Muni "Switchbacks" Underlie Deep, Systemic City Problems
March 27, 2013
By: Hayley Solarz
Muni’s problems mean more than delays, broken vehicles and longer commute times. Our transit issues stand in as city issues – systemic problems having to do with where San Francisco sets its priorities and directs its resources. But the Reset community knows this. And for riders who know firsthand the annoyance of Muni switchbacks, it feels intuitive.
“Switchback” describes the Muni policy of dumping passengers mid-route, and sending the empty vehicle back to make up for service delays, effectively creating new delays while leaving riders stranded. Understandably, the practice infuriates many San Franciscans, who continue to wonder what our city can do to make the slowest public transit system in North America faster and more reliable.
Some Improvements Made, Thanks to Tech Solutions and Investments in Maintenance
Fortunately, Muni has been working to ease the burden on riders with policies that have actually proven to reduce delays and switchbacks.
Some progress has been made since the agency has begun observing train service on computers in real-time. (Whereas previously, on-the-ground personnel armed with pencils and clipboards managed Muni traffic.) And modernizing transit management has cued a sizeable – though insufficient – improvement in the switchback problem. During the last three months of 2011, there were 517 rail switchbacks and 151 during peak hours. In the last three months of 2012, there were 281 and only 44 in peak hours.
Additionally, after years of neglecting maintenance, the city has allocated more funding for vehicle repair. In 2013, an additional $17.6 million has been routed towards Muni maintenance and in 2014, this figure is expected to rise to $29.1 million. Investing in transit maintenance means rehabilitated trains breaking down less frequently.
The Uphill Route: Repairing Muni at the Institutional Level
Sluggish progress on the switchback issue shows us the multitude of problems that underlie aging and underfunded infrastructure. Aside from the switchback problem, we must deal with the fact that Muni has been slow to implement 21st century solutions to slow service, outmoded policies and outdated vehicles. We applaud those surface improvements that have allowed for some progress, but there’s more work to be done.
Simply put, Muni vehicles should move faster and complete more runs. Muni mechanic Michael Cheney has called for “skip-stopping” on Muni’s longer routes. This allows one train to pick up and drop off at every other stop with another train hitting the others. Though skip-stopping has shown to decrease travel times and increase carrying capacities in other transit systems worldwide, it has yet to be implemented in San Francisco.
Another proposed solution is to prioritize Muni vehicles at traffic signals and to separate them from general traffic. According to Muni spokesman Paul Rose, switchbacks on the KT-line are primarily caused by “on-street congestion.”
As San Francisco makes progress towards speeding up Muni service, we hope the city will think beyond cosmetic fixes to a fundamentally outdated transit system. Rather than going backwards to fill in the holes in the current system, we implore the city to think broadly about how to modernize our transit lines.
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