Our Chat With Muni, Part 2: ‘A bus is an extension of our city streets’

What can drivers do to kick people off the bus? And why do Muni buses pass you by even when they are not full? These are just some of the questions you asked, and Judson True, SFMTA’s spokesperson, answers them in the second part of our first “Ask Muni” series. He tells us why buses bunch up (one of the most frequent complains we’ve seen here), why we have so many missed runs, and what Muni is trying to do to improve these issues. Check back tomorrow for Tara and Judson’s discussion of Muni’s communication issues. This and all posts in this series are cross-posted on SF Appeal.

Too Took On The T-Third

Muni Diaries: At what point is a driver supposed to stop ignoring a trouble-maker and actually kick people off the bus? I think the quote from the reader was, “If I witness someone on the bus who should be put off and they’re not, can I report this? Anyone who rides the 22 or the 19 knows why this is important.”

Judson True: The simple answer is yes, you should report it. If one of our passengers believes that another passenger is engaging in any type of disruptive behavior, illegal behavior, they should report it to the operator, and the operator is required to ask that person to leave the bus. Operators are not supposed to allow any sort of disruptive behavior, illegal behavior on the buses.

We all know what happens. Different operators deal with it differently. One of the things we’re trying to do is make sure the training is there. Make sure the communication channels are there to get the operators the tools they need to call Central Control and say, “I’ve got this person on the bus who’s doing this, and they need to go.” They’re supposed to stop at a designated stop and ask that person to leave the bus.

MD: It seems as though that’s a little bit like setting yourself up for a fall, because if you stop the bus, you’ve got a bus full of 40 people screaming at you, demanding to know why the bus is stopped.

True: There’s no doubt that operating an urban transit system is a tremendous challenge, and this is one of the primary examples of it. Anyone who’s been on a Muni bus at all knows that a bus is an extension of our city streets and we are a city that has a lot of complicated characters in it.

MD: So the proper protocol is for the driver to call into to Central Control and notify them immediately that there’s someone being disruptive on the bus? What happens from there?

True: Say somebody is eating sunflower seeds, that’s a favorite. And throwing the shells on the ground. The operator sees it and tells the person to stop or get off the bus. The person doesn’t. The operator stops at the next stop and says, “Get off the bus or I’m going to call and have you removed.” The person gets off the bus. That’s the ideal scenario.

I’ve seen one operator ask a person to leave. The most common time the operator asks the person to leave is because they won’t pay their fare. That’s the one I’ve seen most often as a rider, and given the number of riders we have, and the challenges in collecting fares, that’s the most common.

MD: About fare-jumping, there’s an awful lot of door pushing to get in the bus on a number of lines. And sometimes drivers will turn a blind eye. Sometimes they’ll get appropriately upset with people and say, “You know, you actually have to pay the fare if you want to get on the bus.” What are drivers instructed to do about fare-jumpers?

True: To quote directly from the rule book, “Operators are responsible for requesting the appropriate fare from every passenger in accordance with the existing fare structure.” Operators need to ask people for their fare and do everything they can to get them to pay it, while acknowledging that they can’t physically intervene.

They can obviously ask someone to get off the vehicle. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve seen that happen.

The fare question is a core issue for us, and it’s one that goes to the heart of so many of our challenges, from managing the system to having the funding necessary to provide a level of service that people deserve.

As we’ve said many times, and I’ve heard Nat Ford say directly, “Paying your fare is fair.” We want to do everything we can to try to make that happen. We’ve increased the number of Transit Fare Inspectors, or TFIs, on Muni Metro. Everyone who’s ridden Muni Metro in the last few years has seen those uniformed TFIs increase. We’ve had a small pilot to deploy some of our TFIs on buses, especially along the Van Ness corridor between Market and Geary. We were planning to hire more TFIs as part of our budget for next year, but those positions are now frozen because of the deficit.

I think people getting in on the back door, you know, it’s not allowed. That’s not to say that it doesn’t happen. There’s no easy answer for it.

One of our other significant costs is the amount of time it takes to load and unload a vehicle. I believe the 38-Geary spends about half its time not moving. Either at signals or stop signs or experiencing significant dwell times. Dwell time is the time the bus sits at the stop.

MD: When they’re loading people?

True: Loading and unloading, yeah. We know that fare-collection is a core issue that we need to improve.

