Addressing riders’ safety concerns
To achieve the transit-oriented vision of San Francisco that we strive for, everybody must be safe and comfortable while riding the bus. While reported crimes on Muni are currently at historic lows, our outreach shows that safety continues to be a concern for riders. In order to increase ridership as the pandemic wanes, SFMTA will need to make changes to ensure that riders feel confident that their Muni trips will be free from violence and harassment. SFMTA should demonstrate its commitment to safety and justice by expanding its Muni Transit Assistance Program (MTAP), which employs unarmed transit ambassadors to keep riders safe and informed while riding transit.
Transit ambassadors offer an opportunity to increase safety on buses while respecting riders, improving riders’ transit knowledge, and building community. They act as skilled, unarmed community ambassadors who can de-escalate fights and call out harassment as it occurs. Transit ambassadors undergo three years of training for skills like security awareness, de-escalation, first aid, customer service, and more, so they are well-equipped to handle a wide range of issues, from vandalism to security incidents to helping riders find their way along a new bus route.
They can also help keep Muni operators safe. Many operators are concerned about their own personal safety while at work — there were 299 altercations with operators reported in 2020. While some Muni operators have been trained in de-escalation, their primary focus is on safely operating their vehicle so they may not always be able to address onboard security concerns right away. Transit ambassadors offer an extra set of eyes to proactively address issues while allowing operators to focus on safely navigating the city.
MTAP hires and trains San Franciscans who already have deep ties to the neighborhoods they will be working in. Unlike most SFPD officers, SFMTA’s transit ambassadors live in the city, and many grew up riding Muni themselves. They are members of our community who care about fostering a safe and inclusive environment for all riders, and do so without the harmful effects of policing. By relying on community ambassadors instead of cops, we can keep kids out of trouble and out of jail while protecting riders, including those who may feel uncomfortable or unsafe riding with armed police officers.
Currently, ambassadors are mostly on routes that have a lot of student riders or that have had security issues in the past, but employing more ambassadors would allow them to have a higher presence on more routes. As SFMTA faces a fiscal cliff, finding funding for additional ambassadors will require innovative thinking from SFMTA. As ridership and fare revenue remains low, the agency must seek new sources of funding outside of fares. By shifting away from fares, SFMTA could relatively quickly reskill fare enforcement officers, who are already trained in de-escalation, to serve as additional transit ambassadors on the lines that need it most. As of June 2021, SFMTA employed 45 fare enforcement officers but only 23 community ambassadors.
Coming out of the pandemic, SFMTA should be doing all it can to increase ridership — including fostering security on Muni. Transit ambassadors offer an opportunity to increase safety on buses while respecting riders and implementing a more compassionate approach to public safety.