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

  • Richard Mlynarik


    By the way, on Tuesday the wonderful, deckchair-rearranging, TransLink-o-riffic, TEP-o-matic SFMTA moved to relocate the *MAJOR* transfer bus stop for the 9X/30/45 even further away from the corner of Third and Market all the way back to Third and Mission.

    The reason: to make more space for RIGHT HAND TURNING AUTOMOBILES *ONTO* Market Street.

    Way to go. Make buses slower, make transfers much, much longer, make walking distances for bus riders longer, take away even more transit lane, all in order to allow confused, stupid and/or sociopathic automobile drivers to make a turn that serves absolutely no purpose — there’s simply no reason to drive any of the blocks between Third and the end of Market, there are only right hand turns allowed (back the way the car came), and, to top it off, these stupid cars just serve to block EVEN MORE BUSES on Market.

    But sure. A reorg will fix everything. That and the Central Subway.

    Die, MTA.

    Death is too good for that organization.

  • Richard, really? Wow, I can’t believe they did that. I feel like it is already too far back, but considering there is another stop on the other side of Market, it should stay at least there.

    Also, the problem with take a right turn onto Market from 3nd (and I agree with Richard wholeheartedly) is that people use the crosswalk so the cars are lined up waiting for the people to finish crossing the street before they can turn. This usually leaves time for 2-3 cars per light cycle. That doesn’t even begin to touch on the fact that many many drivers try to be the last one through the light on Market and get stuck in the middle of the intersection.

    All hail the automobile!

  • ZA

    Interesting plan. 20 years to halve car use, with only one-third of that going to mass transit, and the rest to walking and cycling? Ambitious, but possible. I’d feel a lot better about the prospect if I saw a lot more aggressive investment and build-out *now* on the alternatives we need.

    Those MUNI station improvements are good, eventual Bike Plan implementation is good, but we need to see far wider sidewalks with more seats and shade to really increase the pedestrian facilities for San Franciscans and visitors in that time frame. Those trees need to go in within the next 5 years to be of any practical and aesthetic use.

  • Richard… although it may appear the stop was moved for right-turning autos, it was most likely moved back so that Muni buses can merge in to the next lane over, earlier. Buses can’t negotiate the tight curve at 3rd and Market and always have to merge left before crossing Market, causing delays. But I agree that right turns for autos are very counter-productive.

    Also, Streetsblog… could you please get some else’s opinion besides Radulovich? What does the head of the AAA have to say? Or an auto advocate from the Richmond? These articles would be so much more interesting if we had an intelligent devils advocate.

  • Peter Smith

    do they have a safety director yet?

    why does Nat Ford still have a job? i don’t know exactly what a figurehead-type position like the one Nat fills is supposed to do besides….nothing at all, but it seems like Nat accomplishes less than that. i don’t want a reorg and lack of accountability and international searches and more delays — i want action.

    can we come up with some kind of citizen’s committee to evaluate people in these positions that we depend on? how about a ‘shadow MTA’ that would make recommendations? no matter the level of FAIL, Nat Ford seems untouchable. i don’t think i’ve ever actually seen him criticized for anything anywhere at any time. how is that possible? i understand that apologizing for public transit operators in big cities is a highly-valued profession, but it doesn’t have to be this way. i know i’m missing something obvious that insiders know, but i’d love to be enlightened. please — relieve me of my ignorance.

    cushy city jobs, man…that’s some nice job security. just put on a tie, physically show up, and collect fat checks. running people over? just scream “Funding!” drunk operators? “Funding!” paying overtime while cutting service? “Funding!” shoot — you don’t even have to do the screaming yourself — the professional apology brigade will take care of it for you.

  • Peter Smith

    To answer my own first question, yes, they do have a safety director:


    Has he brought us safety? No.

    How much is he to blame, seeing as how Nat thought it was cool to leave the position empty FOR 18 MONTHS? Who knows.

    All I know is people continue to get run over, and the tragedies and injuries and lawsuits and expenses and decreased service and loss of public trust continues.

    What say you, Mr. Dougherty?

  • “Has he brought us safety? No.”

    If you expect a single person to change the entire SFMTA culture overnight, keep dreaming. Mr. Dougherty testified at a Board of Supervisors hearing on safety following the West Portal and F-Line crashes. Already in the works were a new training programs and new safety manuals because Mr. Dougherty was not satisfied with what he arrived to find. He’d breaking out separate manuals for bus and rail, with the rail safety manual landing sometime in the next few months.

  • ian

    i’m dreaming, but maybe we’ll get some copenhagen-style bike lanes around. that’d be nice, so that you don’t have to find all your bikers among the lycra bunch…

  • Nick

    Sounds like a Newsom-esque press release. Admirable goals, no accountability, no plans for implementation.

    The illusion of progress.

  • AW

    Seth – You’re spot on.

    Richard – The bus stop was moved back, closer to Mission, so that buses could merge over into the next lane sooner and avoid the right-turners onto Market. The plan also created a separate right-turn lane. The facts are:

    1. The buses can’t negotiate the bend on 3rd Street before Market, and there were plenty of collisions happening there.
    2. The right-turning vehicles, while waiting for pedestrians to cross, block the buses behind them.
    3. There’s a stop just on the other side of Market Street. Let me repeat that. Not one or two blocks away. THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STREET.
    4. There’s currently no stop at Mission to serve MOAD, MOMA, Golden Gate Transit, and all the intersecting MUNI lines.
    5. There was a 50 page petition in support of the move, and only 3 people showed up at the Board meeting in opposition.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    I’m perfectly aware of how buses — up to FIVE of them at a time — bunch up at Third and Mission because of sociopathic scumbags in single occupant vehicles backing up waiting to turn right so that they can clog up Market and then make another right because there’s no reason to have been on Market in the first place.

