MUNI switchbacks disproportionately affect low-income and outlying areas

Nearly one third of all switchbacks recorded citywide in January affected the T Third Carroll Ave. station in the Bayview.
Screenshot from Google Street View

MUNI switchbacks may be on the decline overall, but when you zero in on who bears the brunt of these annoying service disruptions, it becomes clear that not all transit passengers are created equal. In fact, the vast majority of these annoying service disruptions were concentrated in just three locations this past January, according to San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) data.

A “switchback” is SFMTA jargon for ejecting passengers from a train before their destination, leaving them with little choice but to sit tight until the next one arrives. The trains are then rerouted to provide service elsewhere. Switchbacks can happen in foul weather, and at night. They can impact elderly transit riders with few other transportation options. For weary MUNI customers headed to the outskirts of the city after a long workday, a switchback can be the proverbial last straw.

The top three affected stations in January were the T Third stop at Third Street and Carroll Avenue; the N Judah stop at Judah Street and Sunset Boulevard; and the J Church stop at Glen Park Station, in that order. While the January data provides only a snapshot, annual figures show an average of 36 switchbacks on the T and J lines per month since February of 2012, and an average of 49 per month on the N.

For more information, click on the stations plotted below, created by the Guardian using Google Maps.

View MUNI Switchbacks in a larger map

The SFMTA data was included in a February memo to Sup. Carmen Chu, predecessor to newly minted District 4 Sup. Katy Tang, who has taken up switchbacks as a cause. Tang did not return Guardian calls seeking comment.

Whether passengers are bound for the Outer Sunset, Glen Park, or the Bayview, the passengers disproportionately impacted by these disruptions are those traveling furthest from the city’s urban hubs.

Some regard switchbacks as a social justice issue. In the case of riders traveling to the end of the T line in the Bayview, the disruptions disproportionately affect riders who face longer trips to begin with – it takes 40 minutes to get from Van Ness Station to the end of the T line during normal weekday hours, compared with 28 minutes to the end of the N line and 26 minutes to the end of the J line. And those traveling to the city’s lower income, southeastern neighborhoods are less likely to have alternative means of transportation.

The 39 switchbacks that left southbound passengers waiting at the T Third Carroll stop, near Armstrong Ave, accounted for almost a third of all switchbacks recorded in January. Since they're concentrated during “off-peak” hours, passengers are more likely to be left standing out on the platforms at night, when there are longer gaps between train arrivals. Police Department data accessed on San Francisco’s Open Data Portal shows multiple car break-ins, a robbery with force, and a meth possession charge all occurring nearby that train station in the past three months, suggesting that there could be safety concerns as well. 

According to the SFMTA memo, “Vehicle maintenance issues and automatic train control system issues accounted for most delays in which switchbacks were used to rebalance and restore scheduled service.” There were more service disruptions on the K/T and N lines, Transit Director John Haley wrote, because they are “longer than the other lines and, as a result, have more opportunity to fall behind schedule.” The memo added that upgrades are underway to improve reliability and reduce breakdowns.

"SFMTA needs to prioritize providing reliable transit service to all San Franciscans,” Sup. Malia Cohen, who represents the Bayview, told the Guardian. “While I understand that systems need to be flexible to adjust to accidents or other issues, the data tells us that there is a pattern of these switchbacks in our outer neighborhoods in District 10 and District 4, disproportionately impacting low income transit riders, seniors and families. I will be working with Supervisor Tang and SFMTA to develop strategies to limit these switchbacks so we can provide reliable transit service to all corners of our city."

San Francisco’s Transit First policy, which appears in the City Charter, states: “The primary objective of the transportation system must be the safe and efficient movement of people and goods.” SFMTA data shows switchbacks disrupt travel for three specific groups of passengers, even though they have the farthest to go. They’re left out on the platforms, sometimes after dark, when there are longer wait times. Does anyone actually believe this practice is safe and efficient?


obviously they'd be more affected. It's hardly a vast right-wing conspiracy though, is it? More like a geographical accident.

