J Church line trains began running again on Dec. 19, 2020 between Balboa Park Station and Church and Duboce. The line is the first to resume service after a lengthy shutdown prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic and widespread mechanical issues in the Metro subway. (Samantha Laurey/ Special to S.F. Examiner)

J Church line trains began running again on Dec. 19, 2020 between Balboa Park Station and Church and Duboce. The line is the first to resume service after a lengthy shutdown prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic and widespread mechanical issues in the Metro subway. (Samantha Laurey/ Special to S.F. Examiner)

SFMTA annual report: 2020 leaves a ‘radically changed’ agency

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency annual report describes this year as one that “radically changed” the agency and forced officials to make “the hard choices” in order to survive.

Many of those hard choices are what stand out when thinking about 2020: a total shutdown of the Muni Metro rail system; a nearly 40 percent reduction of bus service at its lowest point; the halting of the Free Muni for Youth expansion and BackFirst wellness program for operators; the downsizing of the ambitious transformation of Market Street; preparation for potential mass layoffs in the midst of a budget crisis; and the struggle to determine how to allocate severely limited resources while facing a seemingly insurmountable deficit.

“I know that change is hard, particularly during these uncertain times. I am confident that we can work through these adjustments together and build a stronger transportation system worthy of San Francisco,” SFMTA Director of Transportation Jeffrey Tumlin wrote in the report’s opening remarks.

And while ridership is only barely creeping back to about 30 percent of pre-pandemic levels, SFMTA officials say the service they are running is performing better than ever before, in some cases.

The limited service being provided prioritizes lines frequently ridden by essential workers and transit-dependent passengers; the agency recently received national recognition from TransitCenter for its focus on equity in recovery.

The Muni collision rate and onboard crime rates have dropped notably since last year. Every month since May, more than 85 percent of buses have arrived on time or early.

There’s still a lot of areas for the agency to improve.

According to the annual report, customer complaints have remained higher than in the past, reaching a peak of 131 complaints per 100,000 miles in April.

Capital projects have been a consistent problem for the agency. Data shows the agency continues to underperform its target on-time completion rate of 75 percent of all capital projects started.

Some of the most notable delays are on the Van Ness Improvement Project, the Geary Bus Rapid Transit Project and the Central Subway, some of which have also suffered from budget overruns.

Though the Better Market Street project began the year with a celebratory shut-down of much of the street to cars to make room for transit and cyclists, The City has since scaled back the project to save money and removed some of the most transformative street safety elements, especially for people riding bikes or traveling on foot.

On the positive side, SFMTA’s annual report also highlights the bold, swift decisions the agency made that might have taken months, if not years to move forward during otherwise normal times.

Public space has been redefined through the Slow Streets and Shared Spaces initiatives.

The Slow Streets program, which has closed or will close more than 30 corridors to thru-traffic, has created a network of pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly streets between essential destinations and, for the first time, a nearly car-free route from Ocean Beach to the Embarcadero.

The Shared Spaces initiative allows small business owners and groups of neighborhood merchants to transform streets, parking spots, sidewalks and parks into commercial spaces and outdoor dining and gathering spots, presumably with a lower risk of COVID-19 transmission.

SFMTA has also moved decisively on its efforts to create transit-only lanes. Closed to private vehicles, these lanes allow buses to complete their routes more quickly, run more trips on an hourly basis and reduce wait times and crowding for passengers.

With transit-only lanes, a bus can run an average of eight routes per hour with a round trip time of 45 minutes. By contrast, without transit lanes, that same bus can only run six routes per hour with a round trip time of 60 minutes.

Looking to next year, Tumlin said the agency’s approach is simple: “be strategic; try new things without fear; listen carefully to feedback; quickly adjust if it is not working; and build on the successful experiments.”

Read the entire annual report here.

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