As the SFMTA shut down all but 17 of its 79 bus and train routes on Wednesday, riders who still need to move around the city — including healthcare and other frontline workers — are bearing the brunt of the cutbacks.
"Service will be unreliable, there will be many missed runs and we're going to need a lot of patience in order to get through," said SFMTA transportation director Jeffrey Tumlin in a message this. The week began with 30 to 40 percent of Muni operators failing to show up for work, some fearing for their exposure to the coronavirus. This led to a rapid rethinking of the city's transit system, and an announcement on Monday that only 17 bus and shuttle lines would operate on a limited schedule going forward.
"How does #sfmta expect healthcare workers / other essential workers to [take] transit to and from work?" writes UCSF nurse Blake Young in an Instagram story. "There are no trains in operation and a handful of buses running. Those buses are running so infrequently, I've waited over an hour to be picked up." He adds, "I'd also prefer to avoid the $250 in Ubers [per] week just for transportation to work. These inconsistencies are not new for [Muni]. They are just much worse in this time of need."
Young needs to get himself to and from UCSF Parnassus each day from the Civic Center area, and he says many of his coworkers have resorted to rideshares and driving themselves. He would typically ride the N-Judah train, but that has been replaced with a shuttle bus that has reportedly not been providing consistent service.
Of course one main reason for the curtailing of service is preserving the safety of Muni operators, but it seems that by limiting the busses beyond what the existing demand can tolerate, this has led to over-crowding and greater danger of virus transmission for riders and drivers alike.
As ABC 7 reports, 100,000 people are still riding the buses in San Francisco every day, and the buses that are running feel too crowded. One example on the 38 Geary — which already showed evidence of overcrowding when Muni Metro service ended a week ago — was snapped by a rider on Wednesday.
But the dilemma for transit agencies of continuing service while also losing money and putting drivers at risk exists across the nation right now. As the New York Times reports, the transit agencies across Illinois are expecting major budget shortfalls because they rely no sales tax for their funding.
And Tumlin tells the Times that the number of scenarios the SFMTA is now trying to game out is "staggering."
What if agencies have to maintain this strange status quo, running nearly empty buses for second-shift nurses, into the summer? What if unemployment reaches 30 percent? What if they idle vehicles for so long they fall out of working condition? What if they must lay off the only mechanics who know their way around streetcars?
What if the economy comes right back — but transit riders are afraid to?
“It will be years before we get back to normal, under even the best-case scenario,” Mr. Tumlin said.
These are troubling words about an agency that was already notorious for spotty service and rush-hour meltdowns that cripple the entire city.
In related news, Lyft's Bay Wheels service, in partnership with the SFMTA, is offering free 30-memberships to frontline and healthcare workers, and it recently expanded its bike-share service to cover more of San Francisco.