MD: Here’s another favorite question: Why do non-full buses pass people up at the bus stops? It seems to happen on Van Ness, on the 47, the 49 …

True: There could be a time where there is a bus maybe one minute behind, and there’s been some bunching because of a traffic accident or a pileup or some sort. The only time I can imagine it happening is when Central Control says, “Skip ahead, unless you get a stop request, three blocks away to provide a little more spacing.” That’s a time when I can imagine it happening, but that’s fairly rare. Someone’s always going to pull a stop and want to stop.

But I think one of the main focuses of the TEP (Transit Effectiveness Project) was the look at the places where we’re over capacity, where we don’t have enough room to pick everybody up, and add more vehicles to them. The most common cause for a pass-up is a full vehicle. That’s a bigger challenge for us to address than the one of an empty or non-full vehicle passing up people at a stop, which simply shouldn’t happen except under the circumstances I mentioned.

One of the most frustrating experiences people have is when they think, Why does bunching happen? Why have I been waiting 10 minutes for the bus, and now there’s three in a row?

The primary reason for that is, buses move at a slower rate than other vehicles on the street. If there’s any kind of traffic jam or pile-up, it’s much easier for the buses to pile up than it would be for any of the cars. That’s usually the reason it happens.

We need to find better ways, and we’re working on this with our street supervisors and technology, to try to keep lines properly spaced. We lose a great deal of capacity if those three buses are there together, because then they cause a gap in service. We’re not able to provide the level of service we want to immediately ahead and behind those bunched buses.

But it’s back to Central Control again, because we only have so many folks who are talking to street inspectors saying, “What’s going on with this line, what’s going on with this route? What can we do to get it back together, to get it spaced correctly again after an accident or a fire that disrupts service?”

MD: What steps would one take to space them out properly?

True: Our street supervisors would hold a vehicle at a particular location. Sometimes ask folks to move from one vehicle to another. Hold that vehicle. Space it out. Try to get the service going again.

It happens every day, we have protests or other kinds of events, quite a bit on the weekends. We say at Muni, “You have to put the line back together.” That’s what they call it when the inspectors have to make that kind of effort.

MD: Is this why, you know, I’ve been on the bus sometimes where they go, “Oh, you have to get off this bus and get on the one in front of us.”

True: It could be that, or a mechanical problem. It’s back to the communication issue. We’re working hard with our operators to make sure, if they’re given a reason from Central Control, which they should be, that they also communicate that to our customers. We’re all in this together. We don’t want our customers thinking we’re making arbitrary decisions about how we structure the service. Our operators are the front line of trying to communicate why we take a particular action.

MD: It certainly does, to tell you truth, feel random, where you’ll be on a bus, and they’ll tell you, “There’s nothing wrong with this one, but you have to get on another one.” There’s a 49 that stops at Market, and it doesn’t go into the Mission. And you’re left wondering, But your sign said it does, and they go, “Oh, I’m stopping at Market.”

What is a missed run and why do we seem to have so many of those?

True: A missed run is a run in our schedule that is not made. A missed run can happen for a variety of reasons. But the main cause of it is shortage of operators. On any given day, we have a certain number of runs scheduled, we have operators who are scheduled to go on those runs. And we have some operators, depending on the division and how our staffing is, are what’s called “on the extra board,” who are ready to fill in for folks who are sick or aren’t at work.

We have seen a decrease in missed runs over the last year or more. We’ve had more service out in the street. Ridership increased about 6.6 percent in FY2008, which it did last June. That’s in large part because of more service on the street. We’ve hired more operators lately. Calendar year 2007 was the first year in some time where there’d been a net increase in operators. 2008 continued that trend at an even greater rate.

Even with the budget deficit, we plan to continue to hire operators because it’s so crucial to providing the service that we need, on the schedule we want to provide.

MD: Are these missed runs because people call in sick?

True: It could be if someone calls in sick or has a vacation scheduled and we couldn’t find another operator to fill in to cover that run. One of the daily dances is to make sure we redistribute operators to minimize the number of missed runs on a particular line. Maybe to take an operator from one line that can’t manage a missed run, because it really doesn’t have the frequency to allow for any kind of gap at all, and redirect that operator toward a different line.

MD: And are you going to take the same steps to close the gap as far as how many missed runs there are?

True: Our goal is 0 missed runs. Especially on the rail side, we’ve seen a great improvement as far as meeting our schedule, getting the runs out that we want to get out. We want to continue that trends, and that’s why we’re going to continue to hire operators. That’s why, right now, we’re planning to continue to hire operators even with the budget challenges.

