By Thomas K. Pendergast
Muni bus service is slowly rolling away from the disaster of a recent pandemic and, judging by the information shared at a Jan. 18 meeting at the Richmond Recreation Center, all eyes now look toward its near and distant future.
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) Director of Transportation Jeffrey Tumlin faced a room full of locals at a Planning Association for the Richmond (PAR) meeting. He described the catastrophic effect that the COVID-19 pandemic had on Muni.
“During the worst days of the lockdown, as much as 70% of our workforce was in quarantine, forcing us to radically rethink the Muni system, but then also invent a whole array of other programs in order to help San Franciscans – particularly essential workers – get around,” Tumlin said.
Now that it is looking at the virus mostly in the rear-view mirror, the agency still has to navigate the financial impact the pandemic caused.
Prior to the pandemic, Muni was funded by bus fares, parking fees and money from the City’s general fund.
The loss of downtown commuters, tourists and general business travelers threw a wrench in the agency’s gears, and it has been trying to recoup its revenue flow ever since.
“There are (the equivalent of) 15 Salesforce towers of empty office space in downtown San Francisco,” Tumlin said.
Plus, Muni went through two years of a hiring freeze, so staffing is now down by about 1,200 workers. Its current hiring system can only process enough people to keep up with how many are leaving.
He also claimed that the Richmond District has the fewest ways in and out of it than any neighborhood in the City.
“There are two ways in and out to the north; and, depending upon how you count them, two or three ways in and out to the south,” he said. “You’ve got a better east-west circulation, but you get all gummed up in the rest of the traffic congestion in the eastern part of the City.”
He said part of the traffic-flow problem throughout the west side is the old traffic signals that need upgrading and modernizing.
“We know, because we’ve got the data, that the dominant mode of transportation for the west side, including the Richmond, is driving,” Tumlin said. “And that’s one of the places where we start.”
Looking into the future, this is only the start.
“While driving is clearly the most convenient mode of transportation, it’s also the least geometrically efficient,” he explained. “When I drive a car, I take up 10 times as much roadway space as I do when I walk, or I bike, or I take Muni. One of the math problems that we’re stuck having to deal with is that, in order to make it possible for people to be able to drive, we have to make it safer and more convenient for people who want to walk or bike or take transit.
“That tension is one of the primary factors that we deal with in all of our planning throughout San Francisco and that’s more true on the west side than anywhere else in the City.”
That wasn’t the only tension Tumlin had to deal with that night. There were some heated comments by some of the audience members.
The owner of Joe’s Ice Cream, Sean Kim, objected to the agency’s Geary Boulevard Improvement Project. He said that at least 15 and possibly up to 28 angled parking spaces would be removed, then converted to parallel parking to make room for bus-only lanes, so he was worried about how this would affect the merchants along that commercial corridor.
“Right now we didn’t recover from the pandemic yet,” Kim said. “Then we expect higher inflation and high interest rates, and then a recession coming, a lot of layoffs downtown.”
This means he and the other merchants might lose a lot of money, so he asked if the SFMTA could save angled parking and still have bus-only lanes.
Kim said the changes could cause a financial strain which could threaten his business, and also his home.
Tumlin explained that there are two stretches of Geary where parallel parking switches to angled parking.
“In order to allow the bus lanes to continue all the way through we would need to convert the diagonal parking to parallel,” Tumlin said. “What that would mean is that we would lose a net of about two parking spaces per block.”
He estimated that the total parking loss for the overall project from Stanyan Street to 35th Avenue would be about 60 parking spaces.
“We understand that this is a significant issue for the neighborhood, however, having the buses merge from two traffic lanes down to one would result in significant traffic congestion for the motorists and would create conflicts in that place where the bus has to move into the middle traffic lane,” he said.
Also discussed was a future regional effort to create another trans-bay crossing called Link 21, a passenger train that travelers could ride between the Sacramento Area and San Francisco, as well as the peninsula and the south bay, without transferring to a different service.
It would tie into a new “trans-bay tube” serving the Transbay Transit Center; then a western extension could run along Geary to Masonic Avenue. One of the challenges of building the rest of the transit line straight out west would mean clearing out enough land in the Outer Richmond for a train yard. And that could be problematic considering property values and the rarity of open spaces.
