Can Critical Mass be saved?

December 22, 2009

San Francisco’s Critical Mass, the rolling gathering of bicyclists that has become a familiar enigma of the last Friday of every month, is in a fight for its soul.

Critical Mass riders fill the intersection of Market and Castro streets in 2005.

Critical Mass riders fill the intersection of Market and Castro streets in 2005. Photo by Flickr user Charles Haynes used under Creative Commons license.

Chris Carlsson, a thinking man’s bicycle activist who is a Critical Mass participant from way back, has a thought-provoking article on StreetsblogSF about what’s happened to San Francisco’s incarnation of this international form of transportation protest.

My own opinion of Critical Mass is no secret. I think it has long outlived its utility as a means of changing either private minds or public policy. It doesn’t even seem like very much fun anymore, with the promise of pointless confrontation with random motorists apparently the major attraction to some riders.

But Carlsson and his colleagues at the newish San Francisco Critical Mass web site aim to change all that, giving context to Critical Mass and offering advice on how to ride in it without being a big jerkface.

Cyclists will have a great chance to put these ideas into action in the Critical Mass ride this Friday, Dec. 25 — Christmas Day.

Read more about the efforts to revitalize Critical Mass on StreetsblogSF, and visit the San Francisco Critical Mass web site.

Follow Tom Prete on Twitter.


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Collected tweets about San Francisco’s Central Subway

March 18, 2009

On March 17 I tweeted from a forum about San Francisco’s Central Subway at the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association. But all my tweets about the meeting subsequently disappeared from Twitter. A couple of people (including the excellent Transbay Blog) have asked me to repost the tweets, so here they are, with the misspellings and fat-thumb typing cleaned up. Thank goodness for the fact that I tweeted by text message, since my phone retains sent messages.

12:34 p.m. At SPUR forum on San Francisco’s Central Subway: John Funghi of SFMTA and SPUR’s Steve Tabor.

12:37 50 people not counting staff at SPUR’s Central Subway talk.

12:53 Funghi sez Central Subway designed so it could accommodate surface travel to Fisherman’s Wharf.

12:56 The proposed temp traffic realignment to extract Central Subway boring machine looks like it will be a puzzler for area near WashBag …

12:58 … But Funghi sez disruption at that triangular park across from WashBag will be only about 18 weeks.

1:08 SPUR’s Steve Tabor: “I have grave doubts” the Geary rapid buses could ever go farther downtown than Laguna.

1:10 Tabor sez SF is the densest population and destination center in the nation not already served by a Metro-style system.

1:13 Tabor explaining possible expansion of Central Subway all the way to Doyle Drive. Pie in the sky?

1:14 Wait, that pie is higher in the sky: Central Subway to Golden Gate Bridge?

1:17 Another Central Subway option could send line toward Presidio but route a spur line off to Fisherman’s Wharf.

1:18 Tabor: Success of Central Subway hinges on ability to accommodate three-car trains.

1:23 Funghi: $1bln / mile is as cheap as Central Subway can get.

1:30 Though Tabor sez three-car trains needed, Funghi says two cars are where Muni is headed. In part because stations planned for two cars only.

Regarding the 1:23 and 1:30 tweets, I think they bear some clarification.

When Funghi said that $1 billion per mile is as cheap as the Central Subway can get, he meant that’s as cheap as the city can do it by bore tunneling instead of cut-and-cover tunnel construction. He explained that the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency went with bore tunneling because of concerns about the potential social and economic disruption that might be caused by a lengthy process of tearing up city streets.

About the disparity between Tabor’s three-car statement and Funghi’s caution that that isn’t what Muni’s going to do, Funghi said that Muni thinks it can make up for the reduced capacity by running trains more frequently. Besides, he said, it costs more time and money to have two drivers couple and uncouple three-car trains than to just run more trains. Make up your own mind about whether you buy that explanation.

To view a PDF of Funghi’s slide presentation at the SPUR forum, click here.

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My Muni express bus story published on Spot.Us

March 16, 2009

Crowd-funded journalism site Spot.Us has published my story on Muni’s express bus service!

For years, a lack of information left Muni in the dark about what it was doing well, what it had to improve and what its riders actually needed. But a proposed shuffling of resources following the Transit Effectiveness Project, a massive systemwide study, would add more frequent service and extend routes on some express lines serving city commuters. …

Julie Kirschbaum, manager of Muni’s Transit Effectiveness Project, says there also are other reasons why Muni doesn’t run more expresses. One is that although they might seem to be highly efficient – buses fill to capacity and swiftly transport full loads of passengers all the way across town with a minimum number of stops – there are some hidden costs to express service. …

Shrinking transit funding from the State of California and the City of San Francisco – as well as the federal government’s preference for funding buildings and equipment, rather than operating costs – will have an effect on Muni, including potential hits to vehicle maintenance, which would reduce Muni’s reliability systemwide.

And budget problems will have an impact on the TEP. “We do expect the budget challenges to slow the implementation of the TEP,” says Muni spokesman Judson True.

In 2008, an idea emerged to charge riders who pay cash fares an extra dollar to board express buses, but the proposal petered out. True said there’s still a chance the SFMTA might decide to pursue an express-bus surcharge again.

“Once an idea is out there it never really goes away. … It’s still out there as an idea,” said True.

In fact, the SFMTA Board is scheduled to discuss its budget for the coming fiscal year at a meeting Tuesday morning, March 17 — including the possibility of raising express cash fares. According to documents prepared for the meeting, Muni could gather an additional $1.4 million by raising the fare for all cash-paying express riders by $1.

