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Muni approval plunges in public survey

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Transit service still feeling the sting of tunnel woes

Photos by Andy Bosselman

On Tuesday, the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency [SFMTA] board heard the results of this year’s annual Muni rider survey, and the timing could hardly have been worse.

Muni conducted the survey during the summer months—which this year coincided with the great 2018 Muni meltdown, in which the closure of the Twin Peaks Tunnel teamed up with a driver shortage to send service into a tailspin.

“Since 2010 we’ve seen continued growth in satisfaction” among riders each year, said Candace Sue, the agency’s director marketing, who spoke Tuesday before the presentation of the new figures. “This year we saw something different.”

John Canapary, of the SF-based marketing research firm Corey, Canapary and Galanis, which conducted this year’s survey, gave board members the lowdown on what riders said of Muni in 2018. Among other things:

  • Most riders still give Muni good marks, but that’s potentially misleading. Overall, 63 percent of riders rated Muni as “excellent” or “good.” Only eight percent dubbed service “poor.” However, last year’s survey saw 70 percent of riders giving Muni at least “good” marks. While that might look like a small difference, it’s a big dip in statistical terms. “A seven percent drop is significant in a survey of this type,” Canapary cautioned the board. The “poor” score in 2017 was just five percent.
  • It’s been years since Muni approval was this low. The 63 percent score is not exactly a disaster; going back to 2001, for example, the same figure was just 48 percent, and there have been plenty of years in the intervening period when it dipped lower than it is now. However, the last time the public had this poor of an opinion of the service was 2012, when it hit 62 percent.
  • It wasn’t just the Twin Peaks Tunnel. Breaking out satisfaction ratings for specific lines, Canapary noted that those affected directly by the closure of the Twin Peaks Tunnel saw a nine percent decline in satisfaction. However, even across other lines the same statistic dipped five percent. “It’s not just one segment, there’s a combination of things,” said Canapary.
Inside a big Muni bus. Photo by Todd Lappin
  • More than anything, people want Muni to be on time. Asked what improvements they would like to see, 24 percent said more frequent service and 20 percent said better on-time performance—two service elements that are closely tied. The third most common complaint was cleanliness, which 15 percent of people cited as their biggest concern.
  • Lyft and Uber are an increasingly attractive alternative. In perhaps the most alarming development, the number of people using ride-hailing apps as their first alternative to Muni skyrocketed year over year, from 34 percent in 2017 to 44 percent now. Other alternatives, such as biking or driving alone, either stayed nearly the same year over year or else declined. Asked what advantage ride hailing offered over public transit, the most common response (41 percent) was simply that it’s faster.

Canapary said that his firm based the results on phone interviews of 609 people in July and August.

Of those surveyed, 36 percent were regular riders who used Muni five times a week or more, whereas just eight percent were infrequent riders who took the bus less than once a month.

SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose, commenting to the San Francisco Examiner, argued that the city had made “significant progress” bettering service but acknowledged that this year things went south, saying, “We should be able to provide outstanding service whether we are conducting major tunnel work or not.”