“Instead, we want to follow the shifting travel patterns that we see on the west side,” Tumlin said. “There are various routing options, but (the plans include) continuing it down 19th Avenue all the way to the Daly City BART station, so that we knit the west side to the peninsula, to downtown San Francisco, and to the East Bay and beyond to Sacramento with very high speed, high frequency rapid transit.”
If you hear Tumlim speak he will always mention his math problems, as if that is the most important thing for him to solve. Unfortunately no one else has that problem. We have a whole other list of problems that he has created by attempting to solve his math problem. The SFMTA is killing businesses all over the city. Just look at the areas where they removed traffic lanes and parking and you will see a wasteland. Start with Market Street and work your way around town. You will see a trail of boarded up businesses along the way. Empty buses and very few bikes out on the streets as you drive across town.
Valencia Street (which had a so-called road diet a couple decades ago, with a lane reduction and, I believe, a parking loss) definitely refutes your argument. And I believe the same could be said for SFMTA’s improvements on Polk Street and Divisadero.
Indeed, the Geary bus lanes in the Richmond have markedly sped up the 38 (and car traffic doesn’t seem to have suffered). Faster and more reliable Muni service (be it on Mission Street, Geary, or elsewhere) brings customers and employees to local businesses and helps local, non-big box retail more than parking spaces do. Amazon and the pandemic walloped our city (but, of course, the SFMTA is a popular culprit for problems not of their making).
am a fourth generation New Yorker (NYC, fourth generation) and I am from a bonafide cycling family. Grandpa was a professional racer on the NYC Velodomes and Dad has a wall of trophies from his cycling days on the Velodomes, too.
The sense that bicycles can keep the city’s economy afloat is nonsense. And, the sense that our public transit can keep the city’s economy afloat, like in NYC, is also nonsense.
San Francisco needs its visitors. They drive into the city. If locals are finding it difficult to get around now, the visitors must be saying, “This day trip is not worth the headache.”
Clearly, our local economy is suffering. SFMTA definitely has culpability in the boarded-up storefronts. Make no mistake about it.
Nationally, every parking space gives the local economy $20,000 in revenues per year. It must be much higher for San Francisco. We are a bigger attraction than, say, Cleveland.
I have stopped shopping at Laurel Village because it is too much of a headache to get there.
I spent $1,000 getting my teen home from his music lessons last year because the bus he tried to take home, Fulton 5, was dangerous. He was harrassed. This is a kid who had no problem getting back on the 44 the day after a gunman scared the teens at the bus stop in front of their high school then jumped on the 44 and rode away.
I am sorry to hear about the problems your son’s had getting around this city. I am grateful that my teen daughter hasn’t had similar trouble and rides Muni daily to school, work, and on her frequent trips to local boba shops, other stores and shopping centers, and restaurants.
As to economic benefits of parking spaces, I presume you recognize the many negative impacts (economically and environmentally) to such heavy reliance on automobiles – such as congestion and pollution and the loud and unpleasant atmosphere/ambiance of many car centric streets.
I don’t believe I can convince you differently, but perhaps this somewhat dated article might provide another perspective:
What I heard at the meeting is that people on the east side of the city do not like the traffic the west side of the city causes. If they have a problem, they can move.
We do not live in Kansas.
What I heard at the meeting is that people on the east side of the city do not like the traffic the west side of the city causes. If they have a problem, they can move. They moved there knowing what the area was about. If they wanted less traffic, there are quiet towns that offer great mass transit services into the city for bicyclists.
We do not live in Kansas.
Alameda developed a pathway for cyclists that does not interfere with other forms of transportation. SFMTA has interfered with other forms of transportation before placing all its buses back.
SFMTA needs to focus on its bus service. This should be its top priority. Are they getting funding from Uber? Uber wants to take over public transit nationally. Our system is broken.
Can someone find out if Uber has given any money to SFMTA? We do not want to privatize our public transit.
What we do know about the Bay Wheels owned by Lyft is that they claim to lose $15 million dollars a year. What losing business expands on a business plan that loses money? Is a larger corporation writing off the losses or what?
A lot of questions are raised when the SF embraces losers such as Bay Wheels that compete with legitimate bike rental and repair companies by removing their parking and placing stations in front of them.
We hear complaints from Chestnut and Valencia about this practice. Does San Francisco City Hall want to kill all the rent and tax paying companies or are they only targeting some of them? What is the plan and who is paying to implement it?