How Will the SF Mayoral Candidates Fix Muni?

Muni Is Broken
Photo by Jeremy Brooks

On Tuesday, we introduced you to several San Francisco mayoral hopefuls and their relationships with Muni. Today, we bring you the second of our two-part series. Learn about these candidates’ longest commutes, hear their ideas for fixing Muni, and learn the origin of “It’s Muni, it’s magic!” Let’s hear your ideas in the comments.

Muni Diaries: What’s the longest it’s taken you to get from Point A to Point B using only Muni?

Cesar Ascarrunz: When I go to City Hall or to the downtown area, it usually takes me 30 to 40 minutes from the outer Mission.

John Avalos: I took the 49 bus once, from the Excelsior up to my dentist’s office at Post and Van Ness. It took me an hour and a half.

Terry Baum: I don’t know exactly how long it took, but…. Once, during rush hour, I took the F all the way from Fisherman’s Wharf to the Castro. That was a mistake. The ride to Market Street was fine, but I should have gotten off at Market and gone underground. And I was on one of those beautiful antique streetcars from Milan that are completely uncomfortable, due to that stupid wooden railing that sticks into your back! Not a happy camper.

David Chiu: In my life before City Hall, when I had more leisure time, I would take Muni from my Polk Street neighborhood to Ocean Beach, which always took forever. As a supervisor, my Muni trips to the southeast neighborhoods always seem to take longer than a trip to Los Angeles.

Bevan Dufty: Riding the N to Duboce Park with Sidney [Dufty’s daughter] from City Hall/Van Ness, we were stuck in the tunnel for 30 minutes. Sidney was two and we had a schtick about riding the N to Duboce Playground — “It’s Muni, it’s magic!” After about 20 stifling minutes in the tunnel she belted out “It’s Muni, it’s magic,” and passengers laughed and I lived to ride another day.

Like the Carpenters song, ‘Rainy Days and Mondays’ can get you down on Muni — if I can motivate operators and other employees to come and give their best, we can have a huge impact.

Tony Hall: 1 hour and 10 minutes.

Dennis Herrera: On New Year’s Eve one year it took me almost three hours to get home from downtown. I hopped on a bus, but traffic was terrible and we were barely moving. I think the bus traveled about five feet every 20 minutes. In addition, all of the buses were packed, so my wife and I had to wait half an hour before one would even stop and let us on.

Phil Ting: It’s taken me an hour and a half to get from the Inner Sunset to downtown back in the days when the train would stop in the tunnel with no idea when it would start again.

David Villa-Lobos: I guess that considering that I’ve been a Muni rider for the last 33 years; that I’ve been fortunate in that I have not experienced delay, or lengthy commute times.

Leland Yee: As a kid, I rode Muni everywhere. I’d frequently go back and forth from my home in Chinatown to my father’s grocery store in the Haight via the 30-Stockton to the 7-Haight, which I remember taking about an hour at most. My son wins this contest, actually — when he used to work in Bernal Heights, he would commute an hour and half each way, taking the N-Judah, transfer to BART, then transfer to the 67.

Muni Diaries: If elected, what’s your first Muni-oriented action as mayor of San Francisco? Of all the chronic internal problems at SFMTA, which is the biggest fish to fry?

Cesar Ascarrunz: Although I have very positive experiences with Muni, many have not. The fares are going up, lines are being cut, and people are having a harder time believing that Muni is working for them. The biggest fish to fry is just simply understanding where the money is going, and why the residents of San Francisco are paying the price.

John Avalos: First action: I would establish a daily briefing on Muni performance.

Biggest fish to fry: The budget! I want to increase the MTA budget by about $100 million, and would seek to generate new revenue through my Real Estate Transfer Tax (that has brought in over $50 million this year), revisiting Prop J (the temporary Hotel Tax increase), and other options, such as congestion pricing, vehicle license fees, and a carbon tax.

Terry Baum: Muni’s main problem is no different from that of any other department: making do in an era of declining revenues. But I do not accept the premise that Muni — or any other department — must survive on less. In the age of global climate change, extreme weather, and decreasing access to rapidly declining supplies of cheap oil, Americans need to be transforming their systems of transportation. They must move from their personal cars to bicycles, mass transit, and feet. This is the most difficult challenge that Americans — and other westerners — have ahead of them for the next few decades and will involve massive migration to communities that are more self-sustaining than the ones we have now, as well as a willingness to increase taxes in order to pay for the capital and operations costs of the new infrastructure. But we have no choice if civilization is to survive. But solving Muni’s financial shortfalls will not happen with one or two executive decisions at the beginning of my administration. I propose the creation of a municipal bank (as North Dakota has a state bank). And I propose that all other California mayors join me in working for statewide changes in tax laws so that every municipality can choose to levy local income taxes (as is the case in Ohio). Local resilience is going to save us in the coming decades.

