Photo credit: SF Citizen

A First Look at SFMTA’s Office of Innovation

Debs Schrimmer
Feb 8, 2016 · 7 min read

Enter SFMTA’s newest department, the Office of Innovation. Established in late 2015 with Timothy Papandreou at the helm, the department is tasked with leading the innovation of the city’s transportation network. To do that, they’ll be developing new policies and technology partnerships that focus on two things:

  • Enhancing overall customer experience using SF’s transportation system;
  • Optimizing public rights-of-way to support new mobility options.

Papandreou is no stranger to innovation. A strong advocate for culture change and innovation from within, he’s been with SFMTA for nearly seven years leading strategic planning efforts. A few major milestones include:

Papandreou and the department’s charge is timely, given the shifting demographics of San Francisco. According to U.S. Census Bureau’s American Commuter Survey, 88% of the new households that moved to San Francisco between 2000–2012 were car-free. Increasingly, the City’s largest growing population groups — middle aged millennials (25–30 year olds) and Baby Boomers (60+) are demanding more flexibility to support their car-free lifestyles.

I was lucky enough to sit down with Papandreou, and he spoke about the City’s plan to enhance visitors’ and residents’ transportation experience. Recognizing the increasing number of ways people get from A to B, he’s working with SFMTA to build what he’s calling a “city transportation platform”.

A City Transportation Platform

In the City Transportation Platform model, SFMTA doesn’t provide every single transportation service. Instead they focus on the higher-level customer experience, making sure services can easily be integrated with one another, and ensuring the network’s overall consistency, sustainability, and safety. A platform model is certainly a sign of a 21st century transportation network.

Papandreou’s working theory of San Francisco’s “City Transportation Platform” looks at using new policies and partnerships across 4 major areas:

Customer experience

Service providers

New technologies

Physical environment

As Papandreou explained, the platform environment will establish a key set of requirements, and if new mobility providers meet them, they get to “play” and can access the city’s public rights of way — such as lanes, sidewalks, transit stations, parking spaces, docking stations, etc. The requirements focus on making sure all potential transportation providers meet key safety, affordability, availability, interoperability, and sustainability goals — or as Pap simplified, “making sure things are clean, green, safe and quiet”.

With the City Transportation Platform, Papandreou believes it will be easier for the City to collaborate with new and emerging players in the transportation space. Through this platform (and new policies), SFMTA plans to strike new partnerships that reduce car ownership and optimize sustainable trips in the city. Some of these include:


First launched in 2013, the regional pilot recently secured a 10x expansion to grow the system to 7,000 bikes across the Bay Area by 2017. San Francisco will be receiving 4,500 new bikes and is planning to expand across the rest of the city. With the growing success of the Bay Area Bike Share pilot, the Office of Innovation is now exploring a partnership with electric bike provider Carma, to see how e-bikes could further promote bicycling in our wonderful, hilly city.


San Francisco has been a supporter of car-sharing for years as an early champion of services like Zipcar and City Car Share. Now, the City is really investing in car-sharing as a sustainable mobility option for the city, designating 900 on-street parking spaces across the city for car-sharing services. At this time, only 380 spaces have been claimed — so if you’re looking to launch a new mobility service that needs parking spaces (i.e. cars, scooters, etc.)- get on it!

Connected and Automated Vehicles

The Office of Innovation will develop the city’s framework for connected and automated vehicle testing, and measuring its impact on land use, streets, parking, and signals. About 5 of the 11 DMV certified autonomous companies are already testing in San Francisco, while others are at various R&D stages.

A major research area for the Office will be understanding the positive benefits of linking both shared mobility options with connected and automated vehicles. These new mobility options will dramatically change how the city uses its streets and parking.

Another thing the Office will be thinking about: how driverless vehicles are a major game-changer for city revenue. Since these vehicles will be reducing human error, the City will be collecting less fines for traffic violations, parking tickets, and speeding. In San Francisco, almost 32% of its operating revenue ($300 million) is expected to come from sources like fines and parking meters in 2016.

Data Sharing and Exchange

The Department will be working hard to ensure all city-collected data about its transportation network is available on the City’s Open Data Portal. This data promotes more transparency and accountability around the city’s delivery of transport services, but also can spark entrepreneurship in the civic tech ecosystem. For example, companies like Swyft, TransitScreen, and Routesy can take publicly available information (but not necessarily the most digestible); and make clean interfaces for users to understand their transportation options.

Additionally, the City will be working on partnerships with third-party data collectors to help improve the City’s data-driven decision-making. At this time, the City has struck a partnership with Waze, Google’s crowdsourced, real-time traffic information. Such partnerships provide a fuller picture of what’s happening across the network, and can highlight areas for investment or strategic intervention.

The department also hopes to grow this portfolio of work by securing additional funding through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City program, which will award up to $40 million to a mid-sized city.

More Than Shiny Technology

Given my role at Code for America (where we believe technology *and* new approaches to problem solving are essential to 21st century government), I was excited to learn that the Office of Innovation is looking at the less-sexy, but equally important elements of innovation — like people, practices, and process.

In particular, the Office is designing new ways to approach problems and by-pass inevitable bureaucracy. Papandreou is no stranger to fixing internal processes. In this past, his team worked to design the decision-making processes inside the “plan-design-fund-construct-operate” phases of the agency. Under this framework, projects have moved more rapidly to becoming shovel-ready.

First up: a new arm of the City’s Startup in Residence (STIR) program, which matches startups with departmental challenges to develop and prototype tech-enabled solutions. Within SFMTA’s arm of the STIR program, the Office of Innovation will be recruiting startups to work specifically on parking issues. And the best part? The EIR program avoids many of the City’s headache-inducing procurement policies, which often act as a barrier to smaller startups.

Another change is the Office’s plan to bring in new talent via a fellowship program. Similar to the one housed within the Mayor’s Office, the Office will be recruiting 4 fellows: Behavioral Scientist Fellow, Policy Research Fellow, a Data Scientist Fellow, and a Partnerships Fellow. By recruiting technologists, the department will be equipped with critical skills to help tackle the big problems. Fellows will serve for one year and be exposed to the unique challenges the public sector faces: making transportation services that work for everyone.

Finally, the Office is building alliances with corporations and academics through shared endeavors — such as Mobility as a Service (MaaS), a research challenge in partnership with the City Innovate Foundation. Together, they’re envisioning how to reduce the ownership and use of private vehicles by weaving together other mobility options into one seamless, integrated service.

These aspects of change are equally important to the evolution of San Francisco’s transportation network. Technologies and mobility providers will likely change over the next few years, so it’s good to see SFMTA thinking critically about how the institution operates and organizes itself.


The rise of new mobility services have acted (no pun intended) as a vehicle for driving cultural and structural change inside of San Francisco’s government.

While many argue that once again, government is late to respond to changes in the private sector- I would argue differently.

The truly disruptive services like Lyft and Uber have only been around since 2011 or 2012. In just a few years, we’ve seen the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority respond: encouraging innovation, improving its tolerance for risk, and increasing the department’s capacity for transparency and engagement. Let’s see what happens in 2016: it looks like it’s going to be a big year!

Debs Schrimmer

Written by

Transportation Policy at Lyft. Urban planner with a love for cycling, coffee and corgis. San Francisco, CA