Muni arrival times are often inaccurate, leaving passengers to wonder if they should wait for a bus or start walking, but improvements to the dysfunctional system could soon be coming.

The Board of Supervisors Tuesday gave the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency an opportunity to pursue much needed software and maintenance upgrades with the approval of a nearly $89 million contract.

The contract with San Diego-headquartered Cubic Transportation Systems, Inc. to “develop, implement and maintain” a modernized arrival time system is good for an initial six-year term with the option of two additional five-year terms. 

Launched in 1999 as pilot, The City was the first in the nation to test the NextBus arrival time system. Unfortunately, the system has since been plagued with software issues and antiquated technology, transit officials say.

Jerold Chinn/SFBay Display screens at the Muni Embarcadero Station platform show inaccurate train arrival times.

Now ready for a major overhaul, SFMTA turns to Cubic to replace the old arrival time system.

Jason Lee, the agency’s project manager tasked with overseeing the system replacement, told supervisors during a Sept. 2 Rules Committee that the upgrades and utility expansion is broadly supported by passengers questioned during public outreach efforts.

Lee said:

“The goal was to transform the way transit agencies interact with their customers using proven core technology and positioned San Francisco to be a national leader once again, particularly as we navigate and recover from the Covid-19 crisis.”

Included in the project are new LCD signs at transit shelters that will display real-time information through dynamic maps identifying vehicle locations and nearby routes. Transit officials say the new displays will be five times larger than current text-only signs.

Lee said the agency will also pilot onboard display signs providing arrival times and bus route information. The pilot program will be rolled out inside 12 electric battery-powered prototype buses.

The MuniMobile app will be upgraded to compliment the modernization project with the addition of a trip-planning feature. Passengers currently use the app for fare payment.

If funding is available, Lee said the contract with Cubic allows the agency to install 800 solar-powered signs at transit stops across The City.

Lee said solar-powered signage would be prioritized in underserved neighborhoods with less frequent routes and longer wait times. He said the agency is working with community advocacy groups, such as the Bayview Community Based Transportation Plan, to identify areas most in need. 

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman said during the committee meeting said Muni riders are dissatisfied with the system’s reliability, and he questioned the choice to use the same contractor that bears some responsibility for the current inefficiencies.

<a>Rick</a>/Flickr Muni officials apologize for the recent outage of NextBus, the system that notifies riders of transportation arrival times.

Lee assured supervisors that the new system will be more reliable and said NextBus was a startup company in 1999 and that Cubic, which acquired NextBus later, has more experience in transit-related software and applications.

Lee said:

“This contractor has recognized that and has completely redone its platform so what we are getting here is fundamentally a much different approach at providing predictions.”

A report from the agency says they plan to launch the new arrival time system by the end of 2021. The project’s first phase of the project is a one to one replacement of transit shelter sign displays, Lee said.

The second phase of the project, which is expected to last through 2023, will include expansion of arrival time signage and software upgrades.

Project funding comes from the agency’s capital and operating budget and from the agency’s fund balance, according to an SFMTA staff report.

Jerold Chinn
Jerold Chinn is the San Francisco Bureau Chief of SFBay. A San Francisco native, he has spent a decade covering transportation in San Francisco. Send tips to jerold@sfbay.ca or at Twitter @Jerold_Chinn.

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