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San Francisco's Public Transit System Is Doomed

San Francisco's public transit system is one of the largest in America, yet most of the system is still based on infrastructure from 80 years ago. What happened to our idyllic vision of gleaming streetcars and clean, electric buses?

by Jules Suzdaltsev
Apr 18 2014, 1:00pm

Photo via Flickr User Frank Farm

Last week, our article "Reasons Why San Francisco Is The Worst Place Ever" touched on the bloated, lethargic, hemorrhaging inconvenience known as Muni, the transit system San Francisco's beloved columnist Herb Caen used to call "muniserable."

For the average San Franciscan, Muni (and it's big brother, BART) is the only way to get around. Cars are difficult to park, and the expense of owning one is often too much for the average resident to afford after spending a full paycheck on rent.

Muni alone services over 700,000 passengers a day and projects an operating budget of over $850 million this year, yet most of the system is still based on infrastructure that's nearly 80 years old. All that money just ends up going to gridlocked salary negotiations and projects designed strictly for tourists, like the always-empty Culture Bus. The only reason the vilified Google Bus even exists is because of how shitty our public buses are.

I recently took the 14-Mission bus, one of the most popular lines in town. Not only is the 14 busy, but its route also picks up and drops off passengers at Muni's most dangerous stop: 16th Street. If you're traveling south, most of the seats will be empty until you hit 16th, when loud swarms of fare dodgers pry open the back door and stream head-on into the few passengers who are trying to get off. Drivers can't be bothered to swivel around to herd us feral cats; the job of policing is left to ticket inspectors and the SFPD. Seeing either one of those authority figures is such a rare occurrence that paying your fare is more a superstition than a requirement.

At the very back of the bus was a disheveled guy wearing too many layers, yelling, "Ready to die, bitch?" at no one in particular. The only person staring at him was a toddler standing on her seat, mumbling back incoherently and drooling on a man's grey flannel suit

Mass transit in this city is economically and socially diverse. This isn't Los Angeles, where taking the Red Line subway means you're either a student, a hobo, or going through divorce. For most of us there are no affordable options outside of Muni.


Photo via Flickr User Justin Beck

Before we could get to the next stop, the bus ground to a halt in the middle of the street, and the power went out: We'd lost an overhead wire (a common occurence), which meant the driver had to get out and reposition it with a long hook. Perhaps this is related to the fact that we have the slowest buses in the nation, at an average speed of 8.1 miles per hour, which is exactly this fast. A slow ride is the result of both increased congestion and an excessive number of unnecessary bus stops that will never go away.

Drivers seem to take on the lion's share of complaints directed at the SFMTA, which would seem unfair considering how much it probably sucks to drive a multi-car lane-wide bus through an awkwardly proportioned city full of one-way, 30-percent-grade streets. But until recently, bus drivers were well compensated—since 1967, a city charter has promised them the second-highest driver wage in the nation, now at nearly $30 an hour, in exchange for the inability to strike.

Photo via Flickr User Paul Sullivan

Drivers are also paid for unexplained absences, with substitute drivers making overtime to pick up the slack. In 2010, the rate of no-shows topped out at 13.7 percent. Proposition G, an attempt to remove some of these arbitrary work rules and eliminate non-negotiable wages in exchange for collective union bargaining, was passed four years ago for the sake of the "public interest." Much of the proposition has been overturned in the last year after unions fought back on behalf of their members (who unilaterally disagreed with their new contracts, but because of the new Prop G rules, couldn't reject them).

At our next stop, the bus beeped loudly and slowly lowered itself to take on an old woman with a walker. As she inched past the yellow line, she stared sadly at the floor of this old relic, sparks flying from overhead, lights humming loudly and flickering intermittently. Sure, these machines were incredible around 1999, but the Muni system is outdated; while voters keep pumping their tax dollars into it, retrofittings and upgrades are rarely approved because most of the money is reclaimed by police, ambulances, and other city services in the form of bills for "transit-related duties," a number that jumped from $36 million in 2006 to $65 million in 2012.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez, staff writer at the SF Bay Guardian was at Tuesday's SFMTA meeting, where the mayor-appointed Board of Directors was deciding whether to give free rides to kids and seniors or give drivers free parking on Sundays. They chose free parking, paid for by a 25-cent fare hike. I asked Joe if he thought the current BOD seemed to be making any steps in the direction of improving the public experience. "I have no doubt the Board wants the best for Muni, but as long as they are only appointed by the mayor they're constrained by the wishes of that mayor."

"Did you notice how they voted nearly immediately after public comment? Even the dissenting board members voted in lockstep. There was no discussion between members, weighing different pros and cons. They just voted. That's bad democracy." I'm pretty sure there wasn't a lot of people in San Francisco who noticed.

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