How to move the Munisaur

Bus riders in The City, it’s not your imagination. Timespent on Muni really is longer than ever, your rides reduced to crawls. And it probably doesn’t help if there’s an empty seat for your shopping bag or backpack.

Your numbers are down 12 percent over 20 years — this trend among the findings of the “San Francisco Transit Effectiveness Project,” part of which was released this week. The full report, sure to create angst throughout local government, will be made public in December 2007.

Empty seats don’t cheer municipal officials either. They have to consider the cost of keeping the lumbering transit system alive. The old solutions of more and higher fares aren’t so easy anymore. It’s time not only for creative fixes, but for wholesale rethinking.

So while you’re creeping along at 8 miles per hour, transit bureaucrats and urban planners are panting to find efficiencies. Adding insult to their sweat: Boston’s transit system moves at 18 mph, New York City’s at 14 mph.

Even worse, if you accept projections worked out by San Francisco Planning and Urban Research: Between now and 2015, Muni must find between $284 million and $929 million to pay for itself. Both Muni and SPUR offer smart ideas on how to goose the buses and trolleys along The City’s congested streets.

Sure, Muni could create more transit-only lanes, sell electronic fare cards, purchase more buses designed to make boarding easier, and so on. But something tells us that when 2015 gets here, even at Muni speed, deficits still will bedevil transit officials. That’s because government-run, big city transit systems never seem to resolve these issues, even the speedier ones in Boston and New York.

A half-decade ago the late, great urbanologist Jane Jacobs was asked by Reason magazine if she opposed private transit systems. “No,” she answered. “I wish we didn’t have the notion that you had to have monopoly franchise transit. I wish it were competitive — in the kinds of vehicles that it uses, in the fares that it charges, in the routes that it goes, in the times of day that it goes.”

Jacobs favored a system whose performance was dictated by users, not by municipal managers. Taxis, jitneys, doorstep vans, limos, maybe even those motorized rickshaws (they’re called tuk-tuks in Bangkok) that zip around Asia’s teeming cities.

A free-market transit system, limited only by human creativity, could encourage residents to leave their cars parked. It could even launch new jobs. As The City entertains the capping of taxi medallions, another question intrudes: Where is it written, in a free society, that any responsible citizen, properly insured, must be barred from offering any other citizen, for an agreed fare, a lift from here to there?

General OpinionOpinion

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