San Francisco: “The Fuse Has Been Lit”

Updated Jan 16

The next round of San Francisco service cuts have been announced, or as commenter Ted King puts it, “the fuse has been lit.”  For local coverage see the SF Chronicle and Streetsblog SF.

Here are some of the most interesting points from the budget summary (via Streetsblog, not the Chronicle):

Although the budget hole to be closed is $16.9m, the service cuts are only $4.8m.  That’s impressive.  They achieve so much non-service savings by a whole pile of cuts to other things, designed to have wide but manageable impacts.  Labor takes a ping: not just 0.7m in “concessions,” but also charges for parking at the workplace.  (Since a huge share of the drivers report to work around 4:30 in the morning, many don’t have good transit options.)

The service cuts are all frequency cuts, and they affect every single line.  Unlike the first round of cuts, which pruned and shaped the network by removing weak branches and segments, this round is intended to spread the pain without cutting anyone off entirely.  They’re even cutting peak-hour commuter services, with the exception of rail.  Here’s how they describe the increase in headways (elapsed time between consecutive trips on a line) by service type:

“Peak AM & PM”

Rapid & Express Bus: 1-2 minutes
Rapid Rail: No change
Local Bus: 1-5 minutes
Community Bus: 5-10 minutes

“Midday & Late Evening”

Rapid & Express Bus: 1-5 minutes
Rapid Rail: 1-5 minutes
Local Bus: 2-10 minutes
Community Bus: 5-10 minutes

Virtually everyone will wait a little longer, not just for their trip but also for any connections.  Crowding and pass-ups will get a little worse.

There’s a range of fare changes, of which the most interesting is the expansion of the range of “premium” fares.

There has long been a premium cash fare for cable cars (currently $5 instead of the standard fare of $2), because they are very expensive to operate and cater to tourists, but as compensation to the locals who rely on them, the cable cars accepted monthly passes at the standard rate.  Now, a premium monthly pass will be required.  The same more expensive pass will be required on “express” routes, which are mostly peak-only, one-way, and thus relatively inefficient.  This, like the frequency cut on those same services, will hit an especially high-end demographic.

DSCF9058 Most fascinating, to me, is the proposal to charge the premium cash fare ($5 instead of $2) to ride the F-Market & Wharves streetcar.  (Confusingly but understandably, they do not propose imposing the premium pass charge, so monthly pass users will see no impact.)  When the F was created, it was made very clear that this was not a tourist ride like the cable cars; it was to be an integral part of the network.  It replaced two bus lines (8-Market and 32-Embarcadero), and that was acceptable only because it was understood to be providing the same or better access at the same cost.

Now that deal’s changing. Cash passengers, at least, will pay something extra to ride a streetcar instead of a bus or subway, so we’ll start to see what value people attach to the streetcar’s distinctiveness and amenity.  (If you don’t know why I’m curious about this, see here.)

As it happens, many F riders have credible alternatives: most can walk to the metro subway stations along Market Street, and a few can walk to Haight Street buses.  But with the deletion of bus service along Battery/Sansome Streets in the last change, there’s really no good alternative for riders on the Embarcadero segment, including anyone traveling between the Financial District and Fisherman’s Wharf.   So people who need to make these trips will be hit with the higher fare whether they want to ride a streetcar or not.

If this change prevails, it’s a major conceptual shift in how San Francisco treats its historic streetcars.  And it will be interesting, too, to see what a dramatic fare penalty does to the 20% of the streetcar’s ridership that uses cash fares, especially along Market where there are alternatives.

This may well have large impacts on the viability of any extensions to the historic streetcar network.  With this fare change, the agency will be saying that the streetcars are conceptually like the cable cars.  The cable cars’ fundamental justification is the experience of riding them, not the transportation, and for this reason there is little serious prospect of extending them.  Is the same true of the historic streetcars now?

Finally, it’s important to say, over and over, that these huge cuts aren’t San Francisco’s doing; they’re the result of the combined effect of an overall economic downturn (which hits the sales taxes on which much California transit funding relies) and California’s profound budgetary and governance problems.  But nothing will be done about those problems until enough people feel the pain.

