SFMTA Director Jeffrey Tumlin Talks

In a week of more Muni meltdowns, Director Jeffrey Tumlin gets into the nitty gritty of running transit, making safe streets, and moving people around San Francisco

Jeffrey Tumlin and Manny at yesterday's event. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
Jeffrey Tumlin and Manny at yesterday's event. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

SFMTA needs help! That was a major theme of a talk Wednesday evening with SFMTA director Jeffrey Tumlin, during a packed town-hall style meeting at Manny’s in the Mission. Tumlin said the agency needs to hire about 1,000 people just to keep up with the maintenance of its trains and buses. “The structure around hiring is so encumbered by rules–each there for a good reason–but the sum total of the rules makes it incredibly difficult to hire,” he told the audience.

Fixing fundamental underlying problems such as not having enough hands on deck is just how the conversation kicked off. The 300-or-so advocates at the talk, which was literally standing-room only, got a good lesson on the challenges of running one of the country’s oldest transit systems and trying to make streets safe. They also heard about Tumlin’s philosophies about life in the city.

Manny, owner of Manny’s in the Mission, guided the discussion and asked the questions. Below is an edited version of the Q&A:

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Manny: You are an interesting man. And you’re kind of fresh meat. And you have a hard job and you’ve jumped straight into it.

Jeffrey Tumlin (JT): There’s no other choice. It’s all in. I get at least four texts a day about a severe injury on our streets and about one person killed every month. And I work in transportation: the only department that serves every single person here every day. One of the things that makes SFMTA unique is, thanks to Prop E, we don’t just manage Muni, we also manage all of the streets. We do transit, and walking, and biking and driving, and micro-mobility–everything that moves on our streets.

In response to Manny, Tumlin pointed out that one of the biggest problems with keeping all of that working is staffing technically skilled personnel in a market where it’s hard to find talent, especially machinists, who he said have remarkable abilities.

JT: When an “F” train wears out, you can’t order parts from a catalog, it has to be built from scratch. So you do forensics and imagine what the worn out part originally looked like and make it work. I want to be fired or retire from this job and come back as a machinist, that’s my dream job at SFMTA.

Manny: Cars and traffic are in the news a lot.

JT: A fundamental problem in the transportation world is people don’t understand the difference between system efficiency versus user convenience. Cars are an amazing convenience–you can go where you want, store things, you’re protected from weather. It’s so awesome. Driving is great. But it is also phenomenally geometrically inefficient. I’m not a better person when I take the bus–I just take up between one-tenth and one-hundredth of space when I take the bus. We have to focus on the most space-efficient modes of transportation–that’s what makes it possible for people to be able to drive when they need to drive.

The math is easy, but it is difficult for people behind a windshield to understand how wasteful they’re being. And the false equivalencies. They look at a bus as the equivalent of their car. And I’m like, dude, there’s 140 people in that bus. Why would I manage my traffic signals to allow one person in one car to turn left in front of a bus?

Example. We closed Market street to cars. It looks empty. But it’s moving a lot more people because of the geometric efficiency. For many people that’s impossible to see. They look at Howard Street, jammed with cars going to the bridge, and think there’s a lot going on there–but imagine away the cars and you realize that’s just 14 people, traveling at less than walking speed. My job is to do the math and trying to get people to think differently about transportation.

Manny: In 2010, we had personal scooters, Caltrain, paratransit, taxis, bikes, cars… maybe eight different forms of for people getting around the street. Ten years later, we have bikes, station bikeshare, all types of personal scootery things, commuter shuttles, para-transit, TNCs, and on-street vehicle share–double the amount of ways for people to move around.

JT: And double the need to access the curb.

Manny: How do you deal with that?

JT: I’m okay with the complexity. What’s harder is defining what is meant by the ‘public good.’ We have to be clear if it’s being achieved, which needs clarity about values. My job is about trade-offs. I’ve got 80 feet of right-of-way–how do I use it for the ‘public good’? And I’ve only got $100 million. How do I allocate it to the public good? We have to get San Francisco to be clear about their values and priorities. Government is not magical. It is not my job to make people happy. It’s my job to make everyone equally unhappy. But to do that I need clarity from people about what their values are. If I’ve got that, you can throw anything at me, and I have an answer because we’re clear about values.

