Op-ed: Before Breed Axes Transit Chief, Crucial Changes Needed at City Hall

Sacking Ed Reiskin won't accomplish anything without a paradigm shift in governance

Geary rendering from SFMTA.
Geary rendering from SFMTA.

Last month, Mayor London Breed expressed frustration with Muni’s poor performance in a sternly-worded letter to Ed Reiskin, the city’s transportation director. The move signaled that Reiskin’s tenure might soon end. But if the mayor is going to throw him under the bus, she certainly knows not to count on it arriving on time. Only about half of the city’s buses show up according to schedule, a benchmark that no mayor in recent memory has been able to budge.

The time may have come for a new transit boss, but anyone who heads the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency (SFMTA) will fail unless firm, decisive changes occur at City Hall.

The first priority: Create a bold vision for Muni. And it must come directly from our new mayor.

Mayor Breed should adopt the 30×30 plan, a promise to riders that the city’s buses and trains will get them anywhere within the city within 30 minutes by 2030. It may sound far-fetched, but it’s an idea the SF Transit Riders say is possible. An ambitious goal is essential because San Francisco officials have a habit of making decisions that sabotage the system’s speed and reliability. Examples are everywhere, including destroying a traffic circle and the city’s two Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) projects.

Elsewhere in the world, BRT operates as a surface subway. From Bogáta to Tehran, buses throttle past traffic on lanes unimpeded by private vehicles. Buses stop briefly at elevated platforms, each designed to be level with the floor of arriving buses. With no step up, people with strollers, groceries and wheelchairs board as quickly as they do from a subway platform.

These two features, dedicated lanes and level boarding, provide Bus Rapid Transit’s greatest speed and reliability improvements. But neither will be a part of San Francisco’s BRT projects, assuring that decades of dithering and $225 million will not amount to much.

In a real BRT system, buses have dedicated platforms and lanes throughout and do not compete with cars. Pic is of the MAX BRT in Ft. Collins, Colorado.
In a real BRT system, buses have dedicated platforms and lanes throughout and do not compete with cars. Pic is of the MAX BRT in Ft. Collins, Colorado. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The problems started in 2014, under Ed Reiskin’s leadership, when SFMTA argued that level boarding was impossible. The city’s buses have lug nuts that protrude too far from the wheels of buses, the agency said.

That’s a lousy excuse. The answer is simple: Get new buses.

But SFMTA does not want specialized buses for BRT, says Paul Rose, a spokesperson for the agency. “We need the ability to move buses around when needed,” he says.

But from Tanzania to China, cities with complex bus networks have acquired special buses to make level boarding work. Why can’t San Francisco?

Actually, we can. With years until either of San Francisco’s BRT projects will open (2020 for Van Ness and 2021 for Geary’s first phase) a strong-willed mayor could do what the last wouldn’t: push back.

The mayor could acquire new buses. And despite the current mess on Van Ness, construction on platforms hasn’t started on either project. The mayor could dust off earlier plans and have crews build proper platforms that allow level boarding.

Level boarding of a bus in Bogota.
Level boarding of a bus in Bogota. Photo: Transmilenio Press Office

But if level boarding happens, another blow to San Francisco’s BRT projects came last month when the SFMTA board voted to allow private shuttles in the lanes.

Tech shuttles, Chariot vehicles, double-decker tourist buses, Casino buses, and even airport shuttle vans can crowd into Geary’s bus lanes. This breaks a promise to the public, wrote Susan Vaughan, a member of the SFMTA Citizens Advisory Council, who insists that exclusive lanes are what San Franciscans expect from BRT.

If the mayor can’t deliver true BRT, it’s time to ask a tough question: When the city finally completes these projects, will San Franciscans experience a notable upgrade?

The main thing people will see is a bunch of bus stops in the middle of the street. But with the most crucial “Rapid” features erased, center-lane bus stops will seem silly. In San Francisco, Bus Rapid Transit will amount to nothing more than Bus Transit, the same slow, lurching, stuck-in-traffic system that we already have.

Smaller transit improvements also get killed with swiftness and regularity. The traffic circle at Fulton and McAllister streets offers the latest example.

The circle was part of Muni’s 5-Fulton improvements to speed up travel times for the line’s 20,000 daily riders. The city approved the project after a community outreach process that engaged more than 2,000 people. But soon after crews installed it, the Alamo Square Neighborhood Association complained to their supervisor behind closed doors. And that’s all it took. Without talking to transit riders, this “transit first” city promptly bulldozed the circle.

