Transit Recovery: A Discussion with Director of Transit Julie Kirschbaum

Watch the full video of Dir. Kirshbaum’s presentation and in-depth Q&A

Fresh from the May Muni service roll-out, Director of Transit Julie Kirschbaum spoke with our members about Muni’s recovery so far, what is planned to come, and what challenges the agency faces.

When the pandemic caused San Francisco to shut down last year, Muni shrank service severely in response to two main factors: 1) a sudden and severe drop in ridership and revenue; and 2) the lack of available staff, as many Muni operators took time to take care for themselves and their families when shelter-in-place and quarantine guidelines were imposed.

Crowded 14 Mission outbound at 5th Street, just after 11:00pm, May 27

The past year has seen a series of federal relief packages that saved Muni from having to lay anyone off, and allowed for planning the next couple years. The past year also saw several increases in Muni service as more resources became available. But service remains woefully insufficient, and behind that of most other transit agencies. Ridership is increasing, and restrictions are being lifted, faster than anyone predicted.

All of this is layered on top of the challenges that pre-date COVID: a shortage of operators; a shortage of service supervisors; an enormous backlog of maintenance; and a structural budget deficit.

When Muni restarted rail service last August, there were so many mechanical malfunctions that SFMTA was forced to shut it down again almost immediately. The agency spent the following 8 months doing major repairs in the subway system. Crews removed and replaced splices in overhead wires; replaced rail ballast and ground rails to extend their useful lives; and even removed an obsolete piece of decades-old equipment that was causing unpredictable problems with train control. (With all this work done, the subway will still need about $1B of upgrades in the next 5–10 years.)

Muni core service map as of May 15, 2021

On May 15, Muni rolled out subway service again, along with surface rail (except the L Taraval and the M Ocean View, which still have bus substitutions). Muni also launched a hybrid 36/52 Special bus to connect some hilltop neighborhoods, and brought back the F Market from 11:00 am — 8:00 pm. Service was increased on some routes that are seeing too much crowding and too many pass-ups.

The next time Muni will increase service will be August 7 — and that’s the last planned increase until at least January 2022. The main goals are to close gaps, better connect hilltops, and further adjust service on high-demand routes. The expansion is made possible primarily because of the removal of COVID restrictions for vehicle cleaning and capacity, freeing up vehicles to be better distributed across routes.

A fair amount of service is returning in August: the 48 Quintara will once again reach Ocean Beach, and the 28 19th will continue past 6th Ave. & California Street to connect to the Marina and Galileo. The 5R, 18, 35, 36, and 39 are all returning; the 12 Folsom will connect to Rincon Hill, SOMA, and the Mission; and the 23, 52, 56, 57, and 66 are all returning in modified forms.

Cable cars will return in the fall, but are one of the most expensive parts of the system. Operators need special training and recertifications; service supervisors need training and onboarding to make service more efficient and reliable; unique systems for safety and operations need to be fully tested. (You can see the August plan starting on slide 19 of this presentation.)

A lot is riding on this service increase. SFMTA needs to be ready for schools to reopen, as about 50% of students take Muni. San Francisco State University relies heavily on the M Ocean View, which is not currently planned for return in August and is served by a bus from West Portal. Restrictions will be lifted on June 15, much sooner than previously thought, which will no doubt mean more riders on Muni sooner. Businesses are opening, workers need to get to to their jobs and home again, and people want to get out and about town to support businesses.

The August service increase won’t be enough. We need to get back to full service more quickly. Parallel routes that have yet to return aren’t redundant — they served tens of thousands of daily riders before the pandemic, connect commercial corridors, and can ease crowding on the more frequent routes. Evening service is essential for our economy and cultural life to return. If Muni isn’t there for people as they’re ready to move around again, they will find other modes. It will hard to convince people to vote for funding measures in 2022 for an inadequate service they can no longer count on.

The August service increase also represents a return to more routine service-planning, versus the emergency processes used over the past year. Agencies normally need 3–6 months to plan a service change, including 2 months after a plan is finalized to get operators signed up for the routes they want. Over the past year, SFMTA suspended regular service sign-ups and instead assigned drivers where they were most needed. Planners, public information officers, and schedulers have all been working overtime to try to keep service running as responsively as possible. (Service changes so far are temporary, as a response to the pandemic.)

