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Guest Commentary: New SFMTA Leader Must Put the Rider First

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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 30x30 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.

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