The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s struggles with the NextBus prediction tool illustrate the transit agency’s problems with communication and commitment. (Jessica Christian/2016 S.F. Examiner)

SFMTA needs to fix more than just NextBus

We at San Francisco Transit Riders urge Board of Supervisors President London Breed to call for a hearing to hold the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency accountable for the failure of their NextBus prediction tool.

As we now know, the NextBus fiasco was a result of AT&T disabling the 2G network upon which NextBus depended. Back in 2012, AT&T announced that it would disable 2G as of Jan. 1, 2017. However, apparently no one at the SFMTA knew that or took it seriously.

Muni follows its schedule less than 60 percent of the time. So what makes Muni tolerable is having real-­time predictions; adding 20 minutes of uncertainty to a trip is not workable.

The City Controller issued a report in December on absenteeism, outlining issues with accountability, internal communications and internal commitment. San Francisco Transit Riders sees this NextBus failure as a symptom of these management problems that are causing major rider frustration.

Lack of Internal Communications

In November, just more than a month before the NextBus failure, SFMTA’s chief technology officer, along with a NextBus representative, was promoting a new radio dispatch system coming possibly in March, according to a San Francisco Examiner article.

Seemingly, neither the chief technology officer nor the NextBus representative knew the existing system would crash well before their planned upgrades.

When bus predictions started going sideways in the beginning of January, SFMTA spokespeople had no idea what was going on. According to the Examiner, the SFMTA was waiting for answers from AT&T and NextBus, not realizing the problem was their own.

Lack of Reaction

It wasn’t until well into the meltdown that the SFMTA figured out there should be messaging about schedules, rather than an attempt to show faulty predictions. (Faulty predictions would show a bus in 43 minutes, even when there were scheduled buses arriving before then.)

Lack of Internal Commitment

At a meeting on Jan. 17, Director Ed Reiskin finally apologized. He acknowledged the episode was “a lesson for me in how important this service is to our riders. The reaction we got was amazing, and I don’t mean in a good way … it spoke … to how valuable having arrival predictions are for our riders.”

We wonder if Reiskin depends on Muni to get to work on time.

If we truly want to be a transit­-first city, we need transit that works well enough to attract ever more riders. We need the SFMTA to understand Muni’s key role in the daily lives of so many people who need to get to work, go to school and take their children to school.

We call for public hearings so there is public accountability. We are tired of the opacity and lack of management. We want a transparent plan forward, including a timeline addressing the City Controller’s report to ensure consistent staffing, consistent service and clearer internal management.

Thea Selby is board chair for the San Francisco Transit Riders, a rider-based grassroots advocate for world-class transit in San Francisco.

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