Feb. 3—It used to be the single public service that San Franciscans loved to hate. Herb Caen, the legendary columnist from years ago, called it "the Muniserable Railway."
But now, San Francisco's Municipal Railway — Muni for short — seems to have turned some kind of corner. You could make the case that Muni is better than it has been in years. The buses and rail cars are cleaner, there is less graffiti, there are fewer accidents, and service is more reliable.
Even the critics admit things have improved. Bob Feinbaum, president of the transit watchdog group Save Muni, gives the agency a B or maybe a B-minus. He gives the grade a bit grudgingly. Some routes, he says "are pretty good, but it's a mixed bag." There are still lots of problems.
Muni's problems affect everyone who lives or travels in San Francisco, even if they never set foot on a bus. Lack of an effective transit system creates huge traffic jams as workers and ordinary citizens turn to private cars. That's a big issue in a city as compact as San Francisco. Only New York City has more people per square mile.
It wasn't that long ago when Muni was a mess. The buses and rail cars were covered with graffiti, there were rashes of accidents — Muni vehicles crashing into cars, into each other, into unwary pedestrians. Grumpy Muni drivers were part of urban legend. Every so often, the Muni Metro subway would suffer a huge collapse, usually at rush hour. Politicians would hold hearings. Something must be done! Willie Brown stepped down as Speaker of the California Assembly to run for mayor. He said he could fix Muni in 30 days.
It took years. New equipment, new management, new attitude. The system got a huge jolt of federal money — more than a billion dollars for operations and equipment. That brought a whole new fleet of rail cars and hybrid buses that run on diesel and biodiesel fuel. They got new electric trolley buses that can run on trolley wires or batteries, which makes the electric buses more flexible. They can run into the Presidio without stringing expensive and unsightly wires.
There were also two major capital projects: a Central Subway, nearly 2 miles long and costing nearly $2 billion, and a bus rapid transit project on Van Ness Avenue, a much less ambitious project. The subway has not produced the ridership its backers expected, but the Van Ness project seems to be a success. So it's a mixed bag.
"On balance, I think they did a pretty good job," said Rick Laubscher, president of the nonprofit Market Street Railway, which advocates for better Muni service, particularly on its rail lines.
However, other forces changed everything. COVID and the transformation that followed knocked the city for a loop. Workers stayed home, transit ran empty. Four years later, San Francisco is a different city: downtown has emptied and there are fewer people using transit. Muni is the biggest transit agency in the Bay Area with 422,000 boardings every weekday, but that is a third fewer customers than it had five years ago. The big difference is in the system's downtown service: The weekday passenger count is 40% of what it was before COVID.
But Muni is still at work. It is providing 91% of the service it offered throughout the city in 2019.
There has been a bit of a cultural shift as well — more and more Muni customers don't bother to pay the fare. The shift came after the system shifted from use of cash fares paid to the driver to use of plastic fare cards and cellphone payments, registered on electronic readers. A rider has to show proof the fare was paid, but it is seldom enforced.
"That really bugs me," said Feinbaum, the president of Save Muni. 'I've sat and watched and seen maybe only 50% of the people pay. And the Muni never even makes an effort to say, 'Hey, pay your fare. This isn't free.'"
Save Muni has other ideas, besides cracking down on fare evasion, including big changes they say would bring better service to the Muni Metro.
Things may come to a head next year, when federal and state subsidies left from the COVID years run out — a matter of millions of dollars. The city calls this a "fiscal cliff."
To ordinary riders, this all sounds academic, but a week or two of riding makes me think Muni is better than it used to be. After all, I've been riding the subway, the Mission Street buses, the 38 Geary, the 5 Fulton to the park, the 30 Stockton through Chinatown, North Beach and the Marina, the Muni Metro, all over, even the little 67 bus that strains its way up the back side of Bernal Hill.
I stood at 30th and Mission Streets the other Wednesday morning. Five Muni lines converge there, and a sixth was a block away. A Muni bus came every two or three minutes.
Riding Muni is a trip. I've seen passengers wearing tuxedos, others wearing rags. I've seen passengers with dogs, musical instruments, huge backpacks, laptops, groceries, skateboards. I've seen drag queens and nuns, little kids and old folks, I've looked out the bus window and seen people going to the symphony. Ten minutes later, I noticed a street drug deal. Same bus, different street.
That's San Francisco for you. It's complicated.
Carl Nolte's columns appear in The Chronicle's Sunday edition. Email: [email protected]
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