San Francisco: Those Service Cuts Were Fun! Let’s (not) Do It Again!

In posts here and here (with leftovers here), I praised the way San Francisco MTA crafted the budget-driven service cuts that went into effect last month. By deleting whole lines and line segments that had alternative services nearby, they managed to reduce service without reducing many people’s abundant access. So the implementation went fairly well.

Unfortunately, it looks like more cuts will be needed in 2010, made worse by Governor Schwarzenegger’s raids on state transit funding. So it’s understandable but distressing to hear the MTA Board’s conversation going along these lines:

Board members were heartened by the generally positive reception that the public outreach for the December 2009 service changes received, prompting director Malcolm Heinicke to wonder whether additional “planned and efficient service cuts” might be better than “de facto” service cuts through position elimination. “I don’t want to cut service. I think that’s something close to last resort,” said Heinicke. “But I also don’t want us to forget that in order to close a budget gap, we cut service [in December 2009] in a very efficient and very well publicized manner, and it actually went pretty well.”


Talking point, to be repeated ad nauseam: The fact that service cuts went well is not a reason to believe the next ones will!  Quite the opposite!

Normally, at moments like this, we hear the tired budgeting metaphor about fat and bone. Yes, they’ve trimmed the fat, but if they have to cut more they’ll be cutting into the bone. (For some reason, there’s never any meat between the fat and the bone in this metaphor, nor many brain cells for that matter.)

Apple_spur_M_D_Vaden I much prefer the metaphor of the transit network as a plant, because a good network redesign often involves some pruning, especially if service has to be reduced. All those overlapping but locally loved services are a lot like what happens to a plant that hasn’t been shaped. It grows too many stems too close together. These stems compete for the limited nutrients and light, and thus none of them has the chance to grow into a healthy trunk. So you have to pick a stem to encourage and cut out the others that compete with it. That’s exactly what the San Francisco cuts did.

But that’s done. If more cuts are required, they’ll have to cut into the trunk, for example by reducing frequencies or service spans on routes that have no competition, and where the customer therefore has no alternatives. This is bad for the customer, bad for the network, bad for the tree.

The budget situation looks dire, so some regrettable weakening cuts are already on the way. But the Board that has to make them should understand the metaphor at work. Staff did a great job of pruning the tree. It looks healthier now. If you need more taken out, we’re going to have to start lopping off larger branches, or worse, cutting 10% out of each and every branch. After that, the tree’s going to look worse. It might even go into shock.

AFTERTHOUGHT:  There is, of course, another way to kill a plant.  Prune it nicely but then don’t give it the water and nutrients it needs.  Heinicke’s reference to “de facto” cuts refers to all the ways that generalized cutting of staff without specific cuts to service can cause the whole system to run less reliably and efficiently.  It’s tempting, for example, to cut road supervisors rather than drivers, but when you do that, accidents and mechanical problems take longer to recover from, and minor disruptions can turn into big disruptions.  Staff is also needed to monitor MTA’s commitment to overall quality.

So I don’t want to appear to endorse “de facto cuts.”  Those can be worse.  If they have to cut, I hope there will still be a hard look at whether any sort-of-strong branches should be removed so as to avoid having to damage most of the others.  There are still some places in the network where parallel lines are close together, though some of these are complicated by topography and affect large numbers of people.  Still, the easy ones to remove are gone now; the ones that remain are harder, but maybe the need to cut will push MTA to take on the harder ones.  Meanwhile, though, the Board shouldn’t imagine that another round of service cuts will be as pleasant as the last.  They won’t be.

Photo by MD Vaden via Wikipedia

6 Responses to San Francisco: Those Service Cuts Were Fun! Let’s (not) Do It Again!

  1. Pedestrianist January 8, 2010 at 11:36 am #

    From your lips to the MTA Board’s ears!
    One note to point out: the cambios significantes, widely acknowledged to be the largest change to the system in 30 years, only saved around $3 million. The budget hole this year is definitely upward of $25 million and could be much, much more.
    Even if cambios that are equally significante are put in place again, there still needs to be major new revenue sources, and IMHO the MTS Board should be focusing its efforts there.
    Not to mention the wasted effort and money spent on rider education, signage changes, driver training, etc. as a result of two major system changes within a year.

