San Francisco transit officials are in early stages of developing a recovery plan for Muni service and are seeking inspiration from other parts of the world where public transit systems have already been restored.

The City’s top transit chief Jeffrey Tumlin laid out a preliminary plan consisting of six levels of Muni service recovery. Currently, the agency is at Level 2 — some routes have been reestablished with limited service and service has been increased for critical routes.  

Tumlin said Tuesday at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s Board of Directors meeting:

“We’re really just at the beginning of a long tragedy, but we’re also at the beginning of a series of unique opportunities that may rise out of this tragedy.”

Since The City issued its stay-at-home order in March, Muni has experienced a steep drop in ridership and decline in staff across the board, though a recent uptick in staffing has enabled the agency to add a few more routes this week.

Courtesy of SFMTA The SFMTA Tuesday, May 19, 2020 released its Transportation Recovery Plan, which is subject to change.

Inspired by how public transportation systems were restored in Taipei, Taiwan and Seoul, South Korea, Tumlin said:

“We learned a lot both about their vision as well as their operational details of what they’re doing in order to position transit to be a primary force in reopening the economy, including realizing that 6 feet of social distancing at a certain point does not work on public transit.”

Tumlin said he was able to speak with Taipei transit officials online about their process.

Facial covering enforcement, testing of operators and temperature checks, including thermal scanners at key rail stations, are just some measures implemented by Taipei’s transit system, Tumlin said.

The agency’s early plans indicate that as more retail businesses, workplaces and schools reopen, additional Muni service and yes, even rail service, will be added back to the schedule.

Muni subway service as described in Level 4, for example, would not resume until schools are permitted to reopen and if there is a demand for service in commercial corridors.

Dan Howard, the technology assistant manager for the agency’s transit division, said several factors will be considered in determining the level of service restoration. Howard said:

“Our ability to increase Muni service and street operations as public health restrictions ease, is dependent on our ability to minimize the health risks and increase our availability of our staff as well as perform those tasks within our budget, which is experiencing trouble.”

Ching Wong/SFBay The SFMTA opens its Islais Creek Hybrid Motor Coach Facility that can maintain both 40-foot and 60-foot hybrid buses in San Francisco, Calif., on Friday, June 15, 2018.

Another issue addressed by transit officials is city street traffic congestion once more people are allowed to return to work.

Transit officials nationwide worry that people will choose drive instead of hopping back onto crowded public transit buses and trains.

Tumlin said:

“It only takes a relatively small shift of travel demand from public transit to driving alone, to completely gridlock the entire transportation system.”

He said the agency has between now and August to set up a transportation network that does not “strangle” The City’s economy with traffic congestion as seen now in many Asian countries.

Tumlin said:

“We’ve got to make a lot of tough choices.”

Tumlin and Howard said the agency needs to continue investing in space efficient modes of transportation, including walking, biking and public transit.

Aaron Levy-Wolins/SFBay Muni Director of Transportation Jeffrey Tumlin takes a photo of new Muni art on a bus outside City Hall in San Francisco, Calif., on Thursday, Jan 9, 2020. Poetry and art will be displayed on select Muni buses.

Howard suggested the agency look into securing more transit-only lanes. The City has seen a decrease in traffic due to the shelter-in-place order, which has allowed some buses on routes to move faster as if they had their transit-only lane, Howard said.

Board directors were receptive to some of the suggested ideas, but contributed their own as well.

Director Steve Heminger said he would like to see the agency accelerate its “quick-build” program, which has allowed transit planners to quickly develop infrastructure for bike and pedestrian safety improvements, and most recently for Muni projects.

Heminger would also like to see The City quickly implement downtown congestion pricing and to take a policy approach that encourages businesses to allow employee telecommuting.

The SFMTA board will “workshop” plans in further detail at its June 2 meeting.

Jerold Chinn
Jerold Chinn is the San Francisco Bureau Chief of SFBay. A San Francisco native, he has spent a decade covering transportation in San Francisco. Send tips to jerold@sfbay.ca or at Twitter @Jerold_Chinn.

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