Newly appointed District 4 Supervisor Katy Tang has announced that she plans to work to reduce the number of switchbacks encountered by Muni riders. A switchback refers to Muni’s annoying and all-too-common practice of stopping a train or bus short of its destination and ordering off all passengers to await another vehicle.
Muni says it has to do this to get vehicles going in the opposite direction, toward downtown, when routes become backed up. This issue is especially important to residents of District 4, because outlying neighborhoods like the Sunset are disproportionately targeted for such passenger dumping.
If Tang can solve this issue, she deserves to be the mayor. Switchbacks have been the subject of complaint, ire and inquiry for years.
After all, Tang’s predecessor and former boss, Carmen Chu, called a hearing on the issue in January 2011. Supervisor John Avalos called another one in March 2011 and a civil grand jury report titled “Better Muni Service Needed, Without Switchbacks” was released in June. And yet Muni keeps bringing Switchy back.
In October 2011, Muni reported that it engages in 200 to 440 switchbacks each month. In 2010, there were 376 switchbacks on the N-Judah line alone. Muni representatives will tell you that this is a small percentage of the overall number of trips it makes, but as transit blogger Greg Dewar pointed out at the January 2011 hearing, “We shouldn’t be punishing just the west side, saying, ‘Well, it’s just a few percentage points, it’s not that big a deal.’ No. It is a big deal if you expect us to use it.”
Indeed, Avalos, whose district also includes outlying areas of The City, was appalled at how this practice undermines our transit-first policy.
“We’re not going to be able to ask people to get out of their cars and get on buses,” he said. “We can’t expect them to do it if they don’t have the service.”
John Haley, transit director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, typically explains that switchbacks are unavoidable and necessary. But at a hearing on the civil grand jury report, the Board of Supervisors agreed with the jury’s depressing finding that, “There is not statistical or other evidence that switchbacks alleviate delays or improve scheduling.”
Haley also argued that it was department policy to only throw people overboard when there is another train or bus that is five minutes away. But after several riders testified that they had waited much longer, Haley admitted that he had no statistics about actual wait times.
“I feel really angry about how unprepared you are,” Avalos fumed. “It’s like you’re not even listening to us.”
Muni claims that it has made grand progress because now it actually notifies riders when the route will be cut short. But as Chu said in January 2011, “Better communication is not a solution to the problem. It’s something that we should have been doing to begin with.”
Added Avalos: “Just the fact that they’re happening is problematic.”
And that was two years ago. Godspeed, Supervisor Tang. But possibly not on the N-Judah.
Melissa Griffin’s column runs each Thursday and Sunday. She also appears Mondays in “Mornings with Melissa” at 6:45 a.m. on KPIX (Ch. 5). Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Supervisor John Avalos on the passing of Hugo Chavez, president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. For those of you who have a difficult time explaining San Francisco politics to out-of-towners, this is another moment to share with your friends.