Why Muni doesn’t suck

Muni may not be perfect, but it keeps cars off the road and provides afforable transportation to many. (Courtesy Nathan Yergler, used under CC BY-SA 2.0)

Complaining about Muni is like a civic pastime, right up there with Bay to Breakers or blocking new housing.

I ride Muni every day. I’ve stood in the rain for a bus that never came, watched five trains go by before I could wedge onto one, sent emojis I’m not proud of to some of my Muni colleagues.

Yes, it has its problems. But Muni doesn’t suck. Given all the constraints and expectations imposed, Muni is a remarkable system that benefits everyone, whether they ride it or not. And we are making it better.

Muni is ubiquitous.

Muni exists under the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, a $1.1 billion department responsible for The City’s full transportation network: parking, street design, taxis, etc. Muni is the seventh largest public transit system in the country with 1,053 vehicles, 2,000 drivers and 700,000 daily passenger boardings. You can walk out of any home in San Francisco and find transit within four blocks. It’s why people can live here without a car.

In 2014, the City Controller analyzed Muni relative to 10 peer cities, including Seattle, Sacramento, Denver, San Jose and Minneapolis. Muni provides far more service per square mile: 14 miles of bus service compared to four for the next-highest city. Muni has the most passengers boarding overall, by far the most passengers per capita, plus the lowest operating costs per passenger for buses and one of the lowest for trains.

Muni perseveres.

Many of the things we regard as intractable Muni flaws are more a reflection of its own popularity and The City’s landscape. San Francisco is dense and hilly, and 24 percent of its travelers use transit. Our buses and trains average a dismal 8 mph largely because they’re traversing dense streets, stopping more often to make hilly areas accessible and loading and unloading more people per stop. These are inherent disadvantages no transit agency could undo, yet we sometimes assume Muni is just too dumb to figure it out.

Muni is a phenomenal deal.

Uber won’t take you across town for $2.25, or free.

Muni’s operating expenses are $745 million. Yet it collects only $215 million in fares, about 29 percent. So when you board a bus and pay $2.25, you’re taking a ride that costs considerably more than that to provide.

Why? Partly, public transit is always subsidized. BART collects 74 percent of costs, and it’s anomalously high. San Francisco further subsidizes transit, asking Muni to provide free service for low income youth, seniors and disabled passengers, and discounted service for many others.

The revenue shortfall is offset by parking and traffic fees, which are $328 million of MTA’s budget, grants and a generous $293 million check from The City’s General Fund. In other words, tax dollars and those goddamn parking tickets make Muni affordable.

So, do drivers subsidize Muni? Yes. Does Muni pay them back? Without question.

According to a 2015 study, if Muni disappeared tomorrow, about half its riders would start driving. There are 450,000 vehicles registered in The City and 442,000 publicly available parking spaces. If congestion and parking seem bad now, imagine adding a couple hundred thousand more cars. The City could not function. And we’d have 100 million more gallons of fuel burning into our air.

Muni is improving.

Voters — drivers and Muni riders alike — have overwhelmingly supported Muni, passing a $500 million transportation bond in 2014 and another measure tying funding to population growth. Muni has already put 302 new buses on the street with 98 more en route, and has 215 new trains coming, 64 of which are for service expansions. Muni has hired more than 700 new drivers, expanded service citywide by 10 percent and is building two new Bus Rapid Transit lines and the Central Subway. (Keep digging; we need more.)

People are noticing. A citywide poll in February found growing perception that Muni is improving and a plummeting sense it’s a “major issue facing San Francisco.” It was, in fact, the least-cited major issue on the poll. Muni now enjoys higher favorability than our schools.

Muni is getting better, and we can do more. Sure, sometimes you want to yell at it or send angry emojis. But Muni is like your big sister: annoying but you still have to sit next to it on road trips.

Conor Johnston is the chief of staff to the President of the Board of Supervisors, London Breed, and co-founder of the East of Twin Peaks Neighborhood Association. The views here are his own.

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