This Muni Fail Represents What’s Wrong with Muni as a Whole
The Wanderer follows young writer Tess F. Stevens through different threads of San Francisco culture, experiences, and issues. She hopes to challenge, connect and define some of the things we find difficult to put into words.
The saga of the Muni commute doesn’t end when you get off and head to your destination. This public transit system has deep-seeded issues that stem from money mismanagement, bureaucratic nonsense, and a distinct attitude of smugness.
San Francisco is a world-renowned city of technological dreams, so why can’t we have a subway system that is on time, or works, or isn’t constantly dripping with unknown fluids and garbage?
The answer isn’t simple, but it definitely has to do with money. The city of the future has some explaining to do.
A triggering moment for this Part II of my Muni series came when I was practically treated like a prison inmate being shuffled from the prison shuttle to the prison itself. In fact, prisoners might be treated with more dignity and respect than how the SFMTA staff treated the some 200 citizens (including children, the elderly, and the differently abled) at West Portal Station on Feb. 28, 2019.
I have been avoiding Muni like the plague due to several incidents I have witnessed, including two fights, daily delays, multiple encounters with people attempting to rob from others, needles protruding from seats and other areas, and the general nastiness of employees and their attitudes toward riders asking simple questions like, “Hey, do you know why we’re not moving?”
Due to the silent protest of not riding public transit, I have spent nearly all of my pocket money on parking ($30 a day in most garages near my workplace). But since I’m nearly broke, I decided to go back to the train and give the Muni system another chance.
As Gob from “Arrested Development” would say, “I made a huge mistake.”
Thursday’s commute spun into a dark comedy of confusion and chaos when the K (Ingleside) pulled up to West Portal Station. The driver jerked the train to the left of the station and screamed “Get out!”
The riders – which included myself, several elderly people, children, and a man in a wheelchair – collectively displayed faces of confusion as the SFMTA employee clad in the signature highlighter vest moved to exit the train for good. Of course, he couldn’t end his shift without us getting off, hence the hostile attitude.
Not once during this period did we get an explanation. Instead we were shuffled into the street and across the tracks of the tunnel. We also had to pay twice for the same ride, because employees wouldn’t let us through the emergency gates or verify our fares. In fact, the employee in the tunnel didn’t leave his glass box.
The train waiting in the tunnel was already overflowing with bodies, arms and legs, backpacks askew crushed between commuters.
As over 100-some people tried to squeeze into the already full train, a particular tech worker (his company shall remain nameless), became irate with a small woman with a hump in her back. The poor thing could barely walk, let alone run to catch another train. “The train is full lady. I’m not moving.”
His badge swinging from his belt, he grabbed both polls and turned his body into a makeshift barrier so no one else could get on.
I looked at him the way he should have been looked at, like a cold, heartless ingrate who should respect his elders. “Don’t worry, ma’am. I’ll wait with you until the next one.”
The woman was relieved that someone had shed some kindness on her during this chaotic half hour where nobody knew which way was up and how they were going to right themselves.
I took the woman by the arm and led her back on the platform, sitting her down on one of the benches inside the tunnel. Not once did an SFMTA employee offer to help.
Ten minutes went by and the train, barricaded by that tech worker, didn’t move. I stared at him and he stared at me, knowing that I wasn’t going to stop until the train left the station. I wanted him to feel what that little old lady felt, shame.
Unluckily for both of us, the train never moved. “GET ON THE SHUTTLE,” an SFMTA employee screamed. Finally, a woman appeared in a highlighter vest, pointing us toward a bus (of course, already full) a block away.
The elderly woman looked at me with a stressed crinkle in her nose. It would be hard for her to get there alone. So I grabbed her arm and led her down the steps of the tunnel and to the shuttle.
At no point did anyone tell us what was going on, or why the trains weren’t moving. Someone checked Twitter and found that there was a stalled train, or something.
