Background & Context
Every Fall, service planners at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) draft proposed modifications to the Muni (public transit) network for the upcoming year based on the city’s needs and resource availability. This annual exercise is typically uneventful, with minor changes to routes or service frequencies and limited public engagement. However, given the drastic cuts in service that had to be implemented (including suspension of many routes) throughout 2020 and 2021 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was an open question within SFMTA whether to continue bringing back service in the same configuration as before or experiment with potentially more efficient network designs.
The interest in considering a larger-scale network redesign was spurred on by a couple of observations about travel patterns in San Francisco. First, office workers that typically commuted downtown each weekday were not returning in significant numbers, as many of them had apparently become accustomed to teleworking or were now on “hybrid” schedules where they only made trips to their offices occasionally. This meant that projections for ridership demand on most routes going downtown were not modelled to return to pre-pandemic levels until potentially 2023 – instead, more neighborhood-to-neighborhood travel was anticipated. Secondly, certain lines or more remote segments of those lines already had low ridership before the pandemic, especially those parallel to other lines that ran more frequently. For example, pre-pandemic ridership on the 6 Haight/Parnassus was relatively low in its outer segment, which was one reason this route was suspended during the initial service cuts.
Looking forward to 2022, SFMTA wanted to generate a set of options for the public’s consideration, so they contracted with the planning consultant Jarrett Walker, well-known internationally for his work on transit network redesigns. He and his team set out to create three named “Alternatives” that featured a scale of tradeoffs in service coverage versus frequency: The Familiar Alternative, the Frequent Alternative, and the Hybrid Alternative.
The Familiar Alternative was a full restoration of all suspended routes at pre-pandemic frequencies. The Frequent Alternative removed several of the more redundant or low-ridership routes, but increased service frequency on targeted high-ridership routes to improve reliability and connections. Finally, the Hybrid Alternative was a compromise that offered a balance between the Familiar and Frequent Alternatives. Jarrett Walker + Associates calculated measures of accessibility for each Alternative by looking at how many connections were possible in set timeframes between residents and resources such as jobs, education, low-cost food, and medical facilities. For instance, they concluded that the Frequent Alternative allowed the average San Franciscan to reach about 4,000 more jobs and educational opportunities in a 30-minute travel time as compared to the Familiar Alternative.
The vastly improved accessibility of the Frequent Alternative made sense when considering some basic principles of transit service design. Overall travel time in a transit trip includes the time it takes to walk/roll to a stop, wait for a vehicle, and then actually ride the vehicle (repeated for any necessary transfers), so a network optimized for frequency could enable further travel in less time by drastically reducing wait times. Overall travel times would be reduced as long as the time it takes to walk/roll to stops was not significantly impacted, which is why the Frequent Alternative only proposed removing routes that were one or two blocks from other existing route options – essentially redirecting resources from the removed routes to increase frequency on the ones around them. However, SFMTA needed to solicit feedback to determine whether this kind of tradeoff would be acceptable by the public, so a major outreach campaign was planned.
SFMTA staff from the Communications and Service Planning teams (including myself) put together an online survey that asked key questions to determine the appetite for trading off broader route coverage for improved route frequency. We also directly asked about which of the three Alternatives was most preferred and least preferred and collected extensive demographic information for later analysis. This survey was ultimately translated into Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Vietnamese, Tagalog (Filipino), and Arabic to make it more accessible to the diverse communities across San Francisco.
We provided all the details of each Alternative in an online ArcGIS Story Map and hosted a series of five virtual “Open Houses” and two “Office Hours” sessions to present all of the data to interested parties. In order to reach populations in San Francisco that did not have access to a computer or Internet, we also ran a series of physical pop-up booths at local community events such as the Autumn Moon Festival in the Richmond District. There, we answered questions about the three Alternatives and distributed paper versions of the survey which we manually entered in later to the online system.
Staff members also set up a series of meetings with over 40 stakeholder groups across the city including neighborhood associations, community-based organizations, business/merchant groups, labor unions, youth organizations, non-profit advocacy groups, political bodies, etc. This was to ensure voices across the city would be heard, allowing SFMTA to receive the broadest set of input possible on the Alternatives and follow best practices in inclusive / participatory planning.
In addition to these activities, we also opened a telephone hotline where residents could call in to take the survey or provide additional feedback, advertised on over 650 multilingual posters across the city. (I personally was staffed on this hotline three days per week.) A translation service was also available, which was tested to its limit during a particularly busy week when dozens of non-English-speaking residents called in after notice about the hotline was distributed in several senior centers.
