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Transit Stories: San Francisco Municipal Railway – 2

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San Francisco Muni operates around 1,000 buses from its multiple yards throughout the city of San Francisco, and the buses see many daily duties, including regular routes, school shuttles, express services, and oh yes, the occasional “rail bridge” trips, augmenting or substituting regular cable car, streetcar, and light rail services. But, many of these same buses are overworked, see not much care, and see overcrowding on a regular basis.

For a large, mainly transit-dependent city as San Francisco, buses are an integral part of the city’s overall mobility network, and the agency’s vast fleet of buses, from semi-low floored Orion buses to high-floored Neoplan articulated buses to Skoda trolleybuses, Muni offers a vast amount of service to tens of thousands of its daily riders, providing adequate seating and ventilation, as well as efficient services even through the narrow roads of Twin Peaks and the wide boulevards as Geary Boulevard and 19th Avenue. They also play a role in connecting every part of the City and County of San Francisco: buses are the only form of public transportation provided to Treasure Island (Route 108), situated in the middle of the San Francisco Bay between the city and Oakland, as well as providing services that connect residential areas with other transit modes (multiple examples exist), and they also provide quick trips to work, special events, and natural highlights (e.g. Candlestick Park Express, 76 Marin Headlands, limited-stop and express services). With 63 routes operating throughout the city, Muni operates in one of the densest, most compact cities in the nation and provides one of the highest levels of service per capita in the country, with its operating area covering around 90% of the city’s population served within two blocks of a bus line.

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Despite its massive network, Muni shares similar problems with many large transit agencies in the Bay Area and around the country. Muni’s buses have been targets for petty and serious criminal activity, from useless graffiti to unwitting con artists, from unsuspecting pickpockets to unruly passengers, Muni has its share of problems that stem from various problems. Many homeless people rely on its round-the-clock service to keep themselves going, despite the stench they leave behind on board many of their buses. Sometimes, you might even see the occasional passenger who would just read a newspaper, drink something from a cup or bottle, eat a sandwich, and just leave them on board the bus afterwards without throwing them at a proper trash receptacle, making the bus smell filthy, look dirty, and visually unappealing for many passengers. 

Worse than the occasional graffiti is the near-frequent overcrowding of Muni buses, especially along its main lines. Despite the fact that Muni operates around 1,000 buses, passenger demand usually outstrips supply on the most heavily-used lines in the system, particularly in areas where major attractions and large residential areas are served by one or two lines. At other times, Muni’s overcrowding problems occur when something else shuts down: for example, when the Muni Metro shuts down for some reason (like down lines, disabled train, etc.), the replacement shuttle buses become a massive mess for inconvenienced Metro passengers, as those usually become filled within 5 minutes from their originating stop. I’ve seen that event happen several times, two of which happened at West Portal Station, in which passengers were forced to transfer to the “shuttle” buses to continue their way into Downtown, stretching the already over-utilized, under-maintained buses to the limit. Another instance, this time from Castro Station, the shuttle bus left before a bigger mass of passengers were able to transfer to the shuttle because it became so full that there was no available bus until about 10 minutes later, a huge inconvenience yet again for hundreds of passengers transferring from various Muni Metro lines. Despite the fact that they operate articulated buses for the shuttle services, the finite number of units being operated at any given time (many articulated buses also operate on other routes as well besides the shuttle services) makes it nearly impossible to predict when the next shuttle bus comes to ferry passengers between Muni Metro stations, delaying trips for hundreds, if not thousands, of patrons who rely on the trains every single day.


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Muni buses operate–in reality–on extremely tight schedules, meaning that when buses operate on a daily basis, drivers have little to no break available to them to relax and recover from the many trips they operate on a day-to-day fashion. Despite the fact that each driver gets his or her own bus to drive (along with the bus depot that they come out from), its operations stem from a “frequency-based” system, meaning that passengers count on a bus to arrive every n minutes every hour (for example, during rush hour, the 38L-Geary Limited is slated, in theory, to arrive every 3 to 5 minutes to complement with the stopping 38-Geary line). However, in that scenario of frequency-based systems, a large-scale problem exists that results in drivers being “overworked”, passengers fuming, and vehicles underused: it is called bus bunching (or in technical terms, platooning), in which one bus may be full to the limit because it is running behind schedule, then a back-up bus running behind it has more seats than the preceeding bus, and another “on-schedule” bus may run behind it with only a handful of passengers on board. In one instance, I’ve seen multiple 30-Stockton buses running along North Point Street one after another after another, with a succession of fewer and fewer passengers every time a new bus passes by, in which I’ve seen it as a “waste” of taxpayers’ money on operating such buses and drivers’ time operating those buses with a handful of passengers on board, for obvious reasons. Despite that San Francisco has a huge supply of passengers and a large number of buses in its fleet, the overall operation of the buses, in my opinion, is not as successful as in other places, especially with its mandated on-time performance system-wide by at least 85%, because I believe that the bus operators have been overworked and the buses have not been well-maintained to keep in check with the huge number of passengers using the system in any given day that many of its buses look older than those seem to be.

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I believe that Muni has done a fantastic job of keeping its bus operations efficient and frequent by providing passengers multiple choices on how to get from point A to poin
t B (and beyond) so that they can keep going around San Francisco’s borders. However, I believe that they can further improve bus operations and streamline their efficiency by operating only what they need and reducing instances of overcrowding by deploying as many buses as needed (even just the short 30-foot models) so that passengers can travel with ease. I also believe that by more stringent checks and maintenance for its 1,000-strong fleet of buses, as well as better treatment of drivers and respecting passengers, Muni can improve its image, especially for its workhorse buses, so that it can meet the mandated on-time service passed by voters while giving exceptional service to every passenger who uses the system. 

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