Is the End Truly Near for the N Judah? Let’s Take a Look! UPDATED:

NJudah-postage copy.jpgNo one would debate the fact that our Mighty N is having a tough time of it these days. If you’re downtown you see a conga line of Ms, Js and Ks going by while you wait forever for an N that shows up late, and is often too full to board.
Other times, you are stranded if you’re going to the Outer Sunset, kicked to the curb at 19th, and you have to walk 20 blocks to get home. Between these, the traffic, delays when cars double park, and the overall decline of Muni under Nat Ford and crew, well, it’s not a great time to be riding the N.
However, examining this proposal to create “express buses” for the N (PowerPoint file here) demonstrates once again that Muni would rather throw away the $3 million Transit Effectiveness Project, which laid out the plan to improve the whole system, and instead implement gimmicky “solutions” to make Muni’s owners feel like something’s being done, and get the owners’ other employees (i.e. the electeds). Just like with plenty of Muni’s other gimmicks, it is a “looks great on paper” solution.
Before we get to it, let’s take a breather and remember how we got here, since it’s clear Muni would like to have you forget that the State of California illegally looted hundreds of millions of dollars from it (and all transit agencies). With the various deals cut by Democrats in the Legislature and the former Governor, the gas tax no longer helps fund roads and transit like it did in the past.
Despite being illegal, that money is gone for good. There has never been a serious proposal by Nat Ford or the MTA to replace this with a new funding source. Instead they’ve downsized the system, and they’ve refused to even consider real revenue measures. Instead they want to parking ticket the city to death, and use other “couch cushion” measures. They simply are out of their league at this point. The fact that they’re dreaming that “operator pay” is the only reason they have money problems just underscores the fact they don’t know what they’re doing.
Likewise, there’s both a huge backlog of maintenance and assorted outdated work rules that are creating problems too. The fact that the MTA can’t hire an out-of-work LRV operator from elsewhere to fill gaps in the workforce is significant too, as is the fact that when Muni wastes money on golden parachutes and big pay for management and big benefits, we then don’t have the money to hire good people we need anyway, union rules or not.
Anyway, now that’s out of the way, let’s look at what is being proposed. As always I have to be a bit suspicious, since Muni’s management hasn’t been that honest with the public. Basically what we have here is an express bus that would serve the Outer Sunset between 19th and 48th, then use an alternate route to get downtown. They claim it would be 1 minute faster inbound and 2 minutes faster outbound. (This is the part where you can tell this was done based on a spreadsheet, and not on any real studies).

On paper, again, this might make a little sense. Let’s take a look at the route inbound. We start down Judah, make a left turn onto 19th (!), then take Lincoln non stop to Oak, turn left onto Masonic (!!) and finally turn right onto Bush ending at Sutter and Sansome.
Really? A left turn from Judah to 19th? Because as we all know 19th is an easy, low traffic street. Same with Lincoln (which already has several express buses and the 71). Then we turn onto Masonic? The one with all the problems due for all that restructuring? Well ok then. This is a failwhale in the making since of course, there is no part of the plan that includes giving buses any sort of priority on these streets over the many cars, trucks, and others that use these busy streets. It’s claimed this will speed things up by…1 minute.
Now let’s look at the route outbound in the evenings. Between 4-6:30 pm (!) the bus outbound will depart at Sutter/Sansome, and head to 19th avenue. Going west on Sutter, it jogs left onto Gough to get to Geary (!!) to Presidio, and takes that twisty road in the park to 19th, makes a right on Judah, and then begins local service one again.
Ok, a shout out to my friends in the Richmond (and my dad) who ride the infamous 38 and the 38 Limited: would anyone out there say that there’s room for Yet Another Bus Route, even if it’s not making stops, on an already crowded arterial? Does anyone who commutes, either by car or bus through the park think there’s room for another line?
More to the point, assuming all runs perfectly as Muni’s planners dream up, we’re saving a mere 2 minutes from the Outer Sunset to downtown? Of course, we all know traffic runs perfectly, especially on rainy days, game days, event days, hot days, windy days, “pay me not to work” days, and all the other days Muni tends to blow it, not to mention car crashes, bike crashes, potholes, and the like, right?
The more I read this, the more it looks like a justification to stop the N at 19th, and free up more trains for other lines, and to cope with the fact that we do have an LRV operator “shortage” created artificially by management and union failures over the years. More importantly, I just don’t trust it.
It’ll be interesting to watch the cavalcade of whimsy tomorrow at the SFMTA meeting. I’m sure it’ll go through, no matter what, and I’m sure that whoever might be in charge of the MTA in June will brag about how great it is. But after years of being lied to about the 19th avenue turnarounds, I simply can no longer be assured anything they say is the truth anymore.
UPDATE: Here’s coverage in the Examiner, and in the Chronicle.

