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Monday, March 11, 2013

MUNI's Switchback Problem Disproportionately Impacts D10

It's great to hear new D4 Supervisor Katy Tang taking up the mantle left to her by Carmen Chu regarding fixing the problem of switchbacks on MUNI's LRV system.  Now, it appears she has a strong ally in Supervisor Cohen as well.

According to the San Francisco Examiner,
One neighborhood that has seen a significant increase in switchbacks is the Bayview district, which is represented by Supervisor Malia Cohen. There were 48 in January on the T-Third Street line, which runs from the Financial District to the Bayview and becomes the K-Ingleside line. That marked a 152 percent increase from December and the highest recorded total of any Muni line that month.
Cohen said the number of switchbacks in her community is astronomically high, and because many Bayview residents are disenfranchised or marginalized, it’s difficult for them to make their opinions known. She also noted that the overwhelming majority of switchbacks on the T-Third line occur at Armstrong Avenue, which is sparsely populated and far from the southern terminus of the line. 
“I’m joining with Supervisor Tang in this battle,” Cohen said. “We think it’s time for Muni to abandon or at least significantly cut back on these switchbacks.”
Documents obtained from SFMTA show that on the KT line, there was a more than doubling of switchbacks occurring at the Armstrong location mentioned by Supervisor Cohen.  Overall, according to SFMTA's data, from Oct 2011 to Jan 2012, there were 171 switchbacks on the KT line alone.  During the same time period, October 2012 to Jan 2013, there were 154.   As a rider, I would not call that much of an improvement.

Switchbacks, Feb 2012: Source SFMTA
Switchbacks, Jan 2013: Source SFMTA
Switchbacks by Line, Oct 2011 - Feb 2012: Source SFMTA

Switchbacks by Line, Feb 2012 - Jan 2013: Source SFMTA

Last year, the Civil Grand Jury wrote a scathing report entitled "BETTER MUNI SERVICE NEEDED, WITHOUT SWITCHBACKS".  MUNI whined and moaned about it not being accurate, but for those of us time and again left out in the rain on a platform in the middle of nowhere (yes, Marin St on the T-Third is such a place) during our rush hour commute home after a long day at work, you know the grand jury's report to be accurate.  What is weird is that this location doesn't show up once in SFMTA's numbers presented to the BoS.  This leads me to believe that they're skewing their numbers, calling switchbacks by something else in these instances so that they can artificially improve their switchback numbers.

In October of last year, the Grand Jury's Sharon Gadbury spoke to the SF Board of Supervisor's Government Audit and Oversight Committee:

"We in fact suspected and later convinced that the way muni was using and justifying switchbacks as a tool to regulate service -- that's in quotes, was a blatant breach of the public's trust. The schedules are a promise made by muni to the riders and switchbacks break that promise. We disagree emphatically with the words of muni executive director and passengers have no right to expect that muni's vehicle will complete the route they're riding on announcing muni has no obligation whatsoever to follow the routes it has advertised to riders is brazen statement disavowing the moral and legal obligations of the transportation system. We believe that the muni schedules are a legal and moral contract between the system and its riders and breaching the contract violates the trust of the riders and their ability to rely on the system to carry out their daily lives in the city.
And using switchbacks as a tool muni is deliberately violating rider trust deciding one group of passengers who are riding a bus or train must disrupt their trip and disembark and wait for the next one so the vehicles don't clunk or another line can carry more passengers. In order to smooth traffic the bus or train leaves the route. It's two fold. It eliminates the late bus or train that is actually causing the clumping and so slow it's in way of the others on the line and it improves the on time record because the slow bus or train is no longer operating. It's great for muni. Not so great for the left behind passengers. We're not sure when muni decided to deploy operational switch backs in its system but in early 2011 muni passengers began to complain about switchbacks that left them strandd and waiting on strange platforms in the city.
According to their own statistics about 41,000 riders a month were left on the street because of switchbacks. We were told switchbacks were implemented in the absence of clumping whenever a bus or train was needod another run. This means that the abandoned riders walk to their destination or waited often in the cold and dark and possibly rain until another bus or metro car arrived. We were shocked and amazing to learn as far as muni officials were concerned this provided after overall benefit to passengers because the vehicles were being deployed where they were needed most.
Plans for the future of muni included more switchbacks, not fewer as muni now claims. What makes this report more germane is the fact that is muni's 100 anniversary to commemorate the mile stone they adopted the logo "the people's system". It seems if you're going to be the people's system you need to live up to this on lofty label. My fellow jurors that worked on the report will focus on the findings. The first findings find that the switchbacks violate the san francisco charter and guarantees safe and reliable transit service to riders.
During this time muni management continued to insist that using switchbacks as a traffic smoothing tool was good for the majority passengers, yet digging deeper the civil grand jury discovered in fact that the muni had no evidence one way or another about the use or abuse of switchbacks. This was because as many managers repeatedly told us switch backs are commonly and frequently used in other transportation systems around the world. According to one manager" they're part of transportation 101 and a basic tool for traffic". Did they spend up buss and trains? did they make service more reliable? As it was clear muni was not interested in our investigation we asked muni officials for names of the other systems that use switchbacks for other emergency situations.
They respond they couldn't name such systems and they didn't need to because they knew for a fact "all other systems use switch backs in this way". After hearing the same answer for the ten months of ourinvestigation we were taken aback in August, 2012, just a few months ago, to read in the newspaper that muni reported that they interviewed five other systems and found that they all used switchbacks to smooth traffic. In September of 2011 we decided if muni would not provide us with other transit agencies to speak to we would have to find them ourselves. Fortunately the san francisco controller did a study and comparing muni to five other systems these cities included boston, seattle, new york, oakland and san jose or santa clara mta. They all had higher scores than muni. Muni was on the bottom. We included bart. Since they said other systems did it we decided to look at the systems in paris france. It took months to identify the right officials and in this case either the head of operations or the systems schedulinger all but one which was new york agreed to an extensive interview by two of us and per the rules we were not identified. Nevertheless of the interviews as described in the report were significant. All transit systems it became clear had multiple systems that were similar and had challenges and all needed to deal with complex traffic, scheduling, and terrain problems uniquely their own, and yet as we had known the san francisco controller's survey had shown all had higher reliability and rider seaferz than muni and we determined that all systems use switchbacks they only did so in cases of equipment break down or emergencies except for one. one system which happened to be the santa clara mta does use switch backs and interestingly enough their head is the former employee of muni, michael burns, who was a former employee and went to work for them. As you supervisors May remember he was the one that took bonuses for all sorts of things he really wasn't able to do for muni and increasing time and got these bonuses. What also struck us was the amazement of the operation officers if they employed switchbacks? What we heard over and over again are the comments that swism backs were an insult to riders. They also pointed out that switchbacks couldn't speed up traffic because of the time boarding and deboarding. What struck home was the attitude of the managers in their own system. In virtually all cases they took responsibility for ensuring the responsibility of the system and work improve their services and rider surveys and constantly adjusting their schedules. I under line that. Constantly adjusting their schedules. Virtually everyone told us schedules was the most effective tool and many felt the additional time to load and unload vehicles slowed service.
The managers that we interviewed also volunteered that the daily actions and programs taken guaranteed that service was reliable and all were under surkaled budgets and these solutions need to be cost effective. We were impressed with the cado attitude of management and staff and make sure that needs were met and some ininstituted apps and allows passages to see where vehicles were at all times and other coordinated lights to speed up service. We came away convinced if muni instituted a portion of those suggestions there could be increase in the speed of the system and rider satisfaction as well as lower cost. Coming away from the interviews we were eegtory show our findings with muni to see how many suggestions would be tried. Unfortunately when jurors attempted to engage with muni as per our charter responsibility we were met with stale rhetoric and managers had speeches and suggested the problems were impossible to fix and not in the term of our time.
Next we were allowed to negotiate with officials and ask a meeting with the scheduling muni manager. We were told that position was currently empty. Adding insult to injury it wasn't midpoint in the investigation that we came across a statement from them and tep and transit effective project and shared with us and compleated in 2008 and list of solutions similar to those proposed by transportation consultants with whom we spoke.  The muni managers we finally did speak with shared the fact that the 2008tep plan has been halted to budgetary concerns and was now only being partially implemented. In our report we acknowledge the resurrection of 2008tep as a step forward from muni and encouraged the expansion of it to speed up muni and ways to avoid switchbacks.
In summary the 2011-2012 grand jury conducted a survey of other systems and four of which had higher rider satisfaction ratings than muni. We found that the use of switchbacks was not a commonly used practice of all systems and rejected by the managers who felt they're an sult to passengers and rather the other systems use variety and easy and low cost practices to ensure rider satisfaction.  Many are similar to those identified in muni's 2008 effectiveness transit project. Unfortunately although it has been resurrected it hasn't been updated and recommendations are only being implemented selectively. 

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