Anyway, the T, J and N carry some pretty affluent looking passengers if my experiences of them are typical.

As for the rest, those strict muni work practices make it hard to manage staff effectively.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 15, 2013 @ 3:31 pm

The only reason why the MTA does switchbacks is because congestion on the surface increases delays and headways and those delays percolate back into the subway.

When a vehicle is switched back and sent back to the subway earlier, that means that the delays in the subway are mitigated. The impacts on outlying areas are of geographical and topological imperative, not social engineering.

Mitigating delays in the subways means that the same people heading out to the ends of the lines get there faster faster on trains that, odds are, won't be switched back.

Yeah it sucks but it is part and parcel of running a nonkosher, hybrid subway/surface LRV system.

Eyeballing it, it seems that throwing more money to run more vehicles sees diminishing returns pretty quickly. There are other, better ways to invest in Muni.

Posted by marcos on Mar. 15, 2013 @ 4:48 pm

Bizarre. The total elapsed time on an N-Judah end-to-end run is closer to an hour at the best of times* -- and that doesn't include the sometimes 20 minute unscheduled waits at Duboce for a hole in the tunnel to open up.

And the problem with the far greater number of switchbacks on the N-Judah line than -- strangely -- are never properly accounted for, is all the trains which suddenly -- surprise! -- turn into J-Church trains and cause would be downtown-bound travelers to wait in the cold windy unaccommodating corner, or worse, have to wait for an owl service bus they didn't expect to be riding.

These switchbacks happen at all hours of the day and night and there's never any warning until the train arrives at Duboce.


Honestly. "Twenty-eight minutes"?

Posted by lillipublicans on Mar. 15, 2013 @ 5:16 pm

It's based on a Trip Planner search using; you're using an end-to-end run and my figure uses Van Ness station as a starting point, for comparison. But there isn't any 'soft-pedaling' going on: It's a problem on all 3 lines, as the map clearly shows.

Posted by rebecca on Mar. 15, 2013 @ 5:24 pm

are involved in the phenomenon I describe, if the concern is Muni riders getting booted from their seats and being forced to wait in unaccommodating windy spots for another conveyance, then your map certainly does *not* show the whole problem on the N-Judah line.

Anybody who rides the N-Judah on a regular basis knows about this and has had this happen to them numerous times:

The train gets to Church and Duboce -- sometimes originating downtown, but far more often from out in the avenues -- and riders are suddenly informed that the electronic placard indentifying the car's line and destination are being changed.

The cars go from "N-Judah 4th and King" to being J-Church cars. These are cars being taken out of service, not being switched back for the purpose of adjusting the head elsewhere on the line, but the effect on riders is *exactly* the same.

Waiting in the cold, windy, corner, riders are forced to figure out whether it will be an N- or a J- or an owl-service bus which they will next have an opportunity to continue their travel on. Very few amenities such as places to get coffee or use the bathroom are available, and typically there are none during the hours that this inconvenience takes place.

Why can't Muni figure out that these trains are going to be taken out of service ahead of time? Why can't they have the marquees read "Church and Duboce" so that riders might choose another course of action?

My theory is that Muni is run in failure mode *by* *intent*.

Posted by lillipublicans on Mar. 16, 2013 @ 7:14 am

Muni needs to view the destination signs as a form of trip contract and stick to them. If the need for mid-run changes arises, then Muni needs to tell passengers as early as possible so that they can make informed choices.

N-Judah runs that head down Church are not switchbacks.

The population densities at the ends of the lines to the south and west are 1/3 of what they are in the north and east parts of the City and the deployment of transit resources has to reflect that.

Posted by marcos on Mar. 16, 2013 @ 7:39 am

its riders.

For public transit to be what it must be to be viable, people should be just as confident seeing a MUNI train or bus that they will be getting to where they intend to go on a timely basis as when they spy an empty taxi.

They should not be made to feel rather as though they are hitching a ride from a grizzled stranger driving a jalopy on a darkened road.

