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How San Francisco's Public Transit System Is Weathering The Pandemic10:57
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Muni buses are shown at a San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency yard in San Francisco, Tuesday, April 7, 2020. (Jeff Chiu/AP)
Muni buses are shown at a San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency yard in San Francisco, Tuesday, April 7, 2020. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

Public transportation agencies across the U.S. have seen ridership and revenue plummet due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, demand is down 80%. In late March, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency suspended subway and light rail service. Rail service started up again this past weekend — but the agency decided to shut it down again days later.

A split overhead wire in the subway coupled with a COVID-19 case within the transportation management system — “the nerve center of all of our transit operations”  — made running the trains too risky, says Jeffrey Tumlin, director of transportation at SFMTA.

Now, the agency is back to serving commuters with an all-bus system. SFMTA’s vulnerabilities are its small teams of technical experts who are essential to keep the system running, he says.

“We're looking at different ways of being able to reopen the rail system that are more resilient,” he says. “But we're stuck with a few vulnerabilities that we need to be very cautious around with in regard to our trains.”

Though the city’s buses are smaller than its trains, the flexibility of bus routes puts the agency in a better position “given the unpredictable realities of COVID,” he says.

The overall demand for transit in San Francisco is down 80%, he says, but the bus lines that serve essential workers are down only 30%. The city’s subway system brings workers to now desolate office buildings in the financial district, while the buses go to commercial districts within neighborhoods and large institutions such as hospitals.

Since March, the agency has rebuilt the transit system three times using data on travel patterns and demographics to ensure equity, he says. Financial district routes have been rerouted to areas with strong ridership such as Chinatown.

“We are continually trying to adjust the system based upon the real needs of people with the fewest mobility choices and the least access to local services in their neighborhoods,” he says.

SFMTA reports that it’s facing a $200 million shortfall in its annual operating budget. Money from the CARES ACT helped the agency get through the previous fiscal year, but once those funds run dry in December, SFMTA will “burn our reserves” to keep the system running and prevent layoffs, Tumlin says.

Revenue is down between 75% to 95% across the system, he says — which includes transit fares, parking fees and fines, and the city’s general fund. Tumlin expects that this decline will continue.

“What we're hearing from Washington is not to expect any additional federal funding unless there is a shift in the balance of power that happens in the November election,” he says. “So we are trying to cut everything that we can to survive.”

Interview Highlights

On if he’s concerned about whether ridership will return to pre-pandemic levels

“Well, having folks work from home is actually fine for the San Francisco Transportation System. One thing that we can't handle is people fleeing to the perceived safety of driving alone. The San Francisco street system cannot handle any more cars on it than it did back in January. Whether somebody is on Muni or on a bike or on a scooter, they take up one-tenth of the street space as driving alone in a car or take an Uber or a Lyft. Our job as a transportation agency is to support the economy, to advance equity and to make the most productive use of our limited public right of way in order to serve the larger goals of San Francisco.”

On the city’s Slow Streets Program, which closes certain streets to traffic to open them up for pedestrians and bikes

“I think the most popular program that the SFMTA has implemented in its entire history may well be our Slow Streets program, it's getting a 90% approval rating, which like I didn't think 90% of San Franciscans would agree on anything, let alone a change to the transportation system. All of the work that we're doing right now is mostly under the emergency directive and we are required by law to remove those projects 100 days after the emergency directive expires, unless we take action to change those programs or make them permanent. So we are starting our work right now on evaluating what of these many, many experiments we're doing, which of it should continue.”

On if the city had found the opportunity to do long-term infrastructure work during the pandemic

“Yes, so during most of the COVID shutdown period, we were not allowed to do the kind of deferred maintenance work that we really wanted to. It was not allowed by the health directive. Now we're at this stage of economic reopening. And now that the Health Department has given us clear guidance on some of our work programs, we're actually wondering if this new rail shutdown will allow us finally to reinvest in our subway infrastructure and take care of decades of deferred maintenance in the tunnel.”

On the future of taxis and rideshare services such as Uber and Lyft

“Uber and Lyft’s business model has always been a race towards autonomy. About half of their operating costs is the driver. And so in order for them to really thrive financially, they've got to get rid of their operators. The taxi industry, however, is very different, and the future of the regulated taxi industry has got to be really about customer service. It's got to be about the fact that taxis will continue to be operated by humans. And a lot of travelers really rely on the fact that taxi cabs are driven by a human operator. And so part of her work is to change the regulatory approach to taxis in order to emphasize customer service and correct for some of the inequities that many of our taxi riding passengers have experienced in the past. ... I firmly believe there's a future for taxis if they emphasize customer service.”


 Julia Corcoran produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku RayAllison Hagan adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on August 28, 2020.

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