Muni: In elusive quest for 85% on-time performance, computers are displacing eyes on the street


No. 1 Muni riders protested the May service cuts outside City Hall — the deepest cuts in Muni's history. Photo by Steve Rhodes/SF Public Press.

Multimillion-dollar vehicle-monitoring technology installed at Muni headquarters is at the heart of a new initiative aimed at solving the transit system’s never-ending performance problems.
By investing $13.6 million in the NextMuni satellite tracking system and a new 24-hour vehicle monitoring center, San Francisco transit officials promise major improvements in keeping the city’s more than 1,000 buses and trains running on schedule. Already this year, Muni Metro trains in the Market Street tunnel are speeding up, they said.
But Muni managers are still struggling with the question of how to get the most out of this new technology to increase performance at a time when budget pressures make it increasingly difficult to do that.
Four years after the city rolled out its NextMuni satellite technology, officials have still not gotten close to meeting an 11-year-old voter mandate of 85 percent on-time performance. But that did not stop them from laying off nearly 50 on-the-street human traffic checkers, street supervisors and line inspectors in the last two years.
Some critics, including transportation experts, Muni rider advocacy groups and the transit union, say Muni’s street staff reductions could hurt its ability to solve transit-flow bottlenecks quickly.
The pressure to perform is high. Cutbacks in the last six months sparked a rider revolt — a reaction to Muni’s 10 percent service cutback in May, which affected 28 bus and train lines.
That revolt culminated in the successful ballot initiative on Nov. 2 calling for changes to collective bargaining with the transit union that could lead to reduced driver salaries.
One measure of the disconnect between Muni’s internal benchmarks and the rider groups’ perceptions is that after the service cuts, on-time performance actually rose two percentage points, to 75 percent — an all-time high. One possible reason, noted Greg Dewar, editor of the blog N-Judah Chronicles, is that it’s easier to make the buses run on time when there are fewer of them.
The top five worst buses in terms of on-time performance for the fiscal year ending in June were the 91-Owl (reaching its scheduled stop only 38 percent of the time), 1AX-California express (50 percent), 9BX-San Bruno express (55 percent) and the 39-Coit (57 percent). The best-performing bus was the 1-California (90 percent), which was also one of the most frequent lines, arriving every four minutes at peak hours.
Muni officials, who now can see slowdowns as they happen on every line at the agency’s new headquarters line-management center, are targeting these poor-performing lines and others for possible streetscape restructuring and removal of bus stops as a possible solution.
With changing rider habits, including the widespread reliance on NextMuni outdoor displays and mobile apps instead of printed timetables, riders may wonder why Muni even tries to keep to a set schedule at all.
Muni’s policy was set in 1999, when voter-approved Proposition E changed the City Charter to require the 85 percent on-time performance standard. Although there are no penalties on Muni for missing the mark year after year, Muni management has seen that one number as its top goal for more than a decade.
Now, the authors of that standard disagree about the value of focusing just on that number instead of a broader set of measures. One said that “on-time” is an outdated standard and in need of a major rethink. 
Is on-time performance really the best test of a transit system’s effectiveness?
For those who still value the 85 percent goal, there is much disagreement about how to get there. Transit planning professionals in the last decade have focused on the importance of fixing the street infrastructure.
Last year, the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency, Muni’s parent bureaucracy, determined that time could be saved if some bus stops were consolidated. The 9-San Bruno, which has 126 stops, could save up to seven minutes per round trip if 20 stops were eliminated. The Service Restoration Task Force will be looking into consolidating stops and adding transit-only lanes on some of its problematic routes.
Some of the changes could happen within a year, said John Haley, transit director for Muni.
Such improvements are the focus of the Transit Effectiveness Program, which began experimenting with route changes last year. While these changes could speed the system as a whole, their success might not yet be captured in on-time performance statistics.
“The moral of the story is that Muni should not be focused on just one number,” said Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City, an organization that promotes environmental approaches to urban growth and transit.
Radulovich, who helped write 1999’s Proposition E, said he now believes the charter measure overemphasized on-time performance, allowing Muni officials and the office of Mayor Gavin Newsom to sweep other systemic problems under the rug.
Another author of the Proposition E said he would not change the 85 percent standard and does not regret writing the goal into the charter.
“It was clear then that unless we set a standard that could not be ignored or worked around, Muni would find a way to ignore it,” said Andrew Sullivan, chairman of Rescue Muni, a transit advocacy organization.
Sullivan also said the standard is a reminder to customers that they are not getting the service that they deserve. He said the agency could meet the 85 percent goal by improving routine maintenance, adding more bus-only lanes, creating rapid-bus service and changing work rules.
“This, rather than further excuses about why 85 percent is somehow unrealistic or inappropriate for the charter, is what S.F. riders deserve from their transit system,” he said.