MUNI riders might make a descision on where to have dinner based on a particular bus or train heaving into view. If the transit service capriciously dumps such riders off in no-man's land right around restaurant closing time, then MUNI is *not* providing a service; and it's particularly ironic for those who had to shell out cash for the priviledge.

Transit agency riders should have the *expectation* that conveyance will get them to where it promises which cannot be said to be the case now. This isn't a trifling matter.

Posted by lillipublicans on Mar. 16, 2013 @ 4:16 pm

Yes, but uncertainty is a function of surface travel. This is not a problem with total grade separation, BART or the Metro from Embarcadero to West Portal.

Uncertainty on BART is measured in single digit minutes, you might have to wait 15 or 20 minutes max if you're unlucky. Uncertainty on Muni is happens more often and is generally measured in double digit minutes of delay.

The CAC looked into this several months ago, and none of us could see what the MTA was doing wrong or how to solve the problem other than to ask them to make their intentions clear as early as possible so that passengers could make informed choices.

Posted by marcos on Mar. 16, 2013 @ 6:15 pm

Auto dealers spend hundreds (sometimes even thousands of dollars) on traditional advertising methods such
as TV, radio, and print. Below are some reasons why you should hire
a professional internet marketing company for
your business. It is advisable to concentrate on one or at most two products per website.

Posted by sports on Jul. 11, 2013 @ 8:17 pm

A growing market dedicated to online reputation management
has sprung up, offering ways to help push unwanted and now-public information to the bottom of search engine results.

The internet can make or break the reputation of corporations and individuals alike.
Concurrently, 85 percent report that a positive online reputation
does play favorably into a hiring decision.

Posted by see here on Aug. 12, 2013 @ 6:47 am

Few IM's take advantage of this fact because so many of them incorrectly perceive a disconnect between internet marketing and direct marketing. In this case, the fundamental objective is to attract potential customers to the site and make browsing through and ultimately buy the product you are looking for. In a class no one likes to do this and many leave because of this or sometimes don't even start.

Posted by hobbies on Aug. 14, 2013 @ 4:49 pm

Regardless, my point stands: the N-Judah line is by far the line whose riders regularly gets the most screwed -- like having to wait 25 minutes for an LRV and having a two double cars show up chock-full of people; but also having all these switchbacks which interrupt their transit in a downtown direction.

MUNI went from single car N-Judahs to double cars in the early 00s to save money in driver wages... and fully utilize the Alcatel stupidity... but that resulted in an increase in the head between cars. Also slowed boarding at stops with a preponderance of cash-paying customers. Also led to an explosion in graffiti and other vandalism damage in the largely un-tended back cars.

Oh yeah, and the Breda cars should never have been bought, but I digress..

Posted by lillipublicans on Mar. 15, 2013 @ 5:25 pm

Secondarily, they'll try to get you somewhere in an undetermined time frame.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 16, 2013 @ 1:48 pm

Um, is there any way a switchback could affect a non outlying area?

blue skies are also rather... blue.

Posted by Erick Brooks on Mar. 17, 2013 @ 9:31 am

It is intuitively obvious that there will always be more routes closer in than there are further out.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 18, 2013 @ 11:09 am

I use the K/T line every week day,and just this year have been subject to quite a few switchbacks. Its not because of overcrowding or traffic,because they usually turn it into the L,why they do this i have NO idea,as the L is a longer train,is more frequent too,whereas the K/T is shorter and we have longer waits inbetween. I live off of Ocean avenue by the way.

Posted by Guest ruth m on Mar. 17, 2013 @ 9:27 pm

We agree that MUNI is doing wrong by The Poors and The Blacks.


Up with pure minorities!!

Down with Whitey!!

The REAL San Francisco Anti-Stupidity Campaign

Posted by The REAL San Francisco Anti-Stupidity Campaign on Mar. 17, 2013 @ 11:20 pm

Absolutely no surprise that The Third Street White Rail would be one of those most effected. Continuing decades of denial of services to BVHP.