The bus driver was silent. When asked where the bus was headed, the employee on the outside of the bus said, “DOWNTOWN, GET IN.”
Downtown where? There are a lot of places that are considered downtown. Furthermore, there are a lot of places you can be dropped off.
As people continued to push themselves onto the bus, I lost the little old lady I had been protecting. I hope she got where she was going.
“CLEAR THE DOORS.” The bus driver spoke over the intercom forcefully as people pushed and prodded their way into the tubular death trap.
I wedged myself between the squiggly bit in the middle that turns on an axis as the bus turns corners. I was basically going to have to play a game of “Just Dance” alone, hopping over the circular bit and avoiding getting sucked into the vents behind me. “At least this is good exercise,” I thought.
It took 10 minutes for that bus to roll. My commute began at 8:30 a.m. and it was now 9:25. I was approximately two miles from my house.
The first stop appeared to be near the Castro District but because there were nearly 100 people squished in there I could barely see my own nose let alone out the window.
With an elbow in my side and a backpack in my stomach, 20 or so other people attempted to push into the bus, and of course, they blocked the doors so the driver legally couldn’t move.
That’s when the group of weary commuters had had enough, “Get the FUCK out of the doorway,” said a middle-aged woman with Airpods in her ears.
The man in the doorway, oblivious to everything except his iPhone, ignored her. Groans ensued and people’s eyes turned black with rage.
Outside the bus, another SFMTA employee emerged from the depths and started screaming, which seems customary in their training.
The horde of commuters trying to get on the bus transformed into a horde of zombies scratching and clawing at the closing doors. “GET BACK!”
Their desperate cries stained my ears, “Open up! Please! Fuck, I have to get to work!”
That is how much people in San Francisco need to get to work, because they know if they are late, their job may be in jeopardy. If their job is in jeopardy their money is in jeopardy. If their money is in jeopardy their home is in jeopardy. If their home is in jeopardy their life is in jeopardy. If their life is in jeopardy, they’re dead. San Francisco’s cost of living will kill them.
This reality of relentless grinding characterizes a city in constant economic doom. No amount of money under $100,000 gets you a decent place to rent. No job will pay you what you are worth. San Francisco is a place where its inhabitants turn ghoulish because they have no other choice.
And yet, companies like Amazon get away with paying $0 on billions in profit. Why? Because, America.
According to Transparent California, in 2017 the SFMTA paid people like Public Transportation Department General Manager Edward D. Reiskin $405,747.30 for his services, and Transit Operator Andrew J. Sisernos $466,607.25 for his.
Note: According to SF Gate, Sisernos was controversially fired after being suspected of tampering with a Muni bus drive cam, later he was reinstated after evidence that he was trying to fix it surfaced.
Like me, you’re probably thinking, “For that amount of money, these people should be working to make sure SF has the most state-of-the-art, luxurious, most efficient transportation around.”
But you know what? They aren’t.
For the operating years of 2019 and 2020, the SFMTA has a budget of $1.2 billion.
Now, pay close attention because I know charts are boring, but you HAVE to pay attention.
This chart, directly from the SFMTA’s budget proposal details how much money they receive in millions each year. Yes, this includes fares, grants, parking tickets, traffic tickets, advertising, etc. It all totals up to $1,214,200,000 for 2019.
Now, chart two is the more important one. It will blow your mind and not in a good way. You’ll see here that 58.8 percent – yes, over half – of the budget goes to salaries. Over $500,000,000 is being paid out to SFMTA employees and bigwigs in 2019 with an increase to 60.4 % in 2020.
Only 0.8% is going to maintaining and repairing equipment. That means all the times that Muni breaks, or halts, or power goes out, or trains get stuck (which is what delayed my commute to two hours), they only have $9, 300,000* to play with to fix it. Plus, they pay out nearly 14 percent of the entire budget to employees outside the SFMTA to do this work.
So, while Mr. Reiskin takes home $405,747.30 for doing God knows what, repairs and maintenance struggles to get things done.