From Muni’s line-management center at 1 S. Van Ness Ave., which opened last year, Operations Manager Jim Kelly can live-monitor every Muni vehicle on a map using real-time NextMuni data. The system can tell which vehicles are late or early using Geographic Positioning System transmitters on all vehicles.
Since 2006, the agency has relied on NextMuni to monitor daily operations of buses and trains along all 80 lines. It’s a big transit system — the eighth-largest in the country as measured by annual passenger trips, and the fifth-largest as measured by passenger miles, according to the American Public Transportation Association.
The problem has been that until this year, Muni was not making use of all that data in real time.
Before the line-management center opened, the central control facility located at West Portal worked directly with line supervisors on the streets to handle late buses and trains as well as the occasional major Muni meltdown. This work is now consolidated at the line-management center.
Transit Effectiveness Project in 2007 deemed the old center’s computer system outdated and inadequate. The project said Muni’s reliability was hampered by the lack of a fully functional automatic vehicle location system. 
The new center is divided into five workstations with a technician monitoring each of the different types of vehicles Muni operates: diesel and hybrid gas-electric buses, electric trolley buses, light-rail vehicles, cable cars and historic street cars.
Haley said that for the last two weeks in October, Muni Metro trains made 4,172 — or 95.5 percent — of their 4,376 planned scheduled trips from Embarcadero Station.
“What was missing was this global view in real-time availability to react and adapt to changes,” Haley said.
The center, he added, “is the first place we have where we can follow any vehicle in the system — we know exactly where it is. That’s where we’re making adjustments to lines all the time, and we use the inspectors on the streets.”


 At least, that’s how the new system is supposed to work. Kelly said the data the GPS tracking produces “can you tell you something is happening, but it does not visually tell you what that is.”
The line-management center sees whether a bus is slow to get to an intersection, but would need to dispatch a human being to see what’s impeding the bus.
That’s where human traffic checkers and on-the-ground schedulers are useful. “That’s where the visual comes in,” Kelly said.
Starting in September 2008, Muni let go 32 line inspectors who managed buses and light-rail vehicles on the streets, citing shrinking budgets as city tax revenues fell.
Haley said Muni is trying to balance the new technology with the continued need for line inspectors. He said the combination of street-level personnel, the control center and the line-management center will lead to a better-managed system and “make it more reliable — and hopefully improve the on-time performance.”


“I do a little bit of everything, kind of like a utility man,” said Myron Fong, who has been a line inspector for 12 years. Fong monitors seven bus lines that intersect at Geary Boulevard and 33rd Avenue, including the 1-California, 1AX-California express and 38-Geary lines.
“I’m the eyes and ears for central command,” Fong said. He’s also a time keeper, monitoring buses to check if they are late or early. A bus should not be more than one minute early or four minutes late, according to Muni’s rules.
The need for on-the-spot troubleshooters such as Fong is one area of agreement between the workers and rider advocates.
Gerald Cauthen, once a Muni chief project manager, last year cofounded, a rider advocacy group. Cauthen said that GPS devices notwithstanding, skilled street-level staff are still key.
“The line inspectors make a big difference in overall operations,” Cauthen said. “The computer system cannot perform all the functions of a line inspector.”
Jason Henderson, an associate professor of geography at San Francisco State University, said getting more inspectors on the streets is only a start.
“All Muni managers and members of the MTA commission, and locally elected officials, should ride Muni regularly,” Henderson said. “Muni managers should be documenting the problems they observe, especially recurring ones.”


