People in San Francisco like to complain about Muni. Even people from New York and Points Elsewhere like to complain about it and add in a nice dose of smug superiority too (aren’t they nice?). However, in all the complaining no one seems to question why poor decisions made in the past that affect them now came to be. Nor do they really understand that as the Municipal Railway was created for the benefit of the people of San Francisco, that they have a role in keeping it running for their benefit. It’s a quaint notion, yes. It is also the only thing left to owner/riders to keep their system from dying.
Think about it this way – who loses their job if Muni fails? Anyone? Now, mob rule of a transit agency isn’t practical – neither is mob rule of any sort. However in doing a quick review of elections, 1980-2015, I could not find one example of an elected official that has been kicked out of office because Muni’s failure rate was unacceptable to the public.
My friend Joe suggested that part of the reason Frank Jordan lost was due to the infamous “Muni Meltdown,” but that was just one of many, many reasons Mayor Jordan lost re-election. Plus he was replaced by the incompetent and corrupt “Willie Brown” who stuck us with those awful Breda LRVs, and with the Central Subway mess. (I could go on and on about “Willie Brown”‘s failures, but that’s for another post).
Back to the main point: the fact is that San Francisco voters generally don’t spend much time staying informed on local elections (despite what smarty San Franciscans think). If they do pay attention, they tend to vote for people based primarily on who sends the MOST junk mail, and pay the most attention to what a piece of paper with the words “San Francisco Democratic Party” say, and vote accordingly without really thinking about it.
Harsh, I know. It’s also true. Sure there have been rare exceptions, but the San Francisco voter’s devotion to dead trees printed by a dying political party tend to decide who wins and loses. That devotion may make people feel good during Presidential election years, when people who usually couldn’t be bothered to vote in local elections might do so because they’re voting for Obama or Trump or whatever, but it also explains why we are where we are.
The San Francisco voter’s deference to incumbent politicians, essentially electing Supervisors to eight-year terms (gotta love term limits!) doesn’t help. Add it all up and it’s no wonder Muni can suck all it wants – there simply is no punishment for its failures, or rewards when it starts to do better.
Side note: yes, I know the Board of Supervisors doesn’t directly control Muni – but the board does approve the SF MTA budget, approve the Mayor’s appointments to said agency, and also serve as board members of the SF CTA (!), but in 2016, it’s the only thing on the ballot people can vote on that might have an impact. Since no one with any chance of winning ran against Mayor “Not Indicted At This Time” Ed Lee, he got a pass, even though he’s basically useless to anyone not in the advertising/tech/long con economy. (Again, I could go on, but that’s for another post).
What is the solution? I would recommend voters do a few simple things. First, every time you get a piece of junk mail from a political party (Democrat, Republican, Silly, Etc.) I would recommend you dump it in the recycle bin immediately. When you get a pile of paper from a candidate, do the same. Continue, as needed.
Second, you should actually take some time to meet these people in person and put the question directly to them about what they’ve done in the past, why they think they’d improve things, and ask for specifics that can be followed up on if/when they take office. This takes more effort than relying on what some band of weirdos who run a dying local potlical party think, but we’ve been doing that and it’s not working. Obviously.
Several years ago I attempted an experiment, the Muni Rider Voter Guide, during an election year when we had a number of “open” seats on the Board of Supevisors up for election. The goal was to try and get some insight into how potential Supervisos would approach Muni. It had some successes in its limited form, and I think a slightly expanded version might be helpful. If you have some suggestions or thoughts, you can email me with constructive ideas. I haven’t made any final decisions, but it surely couldn’t hurt.
Ultimately things don’t change with thousands of nasty messages on Twitter or Facebook – they change when people at City Hall realize there are punishments and rewards depending on how they do their job. Until voters take local elections seriously, they can expect the status quo, which people keep saying isn’t good enough.
UPDATE: Not long after I posted this, BART had a pretty bad afternoon, right in time for the commute home. Due to problems with its infrastucture, a lot of people were inconvienced by trains more crowded than usual. Of course, people took to Twitter to register their complaints, and in a rare moment of clarity from an agency Twitter account, there was this
@shakatron BART was built to transport far fewer people, and much of our system has reached the end of its useful life. This is our reality.
— SFBART (@SFBART) March 17, 2016
The tweet took a life of its own, retweeted, often with comments, by many people. Whoever was person-ing the account wasn’t afraid to point out reality more than once, and did so in a non-“f*ck you” way:
BART's social media team is tweeting up a storm tonight but in an impressive and even-tempered way. https://t.co/wKFJvchgSF
— schwartz&grubenierre (@logainne) March 17, 2016
Plenty of people were quick to offer variants on “f*ck you u suck” and “you should have known blah blah blah.” How many of these people either don’t vote, or vote based on what dead tree print in their mailbox tells them who to vote for? How many would be willing to vote for a politician who says “hey, we have to pay to keep things running, which isn’t always fun, but we have to do it?” Gawker posted a summary that’s now making the rounds nationally. Prepare for out of towners to cluck their tongues in 3…2…1…
Not many. If only we could build perfect transit based soley on the 140 character rage belted out on Pocket SuperComputers….