What Now/Who Now, SFMTA?

Ed Reiskin to step down in August. What qualities should the city look for in a replacement?

SFMTA's Ed Reiskin, during happier times, getting a shoe shine at the new Salesforce Transit Center on Aug. 13., during lunch hour.  Shortly after that, the center was closed due to cracked beams. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
SFMTA's Ed Reiskin, during happier times, getting a shoe shine at the new Salesforce Transit Center on Aug. 13., during lunch hour. Shortly after that, the center was closed due to cracked beams. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

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SFMTA’s Director, Ed Reiskin, will be out this August.

“Today I sent a letter to the MTA Board of Directors asking for new leadership for the agency,” said Mayor London Breed at a press conference yesterday afternoon. “I do think it’s important that we demonstrate with action that we plan to make serious changes to make sure that we can regain the public’s trust.”

Rumblings of Reiskin’s dismissal began almost a year ago, when the Mayor sent him a strongly-worded letter about bus service reductions during the retrofit of the Twin Peaks tunnel and the death of a construction worker. Mission Local did a great accounting of all the cock-ups that finally resulted in his ouster.

So what now? Seamless Bay Area’s Beaudry Kock had this insight in an email to Streetsblog:

The SFMTA is effectively an agency in crisis, and an interesting model for restructuring the leadership of an agency in crisis comes from the MBTA in Boston, where I spent a bit of time a couple of years ago. In the wake of the agency’s total meltdown, Massachusetts created a temporary governing board that was leaner and meaner than its bloated and politicized predecessor, gave it limited time but also new resources, then stacked the top ranks of the agency with highly capable and passionate individuals from a diverse background

Kock also made the point in yesterday’s post, even before knowing that Reiskin was on his way out, that sacking SFMTA leadership alone is pointless because politics will keep real reformers far away. “No Andy Byford-type is going to take Ed Reiskin’s job (no matter how much that might be needed) given the headwind the Muni leadership has to fight to get things done,” he said.

At the MBTA, and instinct tells me at the SFTMA, there will be an important balance to be struck between doing things that look and feel good to the customer (hence the importance of actually having a customer technology team), and things that address structural problems within the agency (reforms to things like HR, procurement, maintenance, asset management, rail ops, etc). Achieving this balance cannot be done simply by hiring a new director and expecting them to carry the weight of reform. Andy Byford’s experience at the MTA in NYC is a sad example of what happens (or rather, what doesn’t) when even a once-in-a-generation transit leader is inserted into an agency without much else changing structurally or politically.

The San Francisco Transit Riders, in a prepared statement about his departure, agreed that his replacement will need the full, real support of lawmakers:

We are also clear that no one person is responsible for delivering excellent public transit in San Francisco. We are heartened by the initiative Mayor Breed has taken in pushing for a search for a visionary leader, and her steps to hold the agency to account for its failures. The MTA Board has its role in oversight, to ensure projects improve public transit, and to hold SFMTA staff to account when there are failures. The Board of Supervisors needs to be principled in its support of our transit first policy, which can mean compromises in their districts as we realize the benefits of a robust public transit system that serves all communities.

From Streetsblog’s view, these comments kind of sum it up. It doesn’t matter who gets hired, if lawmakers aren’t committed to the fight, not much is likely to change. As New York’s Janette Sadik-Khan has stated many times, she couldn’t have accomplished New York’s street changes without the full support of Mayor Bloomberg.

The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, of course, also has a huge stake in the pick for the next director. The SFBC’s Brian Wiedenmeier had this to say:

San Francisco deserves a Director of Transportation who is both bold and pragmatic–they must champion sustainability and transform San Francisco into a truly transit-first city while cutting the red tape to bring needed improvements to our streets faster. We’ve waited too long for protected bike lanes and other street safety infrastructure under past leadership, and have paid the price in human life. Achieving Vision Zero must be a core focus for the next head of the SFMTA.

In other words, we also need someone who understand’s the importance of robust, protected bike lanes and infrastructure. Readers will recall that in 2016, when two cyclists were killed in different parts of the city on the same night, Reiskin said to the Examiner that “the best bike infrastructure in the world would not have prevented these collisions.”

This comment was a clear tell: Reiskin never really got bike infrastructure. I’ve spoken with him on a few occasions, and I never forgot on one Bike to Work Day when he told me how he thought bike infrastructure was fine and he felt safe. I guess everything is relative, but I can’t imagine anyone with substantial experience overseas saying something like that about San Francisco’s streets.

One would hope, in fact, that whoever the SFMTA hires will either literally have a Dutch or Scandinavian accent, or will have spent a good deal of time overseas. That will be important for managing Muni too–since we need someone who will have high expectations of San Francisco’s bus and rail system and hold them to a world-class standard. And it sure helps to have lived overseas in order to fully appreciate what that means.

San Francisco deserves an SFMTA leader who doesn’t think paint and plastic straws are infrastructure. And someone who gets that when a wire falls down on one track, you still run trains on the other track.

Either way, it seems clear that hiring a local bureaucrat from another agency probably won’t work; that’s how we got Reiskin.

One the other hand, Muni has been so broken for so long, it’s hard to imagine who’s really going to be tough and savvy enough to make it work like it should.

A final thought from Walk San Francisco’s Jodie Medeiros:

We need the next SFMTA Director to both ascend local politics and carry forth a bold vision within the agency to make this happen. We need someone who will put San Francisco’s Vision Zero commitment and Transit-First Policy at the heart of everything SFMTA does. And we need someone who sees that San Francisco’s future as a healthy, equitable, climate-friendly, and competitive city depends on a transportation system that puts people first.