26 Responses to San Francisco: “The Fuse Has Been Lit”

  1. Pedestrianist January 16, 2010 at 1:08 pm #

    bad bad bad. I’m growing increasingly nervous that we’re facing our own SFMTA doomsday.
    It’s not that ‘enough people’ need to feel the pain, its that the people in charge need to. No amount of people and no amount of pain will change the budgetary priorities on SF unless the mayor and MTA board feels something as a result of this. With our mayor being chauffeured around town in his SUV, that’s not very likely. Newsom didn’t even mention Muni in his State of the City speech just the other day. For than man, Muni might as well be on the moon, because it’s not in his San Francisco at all.

  2. Alon Levy January 16, 2010 at 1:34 pm #

    Is SF pulverizing any clockface schedule patterns, as Portland did in its service cut to 17-minute headways?

  3. anonymouse January 16, 2010 at 1:53 pm #

    I don’t think SF ever really had clockface schedules or particularly regular headways, and schedule adherence is so poor that it rarely matters anyway. And as far as the day to day functioning of SF is concerned, the Mayor might as well be on the moon, because that couldn’t possibly make ol’ football bat Gavin any less useful.

  4. Jarrett January 16, 2010 at 2:23 pm #

    @Alon. SF’s service are mostly so frequent that clockface headways don’t arise. The “community bus” services, small feeder routes that penetrate hard-to-serve hilly areas, have typically been every 20-30 and I’m sure they’ll retain some legible pattern.
    @Pedestrianist. I disagree that Mayor Newsom is the only one who needs to feel the pain, or even the most important one. California’s governance problems need to be fixed, and that will only happen if everyone is feeling enough pain. Local activists should be fixating on state government, not city government. If you need to blame someone, blame Arnie, though the blame really belongs to three decades of voters passing initiatives.

  5. rhywun January 16, 2010 at 3:26 pm #

    Muni Meltdown II. I lived there during the last meltdown, around 1997, and I remember the 38 Geary being routinely too crowded to stop for anyone. Fun times.

  6. Pedestrianist January 16, 2010 at 5:39 pm #

    Oh, I lay plenty of blame on the governator, believe me. 🙂
    But there is a valid fight at City Hall. The SFMTA Board is entirely appointed by the mayor, and its chairman, Tom Nolan, freely admits he caters to Newsom’s political whims rather than following our City Charter (
    por ejemplo, the board killed a recommendation to increase parking meter rates and hours at Newsom’s urging. That increase was projected to raise a net of around $9 million for the SFMTA, which is damn close to the price tag they put on these cuts as well as December’s cambios significantes combined.
    Trimming of inefficient routes aside, Muni could use that money to avoid painful cuts and actually improve service. And the SFMTA Board is bound by the Charter to ‘diligently seek new revenue sources for Muni.’ Rejecting revenue sources like that is a violation of the Charter – the same document that gives the mayor his executive power.

  7. Jarrett at January 16, 2010 at 5:56 pm #

    Not just the governator, but the initiative and budgeting system.  This pain has got to turn into serious efforts to get a constitutional convention focused on governance and budgeting issues.  It's not in any governor's power to fix.