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13 Responses to Is the End Truly Near for the N Judah? Let’s Take a Look! UPDATED:

  1. MrEricSir says:

    They could save far more than 2 minutes by removing stops (and stop signs) along Judah, and putting in a light at Church and Duboce. I don’t even ride the N that often, but that’s just a no-brainer.

  2. anonymouse says:

    This new plan is not about speeding up service, it’s about providing more capacity. But they could do that by consistently running the trains every 7 minutes like they’re supposed to, If that doesn’t work, they need to fix up enough trains to increase service to every 6 minutes. If the problem is trains being too full, it might be time to make a compromise between frequency and capacity and start running some short-turn trains, maybe only between 19th and Embarcadero. With that sort of service pattern, it’s probably possible to provide service every 10 minutes on the full line and every 10 minutes on the short turn route, which means that while those at the outer ends of the line lose some service, those at the inner ends gain more service and a chance to get a seat on a less packed train, especially if the short turn train is ahead of the inbound full-route train so as to pick up more riders rather than having them try to cram into an already-full train and delay things even more.

  3. Aaron L says:

    As pathetic as this sounds, it will probably be better than the trains. I boycott the N-Judah because I’m absolutely unwilling to get stuck in a rail tunnel for ages. Surface traffic is understandable; routine delays in the tunnels are NOT.

  4. @makfan says:

    At first I thought this was nuts, but maybe it could help, a little. But $900K? Where is that coming from?
    The real problem with the Metro is that the subway really can’t handle the capacity it needs to. If you could reliably push one train every two minutes through each station, that means you can have 30 trains per direction per hour. With 5 rail lines, that means 6 trains per line per hour, if you distribute them equally. That means at best one train per 10 minutes. Of course, J and K/T don’t need quite as much service as the L, M and N lines do, but you can’t drop much below 15 minutes per line (which seems pretty awful at rush hour if that’s the line you need to ride).
    Then of course, there is the fact that the trains can’t always move in and out of a station every two minutes. Crowds keep the doors open too long, disabled people need help, operators take their sweet time in the turnback, the computer craps out, etc.
    It’s pretty hopeless. Frankly, the N line would be *much* better off with 3-car trains, but the Bredas can’t do it.

  5. Joseph E says:

    Why can’t Muni run 3-car trains? This doesn’t improve frequencies or speed (like eliminating stops would), but it would increase rush-hour capacity by 50%, at a low cost and with no need to hire/train new drivers.

  6. Steconn says:

    If you live in Outer Sunset and commute to Civic Center like I do, how much train frequency will we lose since these buses will not serve us?
    I agree that they should just short-turn half of the trains during rush hour between 19th Ave and Embarcadero – problem solved.

  7. cautn1 says:

    Minding the Store:
    Why does the staff of the MTA want to add an express bus service between the Outer Sunset and downtown San Francisco? One hears that it’s because “we can’t get enough vehicles out of Maintenance” or because of a general shortage of LRV’s. If that’s true, it’s odd that only the N-Line is affected.
    In any event, here’s another way of looking at the situation:
    A couple of decades ago Muni made a breathtakingly short-sighted and unwise decision. It was having trouble coupling its K, M and L trains together at the West Portal and its J and N trains together at the Duboce portal. Instead of facing the problem squarely and fixing it, the Muni unfortunately decided to abandon the coupling. This ill-considered action required that peak period subway trains be reduced from four and five car trains to one and two car trains, thereby cutting the peak-period carrying-capacity of the subway by 60%. The result which persists to this day is excessive peak period crowding in the subway which, according to Muni Planning, deters an estimated 35,000 riders a day from using the system.
    The proposed N-express bus line would pick up only a small fraction of this lost ridership.
    The MTA faces a choice. It can either continue squandering its human and financial resources on a money-losing, $1.58 billion Central Subway and papering over its growing operational and financial problems with contrivances like special express services or it can refocus its attention on revitalizing its 70 existing lines.
    Using the Market Street subway the way it was designed to be used would more than double the peak period carrying-capacity of the N-Line, as well as that of the other Muni Metro lines.

