Guest Commentary: New SFMTA Leader Must Put the Rider First

San Francisco Transit Riders writes an open letter to the SFMTA Board, describing what they'd like to see in a new SFMTA director

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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In its search for a new Director of Transportation, SFMTA has the opportunity to find a leader with a bold vision for a truly transit first city and people-centered, livable streets. But vision won’t be enough. This leader needs to be able to manage a large agency with an entrenched culture in need of updating; they need to be able to bring a wide arrange of leaders and stakeholders together to make our Transit First policy a reality. This is no small task.

SFMTA is a huge agency with close to 6,000 staff and a $1.2 billion annual budget. While the Director of Transportation oversees an agency responsible for parking, taxis, curb design, and public transit, the latter, Muni, takes up over 75 percent of the budget. Muni serves over 720,000 daily trips, and about one-third of San Francisco households. Muni’s ridership is about the same as BART, AC Transit, and VTA combined.

Outgoing Director Ed Reiskin inherited a troubled agency and a challenging political landscape. Balancing many interests, his successes include overseeing the Transit Effectiveness Project, the first major overhaul of service in over 30 years, which among other things resulted in an overall service increase of over 10 percent.

We need our next Director of Transportation to build on those successes and take them further. With the change in leadership at the MTC and the coming change at BART, there’s a generational opportunity to change Bay Area and San Francisco public transit with new leadership that can impact and effect a true regional transportation vision.

A Visible Champion for Public Transit
Given that public transit is the safest, most equitable, and most sustainable way to move people around San Francisco, a new Director of Transportation must champion Muni as a crucial part of the solution to our Vision Zero challenge as well as to our climate emergency. San Francisco’s Transit First policy must be applied vigorously to our street design in the face of record numbers of traffic deaths, and record traffic congestion that is choking our streets, our air, and our environment.

Muni Forward service improvements included the creation of the red transit-only lanes, which have proven benefits for riders and the system as a whole. Ridership on Rapid routes has been growing as national ridership declines. We need more of these routes, connecting more of the city more efficiently.

We urge a new Director to adopt our 30×30 vision for a network of Rapid routes to criss-cross the city, traveling end to end in 30 minutes, by 2030. This would truly tie the city together, make more opportunities accessible to more riders, and make Muni more competitive with less sustainable forms of transportation.

Improvements to Muni of course impact other uses of our streets. A new Director needs to ensure that bold plans are not compromised, but rather are implemented to serve the hundreds of thousands of riders using the system every day, and to make the system more usable for more people.

A new SFMTA Director also needs to be transparent about delays on major projects like Van Ness BRT and Central Subway. We need a sense of urgency with big projects, rather than constantly slipping deadlines. We need a more fruitful and less contentious relationship with major contractors.

Put the Rider First, and Invite More People on Board
Transit riders must be centered when planning projects and upgrades, as well as while providing service. Too many times operational convenience takes precedent, and we end up with new trains that riders find uncomfortable and too small, or fare boxes that don’t make paying a fare any easier.

Signage and wayfinding is sorely lacking. Bus shelters fail to display useful information like what routes stop there, where they go, when they might be arriving next. Bus shelters don’t provide useful information on fares or how to pay them. Seating is insufficient, and shelters don’t actually protect people from the elements.

We need clean, safe, attractive facilities and vehicles, real-time predictions, informative signage, ease of payment, and ease of navigation. And of course, we need a system that takes somewhat less than 90 minutes to travel just 7 miles.

Encourage an Innovative Culture
SFMTA has a longstanding reputation for being opaque, non-responsive, and slow-moving. In order to gain the public’s confidence and become an innovative agency, the new Director of Transportation needs to address the internal agency culture. A new Director of Transportation needs to be ready to meet with, listen to, and lead all levels of a widely diverse staff.

Operators, field staff, and facility managers need to be engaged in feedback loops for improvement. Office staff and planners should not be siloed away from the on-the-streets realities.

A new Director of Transportation needs to be committed to developing departmental and team leadership. They need to establish a culture of learning and continual improvement, and to support staff in innovation. SFMTA needs a collaborative work culture rather than one that stifles creative problem-solving.

To solve our choking congestion; make sure our commercial corridors are vibrant, accessible places; make sure all San Franciscans have access to the opportunities and resources the city has to offer; to make our streets safer; and to meet our city’s climate goals, we need a true champion of public transit as our new Director of Transportation.

No one person is responsible for delivering excellent public transit in San Francisco. The Mayor, Supervisors, and SFMTA Board all play a role. But a strong, visionary Director of Transportation can help bring them all together in the interest of a robust public transit system for a livable, sustainable future.

San Francisco Transit Riders looks forward to working with MTA and city leadership to find the right person to take San Francisco’s public transportation system into the future.

Rachel Hyden is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Transit Riders.

  • Kieran

    Hell, at this point I wouldn’t mind being the new SFMTA leader…One reason being, most of Muni’s problems are simple fixes that most any other country that knows how to do transit such as Russia, Singapore, South Korea, China, Japan, The Netherlands, Egypt, Germany, etc would’ve already fixed decades ago.

    One of the most noticeable things I’d do to improve Muni will be to give its most used lines signal preemption. All the LRV lines along with the E&F lines, plus all the most used bus lines. It’s pathetic that so many Muni lines have to sit in traffic and wait for the lights to change instead of being given imminent priority over the traffic lights.

