What’s Wrong with the San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority and MUNI?

There is a lot of talk lately about the safety on MUNI, which is certainly an important issue; however, before one can be safe on MUNI, one has to be able to get on MUNI. With cuts in schedules and lines, unreliable service, and overzealous or downright rude drivers, too many people are left stranded or substantially late. In a city that prides itself on being green and progressive, these obstacles make San Francisco a laughing stock to other cities with state-of-the-art public transit systems. But even worse, the obstacles make San Francisco an unlivable city. To add insult to injury, the more the fares are increased, the less reliable and efficient the service becomes.

Since the last round of fare increases and service cuts, many people are waiting fifteen to twenty minutes for a bus during the rush hours, when common sense would dictate that service be increased. With busses filling up only partway through the route, drivers discontinue stopping to pick up passengers, leaving people stranded. In addition, drivers have simply decided that a random stop is the last and that everyone must exit the bus. Some drivers find other excuses to stop their buses. One driver ended the route suddenly and kicked everyone off when a parent wouldn’t fold up her stroller. Other lines are just as bad. In a city that is a mere 49 square miles, it takes nearly two hours to go 4 miles, traveling between destinations that mapquest estimates to be a 13-minute drive. And all of this assumes that the driver hasn’t closed the door on your face when you run up to it. One person I spoke with became so tired of waiting up to 40 minutes for a bus on a regular basis that she started driving to work, shaving off more than half of her commute time.

Realizing that many people do not have this option to drive, MUNI must ensure that San Franciscans can commute in a timely, efficient, and cost-effective manner. At a time when most people have taken a cut in pay or benefits in some form, San Franciscans have little sympathy for employees of an agency that guarantees pay raises each year for providing such poor service. Under the current city charter provision, transit worker salaries are set by averaging the two highest paying transit agencies in the country. At a recent budget town hall meeting, SFMTA illustrated with a graph how approximately two thirds of the SFMTA budget—$484 million—goes toward salaries and benefits. We can all agree that everyone should be paid a living wage; however, at a time when everyone is taking a cut, we expect our transit workers to do the same.

And although we pay transit drivers a professional salary, they are not required to act professionally. In addition to overzealously bypassing stops and ending routes arbitrarily, MUNI drivers continue to have a problem with absenteeism, in some cases simply not showing up with no warning. In each of these instances, someone else has to cover, receiving overtime even if he or she has not yet worked 40 hours that week. This increases our costs and ensures that we will all have to wait longer for our buses to arrive, regardless of what the NextMUNI indicator reads at the stop.

I’m hopeful that the ballot measure requiring transit operator wages to be settled through collective bargaining will pass and will help ease the crisis our city is facing. Regardless of the ballot measure, though, SFMTA must come up with ways to decrease the $484 million that is swallowing the budget, and they must do it without further demonizing and punishing people who choose to drive rather than rely on an unreliable transit system, particularly those who are “weekend-only” drivers. Extending parking meters to evenings and Sundays is a short-sighted, knee-jerk response to the problem. It will also cause a revolt that will make Oaklanders, whose revolt took only 3 months to reverse a similar order, look tame. One logical solution is to hire part-time drivers and allow part-time drivers to cover for full-time drivers who do not show up for work. This can reduce the primary source of expenditures. A solution to address inefficiency would be to create more limited lines that stop at every second or third stop, and to eliminate bus stops that are too close to each other. Several bus lines have a stop on every corner or every other corner. A solution for unprofessional behavior is simply to educate the drivers. As one example, many drivers seem to be unaware of how the new translink pass works and berate riders for using it.

Certainly there are more logical, common sense solutions than are listed here that do not involve increasing fares, cutting service, or extending parking meters. Just as certainly there are transit drivers who are kind, thoughtful, and considerate; I’ve encountered many of these people. A functioning system is one that rewards these workers while disciplining those who do not provide sufficient customer service, including merely showing up to work. It is one that provides reliable, efficient service at a reasonable cost. If every other major city in the world can do this, why can’t San Francisco?

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Dr. Amy Bacharach is a policy researcher, proud Richmond district resident, and regular rider of the 5, 31, and 38. She serves on the San Francisco Women’s Political Committee (SFWPC), advocating for policies to keep women and families in San Francisco, and is in the 2010 class of Emerge California. Amy holds a Ph.D. in Forensic Psychology and a certificate in Organizational Development. This piece was partly inspired by Thea Selby, a fellow Emerge member who can often be seen promoting her Lower Haight neighborhood sporting her orange MUNI hat.

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