How to Prepare for Disaster-Relief Transportation

The Evolution of San Francisco's Transit Agency's Rider Satisfaction Success

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s Muni received its highest rider satisfaction rating in the past ten years. From a change in philosophy to line optimization, Sengerio learned more about the agency’s recent success.

Earlier this year, San Francisco’s public transit service Muni, the city’s buses, light rail Metro trains, historic streetcars, and iconic cable cars, received the highest rider satisfaction rating it has seen in the past ten years.

The survey, conducted by the regulating transit agency of Muni services, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), found that 66% of its riders rate services as good or excellent — a 9% increase from 2021.

The agency has been working hard to gradually increase the number of services back to pre-pandemic levels, ensuring there’s a transport solution to connect every corner of the city. Sengerio caught up with the Senior Manager of Transit and Transit Planning at the SFMTA, Sean Kennedy, to learn more about the agency’s recent success.

San Francisco bridge
The city of San Francisco, whose local public transit service, known as Muni, cover all corners of the city via fuel-efficient Muni buses, light rail Metro trains, historic streetcars, and iconic cable cars.

“Quality over Quantity”: A Change of Approach

Before the pandemic halted the majority of public transit networks across the globe, the SFMTA was delivering about 90% of its scheduled services. Around 5% of the agency’s services were covered by operators working overtime to deliver these services on their days off, while the other 5% of services were simply missing. One of the causes for these missing services was down to the difficulty in finding the operators to drive the buses or trains.

But every cloud has its silver lining. In addition to introducing 20 miles of transit-only lanes since the pandemic, the agency has changed its approach to how it assigns operators to its services. As Sean Kennedy explained

“For every ten operators, we aim to have three of them set aside so they can fill in when a service is missing an operator. This means that we don’t have as many services scheduled, but we can efficiently run those that are scheduled. So we’re focusing on 100% delivery of service, emphasizing the quality rather than quantity — our riders are noticing this.”

By shifting its philosophy to put greater emphasis on the quality of its lines rather than the quantity, the agency is able to ensure its services move quicker and more reliably. Although there may be fewer lines than in the past, the agency has now overcompensated with its operators and fleet to guarantee the complete delivery of its services.

A bus during service

After having reduced its number of lines from 76 to 17 during the pandemic, the SFMTA saw the opportunity to gradually reintroduce older lines and even new ones. Today, the agency is back at around 70 lines and operating at ∼82% of pre-pandemic service hours and has no intention of increasing this further without additional operating revenues.

Fewer service hours and increased rider satisfaction aren’t two characteristics typically heard in the same sentence. For this reason, Sengerio was curious to understand what the SFMTA is doing right when it comes to optimizing its routes. Sean Kennedy mentioned that the agency uses a system where there are three opportunities a year to change its services from a functional standpoint.

“The SFMTA does something called a ‘sign-up’ three times a year. This is the time when drivers can sign up for new routes for both buses and trains. It is during these periods that we make most of the changes to our routes, such as changing route, frequency, and span.”

This system underlines the agency’s priority of working with its operators and fleet to meet the target of 100% service delivery. Once the resources were in order, the SFMTA could continue optimizing its lines.

“First, we prioritized where these lines were going. For example, our downtown-centric routes haven’t seen much ridership growth. Whereas in the more commercial and neighborhood areas, we’re seeing a ton of ridership growth, and in our midday-evening periods, we’re seeing many riders using the lines that connect the outlying neighborhoods of the city. So we’ve focused on increasing the frequency of these lines and reducing the frequency of the downtown-specific lines — this reflects the agency’s focus on trying to reduce crowding on public transit.”

One major factor that has influenced the modifications of the agency’s lines is the shift in how the public is using the transport system. During the interview, Sean Kennedy told Sengerio how, in the past, the agency anticipated the typical morning rush hour toward downtown when everyone was heading to the office. Today, people are traveling at all times of the day, especially to hospitals and commercial neighborhood areas for grocery shopping, as opposed to trying to get to work.

A bus during service

Tourism, Equity, and Transport for All

Summers in the city of San Francisco are bustling with eager tourists wanting to experience some of the local treasures. For the SFMTA, this means there’s a huge influx of people expecting to have access to transportation around the city.

To manage the sudden and sharp increase in ridership, there are several challenges the agency has to consider. For the SFMTA, one of the difficulties is getting operators to sign up for the historic streetcar lines. So in order to supplement these lines, the agency has added extra bus services to relieve some of the pressure on these popular lines. As Sean Kennedy explained

“We don’t have the operators that want to sign up for the historic streetcar line. To deal with this, we added an overlay, so we still have the streetcars running, but we added some bus services there to add some extra capacity to fill in all the required services.”