That’s why we screwed up the regulations of Uber and Lyft, and, for a while, scooters. Now we have finally focused on outcomes rather than numbers. For example, the number of scooters aren’t the problem. The problem is sidewalk riding, or them tipping over and becoming trip hazards.

Manny: I remember you were hired because of a shakeup. There were lots of trains not showing up on time.

JT: That’s not going to change for a while.

Manny: Is that going to be as hard as we think?

JT: It’s worse than you think.

Manny: How do we make it better?

JT: By not over-promising and not looking at surface level results, but rather the underlying events. It’s so much easier to do the ribbon cuttings and do things that are visible to the public and neglect the underlying problems.

When I was considering taking this insane job, I mainly interviewed the MTA board to see if they were serious about fundamental change and confronting the third-rails of politics. Were they serious this time about taking those on? The previous directors were not allowed to solve the underlying problems. San Francisco has changed under Mayor Breed. I negotiated for severance, because this is going to be hard, to fix the underlying problems I’ve got to say really scary things out loud.

Manny: Like?

JT: Like getting to the bottom of the deferred maintenance.

Manny: That’s the most controversial?

JT: We’ve got tech that is over 100 years old that is literally falling apart and, not quite, but almost held together with bubblegum and duct tape.

Monday night we had five severe failures in three hours. There was a perfectly good explanation for each failure, but they were because of deferred maintenance as a result of budgetary decisions. We’re doing a two- year budget, adopted this April, for fiscal year starting July 1. The starting budget analysis was that we have a $66 million annual structural deficit that widens in year two. At the same time I’m getting pressure to not allow Muni fares to increase with operator costs.These are the fun things we get to work on the next few months.

Someone from the audience: Charge for parking!

JT: We will talk about parking as well.

Manny: Fare increases feel like a slap in the face, how do you get the average Muni rider to understand the problem. You’re asking me to pay more and I’m still stuck under Powell.

JT: It took a long time to get Muni into the state it’s in. And it’s going to take a years-long effort to fix. Major structural things we’re planning now won’t see any real benefits on the rail system until the end of this calendar year at best. However, we are seeing improvements on the bus side where we made investments. And we know what we have to do on the rail side.

Manny: When should I invite you back to say ‘Look! I did it!’ Is it five years, ten years?

JT: I’m trying to change the culture of the agency, to be more inclusive, but also to have more hope that the work is meaningful to the public. I have no control over congestion, so stop whining about congestion. I can improve safety, and aside from congestion pricing, I have zero impact on congestion–the only thing that would improve congestion is destroying the economy. We have our quick-build program, and I want to continue the success of what we’ve done for protected bike ways. We’re using a tiny amount of money to move quickly and kind of crappily tie together a network that really works and demonstrates that normal humans can ride bikes, not just those of you in the room (laughter from the room of generally young and healthy advocates).

JT: More importantly I want to do that on the bus side, and the rail side, to make them more reliable.

Manny: What’s your favorite bus line?

JT: The 22 Fillmore, because of the variety of neighborhoods.

Manny: Where does it go?

At this point the audience booed and laughed, since the 22 stops in front of his shop at Valencia and 16th.

JT: When I first moved to San Francisco as a skinny queer boy trying to figure things out, I could afford a Fast Pass. We had no cell phones, of course, so I would bring dimes with me and go to pay phones and call my answering machine cassette tape to see if a temp agency had offered me work for a couple of hours. So I had time and I decided to go get on buses and ride to the end of the line and see where it went. Somewhere in there, I ended up on the 22, and it goes through the craziest and most unlikely neighborhoods. Muni taught me civility and how to live in a crazy, mixed up city.

Manny: What’s your favorite train line?

JT: There are few better experiences than riding the N all the way to the end of the line and having mediocre coffee and that experience of going over a dune and there’s the ocean.

