More Money, More Problems: MUNI Spends More, But Customer Satisfaction Falls

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If spending on public transportation and on-time rates for buses had steadily increased in your city over the past ten years, you’d think that was a good thing, right? Not so fast. According to data made readily available by a group Stanford University undergraduates and recent alumni. They've created California Common Sense, a nonprofit website that lets anyone explore and make basic visualizations of government data. Using their tools, Transportation Nation found some unexpected trends in San Fransisco transit rider satisfaction.

In San Francisco, government spending on transit increased from 2001-2010. On-time performance also improved for MUNI—the agency responsible for buses, streetcars, trolleys, and the city’s ubiquitous cable cars.

MUNI on-time performance rises with expenditure.

On-time performance is defined as less than four minutes late and one minute early. So, this chart, found here, shows positive trends.

But here’s the rub: During that same time period, MUNI riders’ level of satisfaction with the system generally decreased.

As MUNI expenditures increased, rider ratings of timetables and performance fell.

Why the frustration? MUNI spokesman Paul Rose says that although he hasn’t been able to review the data in question, on-time performance isn't the transit system's only issue. "We hear from riders every day with concerns about cleanliness on some of the vehicles, about safety concerns, and about whether or not a train or bus will be there when the schedule says it will," he says. "We’re working every day to improve the system.”

Some of those improvements, says Rose, include upgrading MUNI’s automatic train control system, and using an all-door boarding policy to increase efficiency.

The data vizualizations rely on programs created by Pat Hanrahan, the Stanford University professor who won two Academy Awards for developing the animation software behind Toy Story and the character of Gollum in Lord of the Rings. “The information is out there, but it’s hard to understand and then to figure out what it means,” says Dakin Sloss, a math major in his senior year at Stanford and executive director of California Common Sense.

Data on the site includes, police, fire and emergency spending and performance along with several other categories of public expenditure. San Francisco data was added in partnership with Reset San Francisco, an interactive website launched last year by Phil Ting, the Assessor-Recorder for the city and a candidate for mayor.

Ting posited that consumer expectations explain the discrepancy between increased performance and rider perception.  “We live in a society where we’re very focused on instant gratification,” he said. “We’re very demanding—people are used to getting many things instantly and having them done very well. I think that while things with MUNI are better, they’re not to the point where people are satisfied.”

Check out the database for yourself.

Graphics courtesy of California Common Sense