What Does "On Time" Mean For the F-line?
June 1, 2012
The online Bay Citizen, which continues to undertake the kind of journalism that a good daily newspaper should, is out with a detailed report on Muni’s on-time performance, line by line.
Not surprisingly, the F-line doesn’t measure up well.
The article shows that the F-line has the fifth worst on-time record in Muni, behind three LRV lines (the L, M, and K/T) and, the worst of all, the 76-Marin Headlands weekend recreational route. (The three cable car lines don’t appear in the analysis, but there’s little doubt they’d have among the worst on-time records if they were.)
F-line streetcars are only on time 46% of the time, according to the article. (“On time” is defined for Muni vehicles if they arrive at a stop no more than 1 minute ahead of schedule and fewer than 4 minutes behind schedule.)
As a whole, Muni runs 60% on time, hardly a sterling achievement, but still markedly better than the F-line.
But how important is being “on time”? From our perspective the answer is “it depends.”
For almost all transit riders, it’s more about “how long do I have to wait?” instead of “At what moment is the next vehicle supposed to arrive?” Where strict on-time performance really does matter is on lines that don’t run frequently, like the 76-Marin Headlands. If there’s only one bus an hour, and it arrives two minutes early, such that you miss it, you’re going to be (rightly) ticked off. But if the line runs every five minutes or so (as the F-line does much of the day), you’re only going to get ticked off if there’s a big gap in service.
That’s called “headway,” and it’s Muni’s biggest challenge, especially for rail lines. If something blocks the tracks for even a few minutes, streetcars can stack up behind each other. As I’m writing this (June 1 at 1 p.m), for example, our F-line live map shows no streetcars at all in either direction on the Embarcadero or Wharf sections of the F-line north of Pier 7, but several in a row headed that way.
In a well-run rail system, inspectors would “short turn” the first or second streetcar in that group at an available turnaround point (in the F-line’s case, Pier 39) to pick up at least some of the people waiting to go in the opposite direction. But doing that requires dumping some riders short of their destination and telling them to finish their ride on a following car going all the way.
In the case of the F-line, Fisherman’s Wharf merchants have always bristled at dropping “short turn” loads at Pier 39, apparently out of fear that those riders will then not continue on to the Wharf proper. (That’s why, by the way, the switch at Pier 39 is manual — it has to be thrown by hand with a switch iron, rather than being controllable with a button inside the streetcar as the other F-line switches are. Wharf merchants back in the 1990s insisted that the Pier 39 turn back be used for emergencies only.)
But with switching back discouraged (for that matter, effectively prohibited on the outer ends of the LRV lines because of uproar from passengers dumped off at, say Sunset Boulevard when they expected to go further west on that car), it’s very hard for Muni to keep headways consistent along the lines. And consistent headways matter more than rote adherence to a schedule for lines like the F.
(Postscript: In the 15 minutes it’s taken to write this blog, the F-line has gone from having zero streetcars north of the Ferry Building to seven! But there are now ZERO Castro-bound streetcars between the Wharf and Fourth Street! Turning even one streetcar each at the Ferry Building or Pier 39 could have alleviated this problem considerably, but it wasn’t done for whatever reason. That’s the definition of a headway problem.)