Muni's driving people off the bus


By Tim Redmond

If I owned a bicycle shop in San Francisco, I'd be putting a big poster in my window right now saying something like:

$840 a year to ride Muni? Save your cash -- buy a bike!

Seriously -- you can get a decent new bicycle for $350, a good used one for half of that. Which means if you switch from riding Muni to riding your bike, you pay for your new ride in about six months. And after that, you save $70 a month (the proposed new price for a fast pass that lets you ride express buses).

And If I owned a parking lot on the edge of downtown, I'd be sticking fliers on utility poles near Muni bus stops saying:

$70 a month for a Fast Pass? Why wait for the bus? We have monthly parking at that price!

Which pretty much sums up the problem with Muni's plans to continue raising fares.

At a certain point -- and if we're not there yet, we're getting damn close -- the alternatives to Muni become more cost-effective, and people stop riding the bus. Fewer riders means less fare revenue, which means the deficit gets worse, and the downward death spiral of our public transit system continues.

You can't keep raising the price of a product or service forever without losing customers -- unless you have a near-total monopoly, like oil cartels and Microsoft. And while Muni is the only bus game in town, it's not the only way to get around a 49-square mile city. Bicycling has costs -- you have to buy a bike, you have to exert energy to ride it, you might get wet in the rain, and the hills are a bitch. Cars have costs, too -- but if, like many San Franciscans, you already own a car, then the cost of driving it to work depends largely on the cost of parking. Even walking has a cost -- particularly time, since walking is a slow way to get to work.

But when the service provided by Muni declines (the buses are dirtier and come less frequently) and the price goes up, then the relative cost of the alternatives declines, too.

I'm a big fan of Muni; I think our system is still way better than anything you'll find in most California cities. But when you can park downtown for about the same as it costs to buy a fast pass, something's very wrong.

If the Newsom Administration is serious about saving Muni, the mayor has to look at the competition. I'm all for people buying bicycles -- it's healthy, and so is walking, and the locally owned independent bike shops in the city need the business. But nobody wants more drivers downtown -- and the obvious solution is to raise the price of parking. Not just meters; raise the tax on parking lots. Impose a surtax on monthly parking. Put that money in to Muni -- and keep the fares down.