MUNI switchbacks disproportionately affect low-income and outlying areas

Nearly one third of all switchbacks recorded citywide in January affected the T Third Carroll Ave. station in the Bayview.
Screenshot from Google Street View

MUNI switchbacks may be on the decline overall, but when you zero in on who bears the brunt of these annoying service disruptions, it becomes clear that not all transit passengers are created equal. In fact, the vast majority of these annoying service disruptions were concentrated in just three locations this past January, according to San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) data.

A “switchback” is SFMTA jargon for ejecting passengers from a train before their destination, leaving them with little choice but to sit tight until the next one arrives. The trains are then rerouted to provide service elsewhere. Switchbacks can happen in foul weather, and at night. They can impact elderly transit riders with few other transportation options. For weary MUNI customers headed to the outskirts of the city after a long workday, a switchback can be the proverbial last straw.

The top three affected stations in January were the T Third stop at Third Street and Carroll Avenue; the N Judah stop at Judah Street and Sunset Boulevard; and the J Church stop at Glen Park Station, in that order. While the January data provides only a snapshot, annual figures show an average of 36 switchbacks on the T and J lines per month since February of 2012, and an average of 49 per month on the N.

For more information, click on the stations plotted below, created by the Guardian using Google Maps.

View MUNI Switchbacks in a larger map

The SFMTA data was included in a February memo to Sup. Carmen Chu, predecessor to newly minted District 4 Sup. Katy Tang, who has taken up switchbacks as a cause. Tang did not return Guardian calls seeking comment.

Whether passengers are bound for the Outer Sunset, Glen Park, or the Bayview, the passengers disproportionately impacted by these disruptions are those traveling furthest from the city’s urban hubs.

Some regard switchbacks as a social justice issue. In the case of riders traveling to the end of the T line in the Bayview, the disruptions disproportionately affect riders who face longer trips to begin with – it takes 40 minutes to get from Van Ness Station to the end of the T line during normal weekday hours, compared with 28 minutes to the end of the N line and 26 minutes to the end of the J line. And those traveling to the city’s lower income, southeastern neighborhoods are less likely to have alternative means of transportation.

The 39 switchbacks that left southbound passengers waiting at the T Third Carroll stop, near Armstrong Ave, accounted for almost a third of all switchbacks recorded in January. Since they're concentrated during “off-peak” hours, passengers are more likely to be left standing out on the platforms at night, when there are longer gaps between train arrivals. Police Department data accessed on San Francisco’s Open Data Portal shows multiple car break-ins, a robbery with force, and a meth possession charge all occurring nearby that train station in the past three months, suggesting that there could be safety concerns as well. 

According to the SFMTA memo, “Vehicle maintenance issues and automatic train control system issues accounted for most delays in which switchbacks were used to rebalance and restore scheduled service.” There were more service disruptions on the K/T and N lines, Transit Director John Haley wrote, because they are “longer than the other lines and, as a result, have more opportunity to fall behind schedule.” The memo added that upgrades are underway to improve reliability and reduce breakdowns.

"SFMTA needs to prioritize providing reliable transit service to all San Franciscans,” Sup. Malia Cohen, who represents the Bayview, told the Guardian. “While I understand that systems need to be flexible to adjust to accidents or other issues, the data tells us that there is a pattern of these switchbacks in our outer neighborhoods in District 10 and District 4, disproportionately impacting low income transit riders, seniors and families. I will be working with Supervisor Tang and SFMTA to develop strategies to limit these switchbacks so we can provide reliable transit service to all corners of our city."

San Francisco’s Transit First policy, which appears in the City Charter, states: “The primary objective of the transportation system must be the safe and efficient movement of people and goods.” SFMTA data shows switchbacks disrupt travel for three specific groups of passengers, even though they have the farthest to go. They’re left out on the platforms, sometimes after dark, when there are longer wait times. Does anyone actually believe this practice is safe and efficient?