Three times faster buses at no extra cost

I've been staying in San Francisco this summer, visiting from The Netherlands. Since I don't have a driver license and my trip was too short to buy a bicycle*, I move around mostly on foot and by bus. Unfortunately I can't fail to notice how slow busses are here. I've used public tranport in over 100 cities all over the world, so I'd like to offer a number of suggestions based on that experience.
I'm confident that these measures are very cheap or even profitable and will dramatically increase the speed at which people can move from A to B. Currently most busses are only marginally faster than walking and during rush hour often slower (2 to 3 miles per hour). At the very least taking the bus should be faster than cycling (12 miles miles per hour) and ideally it should be faster than driving. 
In particular, busses going to BART or Caltrain should be fast and highly reliable, so that more people end up using these trains. A trip from Van Ness & Broadway to Caltrain currently takes 30 minutes officially and in practice often 40. Add ten minutes for walking to the bus and waiting for it and another ten minutes to make sure you don't miss your train and this 2.5 mile trip takes a full hour. This needs to be reduced to 15 minutes, leaving about 10 for the ride itself. Let's see how...
1 - Don't stop at every block. This is the part that drives me insane the most. Buses stop at almost every single block, usually once for a stop and once for a traffic light. Let me tell you a secret: people can walk! Some Limited busses stop only once every five blocks. This should not be the exception, but the rule, with a possible exception for very steep hills. This adds a maximum of two blocks walking to a trip, but anyone traveling more than half a mile will earn this time back.
2 - Charge a lot more for people who buy a ticket at the driver. People should either buy a ticket before they board or use Clipper. In The Netherlands people who wish to bother the driver and hold up a bus full of passengers pay two to three times more. Could you imagine if BART allowed people to buy tickets on the train while it's waiting at the station?
3 - Probably the most ambitious part of the plan, but San Francisco is the right city to try this: a bus should be able to request a green light, wirelessly. This requires traffic lights to be networked. Initially drivers could request green lights manually by pressing a button ten seconds before they need it, but later on software could antipate it based on traffic, number of passengers (dis)embarking, etc.. Networked traffic lights open a huge opportunity space in general.
4 - Never leave early; in my hometown of Utrecht each bus driver has a display with the name of the stop and the scheduled departure time. Unforatunately many drivers ignore this and leave early. The result is that passengers need to leave their homes earlier to catch a bus, wasting 5 minutes. Ironically being faster, means being slower.
5 - Don't take bicycles on board. This is completely absurd except for long distance busses (>5 miles).
6 - Be mindful of how a bus connects to BART or Caltrain; bus 47 stops accross the road and half a block from Caltrain in stead of directly in front of the station entrance on the correct side of the road. A little more attention to detail can easily shave two minutes of the average trip. 
Hope this helps!
* = not to mention that cycling is pretty risky, since any fool can obtain a California Driver License with virtually no practice, roads are old and there's a shortage of seperate bike lanes.

Kate Maeder's picture

Good ideas

Hi - these are really good ideas. The SF Muni is - in fact - one of the slowest in the nation, barely averaging 8 mph. I think down town it must only average 5 mph.

If our buses moved faster, our city would move faster and be productive.

