Based on the information that came out of a long and detailed hearing July 23, Muni leadership is planning to use the pandemic crisis to push for changes that could fundamentally alter bus routes in San Francisco.
The hearing, called by Sups. Dean Preston and Connie Chan, was a remarkable opportunity for the public to understand what the top officials at Muni are thinking about.
At issue, really, are two competing alternatives for transit systems: Ridership and coverage. And the competition is taking place at the same time that Muni’s entire financing system may be falling apart.
It’s also happening at a time when the city’s economy and transportation needs are rapidly—and unpredictably—changing.
Behind the scenes is a $185,000 consultant from Portland who is already arguing for service reductions on lines that serve vulnerable populations.
And almost everyone participating in public comment said that Muni is failing them.
San Francisco has long taken the position that the number of riders on a Muni line isn’t the only, or even the most important, consideration. Some lines that serve populations with significant needs have been maintained even if other nearby lines have more riders.
That’s now a matter for discussion. It’s possible that Muni will push to eliminate some lines that are close to other lines and put that money into a “core” system.
Which could leave a lot of people out.
Money was an issue for Muni even before COVID. The system relies on fares and parking fees for more than half of its revenue – and even before COVID, parking-meter and garage revenue was down. That, Muni Director Jeffrey Tumlin said, was largely because of Uber and Lyft – two companies that San Francisco allowed to grow and expend despite their complete violation of city laws for years.
In fact, Uber has made it clear that it wants to replace public transit with private Uber services. It seems to be moving in that direction, at least here in town.
It’s an odd situation: The better job Muni does getting people out of their cars, the less parking money it gets. And the higher the fares, the fewer people are likely to ride the buses and trains.
Tumlin made that point at the beginning of the hearing and a numerous points afterward. Muni, he said, can’t run a deficit – and there’s a structural gap of more than $85 million a year. That’s the money the system would need to restore service to something approaching pre-COVID levels.
Everyone at the hearing agreed that pre-COVID levels aren’t good enough.
Tumlin said it would take $150 million a year in new revenue to “get to where we need to be” and $268 million to eliminate fares and make Muni free.
That’s a lot of money. In a lot of other cities, which have done a much better job restoring service, transit systems are financed by sales taxes – which are regressive, just like bus fares.
On the other hand, San Francisco has never charged office developers anywhere near the real cost of their impact on the system. We’re talking about billions of dollars left on the table, enough to fill the entire Muni budget gap and more. Former Sup. John Avalos tried to change that—just a little bit—in 2016 but the allies of then-Mayor Ed Lee (including then-Sup. London Breed) rejected the idea.
Uber—which might not exist if SF hadn’t allowed it to start up with illegal taxis—collected $19.5 billion in the last quarter.
But back to line changes.
Tumlin hired a consultant named Jarrett Walker to help, in the words of his contract, “define and build consensus toward a post-COVID network.”
That means he’s getting paid to find ways to, as Preston said, “handle the agony when you eliminate lines.”
With the consultant’s help—and Tumlin couldn’t say exactly whose words these were—Muni is talking about three scenarios for the next three years. They could, of course, shape local transit for much longer—when you get rid of a Muni line, it’s really hard to bring it back.
The scenarios, as they are currently named, include “return the familiar network” (that is, restore Muni lines), “Build a high-access network” (get rid of some lines to make the other ones faster) and “Develop a hybrid network balancing the best features of the other two.”
There’s no question that Muni needs to be planning for a future that could fundamentally change the entire transit system. Tumlin freely admitted that Muni is set up now primarily to get people from the neighborhoods to downtown—and the jobs and transit needs of the next ten years may not involve downtown.
Under the City Charter, the MTA isn’t supposed to abandon Muni lines without the approval of the Board of Supes. A lot of lines that are now “suspended” may never be returned, Preston said – but Tumlin argued that simply eliminating, say, the 21-Hayes might not count as “abandoning” a line since the corridor has other service.
So the MTA might move toward ending some service without even a full supes hearing.
Restoring service to the projected 85 percent this fall or even 100 percent “doesn’t mean bringing back all the lines,” Tumlin said.
He said that restoring full service by the end of the year, as some supes have suggested, would be “profoundly irresponsible.” Since Muni has a structural deficit (despite $700 million in federal bailout money) restoring full service would deplete the reserves and leave the system broke by 2023.
Sup. Connie Chan dissented, saying that “the goal of the federal money is to restore service to pre-pandemic levels.” Or as Preston put it: “You are telling people that we are cutting your service now so that we won’t have to cut it in the future.”
The future might include, say, more buses on the 22 and the 38 and the 5, and fewer (or no) buses on the 21 and 2.
The consultant has already made his position clear. In a blog post on the SFMTA site, he argues that there’s little use for the 2 line:
When we calculate access from points along Clement, we find that the 2 Clement doesn’t add much, because the nearby service on Geary is so much faster and frequent. Even if you walk (or roll) slowly at 2 miles per hour, it would take you 8 minutes to get from Clement to Geary. But your wait would be 5 minutes shorter, on average, because the 38 Geary is so frequent. You may save even more time if you get a 38R Geary Rapid, which is faster. At most, the 2 Clement service only saves riders a minute or two. And if you walk at a more average pace, 3 miles per hour, it’s almost always faster to walk to Geary than wait for the bus on Clement.
That may make sense if you just look at the numbers – but if you actually visit the Richmond, or ride that line, you know there’s a serious problem with his approach.
As Preston noted, many of the people riding on the 2-Clement are Chinese seniors. The walk to the Geary bus isn’t only inconvenient – it’s dangerous, since they would have to cross a busy, fast-traffic street where the crossing time is only 30 seconds.
Public records obtained by Muni activists show that Walker was told not to spend too much time on scenario one—that is, restoring existing service, and to focus on the other options.
A spreadsheet he gave Muni leadership includes the idea of “21 gone–saves parklets!”
Tumlin said that no decisions had been made on any line’s future, and that Muni would always take priority over parklets. The consultant’s material, he said, was just preliminary drafts.
But it’s clear from the records that there are a number of lines that are being considered for elimination, including the 2, 3, 6, 21, and 47.
Redefining Muni for a new, post-COIVD (and I would argue, post-Downtown-centered) era is critical. It’s also critical to develop a financing system that will actually work in the future. Reliance on fares and parking is a model from another era.
But it seems to me the goal ought to be adding and improving service, not cutting. The ridership-first model is, frankly, a bit alarming.
And while Tumlin said, correctly, that every line change has been going before the MTA board, that’s hardly an accountable outfit, entirely appointed by the mayor.
“The takeaway,” Chan said, “doesn’t give us a lot of confidence in where we are heading.”