SFMTA Ignores Muni Metro Crowding

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L Taraval Street Scenes

Muni includes many heavily used bus lines.  But the workhorse of the system is, or at least should be, the Muni Metro subway/surface system.

A fully grade-separated subway typically carries hundreds of thousands of riders a day.  Tokyo’s 9 lines carry an average of over 1,000,000 riders per day per line.  The Paris Metro’s 19 lines carry an average of 260,000 riders per line per day.  New York’s 22 subway lines average over 250,000 riders per line per day.  What makes this possible are long trains traveling frequently at regular intervals.

The Muni Metro is not fully grade-separated and station constraints limit the length of its trains.  Therefore the five Muni Metro lines cannot generate the huge riderships that are achieved by many subways throughout the world.  However, Muni Metro’s peak period carrying capacity is currently less than half of what it was designed to be and could again be.  In fact the five Muni metro lines today average only a little over 30,000 thousand riders per line per day, roughly a third what they could and should be carrying.  The Market Street subway is no longer doing the job it was designed and built to do.

This unacceptably low ridership is not because people don’t want to use the system.  It is estimated that were it not for excessive peak period crowding, Muni Metro’s ridership would climb by at least 40,000 riders a day. In other words, tens of thousands of would-be Muni Metro riders are pushed off the Muni Metro system every day because of excessive peak period crowding.  With traffic increasing and Muni surface vehicles slowing down, the lack of a fully functional Muni Metro system is becoming a bigger and bigger headache for anyone trying to get around in San Francisco.

Without getting into the short-sighted SFMTA decision that in 1997 resulted in a 60% drop in Muni Metro’s peak period carrying capacity, here are some steps that would turn things around and allow more would-be riders to use the system:

Train Length  It is necessary to run longer trains in the Market Street subway.  Longer trains would increase peak period subway carrying-capacity and therefore attract more riders.  Most subways around the world deploy 8 and 10 car trains.  The Muni Metro subway used to operate with 4 and 5 car trains but now operates with 1 and 2 car trains.

Coupling  To permit longer trains to operate in the subway without unnecessarily running up Muni Metro operating costs and unduly blocking cross traffic out in the Avenues, the one and two car trains suitable for surface travel need to be combined into longer trains before entering the subway.  N and J trains used to couple and uncouple at the Duboce Portal.  K, L and M trains used to couple and uncouple at the West Portal.  This allowed trains of shorter length to operate at the outer ends of the lines where longer trains weren’t needed and longer trains to operate in the subway where longer trains were needed.  With coupling, the peak period carrying-capacity of the Market Street subway would more than double.  With coupling and the other changes indicated below, the Market Street subway could at last be used to full advantage.

Regularity of Subway Travel  Creating a high capacity subway-surface rail operation depends upon split second timing in the subway and along the surface sections of the lines. In the subway the principle handicap to a faster and more reliable operation is the subway signal and control system. To get the most out of the Muni Metro subway this system must be modernized and otherwise improved.

Regularity of Surface Travel  There are a number of things that could be done to improve the reliability of Muni Metro surface travel, including:

  • Transit First at Last  LRV’s should travel in their own lanes, out of traffic. This should be consistent and it should be enforced.
  • Bypassing the Saint Francis Circle Intersection  Between the southwest end of West Portal Avenue and the median of Junipero Serra the K-cars should travel below street grade. Between the southwest end of West Portal Avenue and the median of 19th Avenue the M-cars should travel below grade. This would greatly improve the reliability of K and M line service.
  • Removal of Obstacles  There are many other barriers that continually impede LRV surface travel. These should be systematically identified and eliminated. Current barriers include: the aforementioned St. Francis Circle bottleneck, turtle-like LRV speeds along the Embarcadero; unnecessary track offsets along Third Street; disruptive traffic signaling (which should be preempted when necessary); unnecessary cross traffic; unnecessary loading and unloading delays and a chronic shortage of street supervision.

At the current time the SFMTA is absorbed in developing and promoting an assortment of politically-charged Muni and street “enhancement” projects that would collectively cost billions of dollars to build and yet add only slightly to Muni’s daily ridership.  The SFMTA should put these niceties aside and instead concentrate on the projects that really would make a difference, beginning with extending Caltrain into downtown San Francisco and returning the Market Street subway to its full workhorse carrying-capacity.

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