What do you think? What qualities do you want to see in a new SFMTA leader? Post your thoughts below.

  • Courage. Vision. Competence.

  • Michael Cheney

    Just sayin’… 3rd paragraph has a link to “2018 Muni Proposal”, sent to Mayor London Breed. 40 years of experience fighting this crazy system, taught me a few things.
    https://missionlocal.org/2018/08/if-nobody-can-fix-muni-maybe-this-guy-can/
    Or, try this one on for size
    https://archives.sfweekly.com/sanfrancisco/mr-fix-it-a-mechanic-turns-from-trying-to-save-muni-to-trying-to-save-the-world/Content?oid=2826403

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Americans should be disqualified. We need an MTA director who can stand on a street corner and instinctively know that our current system is broken and evil. Someone from Switzerland.

  • Sean

    Identifying the problem is one thing, solving it is another. We need someone who knows how the power structure works here. They don’t have EIRs in Switzerland.

  • jonobate

    It’s obvious what needs to be done. The system as designed is not serving modern San Francisco, or the wider Bay Area. It is a system cobbled together from a pre-war streetcar system designed when private cars were a rarity, and a post-war regional rail system designed to enable the middle class to flee the city to the suburbs.

    We will never have good service on bus or streetcar lines that share right of way with cars. The surface portions of the remaining Muni rail lines simply did not have to cope with today’s amount of traffic; nor did the rail lines that did not survive and were converted into today’s bus lines. For the surface bus and rail lines to be functional, an exclusive right-of-way is essential, and the next Muni leader must have the political will to implement this and not allow it to be watered down. Congestion pricing is another vital tool that must be implemented to improve the bus lines on streets where there genuinely isn’t enough space to provide a dedicated lane, as well as to improve air quality and reduce congestion for pedestrians and cyclists.

    The current subway/surface light rail system is a failure, as the optimal technological approach for streetcars is not the same as the optimal technological approach for subway trains. Hence, broken overhead wires that shouldn’t even exist in subway tunnels; broken moving steps that shouldn’t need to be moving; ATC failures to register a train when the system shouldn’t even need to be registering trains while in service; overcrowded 1-car and 2-car trains serving subway length platforms, etc. To make the best use of the Market St subway in the long-term, we need to separate it from the surface lines, which might mean undergrounding the N and M and redesigning the other three lines as surface-only connectors. It should also be the first line in a network of SF subway lines, followed by a subway under Geary, and extensions of the Central Subway north and south.

    The BART system retains the mentality of pushing further and further out towards exurbs where there is still farmland available to be converted into exurban tract housing, even though these areas are increasingly scarce and located an hour plus from the region’s job center in SF. As we look to build a second Transbay crossing, we need to be mindful that the centers of San Francisco and Oakland are filling in, and will continue to do so for the rest of this century. Any new crossing must be focused on serving these areas, rather than bringing in exhurban commuters from further and further away. Possibly this means using the new tube to connect the Geary subway to subway lines under Broadway, International Blvd, and San Pablo Ave.

    Finally, all of this needs to work together better than it currently does. The separation of BART and Muni is a remnant of the outdated post-war poor city/rich suburb thinking, and needs to go. The German Verkehrsverbund concept has been very successful in coordinating the fares, planning, and operations of multiple transit systems within a region, and needs to be implemented here.

  • crazyvag

    It’s not just Muni thought. It’s watering down of safety projects such as boarding islands, deferring or removing protected bike lanes, deferring or removing red bus lanes.

  • sebra leaves

    Honesty and integrity. We need a transparent approach to management and public discourse. You can’t fix a problem by hiding it.

  • Flatlander

    Well, yes, that’s the Streetsblog perspective, but there are plenty of other people in SF who think precisely the opposite.

    The problems that you mention don’t occur because city leaders are idiots, it’s because they’re trying to please everyone (and thus failing to please anyone) and sad as it may be, there’s a lot of people who don’t think safety and transit matter enough to inconvenience anyone in a car. On the other hand, broad coalitions agree that light rail doors shouldn’t shut on people’s hands, overhead wires shouldn’t break, and control systems should work.

    Undergrounding parts of the light rail as jonobate describes would go a long way to addressing operational issues, and would have broad support, except for the price tag…

  • Jeffrey Baker

    I don’t necessarily agree. The big problem with the recent MTA directors has been lack of awareness of the possibilities. They don’t know what a transit-priority signal even is.

  • crazyvag

    Why is it that we don’t have a study on whether or not to add a curb ramp for safety of wheelchairs, but we need a study on safety of pedestrians and biking?

    How do we write a law that swapping parking with bike lane just happens based on an approved cookbook rather than 2-3 meetings per block of bike lanes?

  • crazyvag

    I think one problem might be that SFMTA offers options on amount of safety to compromise. While not always, typically A) Removing Parking/Traffic Lane + add protected bike lane B) Add unprotected bike lane, keep Parking / Traffic Lane.

    In reality, the options to choose are: A) Remove Traffic Lane, B) Remove Parking Lane.

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The Board of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is tapping Tom Maguire, director of the agency’s Sustainable Streets Division, as interim Director while they look for a permanent replacement for outgoing director Ed Reiskin. Maguire will take over on August 15. From the SFMTA Board’s announcement letter: Tom joined the SFMTA in October 2014 […]