Manny: What’s your favorite view of the city from the network?

JT: J Church Station at 20th street.

Manny: I’ve picked people up at that stop.

JT: In the 1990s I lived in the Mission and a rational commute path would be to take BART. But BART is so sad, with sad suburban commuters, and everything is gray. It would take me three times longer to take the J, and I’d get off the train at 20th and have the view of the city across Dolores Park. Many evenings I chose the slow J.

Manny: So hard to untangle memories of the city from Muni. You create an anthropomorphic relationship with it.

JT: It is an unreliable lover.

Manny: There’s so many of those in San Francisco. Why is it so hard to get WiFi underground?

JT: That’s an extremely long story, but our awesome new IT director is working on it. It’s going to take a while, in the meantime there is secret WiFi available at Muni stations, called SFWiFi.

Audience: It’s terrible!

Manny: How long to get it on the trains?

JT: One to two or three years.

Manny: The chair of SMFTA board said Valencia should be car-free. How many people want it to be car-free?

Audience: Almost everyone!

Manny: I’m on the Valencia merchants board, and they said, ‘You gotta help me stop this.’

JT: The world will end!

Manny: When SFMTA created protected bike lanes from Duboce to 15th, there was outreach to make sure merchants and community members bought in. They talked to people and they basically said, ‘It’s going to happen, so get used to it,’ but it made people feel good. This car-free thing came out of nowhere.

JT: That’s because there’s no plan for it at all. This is the bizarre world I live in. The outgoing SFMTA chairman said it would be nice to have a car-free Valencia, but there’s no plan and there’s not a single person in my office working on a car-free Valencia… There may be some future scenario, but what we are working is quick-building a protected bike way from 19th to Cesar Chavez. We had a workshop on that. But due to a headline in the paper, most people thought somehow we were shutting down the street to cars. We’re not.

Manny: Obviously, the status quo on Valencia is not working if people keep getting killed, or almost getting killed, and hurt. People are getting hurt on this street.

JT: Every day. Although tell that to our friends at Valencia Cyclery. When I lived here in the 1990s, people were against eliminating the highway median and the extra traffic lights when Valencia had four lanes.

Manny: It seems like any change to our streets is a third rail. Why is change so hard?

JT: It arises from many factors. But one of those is that most of us came from somewhere else. And many of us had a glorious, ecstatic experience, particularly when most of us arrived young and poor and queer. It’s harder to be young and poor than when I was here, but we had this utterly transformative experience, and we’ve gotten older and more boring and, I dunno, the drugs aren’t as good. And we say–if only the city looked more like the city looked like when we first arrived, I would be as young and beautiful and stay out all night and life would be perfect again.

We’re resistant to change because we have things good. And changes have made things worse. So now it’s impossible for us to imagine a better San Francisco. So we resist change. So we exacerbate the change that we need most.

Manny: I think that was the most concise and pithy statement about how the city has changed. Beyond the transportation system working effectively, what is your kind of radical idea–in your dreams, how would you imagine San Francisco’s transport system doing more.

JT: I would ignore tech and infra and start with human constants. Imagine a San Francisco where we’re not killing people on our streets, and streets are built as a path to better health. Imagine streets where we all get our 10,000 steps in not because we had to, but just because it was built into our daily life. How do we expand to help people who need help the most, instead of indulging the most privileged? What if we eliminated all carbon from the transport system? Transport is half of the city’s CO2 emissions and it’s rising. VMT is up significantly this year. We need to radically de-carbonize the transportation system.

What if you didn’t think twice, if you live in a female body, about being okay to walk at night? Imagine if as a parent you didn’t think twice about letting your kids out to play in the streets? What if we cared about the lives of children more than we cared about the convenience of the privileged?

Manny: What’s one thing everyone in this room can do in the next 24 hours to help with this work?

JT: San Francisco is most held back because our culture has a shortage of civility. We all have to recognize what we have in common, for all of us to get what we all need, none of us can get everything we want. Introduce civility in our culture.

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