Adam Turner's picture

These are good ideas, but it

These are good ideas, but it needs to be pointed out that most of them are already part of the MTA's Transit Effectiveness Project (TEP). That's what makes this so maddening - the experts are mostly in consensus about what should be done if we want faster buses and the ideas are hardly new. The main problem is that politics and the dysfunctional culture at SFMTA get in the way, so they never get implemented.
Re 1: Removing unnecessary bus stops was a big part of TEP. But while everyone is in theory in favor of fewer stops, nobody wants to sacrifice THEIR closest bus stop, and they make a lot of noise at the slightest suggestion that their bus stop will be the one on the chopping block.
Re 2: Migrating everyone to Clipper is a no-brainer, but it won't happen overnight, especially given how ridiculously poorly some of Clipper's systems were built. You can't even view your Clipper balance in the Clipper webapp - it actually gives you your balance on a mobile-unfriendly PDF - and you're not even allowed to get your balance from the Clipper database more than 3 times per day (I found this out the hard way when I frantically tried multiple times to get the file in a format other than a PDF on my phone). How absurd is that?
Re 3: Again, signal priority for Muni was a key part of TEP. And again, there are key political constituencies who exert pressure on the other side, ensuring it doesn't happen. Drivers have a TON of power in SF, and the whole transit system places the interests of cars first. There's a reason signal priority hasn't happened yet despite it being an obvious need for years. 
Re 4: In my experience drivers leaving early is uncommon - it's usually that they are so late that they appear to be early for the next departure. But bunching up of buses and streetcars is very common and leaves passengers stranded at bus stops forever.
5) Bikes on board I've never found to be a huge problem, except when a lazy person brings a bike on a Metro train full of people (which is technically not allowed anyway). I think some reasonable concessions need to be made for bicyclists who need to surmount big hills.
6) Obviously well-designed transit connections are key. But again...politics. Lots of politics. Look at the kludge that is the Central Subway project. The current plan is not so bad, but it took tons of political struggling to get it to something halfway sensible. When I saw the initial plan calling for a glacially slow "Z-turn" at Market Street as a compromise to please businesspeople, Chinatown activists, and DPT bureaucrats, steam came out my ears. Until SF's leaders decide that workable transit is something worth risking upsetting established interests for, Muni is going to remain a disgrace.

Nicole's picture

I agree wholeheartedly with

I agree wholeheartedly with all points of Adam's rebuttal.

sfosparky's picture

RE: Faster buses at lower cost, et al…

I very much enjoyed sjors' comments, above, and have a few comments of my own.
1. Don't stop at every block.  MUNI tried this back in the mid-1980s.  It sandblasted every other stop off of virtually every route.  Then the elderly and handicapped complained and MUNI was back out re-painting the removed stops.  Key point, I guess, is that I'd love to know how the issue of fewer stops vis-a-vis less mobile riders is handled elsewhere.  Here in S.F., it was tried and thought to have failed.
2. Charge more for cash fare-payments.  I have a Clipper card and use it if I'm making a one-way trip.  But the paper transfer I receive when paying cash ensures that I actually receive at least 90 minutes of transfer time: I can look at the transfer and be sure.  Clipper, on the other hand, sometimes seems to provide less than 90 full minutes of transfer time.  I say "seems to" because I don't really want to get in the business of (a) carefully calculating the actual transfer time I'm due, (b) peering into a barely readable Clipper reader's murky LCD display with other people waiting behind me to board the bus to ensure I haven't been cheated when I transfer, and (c) arguing either with a driver or with some operative in the figurative bowels of MUNI / Clipper Inc. about an insufficient transfer interval.  Long story short, when it comes to riding MUNI, Clipper has a way to go before it's a truly reliable and convenient — and fully trustworthy — alternative to good old cash and paper.  (Not incidentally, note that this problem doesn't exist for agencies, such as AC Transit, that don't permit transfers at all…)
4. Early departures, late arrivals. In the end, one of MUNI's central problems remains the ability to put vehicles where they're needed when they're needed: Is there a MUNI rider that hasn't experienced the problem of no vehicles arriving at a stop on time, followed by two or three vehicles arriving simultaneously?  Here as in the case of eliminating every-block stops, I'd love to know how other municipal agencies solve the problems of lateness and "clumping".
In the end, MUNI — and my bicycle — are one of the reasons I've enjoyed not owning a car since 1987.  But it does sometimes seem that MUNI operates in a world of its own, somehow exempt from the mysterious forces that seem to make other municipalities' transportation systems work more reliably.

Paid for by Phil Ting for Assembly 2012. FPPC ID# 1343137