So far my cover stories in 2008 have developed an interesting pattern. When I traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with WMATA’s John Catoe, there was a Hannah Montana concert in town snarling traffic, and my trip to Austin to meet with Capital Metro’s Fred Gilliam coincided with a Barack Obama rally. So it’s kind of fitting that my first day in San Francisco meeting with Municipal Transportation Agency (Muni) executive director, Nat Ford, would be spent watching Ford and his team handle the Olympic Torch as it passed through their town. If you ask Ford, though, he’ll say it’s just another day in San Francisco, a city that has events that disrupt the natural transit flow almost daily.
It wasn’t more evident than when the torch relay radically changed route unbeknownst to the throngs of demonstrators gathered to see it and nearly everyone else in the city. As we watched those demonstrators, Ford didn’t miss a beat, getting on the phone with his staff and rerouting buses to clear the way for the mobile event.
And due to the Municipal Transportation Agency’s (Muni) makeup, that’s not an easy task. Not only does Muni have the largest trolley bus fleet in the country, it also has subways, historic streetcars, cable cars and parking under its purview — wait parking?! Yes, Muni oversees parking in San Francisco along with transit, and it also has to deal with a large number of pedestrians and bicyclists as well. All of that helps to add to that uniqueness that is San Francisco.
Ford has been asked to make quick decisions like deciding to pull all of the cable cars out of service the day of the Olympic Torch relay since he came onboard in June of 2006.
“I came in June of 2006 and our budget had to be to the board in March of 2006,” Ford remembers.
“So I mean the first thing I walk in the door and I’m trying to understand city budgeting and how Muni is budgeted and a whole host of different things.”
The budget that was three months overdue when Ford walked in the door had a large problem — a growing deficit which meant a $50 million shortfall this year and a $66 million one next year.
When I asked him about this, Ford replied with a single word and a slap of his hand on the table, “Balanced!”
Have you ever seen the movie, Dave? The one where Kevin Kline replaces a president who has slipped into a coma and balances the budget by using a pencil and a calculator? That’s kind of what Nat Ford did.
Before he could make a new budget, Ford had to look at the previous one and see where he could make some changes, starting with revenue streams.
“Revenues from the garages, revenues coming from parking meters, revenues coming from farebox. What are we doing about fare evasion, cash handling and collecting and things of that nature,” Ford says.
“We started looking at garage revenues. Garage revenues under terms of our agreement are supposed to be remitted every night. Started looking into that particular situation and found that the garage revenues in some cases weren’t being remitted every night and in some cases may be going as long as four weeks. When you start looking at the flow in terms of interest with that situation it came into the millions of dollars for the agency.”
Coming in and trimming the fat instead of asking for more money right off the bat earned Ford some instant credibility.
“We very quickly displayed I think a financial discipline, acumen and creative that really got everybody’s attention and kind of garnered their support,” Ford says.
In San Francisco transit isn’t just a choice for most voters, it’s the first choice. With that in mind they mandated an 85 percent on-time performance (OTP) from Muni. When I asked Ford about the agency’s OTP and why it had fallen nearly 15 percent below the mandated level, he quickly corrected my assumption.
“We’ve never been anywhere near 85 percent,” Ford says emphatically.
“In fact, we peaked I guess last year; there was a quarter where we were at about 71, 72 percent and then fell back down a little bit.
“It’s always hovered…at least during the two years that I have been here, and I think during [former executive director, Michael Burns’] timeframe for about three years … at about 70 percent.”
To bring the agency’s OTP up to the mandated limit and to streamline its operation, Muni and the San Francisco Controller’s Office implemented the Transit Effectiveness Project (TEP). The TEP is the first comprehensive analysis of the Muni system in 30 years.
Among other things, the TEP found that the agency’s 15 busiest corridors accounted for nearly 75 percent of its ridership, and its travel times were significantly lower than other large U.S. cities.
So how was the response to the TEP? Overall, positive according to Ford, “I would say … extremely positive, even by some of the folks who are kind of critical about change.
“People, operators, those types of folks. Everyone recognizes that it’s been 30 years and a lot of things have changed in that 30-year time frame technology-wise, origins and destinations, travel patterns. Our ridership has changed in 30 years.
