A Muni rider shows up at a bus stop. The digital sign says in its faded black-and-gold typeface that the vehicle will arrive in three minutes. But the bus never comes, and the MuniMobile app won’t refresh.
This story — or one like it — is all-too-familiar for Muni regulars. Unreliable arrival information complicates trip planning, and faulty updates make navigating service changes cumbersome, especially for anyone with limited mobility.
But the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and Mayor London Breed are now asking the Board of Supervisors to approve funding for a project intended to revamp the current technology, provide riders with easy-to-understand information presented in a modernized format and foster confidence in public transportation’s worth as a viable transportation option.
Breed introduced the resolution approving the funds at the July 14 Board of Supervisors meeting, and it’s currently pending action from the Budget and Finance Committee.
The six-year, $89 million contract would fund the development, implementation and maintenance of the project by San Diego-based Cubic Transportation Systems, the contractor selected by SFMTA after evaluation and a months-long negotiation process.
Cubic’s proposal would replace the 15-year-old system Muni riders currently tolerate with something fit for modern-day demands: the Next Generation Customer Information System.
Decades-old stationary digital signs would be replaced with larger LCD screens displaying dynamic maps, real-time vehicle locations, nearby routes, arrival and transfer predictions and relevant announcements in multiple languages.
Transit-user inequality gap
Lack of real-time information dramatically exacerbates the inequality gap among transit users.
An SFMTA survey found individuals from higher income households overwhelmingly forego Muni when faced with long wait times and no alternative, leaving lower-income individuals to deal with the poor, inefficient service.
With a trip-planning app or directions to a nearby alternative, though, more than half and up to 82% of individuals with annual household earnings of $200,000 or more will continue their journey with Muni.
Providing passengers with actionable flexibility will become even more important as people return to public transportation in the wake of COVID-19, as SFMTA anticipates regular service changes due to vehicle capacity restrictions, increased cleaning times and temporarily discontinued stops.
“Now, more than ever, especially for those who have no other option than to take Muni, this is an information system that San Franciscans deserve,” SFMTA spokesperson Erica Kato said.
Cubic’s proposal includes installing up to 800 new solar-powered signs across The City, especially in “equity neighborhoods and other historically underserved communities,” where many shelters currently don’t have powered signage, much less up-to-date information.
A key element of the plan is upgrading the existing MuniMobile app.
It would include features for point-to-point directions and trip tracking, multimodal journey quotes, and all-in-one mobile ticketing. Seniors, individuals with disabilities or other travelers who need to personalize their trip for accessibility could do so directly on the app as well.
Years in the making
Efforts to approve the overdue upgrades began in 2018, when the SFMTA Board of Directors authorized the agency to issue a request for proposals to “develop, implement and maintain” a new system.
In July 2019, staff announced it would begin negotiations with Cubic Transportation Systems, the “highest-ranked” of the six companies that submitted a proposal.
SFTMA’s Board unanimously approved the contract after 11 months of negotiations on June 16, having already adjusted its capital and operating budgets to support the project.
Of the roughly $89 million total, $25.4 million funds capital improvement costs such as upgrading signage, software and the addition of solar-powered signs over the next three fiscal years, according to an SFMTA presentation. That number includes a 10% contingency fund for any unexpected costs or price hikes.
The remaining $63.5 million covers operating expenses for software fees and maintenance over the first six-year term and the two optional five-year extensions.
Per the City Charter, the Board of Supervisors must approve any contract that could exceed 10 years or include expenditures expected to exceed $10 million.