Posted by Patrick Monk.RN. on Mar. 18, 2013 @ 7:27 am

It was always doomed, as are all attempts at tokenism.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 18, 2013 @ 8:43 am

Due to the identity of its biggest promoter -- Willie Brown -- I always perceived the project in context with other poor-people-removal schemes.

It can be said that the building of the T-line was as much about taking away 15-Third bus service to the neighborhood than anything else. That bus used to *hump* up and down Third and its riders didn't need to walk a half mile out of their way to reach a wind-swept stop.

Widespread parking removal along the corridor and disruption during its construction was the nail in the coffin for many neighborhood struggling businesses.

All that said, I'll repeat my earlier comment to the effect that this theory that the T-line is "most affected" by the problem of riders getting booted before their destination is reached is cooked-up and false.

Even the duration of trips down each line mentioned in this story -- which I originally misunderstood -- is arbitrarily arrived-at, because there is no reason to consider Van Ness as the starting point of the N or T lines. Originally, the T didn't even go past Embarcadero.

Posted by lillipublicans on Mar. 18, 2013 @ 9:14 am

or otherwise. It was a rather ill-fated attempt to revitalize a forgotten corner of the city but, even with a brand new streetcar, there was and continues to be no reason for anyone to go south of Mission Bay at this time.

I suppose you could argue it helps the folks in that area get to work easier, but then that area also has the highest unemployment in the city.

In the end, the T is just one in a long line of "affirmative action" transit investments. And, now that Blacks have their streetcar, the Asians have to have theirs - the even more expensive Central Subway. But at least that goes somewhere - just not very far.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 18, 2013 @ 11:03 am

If I thought there was any point in asking for an answer from Bold Lying and Calculated Effrontery Guest here, I'd ask how a T-third which stops at Market helps workers get to jobs in North Beach? (Not even mentioning that commutes in the opposite direction exist too.)

The 15-Third used to make the trip expeditiously.

One of the worst aspects of the T-Third, as a matter of fact, is that it now seems to justify the further expense of digging a gold-plated tunnel through Chinatown.

Posted by lillipublicans on Mar. 18, 2013 @ 11:29 am

Most jobs in North Beach are int he tourist/hospitality business, and are lower-paid and more distributed.

The Central Subway will connect the most densely used area's of the city, and for the first time give is a mass transit system that isn't aligned with Market Street.

Then again, if you are going to equate any new development with racism, then there is little hope for you anyway.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 18, 2013 @ 11:45 am

The workers holding tourism and hospitality sector jobs which were served by the 15-Third line are not being served by the T-Third.

And now we have a "mass transit system" -- not counting ones run with buses -- "that isn't aligned with Market Street."

Hoorah! I never liked all those colored stripes running together on an angle; that's why to this day I refuse to ride BART.

Posted by lillipublicans on Mar. 18, 2013 @ 12:48 pm

you live in Bayview and have a job downtown, then the T is a nicer trip than the bus - people who have a chocie always prefer the streetcar.

As for BART, it was never designed to move people around SF but rather INTO SF. you should use it if it is convenient though, if only to see first hand how bad muni is in comparison.

I understand why out transit is Market Street-oriented but the Central Subway is welcome to provide a second dimension to out transit.

Now, BART under Geary and Van Ness?

Posted by Guest on Mar. 18, 2013 @ 1:10 pm

Third Street White Rail is the name it was called by many BVHP activists. It was never intended to serve the 'BVHP community', but primarily to give downtown access to 'white folks' who would move into the hood as a result of gentrification and proposed redevelopment projects further on down the line.
All part of the Grand Master's Plan.

Posted by Patrick Monk.RN. on Mar. 21, 2013 @ 5:56 pm

English, please.

Posted by anon on Mar. 21, 2013 @ 6:53 pm

Please educate yourself. BVHP.

Posted by Patrick Monk.RN. on Mar. 24, 2013 @ 10:59 am

The flaw is contagious, clearly.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 24, 2013 @ 12:28 pm
Posted by lillipublicans on Mar. 24, 2013 @ 1:03 pm

Typical. Obviously you don't know the answer to the question either.

