Muni has made big inroads on line turnbacks 

It can be a frustrating experience for Muni riders — the train stops short of the end of the line and drops them off, leaving them to wait for another vehicle to come along.

A civil grand jury report just slammed the transit agency for the use of such “switchbacks,” recommending that Muni eliminate the practice “except for breakdowns, accidents, or unavoidable emergencies.” This recommendation may sound like music to the ears of Muni riders, but, like most issues, it is more complex than that.

Muni is a cash-strapped service with an aging, breakdown-prone fleet that has worked to trim back overtime spending by not replacing operators on lines. Yet despite such challenges, it has managed to reduce the number of unscheduled switchbacks since the beginning of the year, when there were 264 in January.

When the issue first arose, one of the big complaints was that riders were often dropped off without any notice and when there wasn’t necessarily another vehicle coming along anytime soon. After several hearings at City Hall, Muni instituted a system meant to warn riders, including announcements and proper signage on the vehicles. Muni also said it would not engage in switchbacks unless there was another vehicle arriving within five minutes.
That system is not perfect, and either through operator error or negligence, unannounced switchbacks still occur. But Muni reduced the number of systemwide switchbacks to just 82 in July.

In its response to the civil grand jury report, the agency said other improvements are in the works to better warn riders about switchbacks. And improvements designed to reduce the need for switchbacks by better managing systemwide traffic are also underway.

When viewed through the lens of a Muni rider whose travel has been interrupted due to a switchback, the civil grand jury report makes sense. But from another rider’s perspective, when there are insufficient trains or buses to serve a line, thereby also stranding passengers, removing some vehicles from one line make sense, even if it means turning one around before it reaches the end of the line.

Rider frustration is understandable, but based on the improvements Muni has made since the beginning of this year, the agency deserves more time to continue improving the system.

The report also criticizes Muni for not using technology to manage system traffic and reduce the need for switchbacks. The lack of technological improvements to better manage the system is well-documented, but when the price tag to purchase new equipment is discussed, many naysayers talk about throwing more money at a dysfunctional system. The time has come for city officials to back the idea of special funding for Muni that can be dedicated to technological system improvements.

The civil grand jury report and the larger issue of frustrating switchbacks are both tangible examples of what failing to institute real change at Muni means for riders.

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