By Elliot Karl, 2015 SF City Hall Fellow
On November 4, 2014, San Francisco voters approved the Transportation and Road Improvement Bond. This bond, commonly referred to as Proposition A, enabled the City to borrow $500 million to meet a small portion of the $10 billion in critical SFMTA infrastructure needs through 2030. Only twenty-four days later on November 28, 2014, 14 #BlackLivesMatter protestors were arrested for disrupting transbay BART service in an act of political speech to protest the excessive use of police force against Black communities and other communities of color. This event occurred days after a grand jury failed to indict Darren Wilson for shooting 18-year old Michael Brown. The #BlackLivesMatter demonstrators now face criminal and restitution charges of up to $70,000.
Although these events involve separate regional transit systems and may seem unrelated to some, they inspired many questions which have followed me through my year as a City Hall Fellow.
After almost a year working in the capital finance arm of San Francisco’s multi-modal transportation agency, I have grown very passionate about the great fiscal challenges American cities face in meeting the increasing transit demands on built infrastructure, which has a long history of neglectful public investment. In my day-to-day work, I observe the great collaborative efforts undertaken to address the current need in San Francisco. Project managers, transportation planners, and financial analysts strive to maximize the quality and extent of renovation and expansion projects with limited resources. Thousands of people operate, maintain, and build the system. Public information officers work to effectively communicate these efforts to funders and the public to ensure renewed investment. Furthermore, as someone who has lived without a driver’s license for some time, I am also intimately aware of the value of and public reliance on these systems; most mornings, I have to push myself onto BART at West Oakland Station and watch as Muni Metro LRVs arrive at Civic Center, also bursting at the seams.
Considering the clear reliance on urban transit systems as a public good and their history of underinvestment, I suppose I am neither surprised at the strategic interruption of service to make political statements, nor at the criticisms of how this further burdens essential system operation and affects hundreds of thousands of commuters and transit employees. Any simple review of America’s civic and human rights history shows that our buses, roads, and trains have never been apolitical and, in fact, are often ground zero for some of the greatest civil rights demonstrations–and abuses–in industrialized history. The use of a transit system as a vehicle for political speech will command the attention of a region and is incredibly strategic for those whose voices may be shut out or dismissed in other forums. Yet, as an employee of the SFMTA, I can also respect how these actions can have serious financial and service impacts on stressed transportation networks.
As a City Hall Fellow, I came to the program under the premise that I could “change [my] city, change [my] future,” which seemed like an exciting opportunity to leverage public processes to effect social change. When I look back on my year, I realize that I’m instead leaving with a much more nuanced understanding of the role that government can play in effecting social change, without feeling that I was, personally, empowered to make the impact which I had imagined. I don’t ever foresee public agencies attempting to galvanize public attention to demand social change in the way that #BlackLivesMatter does. However, I deeply appreciate the commitment I’ve observed in my placement to maintaining and expanding public resources, which can be major tools for reparative redistribution. During a time when many of our public services have to compete with less-accessible alternatives from the contracting economy (ex. Uber, Lyft, Leap), committing public dollars to services is an essential step towards achieving more social equity. It has been while I’ve observed conflicts between these commitments and activism that calls attention to social inequity by targeting publicly owned infrastructure that I’ve been forced to interrogate both my convictions about local governments’ transformative potential and our obligations, as a community, to avoid the interruption of public services. I am finishing my City Hall Fellows year with more questions than I have answers and am deeply appreciative of the experience for this challenge. I don’t feel that I’ve learned enough to articulate a firm opinion on the matter, but am excited to explore this tension in my future work in local government and long-term career.