One day you will manage a comment that is on topic.

Obfuscation is rife today.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 24, 2013 @ 1:20 pm

to the San Francisco Civil Grand Jury report on MUNI.

It got posted to the comment thread of the 3/19 version of this Rebecca Bowe story:

In the Civil Grand Jury Report it was also revealed that Muni cannot explain how the switchbacks work.

I'll repeat that, because it seemed the civil grand jury was a bit floored about it. The MUNI response sounded like PG&E trying to explain how it certifies its gas piping.

Posted by lillipublicans on Mar. 24, 2013 @ 1:33 pm

Monkey's use of an obscure acronym, which nobody here appears to have any ability to decypher, including the Monkey himself.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 24, 2013 @ 3:17 pm

Only an imbecile would not know what BV/HP means.

Posted by marcos on Mar. 24, 2013 @ 5:09 pm

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
"Imbecile was a medical category of people with moderate to severe mental retardation, as well as a type of criminal.[1][2] The term arises from the Latin word imbecillus, meaning weak, or weak-minded. It included people with an IQ of 26–50, between "moron" (IQ of 51–70) and "idiot" (IQ of 0–25)...... mental and moral imbecility... "moral insanity"... "moral imbecility""

But what is notable is the scantily clothed racism that anon trolls with here.

Is it not well past time for the SFBG admin to lance this boil?

Posted by lillipublicans on Mar. 24, 2013 @ 6:41 pm

Bay View Hunters Point. Just happy to help out boss.

Posted by pete moss on Mar. 24, 2013 @ 2:02 pm

Although quite why anyone would want a shorthand term for an obscure, unvisited part of the city remains beyond me, unless the intent was to be obscure, of course.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 24, 2013 @ 3:18 pm

The Guardian's historic hatred of the westside, combined with an almost total lack of knowledge of how Muni works is apparent in this article. I'll stick with ANY OTHER NEWS SOURCE than you bozos.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 18, 2013 @ 8:29 am

While Haley is correct that poorly maintained, badly designed from the get go equipment is a factor, the real story is (gasp) Muni incompetence. Any workday, trains arrive dowtown in random sequence so that during evening rush, crowds gather waiting for route x as several each y and z go by semi filled. If Muni dynamically reassigned trains to be in scheduled sequence, most riders would get home faster, and very few trains would have any excuse for "switching back" halfway out on any of the routes. To do this Muni needs to rewrite how the "runs" are described that drivers "pick" on a seniority basis. They have steadfastly refused to do this choosing instead to regularly shaft the riders. One can only hope Sup. Tang and others will light the proverbial fire and force a change.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 18, 2013 @ 9:09 am

Another tidbit of interestingness that I learned a few years back was that in the Metro division, it was "custom" that operators made their own calls on when they'd leave the terminal to start on a run, preservation of headways or schedules be damned.

Posted by marcos on Mar. 18, 2013 @ 9:48 am

sections of a route will always be more heavily utilized than the outer sections. It follows, therefore, that not all trains will go to their ultimate destination, both by schedule and by necessity.

The irony is that a streetcar like, say, the N only went out as far as 9th Avenue, nobody would complain. But it because it rather illogically goes out to the ocean, people whine when every train doesn't go the full distance, even though that cannot possibly be commerically justified.

I'd like to see figures for the revenues broken down into the various sections of muni routes. It is entirely possible that the inner routes that feed downtown are profitable - they are certainly crowded enough. While it is the routes to the far south and east which make all the losses and swallow up all the subsidies.

Couldn't private jitney's serve the out area's, with streetcars turning around at the point where usage does not justify them continuing?

Posted by Guest on Mar. 18, 2013 @ 11:08 am

The reason for switchbacks are not economic, they are due to delay caused by congestion, the purpose is to reestablish desired headways on the line. In order to not have to do switchbacks, the MTA would need additional subsidy.

