Coffee with Ninjas: SF Transit Riders Going Pro
9:00 AM PST on December 15, 2016
The San Francisco Transit Riders, the advocacy group that brought us the 22-day Muni challenge, all-door boarding on buses, “Transit Week,” and too many other transit-improvement campaigns to list here, hit a major milestone this year: they're going pro!
After managing to raise over a hundred-grand through a grant and a sustained fund-raising campaign, the volunteer group is posting for a full-time Executive Director. They're also going to be renting a small office. Their hope is to follow the example of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and Walk San Francisco, to become another powerful and professional advocacy group pushing San Francisco hard to improve its transportation network.
This comes, of course, at a time of some recent setbacks. The failure of Prop. K has left San Francisco transit strapped for cash. Threats from a Trump Administration to cut federal funding will do more to restrain budgets at a time of continued population growth. And ride-hail services are competing for road space, clogging arteries and making traffic worse. Whoever gets the job will be accepting an enormous challenge.
Streetsblog sat down for a cup of Java on Mission Street with three of its founders, Thea Selby, the Transit Rider's Chair, Peter Straus, and Reed Martin to find out what's next for the “transit ninjas” as they fight to bring better public transport to San Francisco.
Streetsblog: So hiring an Executive Director...I know this is something you've been hoping to do for some time.
Thea Selby: It's a really big step. It's incredibly exciting and it all started a year ago, when we did a strategic plan to raise our first reasonably large chunk of money. You were there...at the crowd-funding party. That was fun.
SB: That was a while back.
Selby: Over a series of months we developed a real strategy on how we were going to raise $100,000 and accomplish other goals. We created “transit week.” And we always want to have a visionary component, such as the 30-30 initiative. We've been working on equity, and trying to make ordinary riders more aware. Ordinary riders don't communicate their needs much...so we want to continue to work on equity issues. We've got a grant, our first grant ever, to explore a new public outreach tool called “ride audit” and it's based on the walk-audit concept.
SB: What's that?
Selby: You just talk with a lot of real, ordinary people who ride the bus and you ask them to work with a few professionals who look at a certain area. So in this case it's a stretch of Visitacion Valley that has the 8 and the 9 bus.
SB: Right. So you find out what people need who don't care about transit, don't want to know about transit, they just want to get from A to B.
Selby: It's a way for us to expand beyond the transit geek to the ordinary transit rider. And to make them proud of being a transit rider and, hopefully, to build some of them into transit advocates. There's 350,000 people who ride Muni every day. So we know we can create more advocates out there.
SB: But aren't most people too busy to become advocates?
Peter Straus: I'm optimistic that there's a small chunk...and a small chunk of 350,000 is significant. We don't even need one percent.
Selby: We will find more people who are willing to fight for their money being spent well. Because it's their money spent on Muni.
SB: What are you looking for in an Executive Director?
Reed Martin: We're really looking for somebody who can take the organization—and it sounds cheesy, but it's true—to the next level.
SB How many applications have you gotten?
Martin: Lots. Two more today; two more good ones.
Selby: We're looking for someone who can handle the fact that we are a startup. It's our first full time staffer after all. So it's got to be somebody who's willing to work with a pretty active board and help build a staff and build our membership.
Straus: The things that we're already involved in reach beyond the ability of the board.
SB: Because you guys have day jobs! But you've still managed to accomplish some pretty amazing campaigns, such as the 22-day Muni Challenge [to get the Board of Supervisors to ride Muni].
Selby: I thought the 22-day challenge was fun and sexy, but Transit Week got to the reason we exist. This was a time we could thank the rider. And we also thanked the operators, for those of us who volunteered, it was an incredible week.
SB: Is there a group you want to emulate?
Straus: Walk San Francisco followed in the footsteps of the Bicycle Coalition. Now we're following in Walk SF's footsteps.
Selby: Today I put out a the announcement for an ED to a bunch of individuals, including Nicole Ferrara, ED of Walk SF, who said this is really exciting. She gave us names of five or six other potential candidates.
Straus: Over the last few years we've created a good working coalition that spans to the other organizations from Walk SF, to the SFBC, to housing and homeless advocacy groups.
SB: Prop K's failure. How do I phrase this question...
Selby: How pissed off are we?