  8. Mickey says:

    I really agree with your real life disbelief that this is in anyway a real solution. From 45th and Quint, I can ride my bike to the park – thru the park/panhandle, wiggle, to Duboce then to Castro in 35 minutes another 10 minutes gets me to the Mission. (and I’m … I have a wide bottom) This is about the same as it takes to take the N-Judah to Duboce park or the L-Taravel to Castro Station or the #48 bus under “ideal” Muni conditions.
    Advantage for the morning as there are plenty of seats still available for us so close to the ocean. However, coming home, the frickin short turns esp in bad weather (when I’ve not at all likely to ride my bike) really peves me off.
    Given the problem with the tube numbers that Eric mentions, I’ve often thought that they should have designed the J and L into a circle with connector to the other trains at both the northern tunnel and at West Portal Station.

  9. Bob Davis says:

    Regarding building a connector between the L and N terminals. This was proposed back the 70’s or 80’s, but NIMBY reaction from folks along 46th Ave. made this a non-starter (or as the good buddies would say, “That dog wouldn’t hunt.”)

  10. Bob Davis says:

    I was looking at the “F Line Live” feature on the Market St. Ry. website, and decided to see what the “N” was doing (this was between 6:15 and 6:35 this evening. There seemed to be a big gap between the cars on Judah and the cars at Embarcadero and on out to Caltrain. I thought there might be a problem at the J-N junction, or in Sunset Tunnel, but eventually things started to even out. There still seemed to be a lot of uneven spacing between trains, with 4 or 5 bunched up and then a big “nothing”. If this is the normal evening situation, I can see why Muni riders aren’t pleased with service.
    (isn’t modern technology wonderful–tramspotting from 400 miles away)

  11. JayS says:

    Just curious, but why is that line taking Geary rather than Fell St? At least the lights on Fell are timed for a green wave unlike Geary where all the lights turn green or red at once. Can’t imagine trying to make a left from Geary to Park Presidio either. Although I suppose that would be the best route the avoid NIMBY complaints about a new bus line running down their residential street if the Nx route more closely resembled that of the 16. For example if Muni tried to go south on 18th to get to Judah from Lincoln.
    BTW, there’s only one express line on Lincoln now. Before the massive service cuts in December 2009, there was one 40 ft 16A and 16B every 11 minutes. Post cuts, that service turned into one 40 ft 16X every 9 minutes. In the morning, by the time the bus got to Sunset Blvd, it was already standees only. Those inbound of 22nd and Noriega had a slim chance of getting on. In fact many of the stops were skipped because there was no more room. When May service cuts went into effect, Muni started to run exclusively 60 ft on that route to alleviate this issue. Then September’s “restoration” rolled around and Muni went back to 40 ft coaches.
    I think Sunset, and perhaps the western half of the city, is destined to be barren of transit.
    For example, the VA hospital has a few thousand employees and is only serviced by the 38 and 18 for those that don’t mind walking 1/2 mi. They have a huge parking problem over there and I can’t help but imagine that much of would be alleviated if there was more transit options. Because commuters are stuck traveling in the reverse commute direction, those coming from the East bay get another 40-60 minute ride on the 38 from downtown. Probably same goes when they go home in the evening. From BART…, maybe Daly City, it’s about 1 hour ride too. From 19th and Noriega, it takes about 45 minutes to get to the VA hospital in the morning commute.
    When I first moved to SF in 2008, I made the big mistake of thinking that N Judah, because it’s rail, would be the fastest way to Financial District…I couldn’t have been more wrong. I think I was leaving home around 630am to get to work, off of Drumm Street, at 8am and I was probably late about 5% of the time. Later on I discovered the 16B and I didn’t have to leave home until 7am and late maybe three times in a year. I do wonder though, why the 16 doesn’t begin and end in Fidi like the rest of the express routes and instead terminates at 4th and Market; especially since it stopped serving the Caltrain station.

  12. david vartanoff says:

    So Muni found $1.8 million to make service better, what do they pick? Painting and decaling the oldest buses in the fleet for a rush hour service that fails to even make up for average fleet shortages. (a 40′ bus is maybe slighlty more than half of one LRV–they are often short 6-8 any given day.) Spinning this as additional service is fantasy at best. Putting transit priority traffic lights in place of 4 way stops would be a far better bargain.
    Question, how many of these drivers will be on OT? And, how many more bogus turnbacks?

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