How We Make Changes to Muni Service
If you’re a Muni customer, you may have wondered why our current schedules and routes look the way they do, and why we don’t alter them more frequently by changing the number of vehicles, stops and routes that we cover. This page is to help pull back the curtain and share with you what goes into planning Muni service.
In a typical year, the SFMTA facilitates three service changes: Once at the start of the school year to accommodate school schedules including implementing special "school trippers" service that is discontinued over the summer months, and to serve middle and high schools throughout the city after school. Then, a second service change occurs in the winter, and finally a third at the end of the school year when those accommodations are no longer necessary. Each of these three annual service changes typically requires six months for SFMTA teams to implement. That means that during the pandemic, SFMTA staff have been implementing service changes four to five times faster than usual. The speed and dynamics required to deliver the six-month process so quickly has required temporarily adjusting how the SFMTA designs and delivers service changes.
Pre-Pandemic Service Change Process
Developing a service change proposal will typically take a minimum of three months, and complex changes can take two years or even longer. Prior to the city’s emergency order requiring shelter-in-place restrictions, service changes advanced as follows:
1. Development: First, a proposal for a change to Muni service--changes to routes, schedules and vehicles—is developed. SFMTA’s service planning team prioritizes improvements through service changes to the bus and light rail routes that comprise our transit system, identifying times of day to enhance frequency, extend service hours and adjust routes and stops. These service changes are also informed by our Muni Service Equity Strategy to address high priority transit needs in neighborhoods that rely on Muni service the most.
Proposals for service changes are identified through transit and customer feedback data. Once the needs are identified, a proposal is developed and refined through an iterative process of public engagement, additional data collection and technical analysis, such as bus tests of the proposed service changes to see how it would perform.
Additionally, as a federally-funded agency, the SFMTA complies with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires all transit agencies evaluate service changes that meet the definition of a “major service change” and are in place for longer than 12 months. This analysis is done to determine whether the changes will have a discriminatory impact based on race, color or national origin. Also during development, the state-mandated environmental review process is conducted.
2. Internal Vetting: The proposal that is developed through stakeholder outreach is then vetted with Muni operations staff, such as our scheduling team, division (or bus yard) management, on the ground field inspectors and the Transportation Management Center that oversees all San Francisco transportation. This step, which ensures that all operational concerns are reviewed and addressed, usually takes one month.
3. Legislation: After the developed service change proposal has been vetted, it is taken to the MTA’s Board of Directors for their consideration. Once this process starts, it takes at least a month and a half for a vote to occur.
4. Scheduling: If legislated by the SFMTA Board, the plan goes to the scheduling team who will add the information about the routes, stops and schedules into our transit management software to create operator shifts for which operators are later able to sign-up. The legislated service change requires at least two months to process (including the scheduling, union review and signup steps outlined below) and implement once it is handed over to the scheduling team.
5. Union Review: The schedules for the legislated service changes are proposed to the Transport Workers Union Local 250A, who represent the Muni operators. The union provides feedback within 10 days.
6. Signups: The service change schedules for operator shifts are approved by the union no more than two weeks before operators can sign up for their preferred routes based on qualifications and seniority. After this time, training for operators new to specific routes can begin.
7. Implementation: On the day the service changes are implemented, operators change shifts and start the updated service.
This typical seven-step Muni service change process from identification to implementation takes six months or more.
COVID-19 Muni Core Service Plan Changes
In the 18 months between March 2020 and August 2021, the SFMTA will have made 12 major Muni service changes, an unprecedented rate in the agency’s history. Once the COVID-19 pandemic hit, demands for Muni service changed quickly and the SFMTA Transit Planning team sprang into action working tirelessly on iterative service plans to meet constantly evolving needs for service and constraints to resources including staff, buses and funding.
To meet the demands, the process for service changes was compressed during the pandemic. To identify needed changes to service, SFMTA staff have been using transit and public feedback data to inform service planning while taking into account real resource constraints. For example, when the pandemic first started, transit data indicated that the 14 Mission and 14R Mission Rapid lines continued to have robust ridership while much of the Muni system saw a massive decline, so the 14R Mission Rapid remained as the lone Muni Rapid route during the pandemic. As Muni service was initially scaled back, SFMTA transit planners ensured that all San Franciscans were within one mile of Muni service. Service adjustments focused on routes where redundant service provided more capacity than was needed.
