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?


Yes, Muni is operated in failure mode by intent, yes, there are no plans on how to change that, and, yes, the MTA has dropped the ball on caring about how to match the transit system with San Francisco's growth.

Posted by marcos on Mar. 18, 2013 @ 8:53 pm

from when such machines were on every bus, so its obvious that the gods of modern technology must just have some sort of disdain for public transit and light rail in particular.

I've already mentioned the idiotic minute and a half wait across 4th Street from the CalTrain stop, but MUNI LRVs also have a habit of making a speedy *exit* from the 4th and King station *just* as desperatly tired and/or cold riders who've recently disembarked from a train spill out from the station onto the street.

I've haven't seen this happen -- "bang-bang" -- quite enough to feel *certain* its sadism, but plenty enough to understand that MUNI doesn't feel what I'd like to describe as "the crushing need to coordinate its activity with the needs of its customers."

No carrots, but the SFMTA will continue to wave the stick at would be parkers of cars.

Posted by lillipublicans on Mar. 18, 2013 @ 10:24 pm

If they did, they'd treat them with respect.

Muni is a near perfect example of why governments generally do a bad job of running businesses. They appear to regard themselves as doing us a favor by just showing up. And with no competition allowed, there is no reason why this will ever change.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 19, 2013 @ 6:58 am

politicans and managers who oversee it; the problem is that the pols do not tremble from fright when they consider the wrath of MUNI riders. Why? Because the political system keeps on offering up the same selections of uselessly mistaken answerers for our problems.

I'd like to see a public poll taken of a group of 500 citizens stranded at Carl and Cole on a weekday morning. Pick one at random and put her on the citizen's advisory committee.

Posted by lillipublicans on Mar. 19, 2013 @ 9:23 am

At Fillmore, the N has to contend with crossing two ped crosswalks, a roadway where the highest ridership non-radial line runs, as well as two tracks of J Church slowing to a turning crawl coming and going.

Once heading into the subway, there might be a J Church ahead of the N Judah looking to make the merge.

These lines ran much better as designed when there were fewer private autos congesting the roads.

Posted by marcos on Mar. 19, 2013 @ 6:48 am

It's easy to realize this if you use the N, because it sits waiting just east of Church far more than it waits to cross Church.

Westbound is better since there is a de-merge - only the merge is complicated, albeit only because of terrible design and poor signalling.

The tunnels themselves operate at full capacity, leading to more delays. I often crawl from Van Ness to Embarcadero.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 19, 2013 @ 7:00 am

What's your problem? Why are you responding to statements that I did not make?

There are two components to delay on the inbound N, the merge and getting through the intersection of Fillmore and Duboce, contending with surface congestion of pedestrians, cars, the 22 bus and J Church, to get to the merge.

I did not state whether one dominated the other, why are you arguing against a case that was not made? Both play a factor, sometimes they combine.

When there is congestion on the surface and there is not contention for the merge, surface congestion dominates. The MTA acknowledges this but they say that there is neighborhood opposition to controlling the Duboce and Fillmore intersection to rationalize the flow of transit.

When there is no congestion on the surface and there is a wait for a merge, the merge dominates.

When there is congestion on the surface and there is contention for the merge, they both combine for a more significant delay.

A little from column A and a little from column B.

Posted by marcos on Mar. 19, 2013 @ 8:10 am

that held up the streetcars. Having taken the N every day for the last 5 years, I can tell you that is a minor issue compared with congestion in the tunnels.

And anyway, our streets are always going to be congested and Muni knows that, and should operate their schedules taking that into account.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 19, 2013 @ 8:38 am

"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."

Posted by lillipublicans on Mar. 19, 2013 @ 8:58 am

if muni streetcars and buses are late, you cannot just blame "congestion".

The real problem here is that, for some people, it is less about supporting muni and more about hating on cars. Such people then blame "congestion" as a backdoor method of trying to restrict vehicular use.

They claim this will "improve Muni". But Muni is in no fit state to be relied upon as a substitute for cars. Muni needs to clean up it's act first, and that requires fundamental internal change and/or competition and/or privatization.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 19, 2013 @ 9:15 am

You cannot "bake" surface congestion into a schedule because by definition surface congestion is not predictable. Thus, the delays due to congestion or lack of delays due to its absence can skew a vehicle +/- 5 min from headway.

Posted by marcos on Mar. 19, 2013 @ 9:29 am

is how scheduels are supposed to be designed, thereby for instance allowing more time for the same route during rush hours. Every transit system does this and I am shocked that you appear not to realize that.

Obviously there are freak accidents that cause unusual holdups. But the "everyday" nature of muni delays indicates a far more systemic problem of managerial incompetance.

