Our Chat With Muni, Part 5: Muni’s Image Problem, Accountability, and Muni Hipsterism

In our last installment of Tara’s interview with SFMTA spokesperson Judson True, we get the skinny on Muni’s image issues, how to keep the agency accountable when riders file complaints, and what the agency is doing to prepare for Bay to Breakers this year.
Bay to Breakers- drunk and horny on Muni 2007

Muni Diaries: Would you say Muni has an image problem?

JT: You saved the best for last.

It’s an interesting question. The answer I’m trying to take a step back from, in my job and my role now, in the time I’ve worked at the MTA, to think about how I perceived Muni before I worked for the city. I took the 21, I liked it. I’d write down the books people were reading. I’d keep little lists like that. It’s interesting, and I liked Muni, I liked riding it. I was frustrated if the bus passed me at Grove and Gough, which it did sometimes. I’d walk down and take Muni Metro or BART or I’d just walk. Occasionally, I rode my bike to work.

I think the feeling I had about Muni then is fairly similar to how most users in the system feel. That it’s great when it works, and it’s very frustrating when it doesn’t.

A lot of people choose to live here because it’s a city you can live in without a car. I didn’t have a car for five years. In that sense, Muni is successful. BART and the whole system of transportation, even in the Bay Area. Like Caltrain. When my brother was at Stanford, I took Caltrain down to visit him. You can move without a car here.

But Muni has challenges, and I think those are reflected in the negative publicity we occasionally get and the frustration people feel about the system. The people who work here are very sensitive, and they’re working hard to try to improve the system to prevent that perception. Perception is a reflection of reality. I’m not a person who works in media relations because I want to say, “This thing over here is really good,” even if it looks like it isn’t good. Nat Ford is the kind of person who calls it like he sees it, too. That impetus goes throughout the organization.

There’s so much more I can say about that question. My final answer would be, “Yes, but …”

You also see more and more, I would call it Muni hipsterism. In my neighborhood, there’s a boutique that sells T-shirts that have Muni buses. Those sorts of things. Even now, parking control gophers (Interceptors), people are making T-shirts for various routes and lines. I think that is an undercurrent that runs beneath a lot of the negative publicity Muni gets. There is this appreciation for it. Maybe because it’s an environmentally friendly way to get around. That is attractive to a lot of people.

I have one more tiny anecdote on that. [Recently], I was at a town hall for the president of the Board of Supervisors, David Chiu. The topics were mostly about graffiti. But as always, there were questions about Muni and about parking. Most of them were challenging, including the question, “Why is your on-time performance not what it should be?” I gave some answers that we give. Then, after the town hall was over, a woman came up to me and said she just moved here, I think from San Mateo, and she didn’t know why everyone was always giving Muni a hard time, because she thinks it’s great. She gets around on it. She depends on it. She doesn’t know what she’d do without it. She doesn’t own a car. And she loves it.

That was [recently]. It’s fresh in my mind. I’m not saying that that’s a universally held opinion, or that it’s the only legitimate opinion about Muni. But it is an opinion that gets expressed out there.

MD: A lot of people do say that Muni is pretty good and many of us use it three, four times a day. But I think part of the frustration or feeling is that there’s no accountability when something does go wrong. You know, you can complain, you can have the driver number and the bus number and the route and the time, and then you list them all until you’re blue in the face. Then nothing comes to fruition.

JT: One of the many messages I’d like to get across is that there is accountability within the agency. I can assure you that there is. Maybe there isn’t as much as there should be, but there is.

As an example, this was something covered in the meeting, we are doing a better and better job of keeping track complaints directed toward operators. We’re especially looking at the operators who get the most complaints to see what we can do not only to deal with the individual incidents, but with those operators overall.

I don’t know how you feel about riding the system, but in my experience, the vast majority of the operators are great. I talk to them. I don’t want to distract them when they drive. Sometimes I introduce myself. But before I introduce myself, I talk to them and see what they’re like, see how they interact with the public. The vast majority are great. But we have an obligation to try to address the operators who are not great, and who provide poor customer service or drive unsafely.

There are people here working very hard to do a better job of that.

MD: What can we do to ensure that this process of follow-through that you’ve been describing happens?

JT: I do think calling 311 with the relative logistical information is key. One of the commenters on the thread about this interview mentioned an incident I think with an N-Judah operator. I would say, call with the line or route, the time, the direction. If you get the ID, obviously that’s helpful, but usually we can identify the operator without the ID. Then be willing to go through the process, because they don’t always need to identify themselves, but someone needs to put that name in with the complaint for us to follow up. It’s important to call 311 and file your complaint, and commendations when you have them.

MD: We do have some nice stories. We had one this morning on our site about a really cheery operator. It was kinda nice.

JT: Yeah, it sounded like an operator who should be a poet.

MD: Okay, my last question is about Bay to Breakers. Everybody’s favorite day in San Francisco is coming up. It’s very exciting. It’s very busy. It’s a very annoying time to be on anything that’s moving in San Francisco. Is Muni prepared?

JT: I live in Hayes Valley, so I know all about Bay to Breakers.

We do the best we can to continue both our existing service, where it’s not disrupted, and to provide supplemental service to the event where we can. This is where our budget does come in again, because one of our significant expenses is overtime related to special events. Not just Bay to Breakers, but all sorts of events that happen. They’re great. They’re one of the things that make San Francisco such a great place to live. We are looking at how many vehicles we can provide. What kind of service we can direct toward supplementing existing service. I’d say we’re working hard to be prepared for Bay to Breakers like we always do. And for the upcoming Giants season, and all the extra events that make San Francisco what it is.

Yesterday True talked to us all about Translink and Bus Rapid Transit, two of the most popular issues you posed in our comments section. Earlier this week, True told us about what Muni is doing to communicate to riders, address our gripes, and face its budget deficit.

Photo by Flickr user sftrajan


  • thanks for doing this interview.

  • diego m

    these interviews have been somewhat informative, but seem to avoid or at least not go in-depth into the two biggest areas of concern: driver behavior, and fare avoidance.

    there are good drivers out there, and we know this because stories about them crop up every so often. but generally, shitty drivers treating passengers badly – from closing doors in people’s faces to outright verbal abuse – are a massive problem. this has more to do with muni’s “image” than anything else.

    fare avoidance seems like it could be remedied by hiring fare inspectors to check transfers on every rush-hour (6:30-9:30 a.m., 4-7 p.m.) bus. that way, drivers can focus on the driving, scofflaws will know they’re being hunted, and muni’s deficit can dwindle.

    getting officials like True to confront real-world solutions, instead of giving them free reign to prattle on about BS, would be more useful to readers.

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