Muni’s J-Church line is supposed to leave San Jose Avenue and Randall Street at 8:23 a.m. weekdays and arrive at the Civic Center station by 8:46 a.m.
But try explaining that to Gloria Corral.
She has firsthand knowledge of the unpredictability of one of Muni’s most problematic routes.
“If I have an important meeting downtown, I give myself at least 15 to 20 minutes leeway when I’m traveling on the J-Church,” the Noe Valley resident said. “You just never know what’s going on with that line.”
Unreliability and poor on-time performance are two of the most irksome problems for Muni’s some 700,000 daily passengers. Despite a 1999 voter mandate that it arrive on time at least 85 percent of the time, Muni has never even come close to that figure.
But before passengers bombard the help desk with frantic phone calls, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency officials want riders to know most delays are unavoidable and are related to each line’s traffic conditions, stop frequency and ridership patterns. Basically, they argue, the reliability of each line depends a lot on where it is and what the traffic is like.
Consider the 28-19th Avenue line, an important north-south route linking Daly City and the Marina. With a 62.9 percent on-time rate, it is one of Muni’s least reliable lines.
“The 28 Limited is great, but the regular lines are very slow,” passenger Alba Gutierrez said.
John Haley, the transit director for the SFMTA, said the demographics of that line play a role in its tardiness. Unlike lines where the majority of the passengers board at one end and leave at the other, the 28-19th Avenue connects several different neighborhoods.
Whether it is to BART, school, the mall or other destinations, riders are constantly coming and going.
Boarding patterns are not the only source of delay. The 54-Felton, an east-west bus that traverses southern neighborhoods, is unreliable for different reasons. Muni officials attribute its 51 percent on-time performance to the traffic conditions on the route.
“There is a stop sign every 2 feet on that route,” said Jim Kelly, the SFMTA’s deputy director of transit services. “It travels down real narrow streets and there are cars all over the place. You’re lucky to go over 1 mph.”
Muni’s on-time performance can even suffer from prompt service. Under a federally approved formula, buses more than one minute early or four minutes late are not considered “on time.” And on downtown express routes, that early benchmark can be troublesome.
The 1AX-California, which travels from the Financial District to the Richmond district, only stops occasionally in downtown. From there, it runs nonstop to Sixth Avenue and California Street.
“We could get our customers three minutes early to their stop, which I’m sure they really appreciate,” Kelly said. “But that means we’re 100 percent early and thus not ‘on time.’”
Perhaps as a result of this scheduling quirk, the 1AX has a 50.8 percent on-time rating.
During a two-month study late last year, the SFMTA reported 46 percent of its delays were the result of external factors such as accidents, double-parked vehicles and cars illegally traveling in transit-only lanes.
But Dave Snyder of the San Francisco Transit Riders Union is not buying those results. Since the 1999 merger of the Municipal Railway and the Department of Parking and Traffic, the SFMTA has had full oversight of all city transportation operations.
“They have control over capacity, they have control over how long it takes to board, they have control over how regularly the buses leave the terminal,” Snyder said. “There are agencies all over the world that have more passengers and that ride on street level and have a much better on-time performance rate than Muni.”
Transit Director Haley did concede his agency is fallible. Each day, nearly 12 percent of its operators miss work for unexplained reasons, a situation that sends officials scrambling for replacements. A missed run can impact the SFMTA on several levels, including expensive overtime pay.
Also, buses routinely break down and Muni lacks a way to move its passengers on and off such vehicles quickly. The Clipper card, the Bay Area’s new transit-payment system, is supposed to speed up boarding times, but Haley said there is room for improvement.
“The single biggest impediment to on-time performance is the fare transaction,” he said. “We need to find a way to expedite our boarding process.”
Haley said the key to improved performance is deploying more Clipper cards and exploring all-door boarding methods. Also, the agency recently established a line-management center to help Muni supervisors better assess their needs with real-time information.
And the SFMTA is cutting down on traffic snarls by increasing parking enforcement. Some lines now carry onboard cameras, which are used to cite double-parkers and drivers in transit-only lanes. Haley is even considering placing parking-control officers on buses to be able to immediately ticket motorists.
Other proposals would take some finessing. Bus stop consolidation, a goal of activists interested in speeding up service, is always contentious. Although some lines have stops every 200 feet, removing some usually brings howling complaints from riders.
“You have to show the individuals on these lines there is some benefit to eliminating their stop, and that can be hard,” Haley said.
In the end, while the SFMTA has a bevy of explanations for its shoddy on-time performance, that provides little solace to passengers waiting for their line to arrive.
“It’s terrible,” Francisco Ochoa said of the 23-Monterey (on-time rate: 59.6 percent). “I never trust the scheduling, and I usually find myself waiting 20 minutes for [a bus] to show up.”
In 1999, 60 percent of San Francisco voters approved a ballot measure to expand the powers of the Municipal Railway, an initiative contingent upon the agency’s transit vehicles achieving an 85 percent on-time performance rate.
More than 10 years later, the public is still waiting.
Passengers frustrated with Muni’s lack of progress only become more irritated when they look at the performance of its regional peers. BART recently clocked an on-time rate of 94.47 percent and Caltrain logged 95.8 percent.
However, those agencies do not have to deal with the chaotic street-level traffic most Muni vehicles encounter.
John Haley, the director of transit service for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, understands the public’s frustration, but he questioned the achievability of the 85 percent on-time rate.
“I completely know where they’re coming from and I want that 85 percent rate too,” Haley said. “But there are not a whole lot of systems out there like ours, with different modes of transportation. I mean, how do you equally evaluate the performance of the 1-California with a cable-car line?”
Haley said he would like separate on-time performance rates for Muni’s different modes, which include cable cars, trolley buses and light-rail vehicles.
“I don’t think changing the goal is right, because it’s good to have benchmarks out there,” he said. “It would be nice to not have a one-size-fits-all category. But as long as that’s out there, we’re going to do our best to meet that goal.”
While such a policy shift is unlikely to happen, Haley said he plans to audit the 10 worst-performing lines to see what can be done to improve their reliability.
Muni performance compared to other Bay Area transit systems, in on-time performance:
Muni (systemwide): 72.00%
Muni trolley coach buses: 75.80%
Muni cable cars: 72.50%
Muni light-rail vehicles: 71.20%
Muni motor coach buses: 69.40%
* From most recent fiscal quarter
Sources: SFMTA, BART, Caltrain
Winners and losers from Muni’s on-time performance ratings, by rate*:
1AX-California Express: 50.8%
9BX-San Bruno Express: 55.4%
80X-Gateway Express: 90.0%
81X-Caltrain Express: 88.9%
28L-19th Avenue: 88.8%
* From fiscal year 2009-2010