David Chiu: If elected, my first Muni-oriented action as mayor of San Francisco would be to work with the SFMTA Board of Directors and SFMTA leadership to accelerate the implementation of the recommendations in the TEP to achieve 10 to 30 percent time travel savings, dramatic operating cost savings and reliability increases on each line. Specific improvements would include bus stop consolidation, bus prioritization at traffic signals, proof of payment and ticket machines to speed boarding and permit all-door boarding on the busiest lines, and bus bulbouts to reduce traffic delays, improve accessibility and passenger comfort.

The most significant problem at the MTA is financing: the funding dilemma is very real for the Muni. The recession saw revenues plummet for transportation agencies throughout the Bay Area. Over the past years, I have led the fight at the Board of Supervisors to ensure adequate Muni funding, and would continue to do so as mayor. I continue to support new revenue for the MTA and Muni, but the agency also has to get its management and labor houses in order. I would continue to be a leader in supporting a restoration of the Vehicle License Fee to the levels before Governor Schwarzenegger reversed the fee that had been in place for decades; this item alone could generate more than $50 million per year.

Bevan Dufty: Hang with my good buddy, Ed Reiskin at all the yards and maintenance facilities. Get Police Chief Greg Suhr to ride the 14 with me every day until he gets his officers on board. And Greg will be back on the 14 if I get any text, e-mail, or tweet that it’s backsliding. Meet with stakeholders to consider getting taxi issues out of the MTA and back to being the highest-rated program on SFGTV.

Take Ed Reiskin and Jose Luis Moscovich out to margaritas at Don Ramon’s until we get rid of the unnecessary drama and backbiting between SFMTA and SFCTA (I will definitely ride Muni after these sessions). I will have a party for station agents and proof of payment officers to thank them for their unheralded service.

The most chronic issue is morale — I will do everything possible to create a positive culture that will be the envy of transit agencies nationally. But it might not happen in 100 days! My first goal: to make the 14, one of the most crime-affected lines, our best. Instead of wrapping the outside of buses with ads, I want to wrap the 14’s inside like a Virgin America airplane — purple and red lighting, chill music, maybe even snacks to change the experience.

As mayor, I will stand at the bus and rail divisions every week, talking with operators and maintenance crews. An angry customer has always been my best asset, so riding Muni every day as mayor will keep it real and keep me informed.

Tony Hall: The SFMTA needs serious revamping, and that starts at the top. SFMTA needs leadership with experience in the transportation field, thus I will not appoint political allies but rather those who are best suited for the job at hand. With this new leadership, I will get Muni back up to full speed so that the SFMTA can focus on other aspects of its job, like bicycle and pedestrian programs.

Dennis Herrera: The first thing I will do as mayor is implement the Transit Effectiveness Project, or TEP as it is commonly known. I have a 4-point plan to improve Muni (please see my website to read my plan in its entirety), and this is the point which I will focus on immediately. Other parts of my plan (such as instituting accountability within Muni, fixing Muni’s funding problems, and increasing ridership), are more long-term, but implementing the TEP can begin immediately and can begin to affect the daily operations of Muni in a noticeable way from day one. This plan was the result of a far-reaching study of Muni as it currently exists, and includes relatively quick and easy recommendations specifically tailored to our city, such as eliminating bus stops that are rarely used, adding more ticket machines, enforcement of transit-only lanes, and directing the bulk of services to the busiest corridors in the city.

Phil Ting: Implement the TEP — stop work orders from other departments — create dedicated transit lanes for the N, J, K, L, and M trains and reduce the number of bus stops per block to make our rides faster.

David Villa-Lobos: I would insist that average citizens/residents of San Francisco be appointed to the MTA board/commission. I would also convene MTA town halls in neighborhoods throughout the city; w/guaranteed follow-up.

Leland Yee: Muni will absolutely be a top priority in my administration because San Francisco requires a public transit system that can deliver on the basics — safety, adequate service, on-time performance. Today, Muni is falling short on meeting these basic needs for San Franciscans.


