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Muni's chronic lateness and frequent 'switchbacks' draw community ire

From high school students to senior citizens and advocates for the disabled, angered San Francisco residents vented their frustrations about the ways that the city’s Muni transit system is failing them last week.

Delays in getting to class on time, and a high number of “switchbacks” — in which Muni light-rail vehicles and buses turn around before they reach their scheduled final destination, forcing riders to walk the remainder — were key points of contention at the March 28 Board of Supervisors public hearing.

Mission High School sophomore Alexandria Edwards, who was one of more than a dozen students attending the hearing, complained that chronic lateness on the J-Church light-rail line is damaging performance at school.

“It causes truancy,” she said. “Many students are late, so then we have to make announcements over the intercom, which takes away from class time.”

Raymond Leung, who does community development work with the Mission-based Neighborhood Vision Project, also slammed the reliability of the J-Church line. “Last Monday, when I was supposed to conduct a meeting with youth leaders, the J was 25 minutes late,” he said.

Transit director John Haley countered that J-Church service improved to a record 76.8 percent between July and September of last year, up from its 50 percent on-time performance the previous quarter. The fact that the J — which is scheduled to arrive every seven to 13 minutes — has to share a line with the N and the F at Balboa Park was partly to blame for the delays, he said.

Muni’s frequent switchbacks drew ire as well. B Bob Planthold of the Senior Action Network said that seniors and the disabled are disproportionately impacted when buses and light-rail vehicles make unannounced turnarounds.

“I sometimes hear Central Control tell an operator to switch back. But neither Central Control nor the operator ever asks, 'Does anybody on a wheelchair need the ramp?’ ” said Planthold, noting that not all of Muni’s stops have ramps.

Supervisor John Avalos, who chairs the City Operations and Neighborhood Service committee that held the hearing, announced his frustration with the switchbacks.

“If this is a common occurrence, it means that I have no real leverage in my district to encourage people to get out of their cars and use Muni,” he said.

According to the Metropolitan Transit Agency, which operates Muni, the J-Church line made 348 switchbacks this year through Mar. 25, out of a total 103, 272 trips.

More hearings on Muni’s switchbacks, as well as its reliability status, will happen in the coming months, said Avalos.