“And particularly in this city, a great deal more seniors, a great deal more disabled passengers. And our operation carries a lot of school trips for school-age children so what happens in our particular case with the special events and all the different services we provide, in the 30-year time frame, a lot of things have changed.”
Ford says the TEP was a top-to-bottom analysis of the system to not only deal with OTP issues, but also travel times and to gauge customers’ needs.
What they found was that congestion, population increase, bicycle use — which accounts for nearly 20 percent of the travel share according to Ford — and pedestrians are all key factors.
“All of those factors in terms of biking, pedestrians and just the sheer volume and density of the city has an impact on our on-time performance,” Ford says.
“Our success and our popularity is one of the things we have to deal with in terms of our challenges. Because just boarding on our vehicles takes a great deal of time.
“We see in the TEP as part of that study, 20 percent of our travel time is tied up in boarding and alighting.”
MTA utilizes preboarding in its subway and is planning it on BRT routes and at key stops where it knows boarding delays occur. One other project it is trying is all-door boarding.
“Another thing we are looking at is all-door boarding. That’s something we are testing out over here. It’s going to be one of the TEP pilots,” Ford says.
“We’re finding that people are congesting up in the front of the bus, not moving all the way to the back. However, a culture has developed that monthly riders do board in the back. But then we also have fare evaders who try to board in the back, too.
“We’re testing that out right here on Market and Van Ness, taking a very quiet look at it before we launch the full pilot to look at it.”
Four Services = Faster Services
In discussing the Transit Effectiveness Project (TEP), on-time performance and speeding up travel times, I asked Ford about route realignment. With 15 of the agency’s lines carrying 75 percent of its riders, did that mean other lines would be consolidated or shutdown? Hardly. Ford says that those other lines are lifeline services for their riders.
Instead, Ford says they are looking at improving what they already have, “What we’re going to do is really look at some improvements to speed those corridors up.
“So we may even move some bus stops. That’s also in the TEP. Bus stop locations over the years have gotten closer and closer and closer. We’re not within our standards. So we will have in some cases the same routes that are out there. But some of those routes will be spaced out.”
Ford laid out the plan for me. Four different services for four different levels of ridership: Rapid service, Local service, Community service and a Special service category.
“In that first tier [Rapid service] it is rail and bus and it’s really looking at those improvements that would significantly improve the speed on the rapid corridors. The rapid corridors are those 15 [that are used by 75 percent of MTA’s ridership],” Ford says.
“Then you have the local networks that represent a good ridership on them, but they really service connectors or feeders into this rapid network.
“And then you’ve got this community service, so that we don’t strand people and still keep in the vision of being a transit-first city.”
Ford says his overall goal is (barring geography issues) to have everyone in the Muni service area to be within a quarter mile of an MTA stop. To do that, Ford says the coverage needs to be the same, but better than it was.
“[We need] to really still have good coverage, but not do it in some of the circuitous ways that we have been providing it over the years where routes meander around in neighborhoods and that kind of thing.
“To be more direct — feed them into the local [service] or feed them into the rapid [service,] and on top of that try to stay within one transfer for anyone’s travel needs.”
Getting an overdue budget finished was only one of the challenges Ford faced when he came on board at MTA. He also faced staff shortages and on-time performance issues — which went hand-in-hand. The staff shortages, due to a hiring freeze and layoffs, were the next obstacle he decided to tackle.
“And as soon as I walked into the door we started getting our financial house in order and began doing some hiring,” Ford says.
The San Francisco MTA is unique in many ways, one of them is because under executive director, Nat Ford’s purview is not only transit, but parking as well. And this means the parking control officers (PCOs), which are a valuable asset in a city this dense.
“Since they’re all under my umbrella, the PCOs are now going to start being deployed on certain corridors to help with moving Muni faster,” Ford says.
“We’ve hired, I guess we’ve doubled — not doubled in terms of PCOs — we’ve added another 40 or 50 PCOs in the last two years.
“But now I’ve gotten to the numbers with PCOs, [that] I’m going to pull some of those off [regular parking duty] and dedicate them to Muni.
“And having PCOs out there to deal with double parking in this city. Double parking, people parking in our bus zones. Now we’re coupling them with the 26 supervisors [and] dispatchers.