Muni is the last major city transit operator in the country that has not implemented two key technologies that will improve on-time performance: a computer-aided dispatch system and on-board technology that actively notifies the driver if they are running according to schedule. Both technologies have become standard equipment in public transportation fleets across the country over the last 20 years, yet Muni is literally still dispatching with paper and pencils. Muni must adopt both if it is to ever reach its voter-mandated goal of 85 percent on-time performance. More than anything, that requires leadership within the department and from the Mayor’s Office.

The key to improving on-time performance and ensuring safe and efficient street operations is to begin using technology-based planning and dispatching systems. The on-time performance statistics that Muni distributes today is done using a human-driven manual process that is merely a sampling of routes and trips and is inherently prone to errors. True accountability starts with accurate statistics, and accurate statistics are driven by technology-based systems. As mayor, I will ensure that these planning and dispatching systems are implemented with absolute transparency and open data requirements to ensure that additional “apps” can be developed to improve customer satisfaction.

These technology-based improvements will create a sea change in the organization, improve customer satisfaction, improve safety and security, greatly improve on-time performance, and, most importantly, begin to create additional capacity and system efficiencies with the existing resources.

Operating Deficit

I believe that one answer for Muni is a mayor who won’t simply pass off leadership to the MTA and its high-paid bureaucrats, but will work to implement the kinds of small but meaningful changes that increase ridership, convenience, and reliability, bringing more people on and increasing revenue within the same basic cost structure.

SPUR has estimated that the MTA would need an additional $50-$150 million annually to provide an adequate level of service. I believe the first priority must be to address transparency in budgeting and find opportunities for cost savings within the current budget structure.

We must focus on the department’s work order spending, which arguably costs Muni $30 million a year. Addressing challenges of fare evasion will also help chip away at Muni’s deficit. Recent reports show that the department loses $19 million a year from fare evasion alone.

The maintenance of Muni vehicles has and will continue to cost far more than necessary. Muni must stop harvesting parts from other vehicles, rendering them useless, and adding service burden to existing stock, which shortens the useful lifespan of those vehicles. Muni must make the necessary investments in replacements parts and service for its vehicle fleet. With additional revenue from, for example, a small vehicle license fee locally, Muni could better invest in its fleet and, in the long run, save on maintenance costs and then roll the additional savings back into operational needs.

However, I think it’s important to first institute measures that ultimately improve the rider experience, because before we can talk about long-term revenue solutions that require voter approval, we must first restore public confidence in the system.


  • Mike

    I’m sorry to be so blunt. But what Leland Yee states about Muni is simply not true. Muni uses NextBus management tools for dispatching, not paper and pencils. They also use the NextBus tools for determining schedule adherence. The information is not a “human-driven manual process”. It is based on the measured departure time based on GPS and is available via database reports for every stop and trip.

    Perhaps Muni Diaries would enjoy a field trip to the Muni Dispatch center to see this technology in place. You could take pictures, write a posting, and avoid having politicians misrepresent what Muni is currently doing.

    • Hi Mike, thanks for your feedback. Our intent with this series was to let the candidates offer their ideas, and to let our readers weigh in on those ideas. If any of the candidates’ statements are based on incorrect information, we certainly welcome comments from knowledgeable readers. And it wouldn’t be the first time a politician was wrong about something, would it?

  • fermata

    i’m taking a liking to David Chiu

  • David

    “I guess that considering that I’ve been a Muni rider for the last 33 years; that I’ve been fortunate in that I have not experienced delay, or lengthy commute times.”

    BullSHIT. Not to mention poor grammar.

  • No, they all say they will but never do. Kissing Union ass again and again

  • Adrienne

    Yes, I say BS too on the not experiencing delay or lengthy commute times. Also, I would suggest strongly that the Muni folks have at least one older disabled person like me who rides regularly to give feedback.

  • Rob

    10 candidates and not a single one has proposed modernizing the buses. Using buses that run on batteries:
    – is far more efficient
    – requires no maintenance of power lines
    – doesn’t impose a potential health hazard for residents
    – removes delays due to separation of arm and track (how many times have you had the bus stop so that the driver could get out and reconnect the arm to the power lines?)
    – allows for flexibility in routing (no tracks to follow)
    – and is not a hideous eyesore blanketing our city

    Set up a charging station at the most important routes. Replace 40 to 50 buses a year. How come no one has proposed this? We’re in a technology capital of the world yet our bus system is several decades past it’s prime.

  • Daishin

    MUNI will never change until the unions are challenged to become part of the transit system. They are not on the same planet as the rest of us.

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