Streetsblog Q & A: SF Transit Riders’ Vinita Goyal

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In October, the San Francisco Transit Riders announced the appointment of Vinita Goyal as their interim executive director. Three months later, they made her permanent.

Goyal is no stranger to the advocacy scene in the Bay Area. She has spent the last decade focusing on equitable development issues for marginalized communities and is passionate about addressing root causes of systemic disparities. Streetsblog first crossed paths with her when she oversaw one of our grants as Program Manager for Housing and Transportation at the Silicon Valley Community Fund. She also freelanced for us back in 2019.

We were happy to catch back up with her after her appointment for this Streetsblog Q & A.

1) Congratulations on your appointment as the permanent director of the San Francisco Transit Riders. Since you’ve had some experience with this position already as interim director, what was your favorite project in the last four months and what are you most looking forward to for the SFTR?

It has been very gratifying to think strategically of SFTR’s priorities nested within approaches for addressing systemic disparities. All through the latter part of the twentieth century, federal dollars have routinely prioritized suburban commuters traveling on highways that pollute poorer neighborhoods in urban areas such as in San Francisco. A radically underfunded transit system means travel for transit-dependent people is inadequate, leading residents in historically marginalized neighborhoods such as the Bayview Hunters Point, the Excelsior and Visitacion Valley to become more reliant on cars, exacerbating pressures on air quality locally and on the region’s sustainability as a whole.

In such a context, systems level approaches will ultimately rest on the successful triangulation of three outcomes: political will, community resources, and capacity and leadership development. So, while we are corralling resources to build SFTR’s skillsets and expertise in short and long term policy engagement, be it on SFMTA’s Muni Forward priorities or on initiatives that fill SFMTA’s operating and capital deficit that exacerbated during the pandemic, we are also embedding ourselves in the process of empowering communities such as Bayview-Hunters Point in their demands for near-term place-based investments in their neighborhoods. We are anchoring these pillars of our work on capacity building and leadership development opportunities for our 500+ members and the larger rider community that we represent, the over 250,000 people that take transit in San Francisco everyday. We are doing this both through direct organizing and amplifying riders’ voices and lived experiences, but also by working within a broader “ecosystem” of advocates and non-profits such as the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation, SOMCAN, Chinatown Community Development Corporation, and B-Magic, who connect us with community needs.

For me personally, seeking alignment with our board and staff on these priorities has been very gratifying and I am excited about rolling out our Strategic Plan further in service of these.

2) A quick visit to the website has a link on the front that says “2022: Let’s Keep Winning.” I think our first question is, what does winning look like in 2022? When we look back in eleven and a half months, how will we know if 2022 was a year of winning?

For 2022, we have sketched out four program campaigns: 1) making local and regional transit (and policy) sustainable; 2) working toward social and environmental justice; 3) advancing transit planning priorities; and 4) providing leadership opportunities for San Francisco’s youth.

To deliver on these, we see an urgency to provide advocacy to address disparities within our transit system and remove barriers for access by empowering riders to speak up at the Board of Supervisors, SFMTA Board meetings, and community forums and help rebuild trust in our local and regional transit agencies.

Across the country, transit is woefully underfunded; and despite federal stimulus funding, the pandemic has worsened the issue. The structural deficit that SFMTA faces in 2022 or the fiscal cliff approaching for all the other Bay Area operators over the next several years is a clear existential threat to Bay Area transit.

SFTR is fighting to ensure that the city and region prioritize transit. We will accomplish this in 2022 by supporting local funding initiatives such as extending the General Obligation bond in the city and by supporting regional funding by working with SFMTA, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), and other strategic regional partners to identify progressive funding mechanisms for transit operations, state of good repair, and equitable outcomes that center the priorities of disadvantaged communities.

Late last year, we received the James Cary Smith grant from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) to conduct a community needs assessment and a targeted, multi-language engagement campaign and create a comprehensive bus/rail improvement plan in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, which has been challenged with poor transit infrastructure and a lack of access to resources. In the process, we hope to engage and earn the trust of current and future riders.

We will also be focusing on advancing transit priorities within other coalition spaces like the Restore the Service coalition centered on the Tenderloin community and the former Transit Justice coalition that spreads across the city. These coalitions allow SFTR to work in partnership with existing constituencies of riders who may not have the technical expertise or access to shape transit investments and policy on their own. It also allows us to cultivate a city-wide transit framework, rather than focusing on route-by-route fights.