If you want to know why our San Francisco transportation is so under par, this chart right here will tell you why.
If the top dogs took a remotely reasonable salary, more money could be allocated to repairs, new tracks, and finishing that godforsaken Chinatown subway project.
And if you can’t see the numbers in black and white, then you’re just as lost as I was on that bus.
As the driver stopped near Montgomery Street Station, I let out the sigh of all sighs and politely said excuse me to my fellow commuters, and got off.
At least it wasn’t raining, and at least I didn’t pay $37 to take a Lyft. I looked up to watch the bus go by and the little old lady I had shuttled into it waved to me.
I waved back, and smiled for the first time that morning, and continued on to work knowing that tomorrow would be another chance to get to work on time, or not.
If you would like to take action, here is a full calendar of SFMTA events and meetings where you can share your opinion.
311 is also a great resource. Here is a direct link to their Muni customer service page, which I used today to talk about the incidents in this article.
Here was my complaint:
During my hellish commute today I was shuffled from one K Ingleside train to another train that was stuck in West Portal Tunnel. Not once did an SFMTA employee do anything but yell at people to move from one train to another, then to a shuttle bus parked a block away that was already full. To this moment, I do not know what happened in that tunnel, why there was a delay, or why nobody would disseminate the proper information to commuters.
We also had to pay twice for a single ride because the train operator refused to pull past the pay gate to drop us off. After we were shuttled to the bus, not once did that SFMTA driver announce the route or what was happening. However, they did scream at people who were blocking the doors and discourage people from waiting at stops to get on the full bus by doing more yelling. I don’t know what the deal is with this transit system but this behavior is unacceptable, especially when there are elderly riders and children having to hear and deal with this.
At one point, an elderly woman was left behind, confused, so I shuttled her to the next train/bus. Not once did an employee of your agency offer to help anyone. I believe the employee at West Portal sat in his glass case for the entirety of the incident. I know I’m just one of thousands, but I am a writer and will be documenting this behavior for the public. I’ve also closely examined your budget and see some deeply disturbing allocations. If someone would like to go on record and discuss this incident, they can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for the time, if anyone does read this.
If you are on a train and there is an unexpected delay, report it by calling 311 or visiting sf311.org.
Writer’s Note: Here is an excerpt from the SFMTA’s official explanation of what happened on February 28, 2018:
“This morning at 5:09 a.m., Muni Metro service experienced an infrastructure equipment failure at the turnback past Embarcadero station.
Shortly after 9:00 a.m., we also experienced a central computer failure of our Automated Train Control System (ATCS) which caused a loss of communication between all trains in the subway. For safety, non-communicating trains operate at less than half the speed as automatic trains. This ensures our customers’ safety but reduces the number of trains the subway can handle at a time whenever there is a communications problem. The restart of the computer only takes about five minutes, but we did not re-establish communications with all of our trains until 10:10 a.m. Unfortunately, due to the design of our subway’s train control system, trains can only reestablish communications at specific locations with the system, which means it takes over an hour to process the roughly 40 trains that were in the subway at the time. Our signal crews worked diligently to fix the infrastructure issue and our control center staff restarted the central computer. Additionally, parking control officers, station agents and transit fare inspectors directed riders to bus shuttles throughout the system.
We understand our city’s needs for a world-class and modern transportation system and we are committed to doing everything we can to replace and expand our fleet and explore options to replace our aging infrastructure that is at the root of many of these delays. We share your frustrations. Our crews are investigating to determine if the two failures are linked. We are sharing all possible data on today’s incident with the ATCS manufacturer, to understand the cause of the problem and once the cause is known, we will take steps to minimize the chance of reoccurrence. We sincerely apologize for the delay and are working on immediate solutions.”
