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Q&A with Rachel Hyden, San Francisco Transit Riders’ New Executive Director

Rachel Hyden, inaugural Executive Director of the San Francisco Transit Riders. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

The San Francisco Transit Riders (SFTR) has hired its first Executive Director, Rachel Hyden. “We did a thorough search...and interviewed many good people,” said Thea Selby, SFTR chair, in the official announcement made last week. "Hiring Executive Director Hyden means that we have the capacity to reach out to more diverse riders around the city and be a better rider-based grassroots advocate for world-class transit in San Francisco.”

Streetsblog readers will recall that the SFTR launched a major fund-raising drive last year, in an attempt to take the primarily volunteer group into the realm of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and Walk San Francisco: groups with full-time staff, offices, and professional fundraising efforts. Of course, a major step is finding the right person to put at the helm.

Hyden worked previously at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), as Communications and Brand Manager of the Muni Forward Program, which the SFTR advocated for. She led public engagement efforts for several Rapid projects including Mission Street, L-Taraval, and the 5-Fulton. Before entering city government, she oversaw membership development for Efficiency First, a San Francisco trade association, and organized several public interest campaigns with Sierra Club and Ohio PIRG. She's also a regularly Muni rider--the 14R Mission Rapid is her bus.

Streetsblog sat down with Hyden to find out more about her, her vision for the SFTR, how she forged her approach to advocacy, and her strategy for pushing San Francisco's transit system into the future.


Streetsblog: So you studied journalism at Ohio University?

Rachel Hyden: In college I wanted to be a broadcast journalist. This is embarrassing. I wanted to be like Nancy Grace. But my sophomore year I had to get an internship, so I got one with United Campus Ministry, which works on social justice and interfaith issues. I was the public relations intern. They were making such strides in improving interfaith tolerance. I was like we need to tell everyone about this and showcase all the things they're doing. That's when I pivoted to public relations and non-profit management.

SB: So you made the pivot from journalism to public relations. But how did that lead to transit?

RH: I moved out to San Francisco with my fiancé. I was unemployed, didn't have a lot money, didn't have a smart phone, and so I relied on Muni to get me everywhere. That was my first interaction with a major transit system. I had applied for a job with the city as Public Information Officer, but hadn't heard any offers, so took a job with a trade association for energy efficiency and worked as their “membership and education" manger. I took the bus to work. This was around the time of the Muni sick out, and I got a call from Sean Kennedy because I was still on the [city application] list. He said they were interested in interviewing me for the transit effectiveness project. I was happy at my job, but I was so fed up with Muni. I was walking 45 minutes home every day, and there was a lack of communications with customers. I was furious about it, so hearing him on the phone say “transit effectiveness project” I thought, oh, I can get involved in this. That was the start.

SB: It was an opportunity to get involved in making things better. What was it like suddenly working inside a large city bureaucracy versus a public advocacy organization?

RH: It was definitely different, not as much freedom, right? Things either moved really, really fast or really slow at SFMTA, but I couldn't control the timeline. Being an advocate I could get up and say we need to do this and we did it. At MTA you would say, we need to do this now...however, we need to think about this, or pairing it with another agency. There's always some other factor before you can actually get anything done.

SB: Sounds frustrating.

RH: I think about all of the coordination that MTA has to go through.

SB: For example?

RH: Say if there's a major need to improve the Mission Street buses, but there's no repaving or infrastructure project scheduled. You're only permitted to dig up the street once every five years, and it has to be coordinated with an existing DPW project. So if you want to add a signal, or build a bulbout, you can't dig. Coordinating that is extremely difficult.

SB: But there's plenty that can be done without always tearing up the street.

RH: That's why I'm a big fan of the Muni Forward treatments that can be laid down early, ahead of capital infrastructure, so even if DPW's timeline slips, you have early implementation. You see that on Taraval, for instance.

SB: You mean like painting a boarding island and adding safe hit posts as a stop gap while SFMTA is waiting for DPW? Then when DPW is ready to do whatever they need to do, SFMTA can come back in and put in a proper, concrete boarding island?

RH: Exactly.

SB: I guess the biggest challenge of running an advocacy group is fundraising. What will you bring to the table? What's the pitch to get foundations and individuals to give to the Transit Riders?

RH: Everybody in the city benefits from having good transportation. All of the businesses. All of the organizations. So it's the opportunity to support an advocacy organization that's trying to make it easier for your staff and employees to get around. Really, it's an easy ask and it's a noble cause. It's not just an exchange of money, it's an investment in improving your city.

SB: True, but with Walk SF, the Bicycle Coalition...are they not competing for the same pot of money?