Posted by marcos on Mar. 18, 2013 @ 12:14 pm

The downtown tunnels during rush-hour are notorious for delays because of either signalling problems or too many 1-car trains when clearly only 2-car trains should be running.

And, as welcome as the Central subway is, it won't help with east-west services and, indeed, will add to the traffic load.

The only system that really works in SF is BART, but that really doesn't help unless you live in the Mission, Glen Park or Balboa Park. and even they do switchbacks at 24th for much the same reason.

BART to Geary/48th would solve the N problem.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 18, 2013 @ 12:51 pm

Most all delays in the tunnels are introduced when the streetcars encounter congestion on the surface streets.

Posted by marcos on Mar. 18, 2013 @ 1:01 pm

OK but then get held up behind each other once underneath Market.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 18, 2013 @ 1:25 pm

The N-Judah *regularly* gets backed up outside the Duboce entrance to the Market Street Tunnel because of traffic *inside* the tunnel. (Appointed to the CaC by then D5 Sup. Christina Olague, eh? I'd like to know where I could peruse every bit of the information the CaC has processed. Is there a website? Is it all readily retrievable public record?)

That said, it is also false to claim that there is no problem on surface streets. If one person double parks for two minutes holding up a Muni train, that delay can snowball into the need for a switchback further down the line. Maybe greater penalties and enforcement for that is in order?

(Again, monetary fines should be graduated on the basis of wealth so that they land on everybody equally... or perhaps the Eighth Amenment needs to be reinterpreted so that punishment is deemed to be unconstitutional only if it is both cruel and unusual: then double-parking offenders can be hand-cuffed to their SUVs adjacent to crowded LRV stops during rush hour for punishment.)

Posted by lillipublicans on Mar. 18, 2013 @ 2:10 pm

You should move to Switzerland if you think that is a good idea, where half million dollar speeding fines are not unheard of.

I really do not see much double-parking on streetcar tracks, although there is some elsewhere, of course.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 18, 2013 @ 3:03 pm

The reason why the N and J get backed up inbound is 1) they have to negotiate Fillmore that is replete with pedestrians, auto traffic and the 22 Fillmore and 2) is that they have to wait for the inbound tracks to clear of K-L-M cars so that they can merge and continue downtown.

Ross appointed me, Christina reupped me. See:

You must be confused. I said that practically ALL of the significant delay and congestion problems are on the surface.

The MTA was created in 2000 by merging DPT and Muni so that DPT could clear the way for Muni transit. It is now 2013.

One of the tools that the MTA uses to resolve cascading delays caused by surface congestion is switchbacks. Yes it sucks to get left off in the avenues, but that means that someone else is not going to have to wait in the subway and as often as not, that someone will be you and it ends up as a wash.

Posted by marcos on Mar. 18, 2013 @ 4:59 pm

has little effect on the N, which merely crosses Church rather than goes along it.

The major problem, as you note, is the merge of the two tunnels, but that has nothing to do with any alleged street-level "congestion" but rather has to do with the poor quality of the underground signalling.

Blaming Mini's problems on everything except Muni is not what we should reasonably expect from informed observers.

Posted by anon on Mar. 18, 2013 @ 5:18 pm

and if I'd been able to edit my comment just after I hit the return key, I would have done so. In any case, I find it bizarre that I agree with anon here to the degree that I do.

There's no way any pedestrian build up on Fillmore is even a tenth the problem of the merge with the KLM. Anybody whos ridden the N-Judah on a regular basis has gotten stuck in the opening of the Market Street tunnel for 10, 15, or 20 minutes. (Somehow I'm guessing you didn't cover that in the CaC?)

If pedestrians sometimes (stupidly) stream across the path of the LRVs -- as they do probably to a far greater extent at Carl & Cole, by the way -- then a signal light walk/don't walk needs to be put into place.

It remains that the main problem is that Breda cars are too big and the train control system limits the amount of flexibility to board multiple trains at the same station at the same time.

Muni seems to be operated in failur mode *by* *intent*.

Posted by lillipublicans on Mar. 18, 2013 @ 7:16 pm