SF Transit Riders Union Holds First Meeting, Debates Priorities

Roughly two dozen attendees came out to the inaugural meeting of
the San Francisco Transit Riders Union (SFTRU) on Thursday evening and had a spirited — at times heated — debate about how to make the fledgling organization a vocal constituency representing the diverse interests of Muni riders. Billed as
an opportunity for the public to become familiar with the new riders union, the meeting functioned largely as a two-hour brainstorming
on the group’s potential scope and agenda.

SFTRU’s expressed goal is to represent the interests of all San
Francisco transit riders; but the nature of that representation is still
far from finalized, and attendees clashed over the positions that they
felt the organization should take. Despite sharing an affection for
public transit, attendees’ voices occasionally raised to shouts as they
debated the organization’s mission, principles, and potential
campaigns. Topics ranged from enforcing parking meters on Sundays to Mayor Gavin Newsom’s upcoming appointments to the MTA Board,
work orders, and the

bicycle injunction.

Semi-retired history buff Richard Petersen decried the proposal for metered

parking on Sundays. "It’s shutting down all the small
businesses in the city," he stated emphatically.

Other attendees fired back, explaining that merchants tend to favor
Sunday metering because it results in greater turnover. When New York
City stopped Sunday metering, observed one metering advocate, "merchants
freaked out. It was the end of new customers on Sunday."

After several minutes of debate, consensus on the topic appeared to
coalesce around supporting occupancy-based


The SFTRU began to take shape in mid-February, when Dave Snyder — a Streetsblog

contributor, former Transportation Policy Director at the San
Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), and former Executive Director of
the San Francisco
Bike Coalition (SFBC) — heeded encouragement
from his colleagues to form a transit rider advocacy group.

Snyder said the organization will be led by a steering committee, comprised of representatives from transportation and
community advocacy organizations, though he declined to publicly identify
the organizations, explaining that further negotiation was required
before the committee’s formal membership was determined. He invited
attendees to nominate organizations that they felt should have
representation on the committee.

Snyder described his leadership style as democratic and said
the SFTRU’s membership would have considerable say over the
organization’s priorities.

To this point, Snyder
wrote the SFTRU mission statement on the wall at the start of the meeting ("to promote excellent and growing public transit in San Francisco") and invited feedback. Before
long, proposed modifications included replacing "excellent" with
"efficient," adding "affordable" and "safe," and a statement of support
for eliminating fares on Muni altogether.

The conversation broadened even further on the topic of campaigns
that SFTRU might carry out. Among the suggestions:

  • A
    rider-education campaign about moving all the way to the back of the bus
  • Pressuring Muni to roll out more comprehensive 511 information
  • Examining accusations of discriminatory enforcement of proof-of-payment
  • Stopping the Central Subway project
  • Advocating for appointments
    to the SFMTA Board
  • Changing the loud squeal when the subway doors
    are held open

Refining the SFTRU’s scope will require further meetings, further input
from the public, and a dedicated group of volunteers. "We need a web presence," Snyder reported, "we need help on
Facebook pages, database development, and event coordination." He
encouraged anyone interested in contributing to contact him at dsnyder@sftru.org,
or to attend next Thursday’s meeting at 6:30 p.m. The location for that
meeting is yet to be determined, but will be announced soon to members of the

SFTRU mailing list.

At the end of the two-hour meeting, it was clear that much work
remained to be done. Gesturing to the proposed list of campaigns, one
attendee said that the group already had enough material for a
year’s worth of meetings about Muni.

  • Diversifying the participants in the SF Transit Riders Union is definitely key … any ideas how to increase interest among folks who are not caucasian?

  • You can reach out, but if they don’t put any effort forward are you suppose to abandon ship because everyone is white?

  • “Semi-retired history buff Richard Petersen decried the proposal for metered parking on Sundays. “It’s shutting down all the small businesses in the city,” he stated emphatically.”

    This is completely confusing. I think Richard is putting the cart before the horse. How is the mere idea of Sunday metering shutting down small businesses? Maybe he is confused and it is actually the lack of Sunday metering shutting down the businesses. Or maybe he just don’t want to pay to park on Sundays.

