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With No Way ‘Back to Normal,’ Transit Focuses on Public Good

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency slashed 75 percent of its service over a weekend, as the agency reacted to across-the-board service adjustments brought on by the coronavirus crisis.

SFMTA bus_shutterstock_394897756
In early April, transit operators in San Francisco slashed 75 percent of service over the course of a weekend. It was possibly the most significant step a transit system in a major city took as part of a larger effort to protect frontline workers from COVID-19, clean vehicles and respond to a rapid reduction in ridership.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) pulled streetcars and cable cars from service. It also shuttered the network’s subway system.

The redesign was completed on a Monday. The schedule and implementation of Phase I happened on Tuesday.

“That is two years' worth of work that we did in four days,” marveled Jeffrey Tumlin, executive director of SFMTA, speaking during a panel discussion at the National Shared Mobility Summit, a virtual conference.

The redesign strategy zeroed in on high-traffic routes, ensuring service to critical areas like hospitals and other institutions.

“Now, we’re in the very fortunate position where our workforce is stabilizing and we’re making decisions about what lines to bring back. And I don’t think we’re going to bring the system back exactly as it was in February,” said Tumlin.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to question all of the historic, political decisions that created the transit system, in the form that it was when we inherited it,” he added.

The rapid redesign of a system that ordinarily serves more than 100,000 riders a day is the sort of large, foundational shift around transportation and urban life the coronavirus crisis has put in motion in cities across the country.

Cities like Burlington, Vt.; Louisville, Ky.; Oakland, Calif., and others have turned over numerous miles of streets to cyclists and pedestrians, and bike use and bike purchases are on the rise.

“There’s so many cities doing really exciting things in this area,” said Beth Osborne, director of Transportation for America.

“And frankly, they are being strategic. They are looking, in some of these cities, for permanent change,” she added. “They are doing a temporary change, and they’re taking feedback from the public, about what works and what doesn’t work.”

As cities begin the process of reopening their economies, watch for measures to ensure more resiliency, such as more transportation options and requirements to keep people safe and ensure confidence in the system, officials say.

“We need to start planning for mandatory and enforced facial coverings, as a condition of entry for public transit,” said Tumlin, adding that face coverings allow agencies to eliminate the social distancing requirements, “which are impossible to maintain in transit.”

“We also need to do regular temperature checking, not only for our workforce, but also our riders,” he added. “We need to continue to maintain our phenomenal cleaning program."

According to Tumlin, transit vehicles in San Francisco are cleaned four times a day, while other surfaces are cleaned “every few hours.”

All of these scenarios underscored the message: There’s no going back to normal.

“There’s just going to be a totally new set of needs, and we should think about that and not just go back to our old way of thinking,” said Osborne. “It is wholly inappropriate.”

The crisis exposed the way regulatory regimes and planning conventions “are really all about protecting the privileges of the establishment, and stopping change,” said Tumlin. “Something that the emergency orders have done is unleash the ability of government to actually solve problems.”

While the crisis has shuttered large swaths of the economy and shaken the community’s trust in public health, it has also “forced us to get really, really clear about what the public good is that we’re trying to serve, and it’s demonstrated that government is capable of getting a huge amount of shit done, if we’re clear about what we’re trying to achieve and if the rules aren’t getting in our way,” said Tumlin.

“My hope, coming out of this crisis, is it changes the culture of my agency,” he added. “We can actually get good work done, but only if we break down stupid, pointless silos, only if we rewrite the rules that get in our way, and that promote inequity.”

When asked about the “heroes” to emerge from the crisis, Tumlin bowed before the larger idea of public service.

“What’s amazing to me about this particular crisis is the way that everyone has come together. There’s a sort of heroism throughout the agency, at all levels, and if there’s any real hero, it’s maybe just an idea, the idea of the public good,” said Tumlin. “And if we’re clear about what the public good is, the government agencies have the capacity to deliver, and deliver well.” 

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.