Muni’s vehicles were on time 57.2 percent of the time in August, leaving passengers waiting, and waiting, at bus stops and train stations, according to the report released Friday. That number was slightly down from July when the on-time rate was 60.4 percent, according to the report, which covered the first eight months of 2012.
Muni’s willingness to use accurate on-time numbers came after The Bay Citizen reported in July that Muni officials were using accounting maneuvers to boost the reported on-time rate by as much as 18 percent since 2001, according to an internal memo. The transit agency has been under pressure to improve timeliness since 1999, when San Francisco residents approved a ballot measure requiring the transit agency to be on time at least 85 percent of the time.
“These are the straightforward, on-time performance numbers,” SFMTA spokesman Paul Rose said in interview.
Muni’s suspect public reporting was detailed in a 2010 memo sent by Chief Information Officer Travis Fox to top Muni officials outlining numerous “quirks” used to boost the numbers. They included stretching the definition of “on time” that’s written into the city charter from anything less than four minutes late to anything less than 4 minutes and 59 seconds late.
After receiving the memo, then-CEO Nat Ford and other top officials took no action.
The Bay Citizen also found that Ford and another former CEO, Michael Burns, received bonuses that were tied directly to the inflated rates.
“We appreciate the MTA giving the facts to the riders,” said Ben Kaufman, a spokesman for the San Francisco Transit Riders Union, a Muni riders’ advocacy group. “But we also want those numbers to be used on how they’re prioritizing projects and improving the system.”
Rose, the SFMTA spokesman attributed the 57.2 percent on-time rate in August to a combination of bus driver absences, rickety old vehicles, a Muni operator shortage and special events such as the America’s Cup yacht race that spread service too thin.
The driver shortages and broken-down vehicles have caused Muni to skip more bus runs than earlier in the year. Last Monday, for example, Muni canceled 113 bus runs, putting 90.9 percent of its scheduled service out on the street. The voter-mandated goal is to deliver 98.5 percent of the scheduled bus and train runs each day – and the agency often came close to that in years past.
Before March, Muni would pay drivers overtime to fill in for absent drivers. But with out-of-control overtime spending contributing to a perennial budget deficit, Muni managers have become stingier with overtime.
To compensate for cancellations, Muni managers try to space out the bus runs, putting them further off schedule and lowering the on-time rate, Rose said. Muni is working to hire more operators as well as upgrading the bus fleet to help solve the problem, he said.
Critics say cancelled runs amount to stealth cuts in service.
“Muni is in a fiscal crisis, and this is the way that they can deal with the fiscal realities without having to put it in their budget as a service cut,” said Kaufman, of the transit riders union.
Muni officials have long said that on-time performance isn’t the most important measure. Passengers, they reason, would rather that buses arrive consistently every five minutes rather than adhering to specific scheduled times.
On Friday, Muni also released other performance measures, such as how often buses bunch up together and create long waits for riders at bus stops. The number crunchers found that buses that were less than two minutes behind each other nearly 6 percent of the time.
In addition, Muni reported that 71.8 percent of buses left their terminals on time in August, down from previous months. The unscheduled absence rate for bus drivers climbed to 10.6 percent in August from a 2012 low of 7.2 percent in February. A spokesman for Muni operators union did not return calls seeking comment.
Kaufman said that riders are disillusioned with Muni’s service.
“It’s kind of like people are just expecting this quality service – or this lack of quality of service – these days, and it’s just disheartening,” he said.
This story was produced by The Bay Citizen, a nonprofit, investigative news sources in the Bay Area and a part of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.baycitizen.org.