Specifically, this year we will advance transit planning priorities that serve multiple purposes: restoration of lines, service increases, travel time reliability, bus shelter infrastructure, customer service integration, and advocating for our 30 X 30 campaign, which seeks to improve service delivery by creating a grid-like network of rapid bus routes throughout the City that connects neighborhoods end to end in 30 minutes by 2030.

Finally, through Spare the Air Youth (STAY) program, we will continue to develop curriculum for transit education for high school youth through partnerships with local schools including Jordan High School and Mission High School.

There are several challenges and risks within these campaigns.

At the outset, there is mistrust in agencies and their ability to deliver results. The political climate is also fractious. For instance, successful passage of the funding measure would require a lot of stakeholders to come together.

Communities like the Tenderloin and Bayview are engaged in a variety of issues and transit is easily overshadowed by issues like the recent mayoral Executive Order increasing policing of homelessness and drug addiction activities in the Tenderloin. Moreover, ironically, improved transit can sometimes be seen as a potential route to gentrification, which can further alienate communities, particularly those who have historically experienced inequities in transportation investments.

Engagement with riders is fraught. Besides a longstanding distrust of SFMTA, resources for engagement are limited and there are additional barriers for engagement like the technical nature of conversations. Moreover, communities often experience an overall fatigue with engagement that stymies future work together.

Opportunities like the Spare the Air Youth Program can be good platforms for engaging youth in transit priorities, but it is also temporary in nature since student cohorts usually only engage for one or two years at the most before graduating. There are other limitations including working with the existing school infrastructure and addressing a general lack of a mindset among students recognizing their own agency.

So, to have won in 2022 would be to have secured policy wins like local funding ballot measures where they are the culmination of a process where there is strong community sentiment around priorities that members help define and that they subsequently advocate for during public testimony. Winning will also be measured by the number of groups that we work with during the legislation process as well as the overall number of people, groups and/or voters that are ultimately engaged in the end.

For community-specific priorities in the Bayview or Tenderloin, it will be important to track tangible wins in the form of specific investments for the community as well as track the level of community engagement and alignment during the process of a given issue, including if the process was ultimately accessible to the community.

Finally, we will measure the success of the Spare the Air Youth program through the overall number of students engaged and the number of actions taken by the students.

3) In 2019 you wrote an op/ed for Streetsblog SF about super commuting and last mile issues. In it, you talked a lot about what was a proposed ballot measure that we hoped was going to be on the ballot in 2020 to fund massive transit improvements, reduce fares and provide greater connectivity between agencies. The effort to pass the measure was shelved because of the pandemic. Is there any movement to creating a measure like that for 2022 or anytime in the near future?

The efforts are definitely gearing up again for the regional transportation measure. San Francisco Transit Riders has been actively engaged through the Voices for Public Transportation (VPT) coalition of labor groups, community-based organizations and equity advocates, aligned around the idea that the regional transportation system is essential for the health and wellness of our communities, environment and economy.

There are several priorities within our campaign. First, we believe that a world-class transit system relies significantly on a sustainable funding source for operations. To achieve service levels parallel to successful systems elsewhere, the Bay Area would need to increase transit operations funding by 55 percent above pre-COVID levels. In fact, even before COVID, VPT recognized the need to address operating funds in the regional measure, not just capital needs. Pre-COVID, this was a progressive, non-conventional posture. Other priorities of the VPT campaign include state of good repair funding, integrated and affordable fares, and prioritizing disadvantaged communities.

Second, it is possible to fund the transportation priorities of our coalition without burdening those with the least ability to pay. A study commissioned by Silicon Valley Community Foundation which I helped co-lead identified progressive revenue sources such as a personal income tax and a parking tax that could generate reliable revenue streams while offering co-benefits like reducing income equality and greenhouse gas emissions. A poll conducted prior to the pandemic showed public support for a personal income tax on incomes over $1,000,000 was significantly higher than for a traditional, regressive sales tax.

And last, the coalition is calling for a fair and transparent multi-stakeholder public process led by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission that gives impacted communities a central decision-making role. On this last point there has been some traction as MTC convened a workshop in December 2021 that included strategies and consideration of a regional transportation measure in 2024 that would be a direct implementation of the recommendations from the Blue Ribbon Vision. The effort has sparked interest from transit agencies as well. For instance, BART officials, acknowledging the much desirable need for operations funding post-COVID, approached VPT recently to understand the priorities of the coalition as compared to their own needs from the regional revenue measure.

