By Eli Longnecker, 2015 SF City Hall Fellow
Before I started my placement at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency in August, I didn’t have any more interest in transportation than the average suburb-dweller (which is to say: minimal). I never rode the bus growing up in sprawling Chapel Hill, North Carolina, even though there was no fare. When I traveled to new cities, I mostly feared taking public transit because inevitably I would have to navigate foreign payment systems, confusing maps, and lots of strangers all together in a sealed container.
It wasn’t until studying in Buenos Aires, Argentina, that I regularly relied on public transit to get me from point A to point B, and mastering the art of colectivos (buses) and the Subte (subway system) became one of my proudest accomplishments. During my time in Buenos Aires, the Subte operators went on strike for ten days. The city was immobilized for this time: no classes, no work, no errands. Readers from the Bay Area will remember the BART strike from summer 2013 and its equally pervasive effects on the entire region. Those two experiences made tangible to me the degree to which a public transit system is the lifeblood of our urban ecosystem. As they say, you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone.
Or, as a City Hall Fellow might tell you, you don’t know what you got ‘til you can spend a year within its walls. My placement in the Office of the Chief of Staff means I get to engage with the SF public transportation system from a human standpoint. The plurality of the SFMTA workforce (around 2,000 of 6,000 total) operates the buses and light rail vehicles. Another large group of staff is devoted to maintaining the vehicles, the tracks, and the cable infrastructure that enable the Muni buses and trains to move.
Meanwhile, dozens of engineers design the layout of streets, the timing of traffic signals, and who knows what else (!!). Beyond that, there are the folks who work to secure the funding and balance the budget to keep the system running, the folks who enforce fare payment, and other folks who make sure that all the aforementioned people receive a paycheck. The list goes on. And there is the incredible part, to me: it takes thousands of people to keep the transportation network running. Not to mention keeping it safe, affordable, accessible, and adaptable to inevitable disruptions on the city streets. All of these demands, on top of decades of underfunding, mean it’s an exciting time to be working in transportation.
I will never be a normal public transit rider, or pedestrian, again after this experience. The newfound lens I’ve gained from my work so far with the SFMTA means that I step onto a bus or walk down a street much more conscientiously than I did before. While I’m not an expert on any of these things, I have much more insight into how and why they work than I ever did before. When I look at a street, I might observe the placement and type of bicycle lane, where the transit stops are (and what agencies operate them), and whether there’s parking. When I look at a bus, I think about the driver and her schedule, what kind of traffic there is today, what pleasant or angry passengers have been aboard. The most random of all, perhaps, is suddenly noticing the big yellow dots painted onto pavement at intersections. They’re filled in or empty and with a line intersecting or not, to signal to operators what kind of turn or stop is ahead. I can’t tell you what each one means, but I can assure you that they’re alerting operators all over the city without you even noticing. See above.
This altered perception of the urban environment is not something I carry alone; there are thousands of other SFMTA employees who share some part of this experience. When I first started, I’d talk to other staff about it and they assured me that it’s normal (we make interesting traveling companions)! Beyond that, I am able to better appreciate the immense amount of work that goes into moving people around the City and the challenges to be confronted both now and in the future. The SFMTA has more money now than any time in the last fifty years or so; we’re in a period of immense transition and growth. I am inspired by the people around me who work to leverage these resources equitably and sustainably, and hope to continue learning about the Agency and opportunities to keep public transportation on a just course.