Garcia: S.F.'s transit obsession

As an N-Judah streetcar approached her stop at Ninth and Irving this week, Debbi Sims said what a lot of people in her neighborhood have been thinking the past few months.

“Victory,” she said. “Victory at last.”

With relatively little fanfare — and not too many delays — Sims’ Muni Metro line and the J-Church line returned to their old routes this week, ending a period of simmering frustration with city transportation officials who tinkered with commute lines when they opened the new T-Third streetcar in April.

For Sims, it meant one less transfer stop to her job in South Beach and one more reminder of why Muni is the common link between all San Franciscans — and too often a source of their anger.

“When they changed the routes, I was late for work every day for more than a week,” Sims said. “And if you don’t think things like that upset people, you can just talk to my bosses.”

Yet there’s really no need. As the Muni woes caused by the T-Third line’s April introduction proved, there’s nothing quite like a major disruption in The City’s public transportation system to get the mayor’s attention. And if there’s anything that the restoration of the old N-Judah and J-Church routes proved, it’s that a few thousand phone calls, e-mails and letters can do wonders when it comes to changing course. As former Mayor Willie Brown learned rather vividly during his first years in office, to ignore Muni is to invite disaster.

I’ll never forget the day when I hopped on the Metro to attend Brown’s first State of the City speech and the streetcar got stalled in the Twin Peaks tunnel for 25 minutes. Brown not only came to regret his infamous “I’ll fix Muni in 100 days” boast, it became a continual drag on his legacy.

Newsom, who is running for re-election this year against a field of rumor and speculation, knows full well that Muni’s status is one of the chinks in his armor, and he’s been all but obsessed with it. But tinkering with the system is a path fraught with peril — as he discovered when the T-Third was introduced.

At that time, the idea to turn the N-Judah cars back at Embarcadero Station seemed like a good solution to get more cars headed back to the avenues — except that it ended up jamming a bunch of lines through a single portal and created a major bottleneck. And it also forced passengers like Sims to sit and fume at a stop waiting for another train, whereas before she had a straight shot to her destination.

And as is usually the case with Muni,undoing a mistake is not an overnight correction. Because of the need to recreate the schedules and staff them properly, it took two months for transit officials to restore the original runs.

So now it comes to pass, apparently, that the key finding in a long-awaited, $2 million study of ways to fix Muni will be to eliminate bus stops in order to make the public transportation system more efficient. And that may make a lot of policy sense — but politically the mayor knows it could fuel a rider revolt.

Newsom recently told The Examiner that no city the size of San Francisco has as many bus stops, which is why Muni is the slowest of all major public transit systems. Boston’s metropolitan system averages 18 miles per hour, New York averages 14 miles per hour and Muni crawls along at 8 miles per hour.

The public might understand intellectually that fewer stops would likely translate into faster service — a number of studies have shown that — but that doesn’t mean they have to like it.

Certainly history reveals that one stop removal can result in scores of protests. Three years ago a plan to speed up the 38-Geary route was dropped after residents complained about the elimination of some stops. Similar protests blocked changes along Polk Street.

In a town where people can get riled up over the removal of street garbage cans, the elimination of one bus stop can result in a major noontime rally.

Muni is not just on the top of Newsom’s list — it seems to head everybody else’s. One day last week, San Francisco’s 311 call center received close to 6,000 calls about Muni. I was told a good portion of them were just requests for information — and it may be partially related to the summer tourist season — but that’s a striking amount of dialing under any circumstances.

It just goes to show that Muni has always operated like a public obsession. You can try and fix it — but you’d better not mess with it too much.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@examiner.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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