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Posted by Lina on Aug. 09, 2013 @ 11:09 am

Of course, the notion that "inner sections of a route will always be more heavily utilized than the outer sections," needs to be validated in every single case -- and even defining the terms involved might tend to make obvious the intent to shift public subsidy towards downtown.

Riders from one end may share seats with riders from the opposite end in the middle of each route; that some sections are notably more crowded than others does not educate us substantially with regard to the need to serve outlying areas.

The point made earlier is that when people get on MUNI, they should know exactly where they will end up. If passengers know that the final destination of the car on which they are riding will require them transferring to another car, such transfers can be managed by them in productive/economically vital ways such as shopping, or getting coffee, etc.: much better for all parties involved than having such riders stranded for bitter waits on windswept and barren corners.

As for private jitneys, they would be far more likely to run on the most profitable routes, not the least profitable; which is what leads me to suspect it as concern trollery. Might it simply be not fully developed thinking?

I think the trollery here gets adapted to work on a variety of levels; scattershot trollery.

Posted by lillipublicans on Mar. 18, 2013 @ 12:26 pm

locals refer to it as the "Zen Buddah" because of it's notoriously fickleness) and I can assure you that, while it is very crowded from downtown, far more people get off at Church/Duboce, Cole/Carl and Irving/9th, such as there are usually empty seats beyond 9th.

The obvious conclusion is the exact opposite of that implied by the article - the N is over-used out to the Inner Sunset and under-used thereafter.

So it makes perfect,sense to turn around, say, every other train at 9th but, right now, that happens by design rather than by schedule.

It's not the switchbacks that are the problem but rather that they are not scheduled. They shou;ld be scheduled and then, the problem goes away.

Transit has to serve populations, not square footage.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 18, 2013 @ 12:49 pm

until now. Since I looked it up see there are many hits to be had based only on a recent song, so I'll be sticking with the assumption that you are one in the same with Transpositional Letters Guest who has a track record of sly trollery.

That said, while at first glance the idea of scheduling turnbacks intentionally would seem to be a way to achieve improved service where there is more rider density, such moves will not have all the beneficial effect on service that one might tend to think; such turned cars won't automatically merge with those going the opposite way in a fashion that would preserve even spacings between cars.

I think it is universally understood that when trains are too closely spaced, then the tendency is for the leading train to get more crowded -- and bog down while packed cars are boarded and disembarked from -- and the following train to be far less crowded and speedy; thus closing the gap even further.

Also, the idea that "outlying areas" should be shorn of their transit service can be seen as representing a huge step away from the "Transit First" policy San Franciscans have voted for again and again.

Compelling people who want to travel from -- or make a trip to -- the avenues, the Sunset, Ocean Beach, etc. will increase total car travel in the city.

Posted by lillipublicans on Mar. 18, 2013 @ 1:58 pm

and I am surprised that you have never heard of that before. As the longest route on the streetcar network, it is perhaps inevitable that it offers the elast reliable service, requiring zen-like insouciance to tolerante it's vagueries.

Your idea that transit scheduels should be unrelated to distance, ridership, populations and economics is so offbeat that I am shocked that it would be deemed valid even in a place as whacked out as SFBG.

Heck, even your nemesis Marcos gets that.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 18, 2013 @ 3:01 pm

That's somewhat interesting in and of itself.

And associating Zen with "insousiance" now. It's a regular anti-intellectual troll-fest of lies and bold effrontery.

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Posted by london apartment on Jun. 15, 2013 @ 3:33 pm

I hesitate to in the least way appear to be joining the chorus of trolls who criticize Muni drivers as being "overpaid," but any work rules which lead to endemic inefficiency in the system *must* be scrapped. That is for the long term interests of the drivers.

Seniority-based work rules stem from labor practices in private industry before the advent of unionization where more experienced and highly paid workers with seniority could be made to train their younger lowly-paid replacements and then discarded.

The Muni union and its members should look very carefully at any aspect of their contract which might seem good in the present day but is ultimately destined to result in their undoing.

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Posted by China sourcing agent on Jun. 22, 2013 @ 12:10 pm

journeys. The "flat rate" approach that Muni takes actually rewards and favors those who take longer journeys, by charging them no more than a trip of just a few blocks. And yet it must clearly cost far more to run a bus or streetcar five or seven miles with only a small number of passengers, which is why we have the switchbacks in the first place.

Maybe we should be reconsidering providing such an extended services to the least densely populated part of the city. Not all routes may be economically viable.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 18, 2013 @ 11:28 am

Public transit need not be economically viable. This is no argument for throwing money down a pit, but there are myriad circumstances where subsidy is good public policy.

