Population growth in San Francisco creates challenges for transit

By Chris Spahr

A recent long-term transit strategy proposal by San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (Muni) Director Ed Reiskin aims to cut travel times on some bus and light rail routes in half.  However, this is far from the first time an idea like this has been proposed and many of the previous efforts involved controversial measures that would reduce the number of transit stops.

In 2011, Muni carried 700,000 riders a day and was the slowest public transit system in the nation based on data provided by major metropolitan transit systems. Muni buses and trains average eight miles per hour and much of the slow speed is attributed to the large number of transit stops.

This pokiness doesn’t come without a cost. In a report released on May 28, Muni calculated that peak-hour delays caused economic losses of $4.2 million for the month of April—an approximate $50 million annual loss for the city of San Francisco. Most of the delays can be attributed to maintenance issues, while about 14% of the delays are considered operational.

Director Reiskin’s proposal is a result of predictions for rapid population growth over the next 20 to 30 years in San Francisco.  City officials are estimating an additional 100,000 households and 190,000 jobs. This type of growth requires efficient and sustainable transportation options. But without reducing transit stops, and with few details from Muni’s Director, it is difficult to imagine how travel times will be reduced significantly.

Outside the city, some private companies have funded private buses to ensure that their workforce has efficient transportation options.  Many Silicon Valley companies including Apple, Google, Facebook, and eBay offer transportation to their employees in Wi-Fi equipped private buses. And the newest private bus company, Leap Transit, is adding another interesting transit option for San Francisco. The Leap shuttle, which currently only operates in the Marina neighborhood, allows a person to use an iPhone app to order a ride that will leave from a designated stop and transport the rider downtown in the morning and back to the Marina neighborhood in the evening. In addition to being an on-demand service, Leap has an advantage in that it offers leather seats, on board Wi-Fi, and a cashless payment system.   While press accounts claim that private transit providers such as Leap will create competition for public transit agencies, this may be an idea that reduces the strain on Muni and helps San Francisco’s transit system operate more efficiently.

Chris Spahr is a Graduate Assistant with SSTI.