Last time I wrote about Muni, you sent me your thoughts, criticisms, and stories. Here’s what Wanderer readers had to say about their commutes:
I enjoyed the BrokeAss Stuart story “When MUNI utterly fails you….”. Mine isn’t a story exactly, but here’s a statistic that I believed should be obtained and published:
On how many weekdays in the past six months has there NOT been a service disruption (breakdown, slowdown, delay, etc) on one or more of the MUNI Metro lines? I’m signed up for emails about these disruptions and my sense is that the answer to this question is zero.
San Franciscans rely on MUNI. San Francisco has designated itself a “transit first” city. Is it really OK that there are service disruptions every day?
– John, San Francisco
I could share numerous Muni horror stories, but this is one of the worst. I was a student at SF State a few years ago, and it was the day of my Psychology final. So, naturally, the M was running behind schedule.
Worse, right about the time we approached 19th Avenue, the train stopped, and it was announced that we had to get off, that another train would be coming. I mean, we were left there, right where the M comes out on to 19th. And of course, it took a while for the train to arrive.
I was already late, and it was becoming clear I was not going to make it to my final. Finally, another train arrived and very slowly made its way the final few stops to campus. I bolted for the building where the lecture hall was, and arrived, along with another student from the train, just as people were leaving, handing their answer sheets to the professor. The other person got there first and explained what happened.
The professor was very unsympathetic and was in the process of telling him “Tough!” when I stepped up and verified his story, and made it clear that we had done everything humanly possible to make it on time. The professor, thankfully, had a change of heart and allowed us to complete the test.
I passed the course and was very thankful that she realized that it was not just an excuse. Years ago, not long after I came to San Francisco, I wrote a letter to the Examiner suggesting that we adopt the word Muni as a term for extremely poor service. Like, if a waiter really messes up, one would say, “Wow, that waiter really Munied out order.” Or, “That was another major Muni.” Or, simply, “Well, I got Munied again.” I had some hope that it might get the message across, but it never seemed to catch on.
Alas, to err is human, but to really mess things up, all it takes is Muni.
– Jennifer, San Francisco
I recently read your article on why Muni sucks on BrokeAssStuart. What struck me strongest about this article is how you seemed to perputate the behavior you said you shouldn’t do: that is, you complained to the “hahard–workingMuni workers that Muni sucked, but you didn’t take any actions to make it better. Specifically, you made a call to action at the end of the article to “send letters and go to City Hall”. Yet you made no mention of doing that yourself. Or offering an easy solution for your reads on how to do that.
I don’t see how your article adds anything to the commuters of Sf; yeah we know Muni sucks. You just sound like every other complaining person on the twittersphere and just added to the noise with your article.
Something that would be useful and interesting for example, is telling us *how* we can complain effectively. Maybe even doing a bit of investigative work into who, in office, or the people in office who are responsible for SMFTA. Then we can write to them directly, rather than writing to city hall saying “hey fix our commute”, which such a letter would promptly be thrown in the trash.
But I’m rambling; my point is, I unfortunately don’t see what your article contributes besides complaining about the obvious. Do something investigative, or help readers to more easily contact the people that matter with their displeasure. I think that would greatly improve your articles in the future.
Fantastically great article Tess, I kept saying “Yes” as I was reading it because I use muni mon – fri and have experienced all of those things. Thanks for the link to the muni complaint site, I’m going to use it often.
Today (xmas eve) I got on the N Judah to come home a little before 12:30 and after we went 1 stop to Montgomery the train stopped for about 10 minutes, no announcement and then the driver came out of his compartment and said the computer system had shut down and they didn’t know how long it would last so we should go above ground to catch another bus.
Terrible as usual. I could go on and on but I know you have experienced it all too.
– Rod, San Francisco
If you’d like to share your thoughts and feelings on this article or Muni in general, please email me at email@example.com or leave a comment on this post. I read them all on Facebook as well. Safe commutes to you all.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article noted that 0.8% of the budget was $960,000.
Information about Andrew Sisneros’ controversial firing has been added.