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Muni seeks to make riding its fleet ‘in’ thing

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Transit officials, consultants work on strategic plan to get people out of cars, on board

As operating deficits continue to plague Muni, the public transit agency wants to implement better technology and make it culturally hipper to board buses instead of drive a car.

As a study on Muni, dubbed the Transit Effectiveness Project, is under way to overhaul the transit system, the Municipal Transportation Agency, which oversees Muni, is working with a consultant team to come up with its own strategy for shaping citywide transportation.

During a four-hour meeting Friday, the MTA board of directors met with Booz Allen Hamilton, a Virginia-based consulting firm, to lay out a vision for the future. By January, the MTA is expected to adopt a strategic plan that will guide the agency on budget decisions for years to come.

"This is the first-ever MTA strategic plan," MTA Executive Director Nathaniel Ford said. "Some of the challenges we are facing today are basically because we have not done a good job of long-range planning."

Muni is one of the slowest transit systems compared to similar systems in the nation, with buses that inch along at the average rate of 8 miles per hour. Muni’s ridership has declined by 12 percent over the last 20 years, and the transit agency continues to struggle financially.

"Every year we have a gap between our revenues and expenses. Right now the early estimate is approximately a $50 million shortfall," Ford said.

The good news for Muni is that population growth and regional job growth during the next five years could increase ridership, according to the consultant’s report.

"I believe our No. 1 competition is the automobile," MTA board member Michael Kasolas said. "That’s where the low-hanging fruit is, is to increase our ridership by pulling people out of the vehicles by making it attractive."

About 62 percent of trips taken in The City are in cars, while only 17 percent of the trips use transit, according to the consultant.

MTA board member Tom Nolan said the agency should also promote a new culture. People should "feel a bit bad about using a car" and that the "sophisticated, cool thing to do is to ride a bus," he said.

People need to start using transit to go out to the opera house or to dine, MTA board member Peter Mezey said.

The MTA needs to give incentives to restaurants and entertainment venues "so that they are cheerleading" Muni, MTA board member Leah Shahum said.

The MTA board is also eyeing technology to boost ridership. "In my mind the customer of the future is going to want a lot more real-time information about how the system is running. There’s going to be people who are going to want to see it on their Blackberry," Ford said.

Muni’s fare system also seems in line for a major overhaul. Ford suggested offering annual transit passes while others suggested payment on buses by credit cards or cell phones.

jsabatini@examiner.com