4) Seamless Bay Area, an aligned group, is focused on bringing integrated fares and rational schedules to the Bay Area. What do you see as SFTR’s role in achieving integrated fares/rational schedules, and how important is it to advancing the agenda of turning SF into a truly transit-first city?

SFTR believes in ensuring that the city and region prioritize transit. In order to achieve that, it will take strong political and voter will to not only fund transit but to embrace changes in regional policy that align Muni, BART and Caltrain as well as the other 24 transit agencies around the region as one functioning transit unit from the riders’ point of view. These efforts also require working with the business community to ensure excellent, affordable and reliable public transit access to jobs.

Senate Bill 917, coauthored by Seamless Bay Area and other partners, would require transit agencies in the region to work together to develop an integrated transit fare structure, create a connected Network plan to support schedule coordination and service standards, and develop a single regional transit map and standardized wayfinding system. This bill is a direct outcome of the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Task Force (BRTF), which were proposed and accepted in the summer and fall of 2021 and geared to improve safety, access, service, as well as seamless, coordinated, and standardized fares.

It’s important to note that SFMTA cannot succeed without thinking with a regional lens. Network management reform would be critical for project management delivery as well as providing an opportunity for better and more equitable results. In that regard, SFTR can play a crucial role in organizing our community to help Muni achieve their transit-first prioritization and also instill confidence among voters in the ability of the agency to offer a world-class transit network.

Alternatively, there’s a distinct possibility that a regional fare system could increase fares for riders in the urban core or alternatively just end up siphoning dollars from transit operators who provide local trips like Muni. Therefore, emphasizing who is centered and prioritized as we move toward seamless is paramount. It’s not a given.

SFTR members’ Regional Transit Working Group has also helped define our regional agenda. We can continue using this group is to raise the voice of riders in San Francisco and at the MTC and ask critical questions: How can we allocate regional funds to best serve riders? What are our priorities around regional fare and service integration? How do we address representation across the region?

5) What do you think is the most important capital project for the SFTR right now and why (or if they’re all equally important, why is that)? The Van Ness BRT? Central Subway? RAB/DTX?  

There are several important capital projects for SFTR including completing the Downtown Rail Extension (DTX) underground rail connection. The DTX is the final Phase of the Transbay Program which will allow California’s high-speed rail and Caltrain trains to connect to the Salesforce Transit Center. The two stations at Fourth and Townsend Streets and at the Salesforce Transit Center will be within convenient walking distance of SB 535 Disadvantaged Communities and AB 1550 Low-Income Communities and will also provide direct long-term mobility benefits to transit-dependent and environmental justice populations all along the line as well to the broader population. Improved mobility and connectivity will ultimately enhance access for these groups to employment centers, educational and civic institutions, and public facilities in the city and the region. The project should therefore be completed expeditiously and not drag on for 20 years like the Central Subway.

More importantly, Muni-related improvements including Muni Forward or transit priority projects and modernization/replacement of bus operating divisions that increase overall capacity as well as support zero emission buses will be crucial for improving transit reliability, enhancing the potential for mode shift and achieving the City’s overall sustainability goals. It is not just about big projects, but the lower cost, quicker but still highly effective projects that provide immediate benefits to riders, are all the more crucial. Riders shouldn’t – and don’t – have to wait 20 years for a major capital project before their trip is improved.

6) I always end interviews with what I call the magic wand question. If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about transportation in the Bay Area just like that…no EIR’s, no funding issues…what would it be?

Transportation is often seen largely as an infrastructure issue but it is so much more than that. Author Kafui Attoh claims that fights for transportation justice are rarely fights over transit alone. They invoke the things we value: vibrant neighborhoods, clean air and water, participatory politics, equitable distribution of resources, and public space where we are free to speak, gather, play, create, and organize. I would use the wand to create a mainstream understanding of transit’s role in advancing the rights of a democratic society. The transit improvements we win in the city are not only to satisfy the needs of riders for improved speed and reliability. In the process, riders and SFTR members also exercise a right, in Kafui’s words, “to be at the heart of urban life”.

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