    I mean, it doesn’t take a miracle worker to make plenty of simple and effective changes. Finally giving the T line a short extension from its thoroughly useless southern terminal at Bayshore blvd and Sunnydale ave east to Bayshore Caltrain Station is a great start. Actually making sure the Central Subway doesn’t end at Washington/Stockton but instead surfaces at Washington Square Park, taking Columbus down to Bay st where it can use a stub terminal in the middle of the street because Columbus is wide enough for T trains to switch back without getting in the way of traffic or the 30 Stockton bus.

    Extending the E Embarcadero line from Fisherman’s Wharf to Fort Mason and from Caltrain Depot to 3rd and Cesar Chavez would be a long overdue thing as well, being that both of those extensions should’ve been built at least half a decade ago at minimum.

    Other things Muni should’ve done awhile ago instead of getting all these hybrid buses would have been to simply electrify(and in the 47 Van Ness’ case it’d be re-electrifying) the 47 Van Ness, all the minibus lines such as the 56 Rutland, 37 Corbett, 36 Teresita, 39 Coit, 66 Quintara, 35 Eureka and the 67 Bernal Heights.

    Then numerous other motorcoach routes such as the 44 O’Shaughnessy, 27 Bryant, 7 Haight/Noriega, 29 Sunset, 90 San Bruno Owl, 43 Masonic, 9 San Bruno, 19 Polk, 10 Townsend and the 48 Quintara/24th st. 52 Excelsior, also extending its southern terminal from Burbank School to just taking Naples down to Geneva ave and then using the rebuilt City College loop that all 3 8 bus lines use and the 49 uses as well.

    That’s simply a few things that Muni can do to easily improve itself.

  • T extension to Bayshore Caltrain hinged on the old Schlage sit demolition and rebuild. But, 13 years later and there still isn’t a connection to Caltrain for riders on the T except at 4th/King.

    Central Subway was mired in Chinatown politics and was only meant to go there. If any extension does occur it better be underground otherwise don’t do it at all. Spending hundreds of millions for a surface route in mixed traffic is a terrible idea. Haven’t we learned from our prior mistakes doing this?

    The Market St. subway was a mess before it even opened nearly 40 years ago. The major problem stems from 5 surface lines crowding into one tunnel that has no sidings and only 2 crossover tracks between Van Ness and the Embarcadero.

    Extending the E will be tough around Aquatic Park because the single track that exists is basically imbedded in the sidewalk for part of the line. Feds won’t front the cost for that extension unless safety measures are accounted for.

  • Kieran

    For the Central Subway Fisherman’s Wharf extension(you’re right about the politics behind it, by the way) I’d easily keep it a subway except that (correct me if I’m wrong) the ground on Columbus ave going toward Fisherman’s Wharf isn’t that stable, plus the landfill near the end of Columbus could be a problem. That’s why I proposed it operate on the surface, instead. IF it operated on the surface, then it MUST have signal pre-emption at all intersections so it won’t be stuck waiting 3 mins for the light to change like it currently does when it travels along 3rd st.

    Yea, you’re right about the Market St Subway 5 line conundrum..Besides the scant crossover tracks, the other major engineering flaw is that both the BART and Muni levels ONLY have 1 track in each direction, instead of a local and express track in each direction which in turn would let them both operate 24 hrs. Matter of fact, the Twin Peaks Tunnel should’ve also had a local and express track in each direction but that’s another story.

    Actually, the E line going in the Aquatic Park direction won’t use that old Belt Line freight track on the promenade next to the mini beach. It’d use a route that goes along Beach st with the Fort Mason-bound trolleys zig zagging to Beach st by way of Jefferson, a left on Leavenworth and then turning right onto Beach st til it ends near the Bocce ball court just past the 19 Polk terminal.

    Then, the tracks would basically turn right and travel next to the Bocce ball court on the way down to the single track Fort Mason Tunnel at the foot of Van Ness which was built in 1914. It’d have to get extensively retrofitted and have state of the art signals at each portal of the tunnel to ensure that trolleys operate safely thru it going both toward the terminal in the Fort Mason parking lot and toward Fisherman’s Wharf/3rd st.

    Even though you didn’t touch on this, I’ll cover it-concerning the 3rd st section of the E extension down to Cesar Chavez, drivers would have to sacrifice the left lanes on 4th st between King and Berry sts with Muni building low floor right side boarding platforms and a wheelchair ramp on each end at the Caltrain Station stop.

    Then, concerning the stops on 3rd, starting in the north with Mission Rock and south down to 23rd st(excluding the new Warriors Arena stop which like the 4th/King stop would need a low floor right side platform and wheelchair ramp on each side, which in turn would also sacrifice a lane in each direction on 3rd st) would only need the current emergency exits which currently consist of a few steps that goes to a platform a few feet long that’s already at the proper level for trolleys to use.

    Those low floor T line platforms just need to be extended about 80 feet and given a wheelchair ramp. After that, the E could easily operate down to Cesar Chavez and 3rd st after new trackage is installed on Illinois st between 25th st and Cesar Chavez since it’smore direct to use Illinois st than cutting thru the Metro East yard.

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