“We’re going to mesh those folks together into what we’re calling Tiger Teams that will go out on these major corridors and really start hammering on focusing on on-time performance at a street-level management effort.
“We have GPS and we have all of that, but here you can see out there, there’s a lot of just traffic that we need to deal with and congestion issues. So we expect to see a lot out of that.”
The parking control officers were only one of the “front-line” positions that was in dire need of more staff. Maintenance workers were depleted to the point that it was affecting the number of vehicles it could get out on the street. And even so, there weren’t enough operators to drive them.
Ford says the system was, “…significantly short on operators. On any given day we were down about — I guess on long-term disability we were up around 300 individuals. Now we’re down to about 150. We went through and just started working every name, every person. Worked that number down and at the same time started hiring operators in, because again there were layoffs and a hiring freeze.
“I’d say we’ve trained and hired in somewhere around 150 to 160 operators. This past fall we just got past attrition.
“So we finally were able to ramp up our hiring to the point that we’re past attrition now and we’re starting to grow. But at the same time we got a lot of people that have come back to work.”
“All of that being said we are now at the point where we’re getting sufficient extra on board. We’re now at the point where we’re not missing as many trips as we were on a daily basis,” Ford says.
“We were missing easily 150 trips out of thousands a day, but we were missing 150 trips. Now we’re down to like 30 trips a day for no operator, that kind of thing. And with that we have more regular service.”
Ford believes that through the TEP and adding additional staff, the on-time performance will not only rise, but “kick us into that 85th percentile.”
With the recent study released on congestion the topic has become an even bigger issue. San Francisco is no exception, but Ford says it is an interesting case.
“I think all cities to me have congestion issues, [but] the uniqueness of this city is the topography and density of it,” Ford says.
“We’re on a peninsula and also this is the core or the financial core of the region. So we’re drawing in … you can take the [MTA] operation, we have AC Transit buses coming over the Bay Bridge. We have Golden Gate buses coming over the Golden Gate Bridge. There’s SamTrans, Caltrain, you name it. This city is touched and fed well by mass transit.
“So our congestion issues are not just automobiles. Our congestion issues are pedestrians and bicyclists because we’re promoting all the other modes, too.
“It’s hard for me to say comparing one city to another. We definitely have our challenges here. We have very narrow streets here as opposed to some other cities.”
San Francisco also has its share of bus-only lanes, which provided MTA with an interesting use of a proven technology — front-mounted bus cameras.
“It’s not just transit. Transit is a big piece of our operation, but if it’s all working well and cooperatively and seamlessly, all boats get lifted.”
— Nat Ford
“Our buses also act as a traffic management tool,” Ford says.
“Anyone double parking in a bus-only lane, we can snap their picture. Our parking control part of the house gets that information, writes a citation and does the proper administration of that.”
The bus cameras are only one way the agency is attempting to clear up parking congestion through partnering with transit. This wasn’t the case when Ford came in, though. As the old adage goes, “never the twain shall meet,” and that was certainly the feeling of the parking and transportation divisions within MTA.
Ford says one of his toughest struggles was getting people to understand, “…how the parking and traffic part of the house has such an impact on Muni and the quality of Muni service, and really helping the two cultures merge in thought processes.
“Right now it’s kind of interesting. We have a line that is not doing well in terms of on-time performance. Whereas before we would have to pick up the phone and say, OK parking what’s happening with this traffic signal over there, it seems like the timing is off. But now I don’t even have to pick up the phone anymore, because they are listening to see what’s happening with Muni.
“When they hear that there is some issue like that, they send some of their technicians out there and start calibrating the traffic signals and those types of things.
“It was not necessarily the case when I walked in the door. They were still on one side of the floor and Muni was on the other side of the floor, but in bringing the team of folks I brought in, a good collaborative team of folks, that recognized that it’s not just transit.
“Transit is a big piece of our operation, but if it’s all working well and cooperatively and seamlessly all boats get lifted. Pedestrians have a better operation. The bicyclists have a safer operation and a better network and their system works well. The automobiles have a good system with SFpark rather than driving around looking for a parking spot in a meter or a garage, we’re going to give you advanced notice before you even get off the Bay Bridge or the Golden Gate Bridge or 101 coming up from the North, we will tell you where there is parking is available.”
