Riders of San Francisco’s “Muni” buses better start double-checking how they look before getting on board. Because starting in fall 2012, officials at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) may be watching you.

The agency will be upgrading existing video surveillance cameras for 358 buses, including adding the ability to have real-time monitoring. Current security cameras on the vehicles capture activity, but the video footage isn’t able to be live-streamed.

Kristen Holland, spokesperson for the SFMTA, said the new cameras will have a variety of new options just because the technology will be modern. But it remains to be seen how the features in whatever camera system is installed will be used on a daily basis.

“Our operations folks will have to see how they want to incorporate [live monitoring] into their daily operations, but they don’t foresee full-time monitoring as something that would be desirable or particularly useful,” Holland explained. “It’s a useful capability, certainly, but not something they anticipate allocating staff for.”

Holland said the agency’s various bus camera systems are outdated — many are more than 10 years old — and are difficult to maintain. The goal of the upgrade is to acquire a camera system that improves the reliability of the surveillance and enhances the work SFMTA does with the San Francisco Police Department.

“What we currently have is very staff intensive,” Holland said. “There are no alerts or notifications that something is wrong, so you have to go to the camera, open the box and check it out. We have more than 770 buses and 150 [light rail vehicles], so that’s a lot to double-check.

“When you want to retrieve the video, it’s physically going and pulling the drive off the vehicle ... so we’re looking to make better use of our staffing resources.”

Funding and Expansion

The new camera system will be paid for by $6.5 million in grant funds. Holland said that $4 million will be from the federal Transit Security Grant Program, while the remaining $2.5 million will be issued from California’s Transit Security Grant Program. 

The request for proposal for the camera system is currently being prepared and will be released this fall, and SFMTA believes the system will be online one year later.

In addition, Holland revealed that SFMTA would like to expand the camera system throughout the rest of its fleet as the agency receives additional funding. But some of San Francisco’s most famous transportation vehicles will be left out in the cold.

“The cable cars can’t have them because they are national historic landmarks,” Holland said. “And the street cars on Market Street have power issues, so those aren’t part of what we are talking about.”

Privacy Concerns

When asked if the upgrade to real-time video capability might spark public outcry about privacy rights, Holland said it was a “chicken and the egg question” since it was so early in the planning process. Currently SFMTA has is limited by the amount of footage that can be stored on a video camera. But with those restrictions gone, Holland was not sure what the policy would be.

She emphasized, however, that the security of riders’ images would be an issue discussed with whatever vendor is chosen to provide the cameras.

“We agree that while the surveillance system is a key tool to keep the transit system secure, the security of the surveillance system is also important and that would certainly be a part of the conversation with the vendor.”

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1999, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.