A rail bus during service

In addition to tourism, the agency introduced a brand-new line two years ago to supplement one of its rail lines. The rail (T) line was seeing a lot of crowding and many riders who lived several miles away from the nearest station felt that accessing the service was more of a burden than a solution.

In response, the agency added the new bus express service that picks up through the neighborhoods around the rail line and then heads towards downtown and up toward the Fisherman’s Wharf area. Sean Kennedy highlighted how this not only helped reduce crowding on the rail service but also provided many neighborhoods, which may have less access to cars and other transportation choices, with an accessible transport solution.

“People in some of these lower-income neighborhoods that don’t always have access to a personal vehicle now have a faster and more frequent trip to provide them with a way of getting to their jobs or schools. In general, the agency has put a great deal of focus on reducing crowding and providing a solution to the poorer neighborhoods.”

As a result, the agency cut some of the services to the outer portion to shift the resources to the inner portion. The additional buses have added more frequent services to the inner portion of the line and created more capacity while reducing the crowding in these areas.

How does the SFMTA monitor ridership?

Monitoring ridership is a critical step in understanding not only how many people are on a bus at a given time, but understanding the general trend of lines and their respective popularity.

The SFMTA utilizes Automatic Passenger Counters (APCs) on all of its buses and light rail services. APCs consist of infrared sensors at a vehicle's doorway that are tripped when passengers are getting on and off the vehicle, and then relay the information to the central system. This way, providers have an accurate understanding of who’s riding their services from stop to stop and gives a broader picture of how well the overall ridership is doing on a given route.

Woman get on a bus

In addition to data collection, the agency relies heavily on customer input. In a month, the SFMTA can receive up to 150 inquiries or questions that relate to the situation on board the services.

Moreover, every two years the agency does a customer perception survey, such as the most recent one that resulted in the highest rider satisfaction rating the agency has seen in the past 10 years. As well as rider feedback, the agency works closely with operators and street management staff who also provide feedback about their services.

Collectively, the streams of staff and rider feedback, coupled with the hard data, allow the agency to have a precise idea of how its services are performing.

Creating a Closer-Knit Transportation System Across the Region

In the past, the wider network of transportation across the Bay Area region has been criticized due to its somewhat ‘fragmented’ nature. The SFMTA, for instance, is one of the 27 transit agencies in the region and although each agency does collocate stops to prevent taking up more space on the streets, they each use their own signage, maps, and fare structure.

Map of public transit agencies
A map of the different public transit agencies across the Bay Area. Source: Seamless Bay Area

However, in order to integrate the transit agencies and stitch together the existing holes in the transit network, the SFMTA began cooperating with neighboring agencies to fill in the lines which they weren’t able to cover.

The fare structure remains the same for the local riders, but the SFMTA then reimburses SamTrans the difference in cost of their standard service prices. Interestingly, this model has proved much more cost-efficient for the SFMTA than having to pay for more buses to run its lines. As Sean Kennedy highlighted.

“For the past year and a half, we’ve been working with SamTrans who are able to pick up from our stops. We work with them so that people use our fare structure and then we reimburse SamTrans for the difference in amount for their usual service fares. This model is working very well and is actually cheaper for us than paying for extra buses… If we have infrequent services on a line that overlaps with a neighboring agency, why not expand?”

In addition to SamTrans, the SFMTA has expanded this model and is now also collaborating with Golden Gate.


Whether it's the shift in philosophy or how the agency optimizes its routes, it’s always a tricky endeavor to understand the exact reason riders are more satisfied today with their transit services.

The SFMTA continues to be proactive in ensuring every member of the community is connected to all corners of the city via an accessible transport solution. Sengerio has learned that creating optimal services requires a combination of expert planning, substantial resources, technological support, and, fundamentally, consistent feedback and communication with riders and staff.

Sengerio would like to thank Sean Kennedy, along with the team at the SFMTA, and wish them the best of luck for the near future in connecting the city of San Francisco.

Scott Frankland

Scott Frankland is Head of Content at Sengerio. His spirit of inquiry leads him to the world of transportation and mobility to connect with the industry’s leading experts and shine a light on the hot topics.

Edoardo Zaccaria

Edoardo is the Sengerio Customer Success Manager and a passionate climber. His interpersonal skills and ability to build strong relationships have been invaluable in helping customers successfully get the most out of the Sengerio platform.