particular car. Also, delays would be divided among all passengers fairly. No longer would we have to watch three West Portal trains go by without any knowledge of when a J or N car would be coming, or vice versa.

    In addition, in the months left until the Embarcadero turnaround project is done, another benefit would be that Muni would make much better use of its Embacadero Station. Instead of having one N car on one side of the platform and one K car on the other -- while other cars are lined up to Civic Center waiting to move forward at 5 miles per hour -- cars could connect at Van Ness to form three- or four-car trains, depending on whether they will be going outbound as J-N-N or K-M-L-L trains.

    One last point on this item is that since the N and L cars face the most overcrowding throughout their routes from Powell Street to Sunset Avenue, they should always be at the end of the train: Most passengers waiting for the Metro are waiting at the front of the platform.

    Why make the passenger walk if you don't have to?

    In West Portal Station, why don't inbound trains pull only halfway into the station so that passengers don't have to walk the full length of the platform? (Of course, this would require that operators be told whether or not other cars will be connecting with theirs.)

    On the same topic, why do single-car trains find so many different places to stop at the Forest Hill Station? A passenger cannot be faulted for not knowing where to stand. If you guess wrong, the operator starts ringing the bell as if to tell you hurry up and run.

    The door is there, so use it

    Our compliments to Muni. According to Peter Straus, Muni's director of service planning, the new Breda streetcars will allow passengers to use the door near the cab while in the Metro stations. This may not sound like a big improvement, but it should increase by 25 percent the ability of passengers to exit a car quickly and for entering passengers to board.

    Every little improvement counts. Right now, the average speed of Muni is a miserable 12 miles per hour. If Muni can increase the average speed to 15 miles per hour, it would move you 25 percent faster.

    Double-up the streetcars on heavily traveled portions of lines

    By husbanding its resources, Muni can provide better service at no additional cost. A case in point: double-N and double-L cars that go all of the way to the end of the outbound line in the morning.

    There are very few passengers on these cars going outbound; the first car of the two-car trains can certainly accommodate those who are. The other car could decouple at 19th Avenue and turn around. Passengers waiting between 19th Avenue and Sunset who now rarely can get a seat during rush hour could be equitably treated, and the cars and operators would be able to make more runs per day -- putting more seats on the system for free.

    This concept would also work for buses on lines that experience frequent bunching, such as the 1, 2, 3, 4, 31, and even the 38.

    We have noticed an effort recently to turn M and K streetcars around at St. Francis Circle, but so far this has been handled in a heavy-handed way -- with last-minute annoucements for passengers to disembark and vague (and usually false) promises that a train will be coming ``soon.'' If Muni plans to turn back a vehicle before its official terminus, then it should make this clear with signs and prior annoucements.

    Maximize the use of the cars

    Why do ``No Passenger'' trains pass by waiting passengers? If the train is going back to the barn and hasn't been taken out of service for mechanical problems, at least it can carry people on the way there. (See the bloopers page for an example of how trains are taken out of service even when they are quite capable of carrying passengers.)


    Take out the trash

    Once upon a time, New York City had filthy, graffiti-covered subways; Muni's streetcars were immaculate. How times have changed, in both cities! Nowadays, the smart Muni rider always looks down before sitting down.

    RESCUE Muni member Craig Pavlich was riding with Emilio Cruz one day and commented to him about the filth. Cruz's response: ``Well, we're getting brand new cars in the fall.'' That's all well and good, but what about today's riders? Besides, if Muni can't keep its old cars clean, how can we expect the new cars to stay clean? The F-line PCCs are the oldest in Muni's regular fleet, yet they are the cleanest. Grime has nothing do with the age of the cars, and everything to do with the attitude of those who are supposed to be cleaning them. Frequently, maintenance workers have been observed sleeping on the job.

    Over the past few months, we have noticed an increase in graffiti; Church St. Station is one hard-hit location. Not only has Muni been slow to clean off the graffiti -- thereby violating the first principle of stopping urban decay -- we are also more than somewhat surprised that, with video cameras all around, station attendants have not been able to notice the hooligans and call the police.


    Hang together or...

    Drivers need to contact the police on their radios whenever thugs harass their passengers, rather than leave the victims to fend for themselves. Nobody should be alone. That includes drivers. Passengers must be prepared to go for help if drivers need it.

    As RESCUE Muni member Bryan Ceja has pointed out, drivers should contact the police via their dispatchers even when the situation is not life-threatening. Boom boxes, loud behavior, vandalism, entering without paying: None of this should be tolerated. Those who harass their fellow passengers must learn that the bus isn't the place to get away with disrespecting their community.

    The police, in turn, should take passenger misbehavior more seriously than they do. We've tried to inform police about problems -- such as loud lyrics, ``Kill the bitch, kill the bitch'' -- only to be told that boys will be boys. Well, frankly, we think better of our young people. When they are held to a higher standard, they will live up to that standard.