These quick service changes means riders and the general public haven’t gotten a lot of notice about changes and often feel left out of the decision-making process. So the return of more complete service planning for August means that we will be able to have bigger conversations about the return of service come September.

SFMTA sees trade-offs between providing different types of service: evening service, parallel routes like the 21 Hayes and the 31 Balboa, express routes, or increased service and frequency on a core network. SFMTA asserts it will not have the resources anytime soon to do it all.

The few silver linings from the past year will help. First, the subway is functioning better than ever, has wifi (at last!), and has improved signage and super clean stations.

Second, the switch to headway management (keeping buses evenly spaced rather than trying to adhere to schedules) is something we’ve requested for years. The system has proven popular and will continue to make service more reliable, with less gapping and bunching of buses.

Third, SFMTA has laid down 20 miles of temporary transit-only lanes, which have proven successful in keeping Muni moving despite the return of car traffic. Director Kirschbaum thanked us for speaking up for these projects — they need all the support they can get!

Planned August service additions (printed before adding the full 28 19th Ave)

Shrinking to only 9 routes at 10:00pm is already proving problematic, with riders struggling to make their way home in the evenings. Muni is now planning to return all 12 Owl routes, but that limited service will still start at 10:00pm.

By not bringing back more routes, and by modifying others, too many people are still without the nearby service and connections they need.

The 23 Monterey and 57/58 buses have been modified in a way that misses some key connections, specifically to avoid St. Francis Circle. Muni vehicles can be delayed at St. Francis Circle for 5 minutes or more due to the lack of signal priority. This is a clear example of how much it costs the city and riders to have transit stuck in traffic— enough that when Muni is so resource-constrained, it’s easier to shorten routes. Instead, we should be solving this major bottleneck that holds up four routes with a combined daily pre-pandemic ridership of about 75,000 people.

Muni continues to be short staffed, and fixing that will just take time. Muni is promoting operators to service supervisors, a gap they’ve needed to fill since before the pandemic. It will take 6–9 months for these supervisors to be trained and fully on-boarded. These promotions create vacancies at the operator level that then must be filled, which of course also takes time.

Director Kirschbaum is also concerned that when the fiscal year turns over on July 1, there may be a large number of retirements that have been delayed over the past year. The uncertainty about these retirements is what underlies the uncertainty about when the M Ocean View can return.

“It is the best we can get in place to be ready for the start of school,” said Director Kirschbaum. “I also really want to emphasize that nothing we’re doing is permanent, and probably not everything that we’re doing is going to work. … again we’re trying to save a bus here, stretch a bus there, make connections, and we’ll be monitoring it really closely.”

If hiring and training are the immediate barriers to full service, funding is the medium-term challenge. SFMTA plans to make up about 30% of its budget for the next 3 years with the one-time funding from the federal relief programs.

Director Kirschbaum is wary of spending the money faster, because SFMTA anticipates it will take a long time for regular revenue (fees, fares, fines, and sales tax) to recover sufficiently, and there is still the underlying structural deficit. She doesn’t want to be in the position of beefing up service now just to lay people off if the money runs out in a year or two.

As we closed out an in-depth, wide-ranging discussion spurred on by our members’ detailed question, Director Kirschbaum acknowledged that it’s fair to say pre-pandemic service wasn’t sufficient. She said wants to build back well beyond that level of service.

“I’m committed to … making sure that when we say we’re going to deliver 110% service, that that’s how much service goes out every day; it’s not just a plan on paper,” she explained. “That’s what we were living with pre-COVID and it created reliability problems and … made a system that people couldn’t count on.”

We saw Director Kirschbaum’s commitment as she stayed well after the program ended. She wanted to read through all the chats and questions herself, to get a direct understanding of the top issues and catch anything we didn’t have time to cover.

We appreciate Director Kirschbaum’s commitment, and her honesty about service trade-offs while future funding is uncertain. However, we still think the timeline to recover full service is far too long.

Delaying a return to full service is a gamble with people’s mobility — an essential need — and with the city’s recovery. It’s a gamble with Muni’s reputation and the public perception of Muni’s ability to deliver. We’re missing an important moment to build back better — to have a sustainable, equitable public transit system that can get more people to work, school, and to see friends, families, and all that San Francisco has to offer. We need that robust system ready so people can get out of their cars, we can have cleaner air, safer streets, and a more livable city for more people.

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