SB: Yeah, that.
Selby: In a word, very.
Straus: One of the messages is the support that J got shows there is support for funding transit and solutions for homelessness.
SB: So what went wrong with K?
Straus: I think everyone who was working on it realized we have to solve the problem more creatively. It's too early to say what direction that will take, but that the fact that J passed sends a clear message. It got 65 percent of the vote, look how close that was to 67.
SB: Meaning maybe if J and K weren't set up as a work-around to the two-thirds voter threshold—you might have actually been able to pass a single transit-funding bond with a two-thirds majority?
Straus: [nodding] whenever you lose a campaign, there's a lot of “what ifs.”
Martin: I don't see K as a failure. I don't think it was a failure of San Francisco. It was a poorly structured campaign and ballot measure.
Selby: We're focused on moving forwards. One of the things we learned is we will get involved in campaigns very early.
Straus: Actually, it speaks again to why we need an Executive Director, because we did an awful lot of work on structuring the measures and then we needed to take a breath. But we couldn't afford to take a breath...there was a degree of exhaustion.
SB: I see. So you did all this volunteer work just to get the measures on the ballot, but then didn't have the bandwidth—as volunteers—to immediately switch into getting them passed at the ballot box? Nobody else was working on it. So there was no campaign.
Selby: [nodding] Bottom line.
Straus: There were too many things on the ballot. There was all this other stuff going on.
Selby: Lesson's learned--get involved early, make sure you have some leadership, and get the funding for the measure, and I think we're all looking at a slightly different measure next time. I look at Seattle and LA, which passed Measure M for $40 billion. We can do better than that! K was embarrassing.
SB: I think Seattle and LA had measures that were full of sexy new projects. Because of the structured of J and K it seemed a bit muddied--what would SF voters actually get out if it? It wasn't that clear. Is that fair?
Straus: At the end of the day, we ended up with a measure that a had a lot of good things in it, but, yes, it lacked pizazz.
SB: But Measure RR, the BART bond, wasn't exactly sexy either—I mean, great, we get new wiring! I know that matters and so do you, but it's not sexy.
Selby: That had everything to do with how the BART bond was marketed. Because overall San Francisco is pretty positive about public transit.
SB: So with an ED and a strong organization the Transit Riders will get it passed next time. Is that a fair assessment?
Selby: We will definitely pass something in 2018...and something much larger. Yes, we need pizazz and we can get it. We can do better. We can get people excited about improving transit.
SB: So when do the Transit Riders get an office?
Selby: In the next 30 days. We have a part time consultant and has been searching all over the city. It comes down to a couple of options. We're very excited.
SB: I'd imagine this office won't be the Taj Mahal.
Selby: There will be enough for two people and a conference room; probably a shared space big enough for two people.
SB: Let's dream. Where will you be in ten years?
Martin: Expanding our reach on a vision for transit.
Selby: In ten years we'll be two years away from 30x30.
SB: Right. Your goal of making it so anyone can get from anywhere, to anywhere in San Francisco in 30 minutes by transit, by the year 2030. But come on. Can that really be done?
SB: Really? So if someone is going from the Outer Richmond to Candlestick Park?
Selby: Look, we could all be using public hover-board in ten years. We don't know what's going to happen. Maybe it will be super easy. But the point is to have a goal.
Straus: It's to see what can happen. I don't know literally how many minutes it will take from Seal Rock to Candlestick--okay, maybe you wont' be able to do that in 30 minutes. But we can do a lot better than we do now and we need to define ambitious visions. Anybody who says it's not achievable is missing the point. Because you can bike from those two points faster than transit can take you now.
Martin: If public transit wants to remain competitive, you can't set your goal at 45.
SB: Right. Or you'll get 60 minutes.
Selby: And I'm okay with 45 minutes if that's what it comes to, because it can take two hours in a car. It's also the consistency we're after. Sure, a car can get you someplace in fifteen minutes at one time of day, and two hours in another. That's why I don't get in a car.
SB: Anything else?
Selby: We want to make sure we continue to work on equity and make the Transit Riders staff and advocates look like the people who ride on transit.
Martin: We don't have a lack of initiatives. We never lack things that we want to be working on.
Selby: Overall, it's been a great year.
This interview was edited.
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