The only thing more frustrating than a long wait for Muni today might be the knowledge that 70 years ago in San Francisco, that wait was much shorter. The numbers on this are simple. The reasons are more complex — and require going back to those glory transit days of the 1940s.
You can compare your average peak or midday Muni time versus those of various decades by using the tool below designed by Chris Arvin, a product designer in San Francisco with an affinity for public transportation. Arvin also built interactive historic streetcar maps of the Bay Area.
Or, you can scroll through our slideshow at the top of this article for a look at how base (midday) wait times have grown for lines since the ’30s – we note the ones that used to be streetcars or have been renamed. The comparisons aren’t perfect and routes have changed somewhat – the 49 Van Ness, for example, is similar to the line once taken by the H Potrero streetcar – but they still hold true for the most part.
The wait times between arrivals, also called headways, come from various sources, as Muni didn’t release its own timetables until the 1970s. Arvin recently found unofficial times for 1932 lines (before Muni consolidated all the lines) via “Candrian’s Double Indexed A-Z Street Guide of San Francisco,” available at the San Francisco Public Library.
The 1949 data, part of a report on Muni prepared for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, is much more detailed and available online. It includes peak, off-peak and base (midday) headways for each line.
Data sources and page scans for the various years can be found here. We also include each line’s most recent on-time percentages, most of which are well below the 85 percent goal set in a city charter.
The average minimum a.m. peak-time headway for all lines in 1949 was 4.5 minutes – in 2019, at last check, it’s 8.9 minutes (97.7 percent longer). Evening peak minimum wait times are 5.4 minutes longer now (117.3 percent longer), and minimum base headways are 3.1 minutes longer – that last figure is a 42 percent increase from 1949, and more than double the unofficial 1932 times.
That’s a maddening increase, but this train left the station decades ago (pun intended). By 1973, when renegade bus driver Robert Morley was publishing line-by-line schedules because Muni still hadn’t, wait times were up about 1.5 minutes on average. By 1993, peak headways were up another minute, and since 2003 we’ve been enduring about the same sluggish wait times: 8 to 10 minutes at peak hours on average.
Sit tight, though, because there are a lot of other numbers that factor into this slowdown. Let’s go back to 1947, when San Francisco’s population was around 775,000.
Muni had just bought the larger Market Street Railway and all its vehicles, more than doubling its fleet and routes. Voters that year passed a series of bond measures to improve transit and traffic, including conversions of streetcars to buses. The city was more densely concentrated than now, making a downtown-focused grid more efficient.
According to the 1949 report, Muni had a combined 896 vehicles operating during peak hours. In 2018, with the San Francisco population up to 885,000, Muni reported having 850 vehicles for the same hours. Muni has since replaced older, smaller PCC streetcars with larger light rail vehicles and double-sized buses, but it still has to deal with a 14 percent growth in population just within the city limits since then.
In October 1948, Muni had 18,364,504 total riders. In May 2018, it was 22.5 million.
“When you get to World War II, when Muni brought the last private carrier, you had probably the best service ever,” said Angelo Figone, who was in charge of Muni scheduling in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
Figone notes that in 1979, Muni began shifting to a grid structure that focused less on downtown and more on crosstown service with Muni Metro. And indeed, when you add up the K, L, and M, lines, a the 10-minute average wait for one of them to the Outer Sunset can be much shorter.
“When the N Judah two-car LRV train comes out of the Sunset in the afternoon and stops on Carl and Cole, that train probably has close to 300 people on it,” Figone said. “The majority are walking toward Haight Street. They’re going home. Years ago they would have been riding all those Haight Street buses.
“The good news is when the Muni Metro is operating reliably, you can ride from Montgomery all the way to Carl and Cole and make your seven- or eight-minute walk to Page, and you’ll be home at the same time it took on old Haight Street buses. That’s the trade-off. It’s not gonna be any more pleasurable and you’re gonna walk seven minutes where you might have walked three minutes. But the travel time would be less.”
But other routes suffered as a result of the change. And that, combined with budget shortfalls and an aging fleet, contributed to increasingly longer wait times from the 1980s onward. The 14 Mission and 19 Polk lines, for example, had four-minute and eight-minute a.m. peak headways in 1981. Today, they’re both at 15 minutes. Figone called the deterioration from lack of funding during this time “a tremendous drain on the system.”
Things got so bad in 1981 that Muni leased nine buses from Southern California Rapid Transit because half of its diesel buses were out with mechanical failure. One of those leased buses conked out after a few hours.
The problems got no better in the 1990s, punctuated by the “Muni meltdown” of 1998 that included trips taking two hours and a frustrated Muni operator locking himself in his cab and refusing to come out.
We haven’t even talked about travel speeds yet. Once again, there’s a slowdown between then and now, for reasons not entirely in Muni’s control. Uber, increased foot traffic, bikes, scooters, stop signs and other factors have brought Muni’s average speed down to 8 mph when lines such as the 38 Geary (then the B Geary streetcar) went over 14.5 mph in 1949.
Those factors aside, Muni ranks next-to-last among 17 peer cities in average speed, with its light rail system 5 mph slower on average.
As Arvin noted, the 31 Balboa streetcar in 1949 took 33 minutes to go from next to the Ferry Building to its then-terminus at 30th and Balboa at an average daytime speed of 10.34 mph. When entering the same start and finish on Google Maps today, the 31 Balboa bus would take anywhere from 40 to 50 minutes.
Can we reduce the headways, if not to 1949 levels, at least those of the early ’70s? Muni spokesman Paul Rose points out such recent investments as its Rapid Network for such lines as the 5R, 14R and 38R, which he says has seen a 22 percent increase in riders since 2015.
For now, all we can do is keep waiting. Arvin, who recently moved to the Bay Area and currently works for a company that makes software used by transit agencies, says he still has hope.
“We need to put the investment in more service. I get that it takes a lot to do that,” he said. “You have to hire more operators, more vehicles. It’s kind of wild that in one of the richest cities in the world you can show up at the J Church and have to wait 10 to 15 minutes and get on a crowded streetcar. It’s unacceptable.”
Some notes on the data: The 1932 and 1981 sources don’t specify a headway range, so the minimum and maximum times are the same. For duplicative rapid routes such as the 5 and 5R, the shorter headways of the two are listed as minimum wait times, and the longer ones as maximum.
This post was originally posted at https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/You-have-to-wait-42-percent-longer-for-Muni-now-13635143.php.