The Muni NextBus system is infamous for glitches and inaccuracies that officials say are due to aging and outdated equipment. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Muni information system one step closer to $89 million reboot

Real-time arrival data and trip-planning crucial to restoring riders’ faith in system

For Muni to recover, it needs to build rider confidence, not only in its cleanliness and safety, but also in its ability to deliver reliable and efficient service.

Key to that mission is an overhaul of the information systems that provide arrival times, system updates and trip planning support to riders, transit officials say, which is why they urged the Budget and Finance Committee on Wednesday to approve an $89 million contract to do just that.

NextBus, the two-decades old system currently supposed to deliver such information, is infamous for glitches, inaccuracies and borderline uselessness that frustrates riders and discourages them from taking Muni all together.

“I just know what we have now is bad, and I’m hoping what we are going to get is good,” Supervisor Rafael Mandelman said at the committee meeting.

Members moved the funds forward with recommendation for approval by the full Board of Supervisors, which is required to approve any contract that could exceed 10 years or include expenditures expected to exceed $10 million per the City Charter.

The six-year, $89 million contract would fund the development, implementation and maintenance of a modernized Next Generation Customer Information System by San Diego-based Cubic Transportation Systems, Inc., the same contractor that oversees the existing NextBus platform.

Mandelman pressed staff about why the agency selected the same contractor, despite the poor performance of NextBus. Officials largely chalked up its shortcomings to its age.

With 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.

The contract will also upgrade the MuniMobile app, known for its slow refresh times and clunky customer experience, and equip it with the features for point-to-point directions, comprehensive mobile ticketing and personalized travel routes for riders with different needs.

The San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency Board of Directors elected to continue with Cubic, Inc. in June after a request-for-proposal process that began nearly two years prior. Mayor London Breed introduced the resolution to approve the funds necessary to fulfill the contract at the July 14 Board of Supervisors meeting.

Despite current austerity measures, SFMTA has already adjusted its budget to absorb the costs of 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. That estimate includes a 10% contingency cushion 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, which must be signed off on by SFMTA.

Inaccurate real-time information disproportionately encumbers the most vulnerable transit users.

Many bus shelters in neighborhoods such as the Bayview lack electronic signage and, at times, are devoid of any signage at all. Cubic, Inc.’s proposal includes plans to nearly double the number of signs in “equity neighborhoods” and install a total of 800 new solar-powered panels citywide.

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 poor, inefficient service.

That same survey found more than half and up to 82% of individuals with household earnings of $200,000 or more will continue their journey with Muni when they have a reliable trip-planning app or directions to a nearby transit alternative.

Officials said every single rider will play a key role in restoring the vitality of Muni in a post-COVID world, and all users will expect equal assurance that they can easily navigate the system despite anticipated regular service changes due to the vehicle capacity restrictions, longer cleaning times and temporarily modified routes that are likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

cgraf@sfexaminer.com

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