Streetscast: An Interview with MTA Chief Nat Ford, Part 1

IMG_2834.jpgPhoto by Bryan Goebel

Municipal Transportation Agency Executive Director Nat Ford has been on the job for more than three years now and is a veteran public transportation manager. He began his career as a train conductor 26 years ago at New York’s MTA before moving on to a number of managerial positions. He was an assistant chief transportation officer at BART before being named to oversee Atlanta’s public transit system.

Ford has often been criticized by advocates for not taking more aggressive and bold action to make San Francisco a true Transit First city. He sat down for an hour-long interview with Streetsblog San Francisco this week to discuss a wide range of issues.

We’ll be examining segments of the interview and transcribing it in the days to come but for today, we bring you Part I:


Highlights from Part I:

  • How do you get around? "I split up alternating between taking public transit to the office, and during the day for the most part, I’m on public transit.  But there are some situations where I need to use an automobile to get around.  So I mix it up, but I think it’s pretty obvious that I ride the system quite a bit.  I think a lot of our operators and employees are well aware of that, because I usually come back with something to report or talk about when I get back to the office."
  • On rumors he wants to leave the MTA: "My career goal really is to focus on the San Francisco MTA and get it to I think a good state of operation, and stabilize it.  We have more work to do, so right now I have more than enough in front of me to keep me interested and occupied, and it’s an interesting time in transportation around this country.  So there are always opportunities out there in challenging cities, and I’m fortunate from time to time to get a phone call to see if I’m interested.  But my plan at this juncture is to focus on the MTA and really continue with the voter’s mandate, which is a well-run, holistic transportation system that not only looks at public transit, but looks at all surface transportation needs and subway transportation needs for the city.  So I’ve got enough to keep me excited and engaged."
  • Why did you miss the Budget and Finance Committee hearing on word orders? "That hearing was called pretty late in the week last week. We had planned for a host of meetings with the 5000 employees of the MTA, to keep them focused on the job that they have in hand, and it was really a management decision that we sent a representative there.  The Chairman of the Board was there, and the decision was I needed to focus on getting out there and talking with our employees about what was discussed in the board meeting yesterday."
  • On other city departments raiding MTA funds: "Going back to the deep dive that we did on all of our expenditure about two or three years ago, we recognized that being a city department, we had to subscribe certain services to other departments for the agency, and in some cases, we increased the work orders, requested an increase of the work orders, particularly with police, on the T Third line, when we opened it up; we wanted to make sure we had adequate security out there on that corridor on our LRVs.  So there have been incidences where we’ve requested additional services.  And then there’s been times when for example, with 311, where it’s felt that we are the bulk of the calls into 311, primarily for vehicle location; people want to know when their next transit vehicle is showing up.  And in that particular case, there’s been some growth because it initially started as a program that there was some assumptions on calls, and then it increased.  I wouldn’t say it’s a rubber stamping of it, but it’s clearly a situation where there’s increased levels of work that we have identified, and at the same time, these other departments are suffering through budget cuts and challenges, and they’re trying to make sure that for whatever services they’re providing for the MTA, we are adequately reimbursing them for it.  Is it a perfect system?  No system is perfect.  We do need to, I believe, improve the autotability of the charges, to make sure that what the MTA is paying for, we are actually receiving those services. And I think that’s where there’s a question in the debate, and I think there’s a simple way of figuring that out."
  • How good a metric is reliability? "The challenge that this system faces is all of our operation, with the exception of the metro subway, is at street level, and we do have great separation out on the T Third line, and bus only lanes, but we know how strictly our citizens adhere to those bus only lanes and it creates some reliability issues.  I get pages every once in a while on my Blackberry, where we’ll be blocked by somebody who inadvertently parked the car in the wrong place and infringed on the right of way of our LRVs.  So I think the 85 percent goal was set because there was a great deal of frustration back when proposition E passed, and I think it was a stretch goal, and that’s where the citizens want the system to attain.  We have some corridors where literally we have a bus every couple of minutes.  In that particular case, I think the frequency of service is more important than the 85 percent on-time performance.  If you’re standing at the bus stop, you want frequency; you don’t care really if that bus is five minutes late or ten minutes late, but you’re more concerned about your on-time performance. It would be an interesting metric if we looked at passenger on-time performance for a trip versus the vehicle’s on-time performance. And I talk to my staff about that quite often, because we go beyond 85 percent on time performance when we evaluate this, we start looking at okay, what are our largest corridors?  What are our heaviest lines?  What is the on time performance on those lines?  And you’ll find that 15 corridors represent about 80 percent of our ridership.  Our numbers tend to be a bit better there.  They are the ones with the dedicated bus lanes.  They are the ones that we’ve put parking control officers out there.  There are the lines that we have our inspectors out there to make sure that the line is running evenly.  So there’s more resources there. "
  • Besides bus stop spacing, what aspects of the TEP will the MTA be able to implement?: "Clearly we need to revisit and modify our schedules of our service and our lines.  We have schedules out there that were built quite some time ago, and the travel patterns have changed, and we are forcing or trying to have our operators adhere to schedules that create reliability issues, and are not realistic at this point, because of the increase in automobile use, because of the increase in pedestrians and bicycles, and there’s a lot more folks out there, and we want our operators to operate safely and on an adequate schedule.  That’s going to require to make sure we have an adequate number of schedulers.  Also, in terms of managing that, an adequate number of street supervisors that make sure that buses are leaving on time, on schedule, proper oversight of the operators who are running the system every day.  Parking control officers, expanding their role beyond issuing parking citations, but they’re out there at these intersections making a clear path for our vehicles.  I’d also say our proof of payment officers; I believe that the current system of trying to get everyone through the front door to ensure they pay their fare, in this dense city, with the ridership levels we have, that’s a delay factor, dwell time at the bus stops is also a delay factor. It’s my hope that either on a corridor basis or on a zone basis, there’ll be zones where we’ll allow all door boarding, but we will enforce fare enforcement with using our proof of payment officers.  So right now we have planned to continue some of these activities, but we cannot be as aggressive with the hiring in those particular categories that I think will have the biggest impact."
  • I generally like Mr. Ford, but I’m disappointed to see him roll over on these work orders. City agencies’ budgets should reflect the costs of the services they provide. This practice of using work orders to shuffle the numbers around only serves to obfuscate the city’s accounting.

