Better Marks for Muni

I log my Muni rides. Or have. In June I launched ‘muni log’ in a humble subdirectory of its own, and resolved that this imaginatively-titled file would collect my experiences aboard the city fleet in the months that followed. No longer would I gripe ignorantly about hordes of fare cheats slipping onto jammed buses. I would be an enlightened griper. I would keep a record!

This I have done. The strange and terrible saga of 140 Muni trips has been gathered in muni log — summarized in this spreadsheet, for you data fiends — and I’ve grown thoroughly sick of typing in new entries. A new year has arrived; I want to wrap it up.

Muni 9 bus on Market Street

Muni 9 bus on Market Street

I claim no statistical significance for my record. I’m an unusually dapper old geezer who rides Muni a lot, and took notes for six months. That’s all. The log is heavily slanted toward the city’s south side, where I live. Fully forty percent of the trips are aboard one transit route, the 29 (admittedly the longest daytime route in the city, at 17.4 miles). I’m retired, don’t have to hang from many straps in rush hour, when transit services are busiest.

That said: I’m intimately acquainted with the record keeper, and trust him (until I pull a Sybil, and announce that I’m channeling Henry Ford in a second personality). I know what I saw.

Muni did better than I’d expected. I saw graffiti’d buses, but didn’t see many, and the graffiti wasn’t horrific. I fought for air on crowded buses, too, but less often than I’d thought I would.

Fare evasion at some stops was comically bad. Epidemic. Read on.

The details:

Vehicle Appearance

The shot below shows graffiti in the back of a 14 bus in 2013. I’m delighted to write that I might not be able to take this photo today: I noted tags in only eight of the one hundred forty vehicles, and the graffiti was much, much less substantial than that shown.

Two caveats:

  • I didn’t note vehicle appearance on twenty-two of the rides, either because I forgot or because the vehicle was too crowded to let me see into the back.
Graffiti in 14 bus in 2013

Graffiti in 14 bus in 2013

  • I clocked only seven trips on the 14 and 14L, and three on the 8X. None looked remotely as gruesome as the bus shown, but I did spot a few tags on three of the 14/14Ls and two of the 8Xs. I’d likely be writing a less cheery report if I did most of my shlepping on those lines, and both are transit arteries here. I can’t imagine the Mission district without the 14, might rank the 14 ahead of the 38 as the quintessential San Francisco bus line.

Crowding

Nearly seventy-one percent of my rides were in vehicles with room for all riders. Some of these rides transported what I regarded as ‘standees of choice;’ I still categorized the ride in the ‘room for all’ group if these standees-of-choice could have sat, but chose not to. (E.g., the guy in the three piece who’d rather hang onto the pole than crinkle his seersucker on the Muni bucket).

Sixteen percent of my rides were on all-seats-taken buses with what I regarded as a ‘moderate’ number of standees. I didn’t use a hard and fast head count to call the split between ‘moderate’ and ‘jammed.’ Me thinks fifteen standees can make for an overcrowded bus, but not if the fifteen are only on board for a few blocks, and fewer standees are transported before and afterward. Most — emphasize, most — of the ‘moderate’ rides carted ten standees, or fewer.

And now, for you Muni haters: eleven percent of the rides were on buses I’d describe as jammed. Packed. Cattle cars. These usually toted more than twenty standees. I think some staggered along with more than thirty, although my own smushed spot in these rolling sardine cans made it tough to count heads. I had to ride one of these wheezers enroute to SFO with a suitcase, and would have offered scant praise for SFMTA while doing so, but, just the same: that 11% mark was better than I’d expected.

More caveats:

  • I’ll say it again: I’m retired. No weekday gig to get to and from during rush hour.
  • I decided not to count loads on eastbound buses on Geneva between the Balboa Park station bus pad and Mission Street. Patrons of this stop will understand why: hordes of riders transferring from BART want to get to Mission Street by any means necessary, and will pile onto whatever eastbound bus rolls up first. If a bus hasn’t come for awhile, then the 8X or 29 or 54 or 43 that does finally pull up is going to be swamped for the half mile to Popeyes.