  • Alex

    Oh. Good. A campaign encouraging riders to move to the back of the bus? More penny ante nonsense. This is almost as good as the “March Against MUNI”.

  • Advocating against the Central Subway? Boooo.

  • Actually Evan, YEAH!!

  • let the death of a 1000 cuts begin as everyone complains….but does nothing to improve things, or propose a model of advocacy that would work better.

    i’m taking a wait and see attitude myself, but trying to organize Muni riders isn’t as easy as it sounds. I studied the idea myself 3 years ago and realized that in SF, it would be like herding feral cats. It certainly isn’t as easy as organizing bike riders.

  • Greg, completely agree. That is why I made the comment up there about diversity. At the MUNI summit I worked with the organizers to get as many people/groups involved as possible. And even though it was a volunteer group doing the best it could with little to no funding, people still got up to the mic and complained about lack of diversity.

    Ok then, you bring people in. It is up to YOU to gather people who you think will benefit from this. POWER was there bitching up a storm, when they could have easily activated their network and brought people.

    I was going to go to the meeting yesterday, but I’ll just wait and see where it goes. I’ll probably join up at some point (and I’m on the mailer), but I think looking at the number of fast passes sold should be indication enough that people heavily rely on MUNI. Then add in the couple hundred thousand single fare rides a day, and I think you have a pretty good riders union right there. But since this city gov’t can’t seem to grasp the fact that it is possible to function without a car, there has to be an advocacy group.

    Don’t think they should fight against CS, then show up and say that. Don’t like so many white people fighting for transit, go grab someone of color and bring them in. Think that having to preach to people to move back is a waste of time, people are looking for ideas if you have so many great ones.

  • Alex

    @mike Those are pretty big words from someone who didn’t go to the meeting. Don’t like someone agitating against Sunday meter hours? Show up and say that.

    I’m on the mailing list and what I’ve seen so far has left me with a “wait and see” attitude much like you and Greg seem to be taking. I’ve made a few points and been left with the overwhelming feeling that being inoffensive and feelgood are more important than agitating for transit riders’ causes. There are a number of structural changes that ought to be made (or suggested). Combined with the general financial and miscellaneous upheaval at the MTA, this is absolutely the perfect time for some serious pro-rider agitation.

    If, after waiting, more productive discourse seems to be emanating from the riders’ union I’d certainly be more inclined to contribute (as a person of color, as someone to help with the web presence, as a general malcontent, etc). However, if the riders’ union spends the next year bickering about what to do with the door whistles on the LRVs, I’m not going to bother derailing that train. Getting bogged down in minutia like that is no good to anyone.

    P.S. I sure hope that, unlike the last meeting, the next meeting gets posted to the mailing list in advance.

  • patrick

    Alex, getting people to move to the back of the bus would have some significant improvements on dwell time during rush hour. I have been on the bus many times where there are a crowd of people trying to board, but there’s no space in the front, and yet the back of the bus is practically empty.

    Of course allowing rear door boarding would probably be more effective at properly distributing riders throughout the bus.

  • I didn’t go because I’ve been going to Save MUNI meetings, the Streetsblog event, mailing this person and that, North Beach Neighbor meetings, and talking with just about anyone who will listen. I think my opinions have been well heard. I think missing one meeting doesn’t exclude me from saying what I said up there.

    And maybe you are right. Maybe the SFTRU will be a joke. But maybe it won’t.

  • BCon

    I was at the meeting, and thought it went pretty well overall, especially given the broad range of topics discussed in such a short amount of time.

    The six bullet points above of things that were discussed is a really bad sample of what was actually talked about. The only things in that list that were discussed at any length (from what I recall) were the SFMTA board appointments and the 511 education drive. The other items were briefly mentioned or written down, but that’s it. Sunday meters were extensively discussed, with one attendee adamantly against them, and every one else pretty much for them… however when someone suggested that meter pricing should go up or down based on demand, even the gentleman against Sunday meters seemed to have a change of heart, and liked the idea.