  2. Rhywun January 8, 2010 at 6:41 pm #

    Hmph. I still believe that large urban agencies like SF and NYC aren’t trying very hard to achieve actual cost savings when workers are getting generous raises on top of benefits packages that are unheard of in the real world, and the rest of us are getting… service cuts. This situation can’t last forever.

  3. EngineerScotty January 8, 2010 at 8:20 pm #

    That is an interesting point–for some reason, transit workers in many cities have wages, benefits, and working conditions FAR better than their peers (of equivalent skill level) in the private sector. One of the sad stories over the past thirty years is the decline of the situation of many private sector worries in much of the West, in particular the US. Now the situation seems to be in many places that public-sector unions are no longer viewed as beneficial, especially BY the working class. Labor probably has some blame for this situation–as many unskilled professions lost labor protection, the more skilled unions didn’t fight hard enough to assist their brethren. Now there aren’t many professions left with strong labor movements, and those that are left are widely regarded as parasites, often by the people who would benefit most from strong labor protection.

  4. calwatch January 9, 2010 at 2:29 am #

    The switch, then, is to contracted service, which has its own problems in this era of bus industry consolidation. In my experience, I have found that most transit contract managers are either overwhelmed, not interesting in doing their job properly, or both. On the other hand, with technology, you could issue franchises for individual routes and use GPS and crowd sourcing to allow the public to essentially act as the contract manager, by highlighting where buses don’t show up and either routing around those or by putting pressure on the contractor themselves through coordinated complaints.

  5. Ted King January 9, 2010 at 5:32 am #

    I would love to see a dollar figure for the implementation costs of the mini-TEP of 5 Dec.’09. The components would look something like this :
    1) Draw new maps (new route, route w/ changes, system);
    2) Prepare + print comprehensive documentation (including brochures and shelter maps);
    3) Update websites;
    4) Update shelters, poles, and paint (on streets and utility poles);
    5) Update NextMuni control table (feeds signs at many shelters);
    6) Distribute brochures via libraries, vehicles, and “ambassadors” (boots-on-pavement);
    7) Brief drivers on new routes (may have included orientation rides);
    8) Have the annunciator robot re-recorded (supposedly in Texas) including a tri-lingual (English, Spanish, Chinese) on “Der Tag”;
    9) Create a new route/destination sign module (electronic);
    10) Update the buses with modules from #8 + #9;
    11) Deploy chasers to sweep the dead spots for several days.
    I don’t think I left out much from the above list. I’ve used SFMuni and several of its neighbors since I was barely big enough to climb on board. Things change over the years but it remains a leviathan with a myriad of interdependent parts. The transition team seems to have gone at the changes with near-Prussian thoroughness. There were glitches (e.g. some of the NextMuni signs didn’t show the “8X” route on Geneva Ave.) but the “Six Papas” credo was heeded.
    I suspect that the MTA board may face a double revolt if they try to make any more cuts. The requisite disclosure of salary data and recent fare hikes (see below) has the ridership simmering like an early stage Krakatoa. Further service cuts could push them to a late stage Krakatoa (revolt #1). And since SFMuni management and the MTA board are hidden away in their offices it would be the line troops (drivers, field supervisors, fare inspectors, etc.) who would be the accessible targets. That danger would get the line troops to raise hell (revolt #2).
    Six Papas = Proper Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance
    Adult Fares [effective – single ride / monthly pass(es)] :
    1 Jan.’09 – $1.50 / $45 (Muni + BART-in-SF)
    1 July ’09 – $2 / $55 (Muni + BART-in-SF)
    1 Jan.’10 – $2 / $60 (Muni only)/ $70 (Muni + BART-in-SF)
    P.S. The January, 2010 increase was NOT publicized in a timely manner. I wonder what kind of firestorm will erupt when the word gets around about the rest of 2010’s fare increases.

  6. Ted King January 16, 2010 at 1:47 am #

      The fuse has been lit :

    SFGate (aka S.F.Chronicle) –
    StreetsBlog S.F. edition –