Privately, SFMTA planners tell Streetsblog that city supervisors routinely interfere to stop improvements when neighbors express resistance to change. Although the traffic circle may seem insignificant on its own, small speed enhancements are more important than they may seem.

A 5 Fulton navigating the traffic circle at McAllister and Steiner, now removed. Streetsblog/Rudick
A 5 Fulton navigating the traffic circle at McAllister and Steiner, now removed. Streetsblog/Rudick

SFMTA’s Muni Forward program intends to speed up 76 bus and rail lines. Imagine that the agency could cut two minutes from the travel time of each line. When each route completed its first run of the day, Muni would gain 2.5 hours of service.

With several vehicles assigned to every route, each completing many runs per day, that two-minute benefit would accumulate across the entire system, adding up to hundreds of service hours every day. The impact for San Francisco would be like getting dozens of new buses and drivers for free, a service upgrade that would cascade throughout the system, creating faster and more reliable service across the city.

But when a supervisor fields complaints from neighbors, they might ask: What is Muni Forward anyway? What is its goal? When will it be achieved? Are San Franciscans behind it?

The program’s results tell you everything you need to know. Since Muni Forward launched in 2015, our transit system’s on-time performance rate remains at 53 percent, the system continues to be one of the slowest in the developed world, and ridership has not grown.

The failure of Muni Forward is precisely why Mayor Breed needs an ambitious plan of her own.

It must have a simple, clearly-expressed goal. Similar to a city preparing to host the Olympics, a hard, non-negotiable deadline must be backed up with the full force of the mayor’s office. And, unlike Muni Forward, a majority of San Franciscans need to understand and support the plan.

As the mayor’s new blueprint comes into focus, it will guide other critical reforms.

  • The agency should drastically change its public engagement process. The current approach, with its flyers, surveys, hearings, and neighborhood meetings, achieves little more than angry, unproductive fights that go on for far too long. The agency should work with outside experts to define its engagement goals and professionalize its process.
  • After a successful engagement process, new city policy should be enacted to prevent supervisors and the SFMTA board from interfering with the resulting projects.
  • The unelected SFMTA board, formed in 1999 and accountable only to the mayor, has not worked. Although it gives the mayor power that she may be reluctant to give up, the good of the city should come first. She should briefly look at transit governance models around the world and offer voters an alternative in time for the 2020 election.
  • The mayor should restructure SFMTA so that a single person is accountable for Muni and nothing else.
  • Elected officials should ride transit, and not just in San Francisco. Since the United States offers few examples of fast, reliable public transportation, taxpayers should fund overseas trips specifically to give officials first-hand experience with world-class transit.

Could Muni become as fast and reliable as transit in Tokyo, Istanbul, or even Fort Collins? I think it can — and London Breed just might be the mayor to pull it off.

To express your support for the 30×30 plan, send an e-mail to Mayor Breed’s office at MayorLondonBreed@sfgov.org.

  • sebra leaves

    The one thing everyone seems to agree on with regard to the SFMTA and the management is that Ed Reiskin has worn out his welcome as top dog at the SFMTA. We could use someone who is a better negotiator and is prepared to heal some of the deep wounds and animosity that this regime has brought to our city with its policies and priorities. We need a peacemaker and a competent manager.

  • embarcadero

    Sounds like your big point is that supervisors listen to their residents and voters.

    Gee, what a shocking thing to happen in a democracy.

    The fact that you trust so-called “experts” rather than the people is damning.

  • shamelessly

    I think the larger point here is that everyone is suffering because citywide plans are being vetoed at the neighborhood level when the demands of a handful of residents are allowed to outweigh the benefit to hundreds of thousands of transit riders citywide. Residents concerns should be heard regarding changes to the environment of our neighborhoods, but unless a fundamental issue of justice is raised or a compromise can be found that doesn’t impact the overall success of the project, residents should be expected to adjust to changes (like the McAllister St roundabout) rather than rejecting the change and negatively impacting transit throughout the entire city. I think the point of the article is that there’s a balance to strike, and right now it’s too often weighted in favor of loud voices of people who simply don’t like change or who don’t ever want to prioritize any mode of transit over private autos. That balance needs to shift.

  • embarcadero

    Well, call me old fashioned but I like to think that democracy should be local, and that if I invest money in buying a home then my vote counts a little more than that of someone who merely breezes through a few times a week and lacks patience.

    Maybe if the Bay Area was one unitary jurisdiction we could have the kind of top-down government you seek. But the Bay Area has made a conscious decision to Balkanize and devolve one urban area into nine counties and dozens of cities. So the result is obvious. NIMBYism, which we also see in housing.

