Will Nat Ford’s Reorganization Help Change the Culture of the MTA?

Nat_Ford_.jpgMTA Chief Nat Ford in an interview earlier this year with Streetsblog. Photo by Bryan Goebel.
MTA Chief Nat Ford announced an encouraging reorganization (PDF) of his top brass this week, a move which may usher in a much needed change in the structure of the agency, and potentially give less power to the old school traffic engineers who continue to prioritize automobiles in the design and management of San Francisco's streets.

For the first time, the agency is also adopting a broad vision for what it wants to accomplish by 2030, setting an ambitious mode share goal to dramatically reduce automobile trips and integrate all modes "into a seamless transportation system." It calls for cutting auto usage in half, from the current 60 to 30 percent, boosting transit use from 20 to 30 percent, and increasing walking and cycling from 20 to 40 percent in 20 years. There is no specific plan, however, for how the agency intends to achieve the goal. 

The most notable changes at the top will be the creation of three new positions: a deputy executive director, a director of sustainable streets and a director of transit. Their salaries have yet be determined, but MTA spokesperson Judson True said they plan to conduct national and international searches.

Ford announced the changes to hundreds of staffers in a morning meeting yesterday at the MTA's headquarters where he spent 90 minutes outlining the reorganization, and another 30 minutes fielding questions.

"We cannot simply be caretakers," Ford wrote in his letter to MTA staff. "We must advance the Agency into one that supports a world class, fully integrated, multi-modal transportation system that is economically, environmentally and socially sustainable."

Under the reorganization, parking and traffic will be absorbed into the sustainable streets department, and veteran traffic engineer Bond Yee, who currently oversees that division, will no longer report directly to Ford. Yee is widely respected by many rank-and-file in the agency. Traffic engineering will now be called transportation engineering. The merging of that division and transportation planning into one sustainable streets department is something advocates have been pushing for years.

"On paper this looks like progress. We have been pestering Nat for some time to create a very strong streets function within MTA," said Tom Radulovich, the executive director of Livable City, who is among a group of transit advocates that meet with Ford on a monthly basis. "We said either design multi-modal streets, streets that work for all modes, streets that function as public spaces, etc., rather than this very fragmented planning. It looks as though that sustainable streets function is meant to do that."

The document outlining the reorganization (PDF) lists the Bicycle Plan implementation, full Translink deployment, a Market Street redesign, and the SFPark pilot among the MTA's short-term goals.  And its "mid-long term" project priorities include the Central Control and Communications Center, Central Subway, full TEP implementation, radio replacement, SFgo and Van Ness BRT.  The list does not include Geary BRT, a proposal that is much more contentious than its counterpart.

"It's natural to be a bit skeptical about this announcement. There have been several reorganizations at SFMTA over the past decade without dramatic change," said Andy Thornley, the program director of the SFBC. "But I think there's good reason to be encouraged, even excited, about this plan, as a significant good thing for the sake of the agency realizing its goals and fulfilling its City-Charter-mandated mission."

He added: "This reorg continues the unification and rationalization of the 'multi-headed' SFMTA into a single productive transportation agency that's been underway since its conception ten years ago, laying out a pretty fast track to a true 'sustainable streets' agency for SF in the next few months."

A deputy executive director position would allow Ford to strengthen the agency's voice in city and regional policy and state and federal legislation. In addition to his role as the MTA's executive director and CEO, Ford sits on the Board of Directors of the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, which oversees Caltrain, chairs the Transbay Joint Power Authority, and is running to be secretary/treasurer of the American Public Transportation Association.

The reorganization also elevates the role of James Dougherty, the director of safety, security and enforcement. And the position currently held by the MTA Chief Operating Officer Ken McDonald, who is leaving the agency, will be taken over by David Hill, the acting director of transit. 

It's too early to tell if the reorg will change any of the auto centric culture that remains in the MTA, but Radulovich sees it as a positive step.

"We kind of thought that creating the MTA itself would change the culture of streets management and it has but not fast enough. Other cities are racing ahead and they're doing really interesting things, really putting peds and bicyclists and transit first in a way that we're not. And that's what we want to see resolved. How will this support some bold moves in that area?"

Picture_6.pngFrom the SFMTA