RH: I see a very close partnership with Walk SF and the Bike Coalition--particularly with Walk SF, because there's no doubt that anyone who rides Muni is a pedestrian too. At the end of the day, a vast functioning transit system is good for everyone in this city, and improving transit helps people get to work, school, doctors appointments. People can actually get to work on time.

SB: SFMTA often seems too fast to back away from important safety improvements, especially when parking is part of the equation. What knowledge will you bring from inside that organization that will inform on how you advocate from the outside?

RH: I am intimately familiar with the challenges of getting a project through. SFMTA gets a lot of flack for watering down its projects. Rightfully so. But the question is, why does that keep happening? The answer is that transit riders are not represented at the table. That's not the fault of the SFMTA. I did their outreach. I know how hard it is to get riders to show up to meetings. That's the reason I left SFMTA. I'm ready to organize riders, to bring them out, to make sure their voices are heard and to make sure we can deliver the best, most complete projects possible.

SB: The Transit Riders has had some very successful campaigns—the 22-day Muni challenge for example. Others, less so. Certainly, the campaign for Prop K was a bust.

RH: I think you're right about the 22-day challenge. It put transit riders on the map. I think J and K went wrong because the wording itself was so wonky. I don't think anyone knew what it meant. I asked my friends about it and they said they voted for J but not K. I was like "what! How are we going to get there if you only voted for the one!"

SB: Right. Because the voters basically voted to allot funds for transit, but then failed to pass the sales tax to actually provide the funds to allot. I recall in the last interview with the board of SFTR, they basically were too exhausted to see the campaign through.

RH: It's an all volunteer board. They worked so hard just to get it on the ballot, then there was burn out. You have to run an education campaign to teach voters what the measures actually meant. So the voters were excited, they voted for the cause of transit. But it's another thing to teach people how important it is to actually fund it. There was just so much on the ballot, it was overwhelming.

SB: So you'll be trying again to get a transit tax?

RH: That's certainly going to be on our radar--to strengthen our advocacy efforts to make sure we get sustainable transit funding, ideally getting someone on the ballot in 2018.

SB: Let's talk about equity. To advocate for something, you need to have at least some free time. Unfortunately, the people who need transit improvements the most—those taking long rides out to the Bayview, for example—don't have as much time to lobby and certainly have a harder time getting to SFMTA meetings. How do we make sure all these voices get heard?

RH: It's extremely difficult. But I do not anticipate going to the Bayview and saying “hey, come out to city Hall.” One of the ways we're doing it is through something called a “ride audit.” It's about getting your everyday rider into a room, educating them about what good transit looks like, and then going on a ride and talking about problems they're experiencing.

SB: Presumably that "room" is in the Bayview...or wherever?

RH: Right. We did one at the Visitacion Valley library, for example. Basically, we are compiling reports that we can give to SFMTA and say “here's the riders and what they're seeing and here's their ask about how they want to improve a project."

SB: What are they asking for?

RH: That's interesting. We would ask people, "what do you think about the ride?" They were like, "it's really not that bad." Now, I know how bad the on-time performance is on this route. I know there are runs that are missed. Yet these riders are like “it's not so bad.”

SB: Because they've never experienced anything else?

RH: They're born and raised in San Francisco. They don't use an app to tell them when the bus is due. They don't have access to technology. So they just go and wait at the bus stop.

SB: So their expectation is, you wait as long as you wait, the bus comes when it comes, and that's all transit is supposed to be, because its all they've ever known.

RH: To think they might be standing out there for 30 minutes, because a run was missed! To think they have no way to know if their bus is coming! My goal is to work in all communities and assure that the buses are moving and moving on time. So I have a very strong focus on Muni Forward transit projects. Geneva will start soon, the 27 Bryant, those types of ready-to-go funded projects. I definitely want all riders at the table. I think our effort this year is to really grow the SFTR organization so its stronger and has a louder get people on the streets educating people on these projects, so that when it's time for hearings we're there.

SB: Those 'riders at the table' and that 'louder voice' might be in the form of a survey done on a particular bus line by the Transit Riders?

RH: Exactly.

SB: Where do you see the Transit Riders in 10 years?

RH: I would love to look like the Bike Coalition in 10 years and Walk SF in three years. They're fully staffed, well-oiled machines. With us I'd like to have small Transit Riders organizations all across the city, so we're able to accurately represent every single district, and every single community.

SB: Any other thoughts?

RH: I'm extremely excited about this opportunity and eager to take this organization to a new level. Let's make transit cool, right?

This interview was edited.

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