San Francisco Muni officials appeared at a Board of Supervisors committee Monday afternoon to discuss Muni train switchbacks and overall service on the same day that the Controller’s Office released the city survey report that polled residents on how they would rate transportation in The City.
The 2019 report, conducted by survey research consultant Corey, Canapary, & Galanis, surveyed 2,218 residents in English, Cantonese, Mandarin, Spanish, and Tagalog on various city departments, rated Muni with a “C+.” In 2017, residents surveyed gave Muni a “B-.”
Both the grade and the hearing summed up what has been a tumultuous last several months for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which oversees Muni, with an ongoing operator shortage, safety and mechanical issues with the new Muni light rail vehicles, and Ed Reiskin leaving the SFMTA in August. Reiskin leads the SFMTA.
Supervisor Gordon Mar said he called for the hearing at the Land Use and Transportation Committee because he wanted to hold the transit agency accountable for recent flubs in Muni service, including a major incident on April 26 that crippled the subway for 13 hours:
“I called for this hearing because of my deep belief in oversight and holding public services accountable to the public. Too many things have happened under SFMTA’s jurisdiction from issues of the LRVs, to subway shutdown, to the chronic operator shortage, are absolutely unacceptable.”
“We are aware of these problems. Our focus now must be on solutions.”
SFMTA Director of Transit Julie Kirschbaum outlined the transit agency’s 90-day goals to improve subway service and bus service citywide.
While the transit agency delivered 98 percent of scheduled service on the subway system, 93 percent of bus service was delivered for the month of April. The goal is to have at least 96 percent of scheduled service delivered for both rail and buses.
Kirschbaum said the missing service on the buses can equate to hundreds of bus trips that are missing in the schedule that ultimately affects passengers waiting at bus stops.
There is some light at the end of tunnel, as the SFMTA is about to graduate a class of about 57 operators at the end of the month and starting a third operator class in July.
Muni still needs about 200 bus operators in order to fill the scheduled service, KIrschbaum said.
Another issue that has always drawn frustration with Muni riders is switchbacks. A switchback is when a train switches back in the opposite direction due to some incident on the track, such as collision or a broken train blocking the track.
Transit officials also use a switchback as a way to rebalance service if trains begin to bunch in one direction, but service in the opposite direction is lacking, Kirschbaum said:
“We know that folks that are at the end of the lines feel these switchbacks most acutely, which is why we are experimenting with as many other tools as possible to reduce them.”
Last month, the transit agency pledged to end switchbacks on the T-Third rail line to address equity issues with passengers who live in the Bayview.
While switchbacks on the T have minimized, the N-Judah — Muni’s heaviest rail line in terms of ridership — continues to experience the most switchbacks of all the rail lines.
January of this year saw nearly 1,800 switchbacks occur, but the number has now decreased to just 1,000 switchbacks in April.
Mar, who represents the Outer Sunset where the N picks up inbound-heading passengers, asked Kirschbaum if she would commit to ending switchbacks on the N.
Kirschbaum said she would want to first assess the T line first before making a commitment.
Mar added that he would like to see the SFMTA set goals in reducing switchbacks and to track how long riders have to wait for the next train to arrive when passengers are told to get off during a switchback.
The SFMTA has had policy now for years that they would not order a switchback during the peak hours of the commute and only if the next train was arriving within five minutes.
Supervisor Ahsha Safai said constituents his District 10 are also frustrated with the switchbacks occurring on rail lines:
“You’re letting people on and then a few stops later you have to get off and then there’s no information about when the next car is coming. I understand trying to adjust gaps in the system, but it seems like we’re over using this process.”
Mar called to continue the hearing so that the board can receive updates on the transit agency’s 90-day action goals.