    Most people had great things to say, and weren’t just complaining. Congestion pricing was brought up, which was nice, since it hasn’t been discussed by anyone in quite a while… and it was mentioned that that could be one of the big campaigns we work on (as well as finding other revenue sources for Muni).

    All door boarding/having a system-wide POP system were also discussed, as well as the cost of fare enforcement.

    There were a couple people from the SFMTA advisory committee and a former SFMTA employee there who were VERY helpful/knowledgeable… answering questions such as why the doors have to beep loud on the LRVs when someone blocks them (so that the drivers can hear the beep from the cab) and why bikes aren’t aloud on LRVs (because of the bicycle injunction), among other things.

    The Central Subway was VERY briefly brought up, but it was agreed that it was too contentious of an issue to discuss in our limited time. There was no discussion or consensus as to whether it was a good idea/project or not… or even if it was something we should take up.

    There was a lack of diversity, from what I could tell… only two women, I believe, and mostly caucasian, however the age range was all over the place, from teenagers to senior citizens and everyone in between.

    My only major qualm was that Dave Snyder said he wanted it to be a democratic group, yet the ultimate policy decisions (including many decisions that have already been put in place) are made by the mysterious “steering committee” which is made up of various organizations sponsoring the group. If it was truly democratic, the final policy decisions would be made by the membership.
    I understand the need to keep the steering committee somewhat unknown until they’ve all committed to it and are sure that the group has a strong chance of succeeding or at least getting off the ground, however it seems that even after that happens, they’ll still be making most of the final decisions. I hope as the group takes shape, final decision making is done by the membership at large, or at least that the decisions made by the Steering Committee get to be voted on by the membership before they go into effect.

  • Nick

    For as long as I can remember, there has been a mindset among the citizens of SF that MUNI should sort out it’s own problems. It’s the idea that MUNI is a public good like water or electricity. It should work without our having to be involved in it.

    If there was a transit advocacy group 15 or 20 years ago, would the system be any different today? Or are MUNI’s problems systemic? Can any amount of advocacy change the fact that the infrastructure is aging and that fixed costs are high?

  • @Nick The transit coalition will definitely face bigger challenges than the bike coalition, simply because there are more tough choices to make. Bike infrastructure is extremely cheap (usually just paint), and the only political issue is typically removal of parking. Transit issues almost always require evaluating tough trade-offs, and facing down entrenched management and unions.

    But I think most of Muni’s challenges are political, and certainly difficult, but public pressure is the best way to solve them! Infrastrucure and fixed costs are really the least of their problems. While these are big issues on the LRV system, most of service the city’s service is provided by buses, and the thing holding back bus service is not investment in vehicles and maintainence, but affording drivers show up every day to drive them, route managers and schedulers to make sure they operate well, and top management willing to do their job and implement necessary systemic changes. Buses have very low fixed cost – the driver and managerial overhead comprise the vast majority of the cost (even moreso with our mostly electric bus system that hasn’t ballooned in price along with oil)!

  • Alex

    @Steve Maintenance is a huge issue, even for the buses. Last quarter only two of the six bus divisions met their goal for mean distance between failure. For the the 60ft trolleys (which serve some of the busiest lines like the the 14, 49) you’re looking at under 700 miles between failure. Even if runs aren’t being missed outright, it’s costing the MTA money by diverting resources and it certainly is disrupting service with delays.

    For many of the same reasons I disliked how the SFTRU was singling out drivers as worth of an alliance, I dislike the idea of singling out the drivers… even if the TWU was rallying against capital improvements at that ‘march against muni’ thing.

  • Alex

    Just noticed that not a single item was posted to the mailing list regarding the planned SFTRU meeting on Thursday (yesterday). Not a peep about its location or its cancellation. I’d say the SFTRU is off to a fantastic start so far.

  • Mattymatt

    Check your spam folder. An email went out a few days ago that an informal subgroup was meeting this week.

  • Alex

    SPAM folder? Eh, I was folloing the ‘MuniRiders’ Google Group (which certainly appears to be setup like a mailing list) that Dave setup… which has apparently been abandoned(?).


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