SFpark is MTA’s effort at what it is calling “intelligent parking management.” The goal of SFpark is simple — help people in cars find parking spots quicker and easier to get them off the road. The idea works on many levels, including reducing emissions, stress (have you ever tried to find a parking spot in a busy city?), traffic congestion and it makes streets safer for pedestrians and bicyclists.
“We will tell you which garage [has space available,] and there will be wayfinding signs as soon as you get off [the freeway],” Ford says.
“We’re trying to really harmonize that because you’ve had the off-street parking garage operation and then we’ve had the off-street metered parking operation and then we had the garage operation. Now all of that is under one umbrella under me.
“The one thing about off-street parking [is that it’s] largely for the commercial districts turning over parking spots so people can get in, go do their shopping or do some business and get back in their car and take off. So it’s kind of limited.
“And the garage is really supposed to be the more long-term parking. So with that in mind, all of that has to be balanced and harmonized.”
SFpark also gives Muni the opportunity to have variable pricing on parking at its meters and in its garages based upon demand, which Ford sees as a revenue generator and an added bonus on top of getting cars off the street, reducing emissions and cutting down on congestion.
San Francisco is an odd mix. On one hand, you have the height of new technology with its SFpark initiative, and yet it has its classic cable cars, which have been running on the same technology for nearly a century.
“It’s noticeably San Francisco, notably San Francisco, and the thought is it’s part of the city’s image. In fact it’s the No. 1 tourist attraction in the city. They’re not going anywhere and they’re going to be here forever. And they are part of our operation,” Ford says.
“Some people look at them as a tourist attraction, but a great deal of our folks — regular citizens — use it everyday. And they know how to use it and how to avoid some of the crowds and the tourists — how to use it to their benefit.
“In the morning they take it in. They know pretty much during midday or in the afternoons there is a great deal of tourist ridership there, so they will take either the bus or the streetcars to go back home and change their trip.”
One other transit option unique to San Francisco is its Market Street Railway, or as Muni knows it, the F-Line. This streetcar line was once considered a novelty effort, but it survived to the present day through the efforts of a nonprofit group, the Market Street Railway, to preserve it. Now that organization helps not only with funding, but also maintaining vehicles and procuring new classic PCC cars.
“We’ve got Milan, cars from Italy. We’ve got cars from Japan. You name it. Some of this rolling stock, I think we’ve got a Swedish car. We’ve got an English boat car,” Ford says with a smile a mile wide.
“A lot of former Muni employees are involved with Market Street Railway. They’re very in tune with the practicalities of our operation, so they try to keep it simple and not any more complicated than it needs to be.
“Right now we’re looking at expanding it to the E-Line,” Ford says, “The F line goes down towards Fisherman’s Wharf. The E line will go down toward the ball field in the other direction.
“That work is being done now. The planning work and the study work to do that and to purchase more cars.”
Uniquely San Francisco
A lot of transit systems are intermodal. Few of them can claim to have a fleet that spans back 100 years.
“It is an interesting mix,” Ford says.
“It has its challenges with it in terms of training and parts — training on the maintenance side and training operations side, parts particularly with the historic streetcars.
“In terms of our cable [car] operation, we’re one-of-a-kind in some of the parts there. Purchasing of the cable as well as the traction power sedation operates those cables.”
Ford says the F-Line vehicles, the historic streetcars, have a lot of rehabilitation done on them. A good portion of that rehabilitation work is done in-house, including a recently finished car that actually ran 50 years ago, which will be debuted at this year’s American Public Transportation Association Rail Conference.
On the cable car side, all of the work is done in-house, including all of the forging, brass and carpentry work.
“These are craftsmen using dies and fittings from almost a hundred or so years ago. The patterns and the forging. They are unbelievable craftsmen there,” Ford says.
These two lines and how they relate to the transit agency and the city’s history make them integral to Muni’s operation. And despite the challenges involved in keeping services such as this in operation, Ford knows it’s what makes his job so great.
“[It’s] a challenging mix in terms of our operation, but it is uniquely San Francisco. We found a way to deal with it. And it does have its challenges, but we’re able to better fit some needs in some ways with the services and how we provide that.”
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