  8. Danny January 16, 2010 at 8:34 pm #
    Welcome to San Francisco, the worst run big city in the US.

  9. Ted King January 16, 2010 at 11:11 pm #

    The F-Market fare increase makes little sense due to that line’s lack of uniqueness. Dozens of other communities have similar operations (see below) running or under development. When it started it was a fancy toy – a few rare cars trotted out when they felt like it (one car seems to have been reserved as a retriever for other rail cars [LRV/PCC/etc.]). It grew into a standard service and with the mini-TEP of 5 Dec.’09 it achieved lifeline status.
    I hope that they have a fall back position where they might charge an extra dollar ($1 US) for upkeep / historic preservation. That would make sense and not leave too sour a taste in one’s mouth. Personally I take the F-Market for convenience. I can see a lot of people saying “SCREW YOU MUNI” and either diving underground to the Metro or going home instead of staying downtown to shop. That’s right – the retro F-Market is a short-haul reliever for the modern Metro.
    Vintage Streetcar
    FYI – When I’m in downtown S.F. I rarely head straight home. Instead I travel via SFMuni’s Metro to the Embarcadero station platform to avoid the crush loading that usually occurs two (Powell) or three (Civic Center) stations down the line.
    P.S. The Market Street Subway (aka MSS, Embarcadero to Castro inclusive) is a monument to cheese-paring. I’ve only been able to spot one stubby tail track in its entire length for both BART and SFMuni. It’s only long enough for some sort of maintenance-of-way (MOW) vehicle (diagram below). As you exit the SFMuni’s Van Ness Stn. outbound look to your left to catch a glimpse. Consider the implications and the impact of a crippled train on this Manx-style subway.
    SFMuni Subway (MSS+TPT) Control Board

  10. M1EK January 18, 2010 at 6:58 am #

    You know, this is going to sound a bit like heresy, but what the hell:
    “Muni Meltdown II. I lived there during the last meltdown, around 1997, and I remember the 38 Geary being routinely too crowded to stop for anyone. Fun times.”
    Doesn’t this argue that the fares are far, far, far too low on this service? I mean, come on; at SOME point we have to admit this, right?

  11. John January 18, 2010 at 10:36 am #

    With this fare change, the agency will be saying that the streetcars are conceptually like the cable cars. The cable cars’ fundamental justification is the experience of riding them, not the transportation, and for this reason there is little serious prospect of extending them. Is the same true of the historic streetcars now?

    I think the higher price for the F streetcar has less to do with the differences between the vehicles or the service, and more to do with the differences between passengers. To me this looks like price discrimination. They’re trying to squeeze more money out of the tourists who frequent the line. That’s why an express premium pass won’t be required.

  12. Totello Ui January 18, 2010 at 11:39 am #

    What’s the probelem? These problems should have been fixed years ago. The F-Line is a joke, it is LITERALLY faster to walk so I don’t mind hammering the idiot tourists.
    The only thing that bothers me is the union. All drivers should get a 10% pay cut and management should get cut 20% – that’s the reality of budget cuts, not screwing the riders.

  13. Alon Levy January 18, 2010 at 5:58 pm #

    Deflation is not good for the economy. If everyone takes a pay cut, then nothing’s changed except that people’s debts are worth more, which is bad for future economic growth.

  14. Jarrett January 18, 2010 at 7:00 pm #

    @John. Price discrimination against tourists is popular in all cities. From a local perspective, it’s not even controversial. Local voters can always agree that local non-voters should pay more.
    The more interesting issue is that this F surcharge also hits local cash-paying riders, and on some segments, notably north Embarcadero, those riders don’t have a non-surcharged optoin.

  15. EngineerScotty January 18, 2010 at 7:20 pm #

    Well, rich people make off like a bandit when deflation occurs; but your average homeowner, whose net cash balance is negative (money in the bank minus outstanding debt) gets screwed.

  16. John January 19, 2010 at 6:28 am #

    It’s pretty common for agencies to raise fares for cash-paying riders too.
    CTA bus fares are $2.25 for cash users and $2.00 for smart card users. Even tougher for cash users, they have to pay another $2.25 for a transfer (change) while card users pay $0.25 for the first transfer and nothing for the second (within two hours).
    Metra charges a $2 surcharge for anyone who didn’t buy a pass before getting on the train (assuming a ticket agent was available at the station). This is not well publicized and always upsets a few unsuspecting non-regular riders coming out of downtown.
    Obviously, the SF plan encourages cash users to switch to monthly passes, which will decrease dwell times and therefore save money. I understand that some people will be upset though. A jump from $2 to $5 is a hell of a fare increase.

  17. Jarrett at January 19, 2010 at 2:24 pm #

    @John. Smartcards (not yet available in SF) are a little different because once you have one, you can use them to make spontaneous non-commute trips. San Francisco would be requiring this fare surcharge of anyone who wants to go to the area served only by the F, unless that person goes there so regularly as to have a monthly pass.
    Convenience for spontaneous trips is a crucial feature in transit systems that want to be a primary mode for their city, and essential to the city’s life.

