Trains, bike lanes, and automobiles: sitting down with the new head of SFMTA

Ed Reiskin is the new director of SFMTA. Photo from SF Public Works

On August 15, San Francisco's Municipal Transportation Agency will get a new chief: Ed Reiskin, who's currently the head of Public Works, will replace Nat Ford as the overseer of all things transit-related. Reiskin's never run a transit agency, but he's been a manager in city government for a long time. What's more, he actually rides Muni – so he knows what he's getting into. He'll start the job facing a whole array of challenges, from implementing a new contract for Muni operators to trying to solve long-term budget problems. How does he plan to do it? KALW's transportation reporter Casey Miner sat down with Reiskin to find out.

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CASEY MINER: I just wanted to start out asking you a little bit about how you’re thinking about this job as you get ready to take it over – what are your priorities?

ED REISKIN: You’ll recall MTA was put together by the voters I think in 1999, putting together Muni and DPT, Department of Parking and Traffic. And I don’t think the agency has yet fully realized the vision of it being a cohesive, comprehensive transportation agency that the voters envisioned. So I think there’s some work to do there to make San Francisco’s transportation system the world-class system that it should be. In big terms, that’s what I'm there to do. In terms of the specific priorities, I’ll find that out once I get there.

MINER: You are coming to MTA as someone who has worked for the city but hasn’t specifically worked for this agency, and my understanding is that you’re a person who actually uses the transportation system in the city of San Francisco. And I wonder if you can talk about coming it as a citizen of the city, as someone who uses the system and understands it from that perspective – what do you see going in?

REISKIN: I’d say 95% of what I know about transportation in San Francisco, I know because I live here and I use the system. I ride Muni many times a day; I don’t own a car. I ride my bike often – I rode to work this morning, for example. Since I don’t own a car, I do sometimes take taxis, I sometimes car share or rent cars, in which case I’m trying to figure out how to park them. So I certainly like most other San Franciscans every aspect of the system.

So I guess a few things: one is that there is a lot of transit and transportation expertise residing in the MTA, and I don’t think that’s what’s been lacking. What I bring from the outside is both an understanding of how the city works about how to manage – and hopefully successfully manage – a large department in the city, how to work with the various stakeholders. But I also bring the customer perspective because I live here and my family and I, we all really rely on the system working.

MINER: Speaking strictly from the customer perspective, if Ed the Customer were the only person going into this, how would you prioritize the challenges that MTA needs to deal with.

REISKIN: For me the top priority – and this is because of my bias of using mostly the transit mode of transportation as opposed to the private vehicle mode – my priority would definitely be Muni and working on making it more reliable and attractive. I personally, and of course I’m biased, but I think the Muni system is actually pretty good. I don’t think there are many cities in the country that have a mass transit system that enables you to get around the city as comprehensively and quickly as we can here in San Francisco, particularly above ground. So while I think Muni is already a pretty amazing system and it enables me and my family to live here without needing to own our own car, there are certainly a lot of reliability issues that can make it frustrating.

Last Thursday on my way to work, I was stuck on the N-train, entering the Duboce portal. It was at least 20 minutes; the train wasn’t moving. We were in a place where people couldn’t get off. I was watching the people around me shake their head and roll their eyes and look at their watches. And unfortunately, that’s not all that uncommon and I think that trying to address the reliability of the system so that people know that at any time they go to a bus or train stop, they’re not going to have to wait that long, and once they get on, they’re going to get to where they’re going in a reasonable amount of time.

That’s really to me I think the top priority to both making it better for the people who do use it, particularly those who have to use the system, but also encouraging more people to want to use the system. Because every person that’s on a bus or a train and that’s out of their car is creating less pollution, it’s clogging the streets less – it’s really making the city work better.

MINER: And do you have any particular strategies or ideas for doing that?

REISKIN: You know like every other Muni rider, I see lots of things that seem like they could be helpful. Many of these things are things that have been discussed, some of which are in the transit effectiveness project recommendations – things like reducing the number of bus stops, allowing all-door boarding, having more transit priority lanes and signal synchronization. I’m guessing that the operators probably have a lot of ideas about what would make the system work better, and I’d really like to engage them in the process of figuring out what things that we can do, particularly those that we can do in the short term and without having to spend a lot of money, which the agency doesn’t have, to make the system work better.

MINER: Speaking of talking to the operators, another one of the things that you’re going to need to do as soon as you’re in your job is to start to implement the new contract and work with the operators to make that go smoothly, and maybe deal with some residual tensions or bad feelings about the imposition of the new contract…

REISKIN: Yeah, I think there are certainly some lingering bad feelings. I think it was negotiated well, but in the end the fact that it was imposed upon the members by an arbitrator as opposed to being voted in by them makes it a difficult start. My sense is that the main areas of tension between labor and management are things that can be dealt with outside of the contract. My sense – and I did meet with the transit workers union leadership last week – my sense is that there are many opportunities to improve relations between management and the drivers while still implementing the contract.

MINER: You’ve used the word “comprehensive” a lot to talk about how you’d like to approach individual aspects of San Francisco’s transportation needs, but also about maybe the approach you intend to take to MTA as a whole. And I wonder if you could say what your vision is for MTA. What would you like to see over the long term?

REISKIN: I think the comprehensiveness is important because there are a lot of different elements of the transportation system, and you can’t address one without impacting another. I rode down Market Street to downtown this morning, and you just see as a bicyclist how you’re sometimes adversely impacting the buses and the taxis, and you can feel those tensions when you’re out on the street. So it really does require I think a comprehensive approach to how we do facilitate mobility in the city. The density we have here – I think we’re the second densest city in the country – we just can’t afford a transportation system where everybody’s doing it on their own because they can’t rely on the public system. The city would grind to a halt. The economy of the city would grind to a halt. I think bicycling is a critical element, as is transit, as is pedestrian safety, as our taxi cabs, to making the whole network work.

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