The 2022 Muni Service Network planning process was closely monitored from the day it launched, particularly by local advocacy groups such as SF Transit Riders, Senior and Disability Action, TransForm, etc. These stakeholders had strong opinions about the outreach process itself, perhaps even more so than about the details of the three specific Alternatives. For example, SF Transit Riders was concerned about the short timeline for public engagement and the inability to register more nuanced feedback as part of the survey. Senior and Disability Action also felt that the agency wasn’t doing enough to reach seniors or SRO residents without computers. Community Living Campaign suggested that the process was pitting neighborhoods against each other in a fight for individual routes. Chris Arvin, an appointed member of SFMTA’s Citizens’ Advisory Council (CAC), lamented that none of the Alternatives provided more than 85% of pre-pandemic service levels when many advocates wanted to see something closer to a full restoration, regardless of budgetary concerns.
Throughout the public engagement period, SFMTA staff and even Jarrett Walker himself tried to clarify the goals for the outreach process. The Alternatives were developed specifically based on resource assumptions that would support 85% of pre-pandemic service levels, with plans to create additional proposals for expanded service once additional funding could be identified. The survey primarily aimed to understand respondents’ values with regards to coverage (walking/rolling distance to stops) versus frequency (waiting times at stops) and more detailed feedback about routes was intended to be captured by other means. Staff had made extensive efforts to reach communities without access to computers, distributing flyers and translated/paper versions of the survey at senior centers as mentioned above.
That all being said, some of the feedback was fair and pushed SFMTA staff to reflect on the process and how to improve it going forward. For example, in subsequent iterations of similar surveys, we planned to provide more space for open-ended feedback. We also expanded our telephone hotline hours and ramped up efforts to reach senior citizens.
After a month of these outreach efforts, SFMTA had collected over 5,000 responses to our survey and hundreds of pieces of feedback through our e-mail and telephone channels. We summarized our findings in a blog post and prepared presentations for major stakeholders such as the SFMTA Policy and Governance Committee and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
Overall, survey respondents mostly preferred shorter wait times (more frequency) over having short distances to stops (more coverage) – on a scale of 0 to 100 where 100 represented full preference of shorter wait/travel times over shorter distances to stops, the average response was ~66. Notable exceptions were seniors (average of 56-58) and those with disabilities (average of 42-45).
Slightly more respondents preferred the Familiar Alternative over the others, but the results here were split fairly evenly. Interestingly, those that preferred the Familiar Alternative the most tended to prefer the Frequent Alternative the least and vice-versa. This gave credence to the idea that the Alternatives were perhaps “pitting groups against each other” to some extent.
Looking at the results through an equity lens, it became clear that the Familiar Alternative was strongly preferred by nearly half of seniors (age 55+), people with disabilities, and people with incomes less than $50K. Combining these results with the feedback we heard through qualitative means, we concluded that the main takeaways were to:
- Restore key pre-pandemic connections
- Preserve or restore Muni access in hilly areas
- Focus on access for people with disabilities and seniors
- Find ways to address frequency going forward (as funding allows)
Hence, in the latest (and most likely final) proposal for the 2022 Muni Service Network, all but two pre-pandemic routes will be restored with some changes to a number of other lines to help bridge service gaps and help balance limited resources. This proposal will be presented to the full SFMTA Board of Directors in December and preparations will be made for its implementation in February 2022.
Reflections & Lessons Learned
This service planning and public outreach process has been an incredibly educational experience and I am exceptionally grateful that I was able to contribute and witness it from inside SFMTA. I also participate in several local transit advocacy groups myself, so it was especially fascinating to see the debate about the outreach process and Alternatives from multiple sides. Suffice it to say that I have gained an immense appreciation for the planning work required to execute a project like this – from the detailed calculations on individual route frequencies and accessibility metrics all the way to the countless hours of community engagement needed to produce a well-grounded result.
There are several lessons that I will take with me through the rest of my planning career, some about public engagement and others more political in nature.
Make technocratic visions compelling at a personal level
As someone studying transportation planning, I went into this project well aware of the many benefits of focusing transit service frequency on fewer routes and had high hopes that the people of San Francisco would recognize and rally around them as well. Indeed, while SFMTA’s public stance was that there was no internal preference by staff, I was personally rooting for the Frequent Alternative as a first step towards reorienting the Muni network to attract more long-term ridership and hence contribute to building a more sustainable transit agency.
