Muni is reining in runaway riders

A bizarre spate of recent incidents in which passengers have pried open the doors of operational Muni buses has forced the agency to spend millions of dollars on retrofits and plead with riders not to jump out of moving vehicles.

Between May 30 and June 9, there were 15 recorded incidents of passengers illegally opening doors and jumping out of Muni buses between stops. The infractions — which are now being investigated by police as criminal acts — were recorded at locations from Silver Terrace to the Outer Richmond district. The majority took place on Muni's 14-Mission Limited line, although the most recent incident occurred Sunday night on the 38-Geary.

Inspectors have begun reviewing video footage from the buses to determine who committed the incidents and what possible motivation they had for jumping out of the vehicles, said Mike Biel, deputy chief of special operations for the Police Department.

At first, Biel said, police thought it was passengers hastily looking to exit after mistakenly boarding an express bus, since most of the incidents occurred on the 14-Mission Limited. But now they're investigating the possibility of malicious mischief among a group of passengers.

“This can't be a coincidence with this many incidents in the past nine days,” Biel said. “It's a criminal offense to tamper with the safe operations of a moving Muni bus.”

John Haley, Muni's transit director, said the passengers have managed to exploit a design spec of the doors' air compression system. The riders exert enough pressure on the door to pry it open, something that is not supposed to happen on a moving vehicle, he said.

“The actions of these individuals are not only incredibly stupid and callous, but they also endanger their own lives and the lives of others,” said Haley, who noted that the buses could be traveling up to 25 miles per hour at the time of the incidents.

Haley said Muni will have to retrofit the doors on about 200 buses with an extra motor, a measure that will make it impossible for passengers to exit without smashing out a window. That will cost the agency between $1 million and $2 million, which is set to come out of its overtaxed capital budget. And that price tag doesn't include the cost of taking the buses out of service so maintenance workers could inspect the doors for design flaws.

So far, all of the incidents have occurred on diesel buses made by Neoplan, a German manufacturer. Those vehicles have been in service since 2000, but the doors on Muni's newer hybrid buses from Orion, another manufacturer, must also be replaced, Haley said. The agency hopes to begin retrofitting the vehicles this weekend and complete the task as soon as possible.

Ron Austin, spokesman for the Transport Workers Union Local 250-A, Muni's operators union, said he heard reports about the malfunctioning doors this past weekend, although he wasn't aware that the incidents were intentional. He said he urged management to quickly address the safety issue before someone was seriously injured.

“We can't with good conscience be driving around these buses with these potential safety problems out there,” Austin said.

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