San Francisco’s J Church train to resume downtown subway service

Tensions remain between restoring SFMTA service and maintaining frequency

Just like that, the J Church train is going back underground.

The Muni line, which historically connected the Outer Mission and Noe Valley to the Financial District, has been truncated for much of the pandemic, terminating at Market and Church Streets rather than entering The City’s downtown subway system. The restricted service was hailed for making other lines run more efficiently. But J riders hated the inconvenience of transferring.

It all came to a head Tuesday, when the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors voted to restore subway service for the J — against the recommendation of SFMTA staff. The board’s vote came as it approved the rest of SFMTA’s 2022 service restoration plan, which will bring back nearly all pre-pandemic Muni lines, albeit some in modified form and later than initially planned.

By siding with neighborhood activists over SFMTA staff, the board previewed more existential questions for transit in San Francisco. “It’s a fundamental tension in any transit system,” SFMTA Director Jeffrey Tumlin said at the meeting. “Do you provide a slow, infrequent one-seat ride everywhere? Or do you provide frequency with transfers?”

Since restarting last December, the shorter J route has generated fierce opposition among a subset of riders, many elderly and disabled, who are now forced to disembark and transfer to an eastbound train at Church station to reach downtown.

While the experience has been frustrating for many J riders, it appears their sacrifice is making Muni Metro service better for everyone else, SFMTA Director of Transit Julie Kirschbaum reported at Tuesday’s meeting. The three lines currently running through the subway — the K/T, N and M — have seen travel time improvements of at least 7 minutes as compared to pre-pandemic service. The N, which no longer has to compete with the J to enter the subway portal at Church and Duboce, has seen travel times decrease by 14 minutes, or 21%. Across all metro lines, delays are down about 75%.

Kirschbaum acknowledged there are other factors in play. Depressed ridership means it takes less time for riders to board trains. The L Taraval train is not currently running through the subway due to construction, making for less traffic in the tunnel. Maintenance work performed during the year-long subway shutdown, as well as the gradual replacement of Muni’s light rail fleet, have helped, too.

But SFMTA staff believe keeping the J on the surface is a major factor in the subway’s improved performance. In fact, according to SFMTA data, average trip time on the J is unchanged since before the pandemic, even with the new transfer, because the J’s journey into the subway used to be so slow. Likewise, ridership on the surface portion of the route remains consistent with the rest of Muni’s buses and trains, hovering at about 50% of pre-pandemic levels.

With this data in hand, SFMTA staff recommended keeping the J as a surface-only route every 12 minutes during the day, while running it through the subway during evening hours when transfers are less convenient. The agency also called for a supplemental bus running every half hour from Noe Valley to downtown.

Critics of SFMTA’s staff plan — including virtually all members of the public who weighed in on the matter during the meeting, as well as the agency’s Citizens’ Advisory Council — called it “convoluted” and “not intuitive.” The citizens’ council noted 68% of J riders surveyed opposed the transfer at Market Street, compared to just 22% who approved. Among riders with disabilities, 73% said they found the transfer difficult, as did 68% of all riders. They also argued that there’s plenty of capacity in the subway for the J to run smoothly in addition to the other lines.

The SFMTA Board of Directors agreed. “We’re fixing a problem we don’t quite have yet,” SFMTA board member Steve Heminger said, noting that without the J, there would be 26 trains per hour in the subway in the spring, four fewer than the upper limit for optimal service. Following Heminger’s lead, the board voted unanimously to restore the full J route with trains every 15 minutes.

The board acknowledged that at some point in the future, SFMTA will likely need to halt subway service for the J. “Let’s prove the point,” SFMTA Board Chair Gwyneth Borden said. “Have (subway service) be horrible and then everyone understands that that’s why the J has to be sacrificed. But I feel like people don’t see the imperative right now.” SFMTA will continue to make streetscape improvements at Church and Market to make for an easier transfer experience. The agency will also study the possibility of running historic streetcars above ground along the entire length of the J line.

In the meantime, J service will get more comfortable, but less frequent. “Overwhelmingly, our riders have been asking for better frequency, speed and reliability at the system level.” Tumlin said at the close of the meeting. “And what we’re choosing to do is worsen frequency in order to eliminate the inconvenience of the transfer.”

In other news

Also discussed at Tuesday’s meeting:

  • Tumlin provided a preview of how SFMTA might implement the Board of Supervisors’ unanimous resolution to improve passenger safety at the approximately 1,000 bus stops where parking is currently allowed. One option would remove parking from the first 20 feet of each stop, resulting in 1,000 parking spaces removed across The City. Another option would remove enough parking for buses to be able to pull up the curb, resulting in 5,000 parking spaces removed.
  • Following a recent change in state law, the SFMTA board approved speed limit reductions, from 25 to 20 miles per hour, along busy sections of 24th St., Fillmore, Haight, Polk, Valencia, Ocean Ave. and San Bruno Ave.
  • The SFMTA board passed a resolution urging Mayor London Breed and the Board of Supervisors to place a $400 million transit improvement and street safety bond on the June ballot.
  • In a separate meeting Tuesday, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) approved several “quick build” street projects, including protected bike lanes on sections of Oak, Sutter, 17th St., 3rd. St., Alemany and Frida Kahlo.

bschneider@sfexaminer.com