As Coronavirus Crisis Deepens, SF Muni Forced to Cancel Service on Most Lines

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An empty Muni bus in downtown San Francisco during the evening commute on March 13, 2020.  (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Bay Area transit, which has seen a series of sharp service reductions with most residents sheltering at home during the coronavirus crisis, will see its biggest cutbacks to date this week as San Francisco's Muni dramatically curtails its remaining service.

The Municipal Transportation Agency says as many as 40% of its bus operators will be off the job starting Monday due to coronavirus concerns.

That will result in widespread delays throughout the system as the agency scrambles to determine what level of service it can effectively deliver.

“I never thought I would say this, but if you have any choice in how you get to work, please don’t choose Muni,” Jeffrey Tumlin, the head of the SFMTA, said Sunday night, adding that the system Monday would be "a mess."

"There will be big gaps in service," he said. "There will not be a single line that’s reliable."

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Tumlin says Muni is now scrambling to fundamentally reconfigure its service so it can continue to provide transportation for essential workers and those who lack other travel options. He said that will mean suspending service on lines with the lowest ridership and focusing resources on routes that serve medical facilities and key commercial districts.

"Right now what we're trying to do is work with our labor union and our service planners in order to understand how close to the bone do we need to cut in order to be able to provide the most critical service to the people who need it the most," Tumlin said.

Monday, the agency announced that starting Tuesday, service will be temporarily suspended on seven lines: the 2 Clement, 3 Jackson, 5 Fulton, 7 Haight, 10 Townsend, 21 Hayes and 31 Balboa.

On Wednesday, Muni says, service will be discontinued on dozens of other routes so that the agency can focus on running 17 "core" lines: the 1 California, 8 Bayshore, 9 San Bruno, 14 Mission, 14R Mission Rapid, 19 Polk, 22 Fillmore, 24 Divisadero, 25 Treasure Island, 29 Sunset, 38 Geary, 38R Geary Rapid, 44 O'Shaughnessy, 49 Van Ness, N Judah bus, L Taraval bus and T Third bus.

Passengers board the 14-Mission on 4th and Mission Streets in San Francisco on April 6, 2020.
Passengers board the 14-Mission on 4th and Mission Streets in San Francisco on April 6, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Tumlin said that by refocusing operations, Muni hopes to improve service on those remaining lines. But he added that bolstering service while maintaining the physical distancing health officials have ordered will require public cooperation.

"We're trying desperately to maintain social distancing for our passengers," Tumlin said. "We want to make sure everyone knows that Muni is only for essential workers and essential trips. Everything else is forbidden under the health order, so please don't take the service if you have another choice."

Monday's shortage of bus operators comes as a small but growing number of SFMTA employees test positive for the coronavirus. The first infection, involving a driver working out of Muni's Potrero Yard, was reported nearly two weeks ago. The agency says the number now stands at five.

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Tumlin noted that Muni has encouraged any employees who are not feeling well to stay home from work.

"Many of our operators are among vulnerable populations or have vulnerable people at home they need to take care of," he said. "We want to make sure that all of our operators stay healthy.'

Roger Marenco, president of Transport Workers Union Local 250-A, which represents Muni operators, said Monday he'd like to see Muni and the city to do more to reduce nonessential trips on the system — especially those involving homeless riders.

"We are still in need of security enforcement to make sure the homeless are just not simply getting a free ride on a nice warm bus, just to go from Point A to Point B and then get right back on the bus," Marenco said. "These are larger problems and situations, but operators are still in fear of that."

He said he'd support limiting ridership to those passengers who are wearing masks or can show they have an essential reason for their trip.

"If you do not have a (city-issued) disaster service worker badge and/or a mask and/or some type of identification saying you're an essential worker, that you're a front-line worker, then you cannot get on the bus," Marenco said. "That right there would be an extreme safety measure which I think would please the majority of the riding public and the operators."

Marenco said Muni has been responsive to operator concerns, agreeing, for instance, to demands to require passengers to board through the rear doors of buses and taking other steps to protect drivers. But he said he'd like the agency to do more — to provide workers with more protective equipment and to enforce a lower limit on the number of passengers who can ride on the system's vehicles.

Muni's impending service reductions come a week after the agency suspended all subway and light-rail service. Last month, Muni canceled a number of rush-hour commute routes after workers in the city were ordered to shelter in place.

Despite the cuts, Muni says about 100,000 riders a day continue to use the service. That compares to its normal weekday ridership of about 720,000.