    Anybody who has ridden the 9X/30/45 more than once or even walked along Market Street any time before 9pm — unlike the SFMTA staff — knows this.

    So why is the “solution” to make the bus service worse?

    What possible reason can there be for ACTIVELY ENCOURAGING — rather than, say “banning” — right turns from Third onto Market? Name one.

    SFMTA has made a deliberate decision to directly encourage driving and to make bus service significantly worse. The “solution” is worse than the problem, especially when a REAL and massively transit-IMPROVING and no-cost and no-auto-impact and blindingly obvious solution of simply banning right turns on Third was and is and remains available.

    As for “there was a 50 page petition in support of the move, and only 3 people showed up at the Board meeting in opposition.”

    So what? It should be job of ethical, competent, non-moronic, not-anti-transit, professional, full-time, paid staff to do the right thing. Or at least a kindergarten-level crayon sketch of what might be the right thing when viewed by a sympathetic special needs teacher and graded on a curve.

    Honest citizen yeomanry is supposed to learn about, respond to in detail, lobby commissioners in person, and derail the universally-rubber-stamped consent calendar crap coming out of full-time staff on a workday afternoon after three days’ agenda notice, providing they happen to the the sort of sad cases who receive agency agendas?

    I guarantee not one rider who is affected by this screw-over is aware of how badly they’ve just been screwed. Hey, but there was a Public Notice! Oh yeah, we’ll serve the seven people a year who visit MOAD. Don’t forget the critical Cartoon Art Museum transit market!

    Death is far too kind a fate for the SFMTA.

  • AW

    “What possible reason can there be for ACTIVELY ENCOURAGING — rather than, say “banning” — right turns from Third onto Market? Name one.”

    I’ll name three:
    – commercial vehicles still have to turn onto Market
    – taxis still have to turn onto Market
    – both still have to be able to make the right-turn, even if Market Street were closed to SOV’s.

    Since you have asked me a question, let me ask you to respond to two of my previous points:
    – It’s physically impossible for the bus to hug the curb all the way to Market Street.
    – There’s a stop on the other side of Market Street. Do you think that bus stops spaced 1/2 block from each other is good for transit?

  • mike

    To start, I think this is a good move, to combine engineers and planners in one section to encourage complete, quality project results.

    There are plenty of intelligent people engaged in transportation policy in this city, so I don’t know if it’s a case of intellectual laziness or maybe over-zealous use of using easily digestable, dumbed down soundbites, but to continue to vilify traffic engineers in this city as a whole is misguided.

    A large percentage of the city’s traffic engineering resources are spent on pedestrian, bicycle, transit, and other non-auto projects. San Francisco has removed car lanes on more streets than any other city in North America (30+) – all of those projects were studied, designed, and implemented by traffic engineers in the DPT/MTA. Pedestrian head starts at traffic signals are common. Transit lanes and transit signal priority is used on numerous streets and signals. Before the injunction, the city was cranking out a bike lane project every two weeks.

    So let’s keep the discussion on an intelligent level and keep the parroting of tired arguments to a minimum. There’s much room for improvement though so let’s keep moving forward.

  • I completely agree about keeping this an intelligent discussion. With that in mind, here are some of my observations.

    Administration, Taxis and Accessible Services looks like it was arranged to gain a lot of efficiency. Taxis provides the para-trasit service and the SFMTA had a very close working relationship with them on accessibility, but once the Taxi Commission was merged it would make sense to keep them separate divisions. As an interaction and information designer, the haphazard and inconstant signage and messaging used throughout Muni really gets on my nerves, Marking and communications will take over that so it won’t be written by engineers for engineers anymore. And separating employee and labor relations into a separate division from the transit works can only be an improvement.

    Finance and Information Technology will pay off in the long term. There is decades old, completely separate, and completely incompatible infrastructure built up for Muni and the DPT which even though the agencies have merged still will take decades to replace and consolidate. It was only a couple years ago the payrolls system was consolidated, it will be several more before the communications equipment all talks together. Sonali Bose has consistently made budget recommendations which were pro-transit looks to raising the cost of parking to offset the cost rather than increasing fares. Not all were supported by the SFMTA board or the Board of Supervisors, and other projects like SF Park are just getting started.


MTA Chief Operating Officer Ken McDonald Resigns

Ken McDonald, in the middle with his hands resting on the rail, at the scene of last night’s streetcar crash. Photo by Bryan Goebel. We heard rumblings from sources in the days following the West Portal Muni crash that Ken McDonald, Muni’s Chief Operating Officer, had been reassigned by MTA Chief Nat Ford. The agency […]

Muni Crashes Dominate MTA Board Meeting

. Nat Ford gives the MTA Board a safety update. Photo by Bryan Goebel. MTA Chief Nat Ford sought to assure the MTA Board of Directors today that the agency is taking the appropriate steps to address safety concerns, despite two high-profile crashes in two weeks that he called "disturbing." "We are displeased with the […]

SFMTA Board Debates Mode Shift Goal at Workshop

SFMTA Chief Nat Ford presented his “State of the SFMTA” [pdf] report to the board of directors at a special workshop today, a mostly glowing assessment of the past few years but one that acknowledged the pains of its funding crises and the many challenges the agency faces as it looks to the future. It […]

Supervisor Avalos, Advocates Call for More Equitable Muni Budget

Supervisor John Avalos at Transit Justice rally. Photos by Bryan Goebel. Supervisor John Avalos, leading the charge for a Muni budget that is more equitably balanced between drivers and transit riders, was joined Monday by a broad coalition of advocates, including groups representing seniors and youth, in a rally designed to pressure the MTA into […]