Certainly, many residents and groups of more technocratically-aligned folks (i.e., “transit nerds”) did voice their preference for a high-frequency network at the expense of thinly spread coverage, but ultimately they were not in the majority nor did they accurately represent the desires and needs of the more vulnerable members of society. While the lack of a major network redesign was a somewhat disappointing outcome, it also presented a learning opportunity for technocrats like me.
I believe the value of frequency was real, but it was not as compelling as the comfort and ease-of-understanding that the Familiar Alternative offered. Asking San Francisco residents to review dozens of maps, comparing minute-to-minute frequencies between multiple lines, and learn about the concept of accessibility proved to be overwhelming. It didn’t matter that the Frequent Alternative would have allowed them to access more job opportunities or low-cost food in less time – what mattered was the route they had known for years would be lost.
This was conveyed by the public over and over again, especially on the telephone hotline. People would call in and simply demand that “their” route be restored, sometimes unwilling to listen to an explanation of the Alternatives at all or even to take the survey. I quickly learned to just note the feedback and not push the full technocratic explanations.
At the same time, many seniors and people with mobility disabilities told compelling stories about how challenging it would be to walk an additional block or two (sometimes uphill) to reach a Muni stop. Initially, I would suggest trying SFMTA’s paratransit services, but I realized that its inflexibility made it unviable for many seniors who just wanted to independently ride transit. (This is perhaps a valid use case for on-demand paratransit services such as Via.)
The common thread here is that the technically ideal solution is not always the one that’s “right” for every situation. There is value in doing the due diligence, conducting the public outreach, elevating the right voices, and discovering what people really care about. These findings can then be used to improve the case for something closer to the technical ideal in the future (e.g., adding elements of familiarity into the Frequent Alternative or adjusting more routes to account for hills).
Listen but don’t obey the public
While the results of our survey suggested that SFMTA should simply implement the Familiar Alternative and be done with it, staff actually surprised me with the final proposal which was something closer to the Hybrid Alternative. This was justified in another public post that outlined specific details about what we heard, what we propose, and the planning considerations that factored into the final decisions.
Ultimately, SFMTA does utilize internal data and staff expertise to make tweaks to the transit network, and public feedback is just one of many inputs into this process. This showed me how it is possible (and often necessary) to filter the messages we receive from the public in order to fulfill our jobs as planners. For example, SFMTA staff need to consider how routes interact with each other when interlined, or how certain streets are better designed to accommodate transit vehicles than others.
The J-Church streetcar line is currently a flash point that will test this lesson in the coming months. SFMTA staff know that having the J-Church terminate at Market Street and not enter the subway will make all other Muni Metro service more reliable, but there is mounting public pressure to restore the “one-seat ride” all the way to the end of the traditional route. It will be fascinating to see how this debate plays out and what staff will do to demonstrate they are listening but not blindly caving to public demands.
Stay aware of the broader political context
Planning doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and this is especially true in a city like San Francisco that has so many stakeholders involved in SFMTA affairs. These stakeholders can often influence both the planning process and outcomes in subtle ways, far more than just submitting a public comment or responding to a survey.
The clearest example of this can be seen in the interactions between SFMTA staff and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Although Supervisors do not technically have managerial control over SFMTA, they do have influence over other factors that can help or hurt SFMTA in a myriad of ways (e.g., through funding measures or confirming/denying appointments to the SFMTA Board of Directors). Supervisors are also very willing to push back against proposed changes that affect their Districts directly, in bids to appease constituents. Hence, catering to the wishes of Supervisors is often a significant part of the role of planners at SFMTA, which potentially includes adjusting proposals as necessary.
On a larger scale, SFMTA is also constantly working to build trust with the public. This will become even more critical over the next few months as SFMTA seeks support for a funding measure going to voters in 2022. If the public perceives SFMTA as wasteful or incompetent in running Muni transit service, they may refuse to grant it additional funding and thus worsen its already precarious financial situation. A drastic network overhaul (i.e., the Frequent Alternative) may be too risky to attempt in any case, especially given the high levels of tension and frustration amongst the public during the last year. All this suggests that the political context surrounding an agency is critical to consider along with the actual job of planning itself. Ignoring this can put even the most validated and comprehensively studied plan at risk. It also suggests that a planner’s job can be made much easier or more difficult depending on the nature of the jurisdiction she works in.