Either way, because the TEP is focused on ways of doing business and on redirecting existing resources, Kirschbaum says she thinks the TEP’s recommendations for improved express service will remain largely intact: “Because the TEP service plans are resource-neutral, we’re still looking forward to implementing the TEP route proposals.”

I’ll post the rest of it here soon, but in the meantime please see the story by visiting http://spot.us/stories/76.

In related news, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency meets Tuesday to discuss its budget for the coming fiscal year, including the idea of charging some riders an extra dollar to board express buses. The SFMTA meets at 2 p.m. in Room 400, San Francisco City Hall.

While you’re at Spot.Us, be sure to check out the other stories and ideas there. Spot.Us has brought to light some good old-fashioned journalism, using new methods of publication and funding.

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Some riders of San Francisco Muni buses could pay an extra dollar

March 16, 2009

Would you pay an extra dollar to ride a Muni express bus? If you pay a cash fare you might have to do just that, under an idea being considered to help offset big cuts to the transit agency’s funding.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is scheduled to discuss its budget for fiscal year 2010 at a meeting 2 p.m. Tuesday, March 17, and one of the ideas covered in a presentation prepared for the meeting is to charge cash-paying express riders an extra buck: “Currently approximately 25,700 passengers ride the express routes daily. Assuming that 20% pay cash fares, increasing the cash fare by $1.00 over regular cash fare” would yield about $1.4 million for Muni.

If the SFMTA Board likes the idea, it would present the proposal — and any other potential changes to fares — at public meetings in April, according to documents prepared for Tuesday’s meeting.

In a related development, on March 10 I filed my long-time-coming article on Muni express service with crowd-funded journalism site Spot.Us. Spot.Us tells me they anticipate either publishing the article themselves or reaching an agreement on selling the piece very soon, perhaps even before Tuesday’s SFMTA meeting.

I spoke with Muni spokesman Judson True and Transit Effectiveness Project manager Julie Kirschbaum for my story, and I asked them about the idea of charging express riders a premium on top of the regular fare — something that came up in 2008 but didn’t go anywhere. True told me at the time that although the idea was still out there, he didn’t know that anyone in Muni was considering it actively, but it looks like changes to Muni’s revenue and spending projections changed that pretty quickly.

More information on Tuesday’s SFMTA meeting, including an agenda.

A PDF of the presentation on Muni’s fiscal year 2010 budget.

Watch a stream of the SFMTA meeting live on SFGTV2.

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Update on Muni express story for Spot.Us

February 18, 2009

I’ve had a couple of questions recently about the status of the story on San Francisco Muni’s express buses I’m writing for the crowd-funded journalism site Spot.Us, so here’s a quick update.

I am finishing some interviews this week and expect to file my story by this time next week. Once it’s in Spot.Us’ hands, a fact-check editor will have a go at it before publication. My belief is that they’ll publish soon after that, but it’s up to them.

This story has been pushed back longer than I would have liked. But the way Spot.Us works, there’s no definite deadline for pieces — and since I have a wife, two kids and an older house to think about, when I’ve found work that does have a deadline and also provides enough to cover the mortgage payments, I’ve taken it. The unfortunate result is that I’ve put off the Muni story.

One observation about the expresses that I’ll share now won’t surprise daily express riders, but it seems almost surreal to people used to the regular bus or the streetcar: By and large, express riders are really polite. Trying to get on most streetcars and buses can sometimes resemble a contact sport (I’ve had plenty of jabs in the ribs from people who try to shove their way in the door of the L-Taraval ahead of everyone else, regardless of how long others have been waiting), so it’s very odd to see passengers line up neatly for the express and head to the back of the line if they arrive late. And although it can be hard to get a seat, depending on the time and where you catch the bus, the ride itself usually is quiet and civilized.

I’ll post further updates if I have anything new to report, including when I file the story. In the meantime, do visit Spot.Us. Some great pieces already have been published, and others are still in need of funding.

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My Spot.Us pitch about Muni reaches full funding

December 22, 2008

Success! My Spot.Us pitch for a story about San Francisco’s Muni express bus service, and why Muni doesn’t run more express buses, is now fully funded.

Thanks to all the sponsors who signed on to support this story — and, by extension, the concept of crowd-funded journalism. Thanks also to Spot.Us honcho Dave Cohn. Without his efforts, I’d still be in the fundraising stage.

I’m really pleased to be able to get moving on the legwork for this story, which I expect to start in January, and I have ideas for several other stories I think would fit in well on Spot.Us.

My Spot.Us pitch on Muni express buses is here.

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Update on my Muni express bus story pitch

December 11, 2008

I’m really pleased to report that I’ve almost reached full funding for my story about San Francisco’s Muni express bus service on spot.us!

Muni may be watching its funding get yanked out from under it right now, but that makes it even more important for Muni to run well with the resources still available. And clearly, people are interested in why Muni doesn’t run more expresses to serve the needs of daily commuters. As of the afternoon of Dec. 11, my story pitch for crowd-funded journalism site spot.us was just $60 away from full funding.

And — super cool — San Francisco blog SFist ran a little piece about my story pitch. Thanks, SFist! Read the SFist post at http://sfist.com/2008/12/09/can_muni_run_more_express_buses.php.

A more detailed update is available on my YouTube channel, http://www.youtube.com/user/tpretesf. Or just watch the video below.

For more information about my story idea, spot.us and how crowd-funded journalism works, please visit http://www.spot.us/pitches/39.

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