    I’m also concerned that this practice leads to the buck always stopping with the MTA. If Muni is getting a bill from every department under the rotunda, who are they sending work orders to?

    Voters insulated Muni’s budget from the grabby hands of the General Fund for exactly this reason.

  • Work orders have their place. In many cases it’s not practical or cost effective to have staff for something when there is an entire city department who’s job it is. It essentially just contracting out a job like you would whenever you need a specialized service and work orders allow them to track how the money flows between agencies so it all gets accounted for in the various department’s budgets. And tracking it over time might tell you if you’d be better off bringing the job in-house.

    Done right, the work orders let us know where our money is going better. That is how this SFPD shake down of the SFMTA came to light.

  • jdub

    Mr. Ford understands the operational issues related to on time performance and reliability. A couple of points:

    1. He indicated that he would like to remove bus stops but not right now because of the budget crisis. On the contrary, the budget crisis presents a great opportunity to introduce the bus stop consolidation plan since cutting stops increases efficiency and improves service, thereby increasing ridership. Presenting the issue as a choice between cutting bus stops system-wide or cutting a few routes entirely, the vast majority of people would likely support the bus stop removal option. So, instead of saying “Our budget forces us to cut routes in order to retain existing stops”, he could say, “Our budget forces us to cut stops in order to retain existing routes”. You might still want to cut some redundant routes while cutting stops.

    2. “We know how citizens adhere strictly to bus-only lanes.” This is a not a God-given situation. SFPD does not enforce bus lane restrictions because we as a city have CHOSEN to not enforce them in order to favor cars over transit vehicles even in designated bus-only lanes. It is a bit discouraging that Mr. Ford did not suggest that fixing this is one of his priorities.

  • I am now suffering a gout attack. For those who advocate removing bus stops, please take a moment to contemplate the exquisite agony that is involved with trying to get the few hundred feet from my house to the closest 33 bus stop, and consider what doubling that would mean to folks with mobility impairments, be they permanent or temporary like mine.

    Sure, I could ride my bike to the stop which translates the impacts into an ellipse, but try using a Muni bike rack if one of your feet can take you down in shooting pain if articulated improperly.

    It should speak for itself that the only ones arguing for “consolidating” stops to facilitate commuter travel are younger and healthier, not mobility impaired in any way or otherwise transit dependent.


  • So I’m on the 33 headed out to the terminal at Sacto and Cherry. The operator has pulled into each stop fully and has not been contested by an auto when pulling into traffic.

    Beware of “problems” asserted by the “waving of the hands” they become articles of faith.


  • Dave


    Why do you assume that the young and healthy are not transit dependent? – it’s not mutually exclusive

  • The tendency is that younger, healthier folks are the ones arguing for increasing the distance between bus stops to speed up service. Disabled advocates have repeatedly observed this and asserted that this is because there is not much downside for them to walk the extra block(s). I concur with this analysis.

    I did not mean to imply that younger, healthier folks are not transit dependent, rather that the constituency supporting the idea of removing bus stops are not the ones most likely to be negatively impacted by it at this point in their lives.

    There are articles of faith which have gained credence as means to speed up the system. Each one of them makes simplifying assumptions, assumptions which will get tangled up in the political process because they gloss over inconvenient truths.

    Removing stops is one of them, and that is most likely to attract a legitimate Americans with Disabilities Act lawsuit.

    Another is this notion that vehicles pulling back out into traffic are significantly delayed citywide, all the time.

    When we look at the impacts of stops: approach, dwell time and reintegration into traffic, we need to do so empirically, based on the evidence and political considerations, rather than to take the assumptions of MTA staff as unassailable givens.

    MTA staff took community input on their alignment plan, but apparently the public process for the TEP shut down prior to the discussion of stop “consolidation.”

    At the end of the day, the only reason why stops slow down a line is that they are getting used by people. If stops are not getting used, then they are not slowing down a line.

    My bet is that the stops being considered for elimination are used but not often. If this is the case, then it is not out of the question that were other treatments put in place to speed up a line (TPS, vehicle investment from line consolidation, enforcement), more frequent service would mean that those infrequently used stops would not cause a problem for most runs, given that the infrequent users would be picked up by another of the more frequent vehicles. More intense service obviates the “problem” of too many stops.

    But, no, it is not going to be okay to cut out “redundant” lines, lightly used but essential community service and stops, all three and expect anyone but commuters to be happy with the result.



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