    Speaking of crime, having uniformed police on the vehicles from time to time is much better than no protection, which Muni passengers are all too familiar with. But it would be even better if the city flooded Muni vehicles on dangerous routes with plainclothes officers. The thugs need to be caught while destroying Muni so that they can removed from the system until they've turned themselves around. We applaud signs that the police department is moving toward this policy.


    The apparent inability of the police and schools to do much about school truancy means that Muni passengers endure significant problems. Muni must do what it can to deal with the situation. One thought is that Muni could reform the youth fare structure, so that at least it isn't adding to the ease with which truants roam the city unsupervised.

    For instance, perhaps Muni should eliminate the youth passes and set the youth cash fare to $0 from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., when kids are going to and from school -- and are likely to cause few problems. At other times during the day, the fare should be $0.50. After 9 p.m., when there's no reason to subsidize youth travel more than that of adults, the fare should be set to the adult cash fare. At least this would make it a bit harder for students to stroll up and down the beach when they should be in geometry class.

    Another approach would be to restrict the youth passes and fares to the specific routes needed to get to and from school and the library. On other routes, kids would pay full fare. This is the approach taken in Great Britain, where student bus passes have the numbers of the valid routes printed on them. Students can only get the passes through their schools.

    No solicitation

    The cars are packed, noisy, and unsafe enough without panhandlers. Muni has got to try to remove the fellow selling his poems or, more accurately, harassing passengers -- often women -- with an attitude that does not accept ``No'' until it is said several times.

    Part of the problem is the ease with which many passengers obtain bus transfers. Perhaps drivers need to be stricter about accepting and (re)issuing transfers.

    In addition, anyone who is paid to collect signatures for ballot initiatives should be excluded. And as for volunteers gathering signatures, restrict them to tables on the station level where they can have a sign advertising their cause.

    Connections after dark

    Much as we are advocates of faster transit, there are times when service should probably be sacrificed to safety. At night, buses should be timed to arrive at key intersections at the same time as connecting buses -- and should wait for transfering passengers. The Night Owl skeleton service already does this, but the whole system after dark should do the same. At night, many lines run on nominal 20-minute schedules (read: 30-40 minutes); that's a long time to be waiting at some intersections.

    DPT, we need you

    Transit First?

    Transit First. That's the stated city policy, based on the simple concept that buses do the most good for the most people. But where are the bus-only lanes on Geary, Market, Mission, and other thoroughfares? And why don't traffic lights give preference to buses?

    Norman Rolfe has suggested that Market east of 8th Avenue be closed to auto traffic. It's something we should study. Motorists might benefit, too, because buses could be rerouted onto Market, opening up extra car lanes on Mission and other streets and allowing traffic lights to be timed better. Oh, and maybe some of those motorists could be enticed to take Muni by the prospect of fast, reliable service.


    Now here's something that motorists, cyclists, Muni drivers, and Muni passengers can all agree upon: cracking down on double-parking. We're sure this alone accounts for a good deal of drivers' high blood pressure. What good is a bus lane if it becomes a parking lane? Zero tolerance should be the goal on the busiest streets.

    RESCUE Muni has been saying this since its inception, and we were delighted to see that Emilio Cruz finally agreed with us; see the Examiner article on Jan. 20. Now let's see whether something actually comes of it....


    Slip sliding away

    It's sad but true: Muni is going to have to keep closer tabs on its employees, many of whom get away with things that would have most of the rest of us fired from our jobs. For example, Harvey Rose's Muni audit found that many drivers skip their runs to go home early. The audit report recommended that Muni install electronic odometers to catch the AWOL drivers. It would also help everybody if the good drivers blew the whistle on their unconscientious colleagues.

    Why does the Metro shut down at 10 p.m.?

    If Muni needs to do maintenance work, why can't it do it -- as other cities do -- after the normal closing time? At the very least, Muni could provide enough surface shuttles that customers are not forced to stand during a long, bumpy bus ride.

    Measuring up

    How does Muni stand up? The San Francisco Chronicle has done an admirable job of comparing Muni to other systems in the country -- but that's a job Muni should be doing itself.

    Muni needs to adopt a number of benchmarks for the industry. These need to be reported to the public every quarter, along with comparisons to previous performance and the performance of the largest 25 transit systems in North America. These statistics could include operator absenteeism, substance abuse, percent of scheduled operation met, cost of workplace injuries, complaints per thousand passengers, and average speed.


    Muni is a publicly owned system. But if it is impossible for it to take note of the public's concerns -- many of which cost very little to fix -- perhaps it is time to consider hiring a management firm to run it. The city of San Francisco would continue to own the assets, and voters could decide every three years whether to renew the contract or find another firm. But business as usual just can't continue.
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    Last updated 21 January 1997