Livable City’s Radulovich, who is also a BART board director, suggested that for the average Muni rider, frequency of service is the most important standard.
“It might not matter what time the bus comes,” Radulovich said, “but knowing the bus arrives every two to three minutes is important for the rider.”
Steve Winkelman, director of transportation and adaptation programs for the Center for Clean Air Policy, based in Washington, D.C., also said that frequency and predictability are increasingly important to transit riders nationwide.
“If you can get to the level where there’s a bus every 10 minutes, at least at peak times, then riders don’t have to worry about schedules,” he said.
On-time performance is a flawed measurement, said Jarrett Walker, an international transportation network design consultant based in Sydney, Australia.
One important measure to look at is spacing for the buses that run the most frequently.
According to that measure, “a transit operator’s job is not to run on time, but rather to run a specified number of minutes after the preceding vehicle on the line,” Walker said. “What should be reported in this case is not the time a bus came, but the actual elapsed time between consecutive trips.”
Walker said many transit agencies using GPS tracking and smart-card ticketing machines (such as San Francisco’s new Clipper card) are beginning to get more robust data.
Each major transit agency has a unique performance standard, which influences how the system is run. New York City subways are counted similarly to San Francisco’s overall system (though New York counts missing runs as 100 percent not on time, while San Francisco ignores them). New York’s year-to-date target is 76.9 percent on-time; the actual score is 68.4 percent.
In the Washington, D.C., Metro system, the agency not only looks at on-time performance for its rail and buses, but also bus fleet reliability, measured by the distance traveled before a mechanical breakdown. Last July, Washington also added a new measurement called the MetroAccess, which assesses on-time performance by examining whether the trips are adhering to the customer’s scheduled pick-up window.


Haley acknowledged Muni’s problems with keeping its diverse and aging fleet on the roads and tracks:
“I have some buses that are over 10 years old and some that are as old as 18. The manufacturers are out of business. Trying to find parts is virtually impossible. You have to manufacture them or go on eBay or try to run them down through museums.”
Haley also said that out of a light-rail fleet of 151 cars, there are usually 10 out of service for major rehabilitation, and eight inoperable and undergoing repairs.
San Francisco’s odd mix of equipment is only one of its many distinct challenges that make it hard to compare its performance with that of other cities. Other obstacles include the densest urban grid on the West Coast and killer hills.
“I really think SF is especially unique in that it’s spatially constrained like no other North American city. Even in Manhattan, which is full of these vast wide streets, even removing one lane in NY doesn’t have the same ripple effect as it does in San Francisco,” said Henderson.
In Muni’s defense, Henderson said the buses and light-rail vehicles have a major challenge in dealing with the physical environment of the city.
He said most sunbelt cities get to start fresh with traffic lanes. “You’ve got all these lanes to play with, but you just don’t have that kind of movement in San Francisco.”



“You’d be surprised what I see out these windows. If you have a problem on one part of the system, it delays the whole thing. I would challenge you to find comparable systems.” — JOHN HALEY, Muni transit director.
“There’s a lot of things that can be done. All of them by themselves seem mundane and small, but in the aggregate the cumulative result could be a first-class transit system.” — JASON HENDERSON, professor of geography, SF State.

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A version of this article was published in the fall 2010 edition of the San Francisco Public Press newspaper. Read select stories online, or buy a copy.

This story was made possible with funding through micro-donations via Spot.Us.