The San Francisco Chronicle reported yesterday that the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency will be cutting–or in some cases, even eliminating–service to nearly half of Muni’s presently operating lines. Not surprisingly, the news left Muni riders feeling frustrated and disappointed, but the announcement was particularly aggravating to the thousands of citizens who participated in Muni’s “Transit Effectiveness Project” (TEP), a two-year examination of Muni service that included rider input in making San Francisco’s public transit system more efficient, effective, and comfortable for everyone who uses it.
What resulted from the TEP were recommendations originally designed to take effect midway through this year. However, according to the Chronicle, Muni’s expected $129 million budget shortfall “could delay the planned improvements.” Initially, it seems reasonable to blame the global financial crisis for Muni’s inability to enact the changes that would increase service and make existing lines more reliable. We all have less money than we did last year or the year before that, and that fact is as true for our cities as it is our families. But even in economic boom times (like the late nineties, when the dot.com extravaganza of the period flooded the city with cash), Muni has been known for its inconsistent and notoriously slow service. Thus, Muni’s issues clearly run deeper than any given financial problems the city faces as a whole. And even if the problems really were financial, it seems that the TEP recommendations–already decided upon and plotted out as they are–constitute a “shovel-ready” project that should qualify for monies available to cities from the federal government’s stimulus package.
The timing of the announcement is especially confounding. Just three months ago, Newsom recorded a forty-five minute video as part of his epic seven and a half hour “State of the City” address, in which he talked excitedly of the improvements Muni would supposedly be implementing in the coming months, changes that included such flashy “benefits” as wi-fi at bus shelters and on the buses themselves. Such an innovation would, of course, be small comfort to riders if the transportation itself continues to run in the manner it does today: that is, slow, inconsistent, and overcrowded. In his video, the mayor also boasted of having added “300 Nextbus alert systems” to various Muni stops last year, but people who use Muni on a daily basis can cite several examples that point to the idea that the Nextbus alerts seem to have been installed on an arbitrary basis. There’s a Nextbus alert at 19th Ave. and Vicente, for example, where very few people board or exit the bus. But there is no alert at 19th Ave. and Holloway, a crowded transfer point for the 28, 29, and 17 lines, where at any given point in the day a throng of people gather waiting for twenty, thirty, and sometimes forty minutes or more for their bus to arrive.
And so SF Muni riders experience a cognitive dissonance on a variety of levels. On the one hand, we are told that amazing changes are on the way, but then–less than ninety days after such an announcement–we hear that a huge deficit will delay those amazing changes we were so recently promised. In addition, while most of us really just want the bus or train to come on time (and on really bad days, for it to just come, period), Muni executives and our elected officials are brainstorming all of these other bells and whistles that have nothing to do with a bus or train keeping to its posted schedule. Wi-fi is great and all, but if it comes at the expense of improving actual transit service, one will have to wonder if the purpose of the internet access is to encourage riders to be so involved in their ‘net surfing that they forget how long they’ve been waiting for the bus.
Newsom did mention in his address possible double-decker buses and traffic light upgrades that would allow Muni to accommodate increased ridership and improve on-time ratings, but he cleverly avoided mentioning how or when the city will begin to implement these improvements. Thus, after watching Newsom’s video, one is left wondering what the first priorities for fixing Muni are and when riders might expect to begin enjoying the proposed changes. The Chronicle article seems to be evidence that San Franciscans shouldn’t expect improvements any time soon, leaving many riders bewildered as to why these changes were touted in the first place–this budget deficit couldn’t possibly have been totally unexpected, so shouldn’t Muni have looked at the numbers first and then announced what changes people could expect? The contradictory messages given to riders make it difficult for anyone to believe that fixing Muni is truly a top priority for Newsom or even for those involved in the TEP. San Francisco seeks to become one of the greenest cities in the nation, but that will be a tough title to claim if our underfunded, underperforming transit system continues to devolve, driving people not to their destinations, but back into their cars in an effort to get where they need to go and to get there in less than an hour. Those who cannot afford to do so, meanwhile, will apparently be stuck waiting for improvements to the system. If the wait for those improvements is anything like the wait for one of the buses in the system, one imagines that expectant riders will be holding out hope for a very, very long time.