Posted by marcos on Mar. 19, 2013 @ 9:30 am

we should simply not have it at all, and allow private buses, jitneys and cabs handle it instead, which is the norm in many countries.

Subsidies should be an excedption and not a norm, and I cannot think of a "myriad" of cases at all where it is warranted. It always implies that someone has to pay, and what if they will not?

Posted by Guest on Mar. 19, 2013 @ 9:58 am

and validated by a commenter who is also exhibiting reactionary/pro-privatization/concern troll attitudes. Perhaps others will notice that I do not take it as an opportunity to preen.

Posted by lillipublicans on Mar. 19, 2013 @ 10:00 am

Every nation on the planet (near enough) has been privatizing things for a few decades now. It is hardly controversial. It is mainstream.

The idea that the government always does the ebst job of running anything and everything is not popular.

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Posted by marcos on Mar. 19, 2013 @ 10:18 am

Just like I can cherry pick about 100 nations that have successfully privatized or outsourced successfully.

But keep sticking up for Muni - it makes you look so well informed. Just be sure to blame everyone and everything except Muni itself.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 19, 2013 @ 11:08 am

Here and now, common carrier transit privatization fails.

Posted by marcos on Mar. 19, 2013 @ 11:17 am

system, while retaining their iconic double-decker buses and "tube" trains.

In fact, the UK has privatized all it's transport, even the trains and buses.

It can be done, as long as there is some regulatory structure in place, as with utilities here. The government can exert control without owning the assets or running the system.

There is zero reason to believe that any city employee has expertize in any particular business discipline.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 19, 2013 @ 11:32 am

has expertize in any particular business discipline," then there is *zero* reason to think that any city employee is competent to oversee business dealings with private contractors.

See? Your wholesale dismissal of government capability serves to devalues your very own position.

And ironically, it's a good point: the problem both with government contracted-- and government provided-- services is the problem of proper oversight.

That privatization fans would gloss over realities to push their privatization agenda, hints at their true aims. Saving money for taxpayers? Please!

Posted by lillipublicans on Mar. 19, 2013 @ 5:43 pm

volunteer to "oversee" incompetant city workers are people with no lives who are, if anything, even more incompetent.

Do you really trust someone like marcos to oversee anything? Sadly it is people like him who typicaly volunteer for such "jobs".

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where it lived up to the promises which were made for it.

The term is used sneakily. It is not meant to represent some game wherein privatizers may either make money or lose money; but rather "privatization" is about privatizing *profits* *only*. Losses are always nationalized or absorbed by local governments.

Another thing that nobody has ever explained to me is how privatized services can seek to carve profit from public transaction while also providing same services on an equal basis.

In reality what happens is that unprofitable services are cut, critical mass is lost, and the public ends up having to step in to clean the mess.

Posted by lillipublicans on Mar. 19, 2013 @ 10:51 am

It happened more in Europe, where of course far more was nationalized in the first place.

Examples - various European nations privatized the following:

Car making
Oil companies

In some nations, at the height of post-WW2 nationalization, more than 50% of workers were employed by the government.

Is that the model you see for the US? Even though the voters show no interest in it? And even though things like Muni show us how bad bureaucrats really are at running any business?

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Posted by Lavon on Aug. 06, 2013 @ 8:23 pm

London is are more transit friendly area, more people in a bigger area, tightly packed and lot more bigger businesses. It seems to be far more a user friendly system.

San Francisco is only 49 square miles and it is treated as such, MUNI mostly serves that same 49 square miles with some out of county service.

Overall the bay area is a transit nightmare, yes we have a clipper card, but with all the different transit agencies that run each little network is a joke.

You live in North Beach and work for __________ in the Silicon Valley that doesn't have shuttle buses. How long of a trip from Washington Square to 444 Castro St.

Posted by Garrett on Mar. 19, 2013 @ 12:14 pm

We have BART, ferries and three well-organized airports.

It's the city transit that sucks.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 19, 2013 @ 12:54 pm

Yes we have BART, Ferries and those 3 airports, but in come cases getting around the bay area is not easy, too many transit agencies

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Posted by Patrick Monk.RN. on Mar. 24, 2013 @ 11:02 am

In the last 20 years, work has become much more de-centralized, and in fact you often see more commuters going south out of the city than going north into it. "Downtown" is a dated concept and, as we saw with twitter, the city may need to give tax breaks just to keep dynamic companies there.

The idea that "downtown" should pay for everything is old-school socialist thinking which wasn't even viabe 20 years ago - it's certainly not now.

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