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Where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars

June 22, 2010

Yesterday was a day of bay-area firsts for me: taking my brother to my Berkeley stomping grounds, a knife was pulled on a friend following a dispute over pickup soccer; later, on an over-packed 38L, the Muni operator warned passengers over the PA that “because the bus is full, please keep your wallets and cellphones close because of pickpockets”; I returned home, personal belongings safe, and proceeded to lecture my (older) brother about how insular folks are becoming, especially on the bus. These served as poignant reminders that everyone is feeling the brunt of stressful times.

I started writing this piece on April 13–my birthday–and it remains unfinished, a constant nuisance as it languishes. In an effort to resuscitate, I am releasing this serially; this is the first contribution to a two-part focus on transportation planning and the city.

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I’m loving the new Mayer Hawthorne cover of Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”–especially the pan from Cupid’s Span to the Bay Bridge @ 2:08. Coincidentally, these are also my two favorite San Francisco monuments.

It is wild how, sometimes, you become aware of how tiny and coincidental things really are. Not a day after I played this song out did I pick up last week’s SF Weekly. The cover story, “The Muni Death Spiral,” details the public transportation crisis now looming over San Francisco: slashing some 10% of services to offset a $45 million deficit, Muni is subjecting itself to death by a thousand cuts. The article is also a great introduction to just a few of the oft-overlooked intricacies of transportation planning: Mayor-appointed and publicly-elected oversight boards, the cost of unionized labor, how extensive service can hold riders hostage–realities typically unbeknownst to citizens, but very much at-work behind the veneer of public transportation. Even something as charming and ubiquitously iconic as San Francisco cable cars–the very ones that “climb halfway to the stars”–represent the exorbitantly expensive nature of public transit.

On paper, the mayorally appointed MTA board runs the agency, with [CEO Nat] Ford reporting to the board. But then, Muni timetables are printed on paper, too.

A little history: in November of 1999, the successful passage of Proposition E—a San Francisco city charter amendment that replaced the Public Transportation Commission with a new municipal transportation agency, SFMTA—instituted a transit-first policy geared towards prioritizing the movement of people and goods in the City. Most notably, the amendment set standards for performance and service by Muni, “including meeting 98.5 percent of its scheduled service and having at least an 85 percent on-time record”; it also called for the new SFMTA to be governed by a seven-member board of directors appointed by the Mayor, ensuring that the Agency would control its own operations.

Generally, a board of directors for a transportation agency is intended to act as an intermediary for their electorate and remain accountable to the transit-users they serve; as a result of Proposition E, the seven-member board is hand-picked by the mayor to root out contrarian sentiment. “The mayor is very schizophrenic about the way he claims that he has nothing to do with how Muni runs,” said former Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin. “He generally says he has nothing to do with Muni, except when it’s abundantly clear he’s micromanaging the living daylights out of it.” And though Muni has been largely freed from the oversight of transit matters, it still acquiesces to the caprices of Mayor Newsom. The SF Weekly points to three egregious examples: the fudging of Muni deficit numbers to make them “politically palatable”; the commandeering of the taxi medallion system to raise an additional $11.2 million; and the myopic Culture Bus.

Just a year removed from laying off unionized parking control officers, vehicle washers, and mechanics, Muni stands poised to cut services again in hopes of relieving growing deficit numbers. A handful of Muni sources have confirmed that the mayor’s office does, in fact, dictate the transit agency’s budget “down to the smallest detail”; further, the mayor would deem Muni’s deficits “too high” for public consumption and cajole the agency into presenting “smaller numbers” that are “politically palatable.” Mayoral spokesman Tony Winnicker says Newsom’s involvement is a good thing: the mayor has a “great degree of day-to-day interaction” in crafting Muni’s budget. “That’s appropriate,” Winnicker continues, “and what the people should want.”

And while not a terrible idea, the San Francisco Culture bus of 2008 and 2009 is another instance of Newsom’s overbearing involvement in Muni operations. The service, intended to ferry tourists to and from the city’s various cultural destinations for a pricey $7 fare (later $10), utilized the best of Muni’s offerings: coupling the agency’s best buses and operators, the vehicles were fast and clean, but also empty. The $1.6 million budget for the Culture Bus came at the expense of core transit service and cost Muni “10 times as much as the fare revenues brought in.” I would be remiss if I didn’t account for the economic downturn, but the Culture Bus demonstrated that Muni itself is a victim of political vanity projects.

Even SFMTA’s acquisition of the San Francisco Taxi Commission is not without consequence. Hoping to poach taxicab medallions from drivers and sell them to the highest bidder, Newsom is planning to deliver a much-needed boost into Muni’s perennially empty coffers. But what of the taxicab drivers, the self-ascribed “unofficial ambassadors” to the city? In addition to facing any-and-all new rules SFMTA creates, drivers must now forfeit their $2,000 per month boon from renting-out their medallion; a slight, sure, when one notes that they have no vacation or sick days, no health or retirement plans, and command a salary of $25,000 a year. The real slight, however, evidences itself as profits from medallion sales will be used to subsidize the operations and paychecks of the “vast SFMTA archipelago.”

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And a preview of what’s to come:

Muni’s lethargy is literally costing it millions.

The Muni death spiral begins inauspiciously: the inveterate belief of Muni as “the People’s Railway” is shaken to its core by degenerating service and reliability. At an average speed of 8.1 mph, Muni is far-and-away the slowest major urban transit agency in North America. This is not just a nuisance for Muni’s declining ridership; it is a major financial drain on a beleaguered system. Slow vehicle speeds force Muni to spend more money to provide less service. Muni’s lethargy is literally costing it millions.

credit SFWeekly

What—or who—is to blame? (Mis)management? In a word: yes. Traffic, congestion, and density? These negatively affect transit, but, outside of creating (or, in San Francisco’s case, enforcing) bus-only lanes or installing transit-friendly functionality like queue jumps, Muni has few avenues left to explore.

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