Part 1 of our interview with True, on Muni’s $130 million budget deficit, ran yesterday and can be found here.

Photo by WHAT IM SEEING dot com from the Muni Photos Flickr pool.


  • Is there a part 3 to this?

    • yes, Whole Wheat Toast. There will be parts 3-5. they’ll publish one per day starting tomorrow. the series will end on a lighter note friday. check back!

  • Guys, this is great. It’s nice to get a new perspective (and sort of a ‘last word’) on this stuff. Thanks for doing this!

  • Thanks, Rachel. We as transit geeks hope to speak with him pretty regularly for more posts like these!

  • It’s interesting but I guess not surprising that operator shortage is the ongoing internal issue contributing to missed runs/decreased service, because the barriers to entry to become a driver are pretty high. A friend of mine went through the process to become a MUNI driver a few years ago, and I recall it being a long process with a narrow selection pool, waiting period, some arduous testing, hours of practice driving, etc. Which I support; I don’t really want them relaxing the standards, because it’s obviously an occupation that carries high stakes with regard to public safety. But it would seem that growing the staff of operators should be a priority, certainly more so than redundancies like the “Culture Bus.”

    And yes, I realize there are union and budget issues to be contended with. But I can’t help but feel that some of the smaller, localized lines are suffering from “borrowing” drivers to cover the more impacted lines, which contributes to longer intervals, less usability, less ridership, and then finally the TEP just deems it superfluous and cannibalizes it to serve commuter routes. With the 26-Valencia and 66-Quintara as examples, I worry for my poor little 37-Corbett. 🙁

  • It’s priceless (simply PRICELESS) that he quotes from the operator handbook. A lot of what he says has to do with the operators “supposed to be doing” this and “have to do” that. And a big reason why that doesn’t happen and which wasn’t pointed out is because there’s close to zero accountability for Muni operators. It is extremely difficult to conduct disciplinary action against operators. So many of them don’t give a shit about their buses being trashed and people starting fights in the back, or about showing up to work on time, or about being courteous and efficient — and why should they?

    “Anyone who’s been on a Muni bus at all knows that a bus is an extension of our city streets and we are a city that has a lot of complicated characters in it.”

    I agree that this attitude is citywide and not just a problem of Muni. However these “characters” are only as “complicated” as we think they are. Too bad in SF taggers, litterers, thugs, and fare cheaters are considered delicate flowers. To me they’re just troublemakers and / or cheaters who shouldn’t be on the bus, period. BART runs through SF too and they interestingly do an infinitely better job to enforce that people pay their fare and that people who are disruptive are removed from the trains. Funny thing, that.

    “It seems as though that’s a little bit like setting yourself up for a fall, because if you stop the bus, you’ve got a bus full of 40 people screaming at you, demanding to know why the bus is stopped.”

    I wouldn’t be so sure of that. As someone on the bus, I would LOVE to see this sort of thing happen more often.

  • Jay

    I don’t think True cleared up your question about the “49 that only runs to Market”. The articulated buses that run on the 30 and the rush hour buses that run on the 41 take Van Ness back to their home at Potrero. AFAIK, operators (of other routes that are going “home”) are supposed to continue picking up passengers on the streets where there are actual Muni routes still running. This is supposedly true if the operator still has sufficient time on the clock to pick-up/drop-off passengers and is operating only a street that has a Muni route running on it. For the buses going back home to Potrero, they can run on Van Ness only to Market because after that point, the operator will take South Van Ness (which doesn’t have a Muni route on) and other side streets to get home.

    That is why sometimes, you can ride the F going back to Balboa Park or supposedly any bus running on Sutter going back to Presidio. I don’t exactly know what the rule is in the “manual”, but I guess True could try to clear this one up as well.

  • diego m

    these interviews are a good start, but by and large they don’t seem to challenge True enough. just because he says something doesn’t make it valid, especially his attempts to explain away fare jumpers. there are too many other systems in the country that charge more than muni and have fewer scofflaws, and the end result is a deficit that could be easily closed by enforcing fares, but instead we get fares jacked for less.

  • Rob

    My opinion that we see so many bunched buses is that they wait for each other at the end of the line and then leave at the same time, I’ve seen it happen on the 22 on numerous occasions. I’ve seen it with the M too, and that’s underground. almost every day I’ve gone to school this past week, 3 Ms are coming within a 20 minute period and then another 3 20 minutes later.

  • Rob

    Good interview though Tara

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