We’re very excited to see so much good progress made in dealing with COVID. Infection rates are down. The rate of vaccination is up. As of this writing, 27% of San Francisco’s population has gotten the first dose of the vaccination — keep up the good work! Of course, we need to keep wearing masks, and practicing social distancing. As we all know, COVID surges are linked to our shared behavior. We can’t let our guard down as we’re on track to get everyone vaccinated.
We’re also really excited about the passaged of the American Rescue Plan Act, and the $30B it included for public transit. We are proud of our small role in making it happen — as part of the National Campaign for Transit Justice, we worked with transit advocates across the country to tell Congress that #TransitIsEssential to any recovery (before Amtrak Joe won the election).
As a result of our coalition of advocates elevating the issue, the people doing direct work for transit funding in Washington found they were able to get more traction than ever, to bring more people to the table than they have before. This is the first time in decades the federal government has funded transit operations (versus capital projects). This is a real moment for public transit in this country!
Between vaccines and significant (but not quite sufficient) funding for transit secured in the short term, we’re thinking about getting back on Muni. Service is severely curtailed. A hiring freeze shrank Muni’s work force, which was already down from the operator shortage we were discussing a year ago. How will Muni be able to scale staffing and service back up? By defining some principles and values, we can be clearer about priorities for the return of Muni service.
Through our own work and our work with the National Campaign for Transit Justice, we’ve been following some principles to inform our local, regional, state, and federal advocacy. We need public transit that is:
- Equitable: America’s car-based transportation system erects barriers to mobility that reinforce long-term social inequities. To be equitable, transit investment must remove these barriers and prioritize the needs of black, brown, and low-income people who have been hurt the most by our transportation policies, and who stand to gain the most from better service.
- Sustainable: To avert severe climate change and improve our air quality, transit investment must expand access to good service. This is the primary way to ensure that transit ridership increases as a share of total travel, and private car use decreases.
- Economically productive: Better transit expands access to businesses, for both workers and customers. Transit service needs to be abundant, frequent, fast, and reliable to increase economic opportunity and productivity. Investing in better transit should also generate more good-paying (and local) jobs operating, maintaining, and supplying transit systems.
- Safe and accessible: Many factors limit access to transit, like dangerous streets, discriminatory policing, and the lack of elevators at stations. Transit investment should eliminate these barriers and achieve broad-based safety and universal access.
- Affordable: Access to transit should never be contingent on one’s ability to pay. Transit investment should establish programs that provide fare relief for everyone who needs it.
In many ways, SFMTA has led the nation in its commitment to providing service to essential workers, and to naming equity as a core value in planning service. While this process hasn’t been perfect, SFMTA is leading the way nationally in its thoughtful efforts to better serve the needs of our city.
As we start to navigate our way forward, we are very aware that we have limited resources. Restoring service is not like turning on your lights at home. Drivers, operators, and staff have to be hired, trained, and certified. Equipment has to be inspected and approved. There is a lot of delayed maintenance due to COVID operational requirements. And transit is run by people — SFMTA staff at the front lines have been working overtime under incredibly challenging conditions and need to slow down, and to take a break. Service restoration is a process that is going to take some time.
SFTR considers the following priorities crucial to making decisions around returning service as funding and staff become available.
Expand service first to hilltops and communities of concern. We should prioritize the most isolated and underserved areas. If you look at a Muni map, there are plenty of places where it looks like routes are very close together. But if you are on the ground, you’ll see that a lot of those places have hills which can provide a significant barrier to people’s mobility. There are transit-dependent people across the entire city, and we need to restore hilltop service to restore people’s access. We also need to make sure service is restored in neighborhoods with fewer lines and less service, areas of fewer alternatives — generally speaking, in our communities of concern.
Prioritize restoration of surface rail to free up buses for service. One of the poorly understood aspects of Muni’s response to COVID is that it takes a lot of buses to serve routes, even with reduced ridership. The health department mandates for social distancing mean vastly reduced bus capacity, which means it takes a lot more buses to serve the limited essential trip demand. Restoring rail service brings more vehicles — with higher capacity — back into the system, giving us increased bus availability to restore more service.
Ensure that service is sufficient for our critical essential workers and transit-dependent riders. This pandemic has brought about a new appreciation for our essential workforce throughout the city. We want to ensure these vital workers are not facing overcrowding on our transit system, and that those who are transit-dependant can access service during the expansion. We need to ensure that there is sufficient service so that riders aren’t left at the curb because a bus is at mandated capacity.
As the city considers the recovery and expansion of Muni service, which may look very different from the service offered before the pandemic, we believe that the best path forward rests upon these principles in order to serve San Franciscans with the best possible accessibility and equity for all.