Riders on Muni can be singularly focused on the service issue that affects them at that very moment. And rightly so, for being late to work or to an appointment is a frustrating experience, especially when the delay is caused by a service snag on Muni. Just as infuriating is when Muni stops short of the end of the line — a practice known as a switchback — and riders have to wait for the next vehicle.
Two members of the Board of Supervisors, Katy Tang and Malia Cohen, have recently called for an inquiry into the all-too-common problem of switchbacks. But focusing solely on switchbacks would be like worrying about the health of a single tree without paying any attention to the health of the larger forest. Merely ending switchbacks would be a boon for weary riders after a long day of work, but the crumbling Muni transit system would be no better for it. San Franciscans and local lawmakers have tough decisions ahead regarding Muni if they are truly serious about keeping the system on track.
Muni’s age is starting to show, and that is not in reference to the cable cars or historic streetcars that grace our streets. The system’s “new” buses and light-rail trains are aging. In order to save the cash-strapped system money, the agency even skimped on the midlife repairs of some of the buses, according to a July 2012 article in the SF Weekly.
So while Muni’s vehicles are being run into the ground without the funds needed to repair them, talking solely about how to end switchbacks isn’t prudent when the real conversation should address how to adequately fund the transit system.
Ignoring the big picture hasn’t worked so far, and it seems unlikely that it will work moving ahead. In his State of the City address, Mayor Ed Lee said he would be appointing a task force to look at transit issues in The City. While rider issues such as delays and switchbacks should be addressed by this task force, the true goal should be laying bare the underlying issues that lead to the problems.
Muni already has some needed fixes on its road map. For instance, a $5.8 million project to speed up the N-Judah line by painting transit-only lanes and improving traffic-signal timing should improve travel on a line that carries 12.8 million passengers each year. The Transit Effectiveness Project, a wide-ranging plan for buses and light-rail improvements across The City, is another plan that would improve Muni’s performance, if only it were ever finally implemented.
But it always comes back to Muni’s bottom line. If San Francisco does not invest the funds needed to keep vehicles running properly and improve its transit infrastructure, everything else is a secondary concern. There is no harm in more hearings about Muni switchbacks. But when the buses and trains fall apart from lack of funding, everyone will be stranded.