As demand increased, Muni routes were restored to increase coverage across the city and improve connections, initially to essential services and later to provide support for businesses reopening. Frequency of service was increased on some routes to address higher passenger volumes and in some cases route changes were made to enhance reliability. For example, when the 27 Bryant was restored in January 2021 there were alignment changes to take advantage of the Temporary Emergency Transit Lanes on 7th and 8th in SOMA. The route changes provide more consistent travel time by using the new temporary emergency transit lanes and establishing new connections to grocery stores.
Due to the state of emergency, special legislation permitted temporary service changes that may bypass MTA Board approval before implementation. As such, the timeline has been massively compressed for vetting and scheduling service changes. The two-week process for union review, approval and implementation is the only schedule that was not compressed.
Meanwhile, to get the word out about these systemwide changes requires a significant multichannel, multilingual communications program including press releases, website updates, social media, newspaper and online advertisements; printing, laminating and posting signage at more than 2,000 Muni stops; and training and deploying hundreds of ambassadors to assist customers on the first days the new service is implemented. This massive campaign primarily happens during scheduling and union review.
Because the usual iterative development process was shortened, SFMTA staff has been evaluating the COVID-19 Muni Core Network service changes in real time. Through a pilot project model, we have been surveying community members and collecting transit data after the service changes are implemented. Then the service changes are refined in response to survey and transit data as needed in subsequent service changes. This special emergency legislation also requires that all the service changes made since March 2020 are temporary in nature and will require a public process and MTA Board approval before being made permanent, which we expect to do in winter 2021-2022.
The timeline for delivering Muni service changes has been incredibly fast-paced during the COVID-19 pandemic. SFMTA staff have been laser-focused on improving access using an equity toolkit for San Francisco’s most transit-dependent residents and essential workers. As of January 2021, 100% of neighborhoods identified by SFMTA’s Muni Service Equity Strategy are within two to three blocks of a Muni stop. And by August 2021, in time for school to restart, we plan to extend this convenient Muni access to 98% of San Francisco residents.
Moving Forward with Service Changes
The August 2021 Muni service changes are likely to be SFMTA’s final changes to its COVID-19 Muni Core Service Plan before we seek approval for permanent service changes post-pandemic in winter. The proposed service changes for August have already been submitted to our scheduling team so that the union can review the schedules in July.
Among the lessons learned through our rapid pace of changes during the COVID-19 pandemic are that it takes tremendous effort to keep the riding public aware of what they care about most–the frequency, reliability and convenience of Muni service. From signage at stops and stations, to updates on arrival prediction apps, to website navigation tools, our goal is to ensure that everyone can quickly understand how to find the best route for the trip they wish to take.
When we compressed the timeline for the steps outlined above, we also discovered that occasionally our plans met with unexpected challenges, such as vehicles not being able to adequately navigate a new route, unavailability of sufficient operators to keep the route fully staffed and concerns expressed by stakeholders that the changes did not meet their needs or expectations.
Moving forward, our service change process will balance the goal of acting decisively with the realities of our operational processes and the needs of customers who rely on Muni.
The pandemic and our pre-pandemic structural deficit continue to make our funding future uncertain. With ridership expected to initially take several years to reach pre-pandemic levels, we are carefully bringing back service at a level we can sustain, to meet the city’s transit needs without over-extending our resources. One-time federal funding has saved the SFMTA from devastating cuts and layoffs, but this one-time funding runs out in 2023 and does not solve the long-term funding challenge. While we are on our way to increasing service, getting Muni back to 100% of pre-pandemic service, as well as any increases, does require more sustained funding.
As we look to the continued expansion and restoration of service, our planning will include feedback from policy makers and stakeholders in weighing the tradeoffs that must be met in the months and years ahead. We look forward to working with communities across San Francisco to ensure that our future service changes are optimal, given the resource constraints we now face.
Our staff is committed to keeping San Francisco moving and is working hard to bring Muni service back in a way that best serves San Francisco. For travel and transit updates and to provide feedback, please visit our email and text alert subscription page.