  18. John January 19, 2010 at 3:00 pm #

    This article says the Translink Card is usable on Muni. Is that inaccurate?

  19. Jarrett at January 19, 2010 at 3:18 pm #

    I admit I’m not 100% clear on fares paid via the Smartcard (formerly “Translink”, now “Clipper”) differ from cash fares for a single ride. I was assuming that the fare is the same because that’s the usual practice. Can a local help us out here?

  20. calwatch January 19, 2010 at 10:04 pm #

    Although currently Translink fares (and it is still Translink – they haven’t changed the name yet –;jsessionid=cyUVpTD9bVRnLuRIHTmIZA** – are the same as the cash fare, Muni could easily adopt the practice used by Golden Gate Ferry, where Translink customers get the “locals” fare while everyone else pays the “tourist” fare. Ultimately, Muni should go to a paperless system, although most agencies are hesitant to do so because of hiccups with the fare system. The one fare system that I found worked well was the Puget Sound ORCA. Everyone else either has agencies not reading transfers properly, agencies not accepting smart cards as fare media, or agencies not reading e-cash properly. Puget Sound, of course, has had experience with the Puget Pass and transfer upgrades are relatively straightforward – contrast that with LA where base value is a question when you are riding on services with express charges over base fare.

  21. Ted King January 22, 2010 at 10:15 pm #

    More on TransLink :
    I have heard that SFMuni is considering a mid-2010 switch to TransLink and killing off the Fast Passes. The problems I have with switching to the smart card are due to a lack of outreach and transparency.
    Outreach) The TransLink pages linked to below do NOT go far enough. The third one, SFMuni fares, doesn’t cover the possibility of an SF resident who never rides BART outside of SF. So will that person’s e-pass (type “A”), with no e-cash loaded, still work ? That needs to be stated explicitly. Also, the negative e-cash balance lockout (#3’s Fast Pass section, first paragraph) seems excessive. It would be nice for them to say why they have such a lockout. They also need to have more payment scenarios (e.g. SFMuni pass + BART High Value + e-cash or Samtrans pass + e-cash).
    Transparency) How does one deal with card problems without using TransLink’s customer service people ? Do the Add Value machines have a last-5 / last-10 transactions function like some ATM’s ? If one wants to see one’s transaction history (purchases and rides) where does one go ?
    P.S. Here’s another area of concern – Privacy. How much of your transaction history is retained and for how long ? If a search warrant for those records is served do they have a policy of notifying the card-holder ? Personally speaking, I would bite the $5 US (five dollar) card fee bullet and have two or more cards so that my travel history is not tied to one account.

  22. anonymouse January 23, 2010 at 10:31 pm #

    Privacy is definitely an issue with Translink. They really REALLY want you to “register” your card and attach your name to it, which is what makes things like autoload possible, but it is certainly possible not to do that and just buy the card anonymously with cash and only refill it with cash, which is in fact what I’ve done with mine. There are also some issues with the fare systems: for example it doesn’t support zone upgrades on Caltrain, so if you have a Zone 3&4 pass, and tag the card for a zone 4 to zone 2 trip, it’ll charge you full price for that trip. Instead, you’re supposed to purchase a paper zone upgrade, and present both that and your translink card to the conductor, which is just silly.

  23. Ted King January 28, 2010 at 4:42 pm #

    More bad news from the SFMuni :
    P.S. The F-Market fare increase has been pulled according to the above article.

  24. Ted King January 28, 2010 at 4:56 pm #

    Links to more details are in this SFAppeal article :

  25. Art Busman January 29, 2010 at 3:38 pm #

    The San Francisco cable car is a joke. When I took it, there was a ridiculous line to board at both ends, and there IS NO BOARDING along the route, because the cars are always full. This is a prime example of supply and demand. The price of $5 is too low. It is truly a tourist attraction, and if I did not have to wait in line and could board along the route, I would pay a much higher premium, $15 for an all day pass maybe even $20.

  26. Ted King March 6, 2010 at 1:29 pm #

    6 Mar 2010 – Blog post at :
    “How to fix Muni: Two views”