Muni Will Never Make 85 Percent On-Time Goal

Muni walk out 2.jpg
William Poor
There's one way of showing up on time...
San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee may yet be the perfect amalgamation of Napoleon and a Teddy Bear. He remains likable even while the knife goes in.

One still thinks happy thoughts about Lee even when he states, with seriousness, that Muni must hit its voter-mandated 85-percent on-time rate. There's a problem with this, however. It's both crazy and useless.

In order to reach the arbitrary -- though very high -- 85 percent goal, Muni would have to make massive alterations that it doesn't seem inclined to make: Transit-only lanes, expedited boarding, maintenance spending, and buying Muni Metro central command computers without punch cards.

An 85-percent on-time rate would put San Francisco well ahead of cities like Chicago and New York -- places that don't have to deal with hills, narrow streets, or other myriad San Francisco challenges.

But here's the rub: This is pointless.

Yes, you could write a lengthy story about Muni's woes. But an inability to adhere to a set schedule is not the system's most pressing need. Transit expert after transit expert has stressed to SF Weekly that Muni should, instead, beef up its reliability.

In short, it's not terribly important that a specific train or bus is in a specific place at a specific time. In the days of GPS-tracked vehicles, readouts at stops, and ubiquitous hand-held devices, the most important thing is that riders are confident that a bus or train will come along at consistent intervals.

"You don't really need a schedule if a vehicle comes along every 10 minutes," says transit expert Michael Setty. "That's the trend in the transit industry."

It's that kind of confidence that will allow more people to rely on Muni. And it makes more sense than an arbitrary on-time rate. Even the system's definition of "on-time" -- "no more than four minutes late or one minute early" -- is arbitrary.

But confidence that you won't be left cooling your heels for huge chunks of time when Muni pulls in exorbitantly late or misses a run altogether -- that's not arbitrary.

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Zach
Zach

Exactly. Muni isn't running an airline here (though its service is far less reliable than even the worst airlines) and it's not as if anyone actually uses a bus schedule to plan their trips. Have you ever actually seen a Muni timetable? Has a Muni operator ever seen one? It doesn't matter one bit to most riders whether the bus comes at 8:22 or 8:32 as long as they know that buses come frequently and reliably. With a system like this, you don't have to worry about buses arriving at timepoints early, so you can actively manage schedules based on true vehicle positions instead of desperately clinging to a dream of a schedule.

For example, consider this scenario under the current system. You're waiting for, say, the 38L at Geary & Presidio. According to the timetable (hah!), a bus is supposed to come at 8:22am. If it happens to be four minutes late and arrives at 8:26, that's still considered on-time to Muni. The next bus is scheduled for 8:27, but let's assume it's right behind the first one as usual and also shows up at 8:26. You run for it, but it closes its doors just as you arrive. The driver is still stopped at a red light, but of course you're not getting on. The next bus after that is scheduled for 8:33, but it's ten minutes late and doesn't show up until 8:43. However, it's packed full of riders because it's the first bus anyone has seen in a while and you can't even get on. Now you've been to waiting 20+ minutes for the bus on a route that's scheduled for 5-6 minute frequency during rush hour (so your average wait should only be three minutes or so). The kicker is that only one of these buses is actually considered "late" to Muni and recorded in the statistics, despite this arrangement being completely useless to riders.

As a rider, I know that's what would be most useful to me. I can't realistically rely on Muni because I know all too well that the next bus might be five minutes away, but it could just as easily be 45 minutes or more. I'd happily accept slightly longer waits if I knew the service was reliable enough to depend on. It's darn hard to encourage people to take transit when there's a significant likelihood of being stranded in the rain for 45 minutes at the bottom of a big hill to get home at the end of a long day.

Of course, knowing how the SFMTA tends to operate, adopting a headway-based model for service performance goals would probably just lead to massive amounts of overtime, operators taking endless breaks in the name of "maintaining headways," management incapable of measuring the positions and speeds of vehicles, and a complete inability for anybody to make any changes that would actually improve performance. Oh wait; that's what we've got now. What do we have to lose?

e_dog
e_dog

I'm glad someone finally said it.

rnaglejr
rnaglejr

Vehicles coming along at consistent and reliable times almost sounds like a schedule to me. Although, I'd be all for it, just don't quite understand what the difference is. 

Joe Eskenazi
Joe Eskenazi

Here's the difference.

Muni gauges itself -- and we, the voters, have demanded -- that vehicles show up "on time" at stops. "On time," incidentally, is not so hard and fast a concept as "pregnant." Our definition is no more than four minutes late or no more than one minute early.

In any event, this is the standard Muni holds itself to. Instead, transit experts state that the more practical goal is to not worry about this stuff and instead ensure a consistent "headway" between buses or trains.

Knowing a train or bus will be along soon -- and having it actually come -- is more valuable than the aforementioned arbitrary adherence to a set schedule.

Best,

JE

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