What I Learned During the 22-Day Muni Challenge

Last night at midnight, the 22-day Muni Challenge came to an end. The challenge, sponsored by San Francisco Transit Riders, asked the Mayor and members of the Board of Supervisors to ride Muni daily during the first 22 days of June — representing the 22 years since the voters passed Proposition AA in 1993, requiring City officials and employees to ride Muni several times a week. Participants were asked to tweet each time we rode Muni using the hashtag #OnBoardSF. These tweets were tracked and tabulated. I logged 106 Muni rides over the 22-day challenge and earned the top ranking. (Congratulations to the number two finisher, my colleague Supervisor John Avalos, who gave me a run for my money despite having less convenient access to Muni than I do.)

I’ve had an 18-year roller-coaster relationship with this transit system, riding it pretty much every day and relying on it as my primary way of getting around San Francisco. Over those nearly two decades, I’ve experienced pretty much everything you can experience on Muni other than being assaulted. On many occasions, Muni has gotten me where I’m going on time and in one piece. On other occasions, it’s made me late to work, dinner, and doctors appointments. I’ve been late to dates because of Muni and have met dates on Muni. Muni has even made me late to meetings with senior Muni management and to regional transit meetings where I advocate for Muni funding. I took Muni to both of my swearings-in to the Board of Supervisors (both trips got me there on time). I’ve been caught in more Muni subway meltdowns than I can count, including the nightmarish system implosion in the summer of 1998 when the subway was first switched from manual control to computer control. I’ve smelled many odors on Muni and have seen substances on seats that I wasn’t quite able to identify.

Kicking off the Muni Challenge with some great transit advocates

I learned quite a bit in my 106 Muni trips during the 22-day challenge, simply by being forced to pay attention to each and every ride and my experience on it. We human beings tend to focus on, and remember, negative experiences more than positive ones. For example, you can have ten great bus rides in a row, but if your eleventh ride is awful, that’s the one you’ll remember. Here are a few of my takeaways from the challenge:

1. Muni has improved. Yes, I know my home will probably be fire-bombed for contradicting San Francisco’s official municipal saying, “Muni sucks,” which I think may even be on our City flag. And, don’t get me wrong — Muni has a long way to go. Yet, my pre-challenge gestalt sense as a rider that the system was getting better was born out by my challenge experience. Of the 106 rides that I took, I experienced problems a mere three times (i.e., less than 3% of the trips). Each of those three delays was minor, never lasting more than five minutes. I didn’t experience a single meltdown, major delay, or large gap in service.

These statistics are consistent with my recent experience riding Muni. It feels like there are fewer delays overall in the system. For some time, I experienced a subway problem at least two or three times a week, but not recently. And, although there are certainly still major gaps in bus service, my general sense is that I experience them less frequently.

My experience — and I’m sure others will tell me I’m full of it and describe their terrible recent Muni episodes — jibes with some of the positive steps Muni has taken in recent years. We’ve dramatically increased capital investment in the system, thanks to good financial decisions as well as the voters’ generosity in passing transit funding measures, including Prop B, which I authored and which ties transit funding to population growth. Muni has increased its maintenance budget and its mid-life vehicle rehabilitations. We’re gradually replacing every single vehicle in the system with new, more efficient models. Muni has cleared its driver training bottleneck and reduced the driver shortage that had resulted in many missed runs. And, Muni is beginning to make progress with its efforts to improve line efficiencies.

To be clear, the system has a long way to go. There are still too many breakdowns, not enough vehicles, not enough operators, and too many street design obstacles for buses and trains. Yet, progress has happened and continues to happen. We need to keep up and accelerate the momentum.

Riding the L Taraval with my colleague Supervisor Katy Tang

2. There are major disparities among different parts of the City. I always knew this, of course, but paying close attention definitely crystalized the issue for me. I’m extremely lucky to live in the Castro, one of the most transit-rich and centrally located neighborhoods in San Francisco. It’s easy to get most places from where I live, and commuting between my home and City Hall isn’t exactly a hike.

During the challenge, I went out of my way to ride some of the more challenging routes. I rode both the L Taraval and the N Judah out to the beach, riding the L during evening rush hour. (Ok, my N ride to the beach was actually the day before the challenge started, and I didn’t experence the hell of commuting on the N during morning rush hour.) I rode the 38 Geary deep into the Richmond several times, experiencing some of the longest and bumpiest rides ever; I became convinced there is an obscure law on the books banning shock absorbers on buses on Geary Street. I rode the T Third deep into the Bayview, and I rode the 43 Masonic to the Presidio. And, I rode major stretches of some of my favorite lines, the 22 Fillmore, 24 Divisadero, and 33 Stanyan.

It takes way too long to get across town, particularly to non-central neighborhoods, which makes me even more motivated to implement Muni Forward, which will make Muni faster and more efficient through line, stop, and signal adjustments. My experience on these lines also reaffirmed my belief that we should always have at least one subway line under construction in San Francisco.

Muni as workplace

3. Muni’s bus system is pretty amazing. My primary way of getting around is the subway, but I learned during the challenge that I ride the bus a lot more than I had realized. I rode at least one bus line — and usually multiple bus lines —pretty much each day of the challenge. The Muni bus system is actually quite efficient, and there are few places anywhere in the country with bus systems that pretty much cover every inch of a city the way Muni does. We clearly have work to do, including continuing to replace older buses with new ones, making congested lines run more efficiently by instituting transit priority measures, and ensuring our low volume neighborhood lines have enough service and stop skipping runs (the 52 in my district is notorious for doing that). Yet, all things considered, the buses are pretty darn awesome.

4. People like seeing their elected officials on transit. It’s important for elected officials to understand, on a personal level, what their constituents are going through so that we have the fire in the belly to address those needs. I prefer transit to driving in part because you get to interact with other people rather than be isolated in a vehicle by yourself. I’ve found over the years that people react positively when they see their representatives on transit with them, including during the tough trips. While I’ve been yelled at on Muni on more than one occasion, far more often people have been incredibly nice and gracious. During the 22-day challenge, people went out of their way to thank me for riding

5. Transit matters. The point of the challenge, of course, was to focus the attention of our elected policymakers on the dramatic need to invest in and improve our transit systems. Our population is exploding — San Francisco is growing by 10,000 people a year, and the Bay Area will grow by over two million people by 2040 — and our transit systems haven’t kept up. BART hit 400,000 daily trips about a decade before projected. Caltrain has nearly doubled its ridership in the past decade. And, Muni is bursting at the seams. On all three of these systems, it’s a challenge even to squeeze onto a train or bus during rush hour.

Our region’s economy, quality of life, and environment depend on transit systems that work and have the capacity to handle our population. We can’t have another million cars on Bay Area roads and another 100,000 cars in San Francisco. The geometry just doesn’t work, not to mention the economic and environmental impacts. Yet, that’s exactly where we’re heading if we don’t get very real very fast about our profound transit investment needs. We need to keep replacing those outdated vehicles and train control systems and improving bus efficiency through transit-only lanes and other transit-priority measures. We need to keep building subways, extend Caltrain and High Speed Rail to the Transbay Transit Center, and build a second transbay tube to increase BART’s capacity, allow for 24-hour BART service, and ultimately connect the Capitol Corridor to Caltrain and allow High Speed Rail to move through the East Bay and up to Sacramento.

I’ve always been passionate about transit, and, after my 106 rides during the Muni Challenge, I’m even more passionate. I’m energized and ready to move forward toward a great transit future.

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