Muni is 100 years old. Too bad it won't die like a human that age
San Francisco's municipal transportation has finally reached the tender age of 100 years. Unfortunately, it refuses to keel over, die, get cremated, and be forgotten about.
And that's a shame. Because it really needs to just go away.
Somehow Muni-- like too many other things in San Francisco-- is the antithesis of everything Silicon Valley itself stands for. You know, things like innovation. Performing as a company or dying, without the options of bailouts. A culture of newer, better, more nimble organizations killing the older slower moving ones before they come close to 100 years of dysfunctional age. Things actually working.
As I've written before, and will write more about in the future, California and San Francisco suffer from "The Italian Complex".
Our state is a lot like the nation of Italy. It has a beautiful natural landscape and weather that most people would envy. It is geographically diverse — we enjoy great sunshine and great skiing in relatively close proximity. The people are culturally pleasant, love life, and you can strike up conversation with gentle strangers. We are intellectual and passionate about both arts and science. They gave us the Renaissance, and we gave the world the Digital Age. But for all the natural and cultural brilliance, we are held down by an incompetent and pathetic government.
And if the city of San Francisco is at the heart of our political incompetence, then the Muni system is like the left and right ventricle.
The problems with Muni are so tremendous and infuriating that I don’t even know where to begin. But here are a few points off the top of my head (with a little help from Google).
Muni generates a mind-bogglingly small proportion of its own funding…
Muni charges people fares to ride, and you would think that these fares could cover at least a meaningful portion of their immense operating costs. But no. They cover a measly $198 million of the $821 million budget. That’s not even one quarter of the cost. The biggest contributor to Muni’s budget is parking tickets and fines, which should surprise nobody. But this is really just an accounting gimmick to charge taxpayers for Muni, because in most cities parking tickets would be used to fund an array of services.
Nobody is saying that Muni should operate at profit. Or that it should come even close to profit. But how about covering half of its costs through revenue from its users?
In comparison, the NYC MTA generates over $7 billion from fares and tolls, which covers more than half of its $13.4 billion annual budget.
The Chinatown political machine ensures that they get the lion’s share of the benefits
The epicenter of Muni is on Stockton, Powell, and the other major arteries that run through Chinatown. By ‘coincidence,’ this is also where the new super-expensive subway will run. People who ride the bus know about the “Dirty 30” and “45” lines that needlessly take Marina and Pac Heights commuters through the congestion of Chinatown en route to their jobs downtown or in Soma.
This is not because such routes and investments serve the people of San Francisco. It is because the Chinatown political machine controlled by Rose Pak — who basically put our mayor into office — decrees it to be the case.
The political machine keeps rolling. The big infrastructure money goes to Chinatown. Naïve hipsters with high salaries have no idea it’s going on. And the virtuous cycle continues.
But I’m sure that the camera shops, trinket stands, and street-side produce markets of Chinatown are the ones providing the city with most of its tax, jobs, and commerce income.
Muni is basically useless, anyhow. Walking is better.
Taking Muni is basically a waste of effort and money. You will be stunned by how little time you save by riding the bus vs. just walking. Riding a bike is so much more effective than taking the bus that it’s laughable.
This is a tiny city, and you can walk from any one point to another in 45 minutes most of the time.
But, back to walking. Anyone who is traveling in a North-South direction to commute (i.e. Marina to Downtown) knows that by the time the 30 or 45 bus gets to Chinatown, you can get out and walk faster, plus you don’t feel like a sardine. That walk is a no-brainer.
But what about East-West commuters (i.e. Lower Haight to Downtown)? To illustrate, I will use my old commute and Google Maps. I used to live at Fillmore/Hayes, which was two full miles from my office at Kearny/Sutter. By San Francisco standards, this is a fairly typical distance from work. According to Google Maps, the walk will take 34 minutes. If you take the N-Judah, the absolute fastest you can do the ride is in 20 minutes, but that assumes no wait for the bus, which is unlikely. Throw in a reasonable wait for the bus, and now you save maybe five minutes door-to-door. Plus it costs money and you get way less exercise. And you may get sick from having twenty people within two feet of you. So there’s that cost too.
In short, Muni is basically useless.
So, in conclusion, how do I really feel?
How I really feel is that I would gladly see Muni go away. We don’t need the massive debt it creates for the city, nor do we need to pay its $800 million operating budget — over $1,000 per citizen — most of which goes to overpaid drivers and their obscene pensions.
I’ll bet that if you gave every resident of this city their $1,000 back so that they could take 50-60 free Uber rides over the course of a year on rainy days or when they don’t feel like walking… many would jump at the opportunity.
Muni serves its employees and our politicians better than it serves the people. It is a blemish on the city of San Francisco, and it is so much worse than the public transportation of big cities like New York and smaller ones like Montreal.
But, then again, we San Franciscans tend to feel that our entrepreneurial spirit and amazing culture somehow obligates us to put up with political incompetence and corruption… so feel free to jump in the comment threads and tell me how lucky I am to live here.