Service delays

On four dates, wait times promised by Nextbus were bad enough to persuade me to walk. I also sometimes had to board a less attractive Route B because Route A wasn’t coming.

K line at West Portal station

K line at West Portal station

Most of the time, though, delays were negligible. I remember Los Angeles’ MTA as better run than SFMTA, but doomed to serve a sprawling, car-centric service area. Some LACMTA lines run only once an hour. SFMTA runs a few lines with infrequent service — the 17, which I’ve yet to board, the 36 Teresita, the 52 — but most headways are much shorter.

Browsing my six month record reminded me of how good I’ve got it. San Francisco is a far cry from transit valhallas like Zuerich, Copenhagen, and Stockholm, but I could still assume that I’d rarely have to wait more than ten minutes for a bus.

Fare Evasion

I think I can write frankly about this problem in little attended-to transitophile. I might hesitate elsewhere.

San Francisco permits “all door boarding.” Riders are asked to board in the front only to pay a cash fare. Riders who can “tap in” with Clipper IC cards — or who have fare media that doesn’t require tapping, like paper transfers or Muni passports — can board in the back.

Rear door boarding is a boon and a half for distributing passenger loads. I now board through the back door at least half the time, and can’t believe it doesn’t cut bus dawdle times at stops.

Rear door boarding is also a boon and a half for fare cheats.

Now, I can’t prove that. When an outbound 29 pulls up at the Balboa Park bus pad and I watch five of seven new riders slip in the back without brandishing Clipper cards, I may slander my fellow San Franciscans by so cynically assuming that most of them are ducking the fare. (Although I’ll admit that the quick, furtive glance that so many of these folks take at the driver encourages me in my cynicism.) Maybe they just look like locals. Maybe they’re all tourists with Muni passports!

(In fact, there’s even an online report that claims that fare evasion has dropped since all door boarding was inaugurated. I struggle to recognize the city this report is about, and wonder if the authors might have confused San Francisco with Lisbon, which has a bridge that looks like ours … but, still, it’s online, and you can read it yourself, draw your own conclusions.)

I notice the Clipper Card-less rider phenomenon more on the south side than elsewhere in the city, and especially at the eastbound Balboa Park bus pad and at various stops on Mission Street. On the last day chronicled by my log, December 30, I was delighted to be joined on a northbound 14L by two fare inspectors, and to proffer my Clipper card to one.

That was the third time in nearly three and a half years that my Clipper card has been checked while riding SFMTA. Three fare checks, in three and a half years of regular rides.

Why do I care? Partly because it grates to be joined on a jammed bus by freeloaders, but mostly because it’s so absurd, dysfunctional, indicative of either helpless or incompetent leadership. A transit agency may be a public sector enterprise dependent on public support, but it’s still a business, like a laundromat or a hardware store, and is supposed to justify its balance sheet to taxpayers. Letting potential clients steal heaps and heaps of what you sell makes for an unusual business model.

Overall

I saw examples of the downside of transit riding. Passengers on one outbound 29 were serenaded with bellowed obscenities for several miles by a mentally unstable passenger. On July 17, a teenager lost a cell phone at knife point to two crooks on the 54. I didn’t see the robbery, but did see how bravely the youth fought for composure while reporting the crime to the driver. (Who quietly assured him that she has a teenage son of her own at home, and cares; she called SFPD.)

The boom box seems to have come back in style, unfortunately. I had to listen to a few on Muni buses. I didn’t deal with many transit delays, but wouldn’t have wanted to explain them to an employer. And I’ll note once more that I’d sing a different tune in this post if I rode a rush hour 14 or 8X every day.

With all that said: I will stop sneering at SFMTA so lustily, and will use a new word in describing transit services here:

They’re okay.

Not good. Certainly not excellent. But not horrible, either. They’re okay. Ridiculous fare evasion on the south side, but still: okay.

There may be hope. I shall edit my Flickr posts of the graffiti’d 14s.

For the superstitious among you: I understand that I have likely outraged some primordial force in the city’s psychic substratum by writing anything nice about Muni, and will likely pay for it by boarding a ride from hell in the days ahead. I am still done with my record keeping, and won’t re-open my log unless I notice a significant change for the worse. I hope I don’t have to.

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