    I trust the voters. Why don’t you?

  • crazyvag

    Shamelessly is right. And in your example, why should only value of your property increase ca thousands of other properties that are near less effective transit.

    What if neighbors 4 blocks away complain to their supervisor and as a result a bus line you use daily gets rerouted 4 blocks further. Making your commute 5 mins longer each way. But that’s ok, because as your said, your commute matters less than someone’s property value.

  • RichLL Commentary Track

    To bring new readers up to speed, the reason I can say that I trust the voters with such conviction is that by my definition what “the voters” want is always whatever I want. If an elected official does something I don’t like they are no longer “listening to their residents and voters” but are instead bureaucrats run amok or in the pocket of special interests. When voters vote for something like the Transit First policy that I don’t like then I dismiss it by claiming they were only voting for the slogan but not the implementation.

    It’s like I always say, “The easiest way to claim the moral high ground in any debate is to make up your own definition of the word high.”

  • embarcadero

    And yet the voters invariably support my view, not yours.

    Funny that.

  • embarcadero

    The time of everyone is not equal. One high value worker could be worth more than a bus full of proles

  • Flatlander

    Speak for yourself. Ed’s a great director, but an easy punching bag.

    I had to chuckle when Andy mentioned that the MTA’s accountability only to an appointed board isn’t working. He does realize that many people agree for completely opposite reasons, right? More accountability to the supervisors is going to have exactly the opposite his intended result.

    Streetsblog readers are a minority. They’re better informed than most, but better-informed people aren’t exactly ruling the world right now.

  • Flatlander

    How do you figure? Voters have usually supported MTA with funding when it comes to a vote, and solidly rejected the “cars first” prop a while back. And on the regional level, we passed RM3…

  • > This breaks a promise to the public, wrote Susan Vaughan, a member of the SFMTA Citizens Advisory Council, who insists that exclusive lanes are what San Franciscans expect from BRT.

    🚍 More than just a promise, it’s the law. We voted in 1989 for a ballot measure to extend Muni Metro out Geary (and to impose a sales tax to fund it). The project was quickly downgraded from LRT to BRT, which technically conforms with the “fixed guideway” legalese in the measure. Slapping down some red paint for casino buses is not at all what we voted for.

  • embarcadero

    If the voters are giving you everything you want then why are you still complaining that you don’t have everything that you want?

  • RichLL Commentary Track

    When you don’t want to answer a question, ask a different question in response and hope that nobody notices that it’s not an answer.

    Here I’m hoping to distract from my original claim that voters invariably support my views, which can of course be false without the voters invariably supporting the views of the person who gave specific examples that show I was lying.

  • RichLL Commentary Track

    If you’re trying to reconcile my blatant classism with my noble proclamations about trusting “the people”, just remember the cardinal rule. Having consistent values is a liability when your goal is to turn everything into a pointless exchange that goes on as long as possible.

  • embarcadero

    It is not a political statement to observe that some peoples’ time is more valuable than other peoples’ time. It is just the way the world is, and denying that seems futile.

  • embarcadero

    It is logically inconsistent to simultaneously claim both that the voters support you ANS that there are things you want that the voters have not approved.

    It’s not a complex concept.

  • Stuart

    More accountability to the supervisors is going to have exactly the opposite his intended result.

    I don’t think revisiting Prop L is the what the author had in mind, given that the piece said, “She should briefly look at transit governance models around the world and offer voters an alternative in time for the 2020 election.”

    I’d be curious what the author does have in mind though. It’s not clear to me why having the board accountable to the mayor is a problem if the solution to the current problems is a bold vision coming directly from the mayor; direct accountability to the person driving the vision sounds reasonable to me.

  • p_chazz

    And what is the penalty for breaking the law? So what if it’s against the law. Laws are only good if they have teeth…

  • crazyvag

    If your time is that valuable, then you can always wake up earlier, stay at work later, skip lunch, sleep less to maximize your billable hours. I don’t buy your argument that your sleep is more valuable than my sleep. Or that my time eating lunch is less valuable than your time eating lunch. Unless you’re billable 24/7, then your argument makes no sense.

  • embarcadero

    I don’t care what you “buy”. The reality is that some peoples’ time is more valuable than others. So when someone boards that plane before you because they bought a first class ticket and you didn’t, everyone understands that.

  • @p_chazz – Probably the same penalty Willie Brown faced for using these funds to replace deciduous trees with palms.

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