San Francisco Transit Campaign Ups Access to City – Next City
The Equity Factor

San Francisco Transit Campaign Ups Access to City

At Mission Pie in San Francisco, owner Karen Heisler prides herself on empowering people under 25 with entry-level careers in a sustainably sourced bakery. One of her hires: a 19-year-old from Bayview-Hunters Point, a low-income neighborhood southeast of the city center. The teen was brought on as an associate baker and tasked with showing up to work at 5 a.m.

Getting to work that early from her neighborhood proved to be a struggle. Her commute was marred by late buses and long rides. Still, Mission Pie gave her a chance, and soon she was generating enough of an income to start hashing out plans to move out of her parents’ house and closer to her work in the city’s Mission District.

But she was never able to secure a cheap enough room nearby, and despite being on the path for a promotion, she eventually had to quit because she couldn’t rely on the Bay Area’s public transit operators to travel from her new apartment in Fairfield, an area northeast of Oakland that offered affordable rentals, to San Francisco in time for her starting hour.

“With service jobs, there’s not a lot of leniency around arrival times,” says Heisler. Even though Mission Pie has helped subsidize commute costs for workers living in areas off the public transit grid, clocking in before dawn is a must to give the bakery enough time to prep the day’s baked goods. “The baking has to start when the baking has to start,” she says.

Businesses like Heisler’s will be some of the main employers in the city to benefit from a long-term overhaul of San Francisco’s public transit options between midnight and 5 a.m., an effort collectively referred to as “AllNighter.” The plan is entering its first public phase, with a press campaign to try and get more late-night commuters to use already existing services, and negotiations among a working group of transit operators, business owners, city officials and restaurant associations to figure out which areas of San Francisco and the surrounding cities show the most demand for transit rides outside of traditional commuting hours.

In addition to service industry employees, the campaign is targeting manufacturing workers, healthcare providers and people who just want to come to San Francisco after sunset for fun. Together, this nocturnal slice of the city’s population comprises an economy worth $4.2 billion dollars and $50 million in local tax revenue each year.

Todd Rufo, director of the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, which is spearheading AllNighter, says a high portion of late-night transit riders are low- and moderate-income workers traveling between work and home, and OEWD reports that San Francisco’s late-night economy employs around 50,000 people. The city’s economic growth has exploded in the past decade in well-documented sectors like the tech industry, but also hospitality and healthcare, says Rufo. That’s why the urgency for an upgrade to benefit these riders is necessary, and this campaign marks the first time the issue has been explored in a really thorough way.

“We’ve partnered with all these big regional agencies, hospital councils, manufacturers, to really have the folks that are using the system and their employers be able to share what they’re hoping for out of the new system,” he says.

The working group spent nine months between 2014 and 2015 diving into the current options for late-night travelers. Its discussions culminated with a comprehensive report that highlights a number of barriers that people say prevent them from using Bay Area transit after midnight.

When the group conducted a survey of 2,800 late-night commuters across the region, they found that people are most turned off from public transit by the four-hour gap in Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) service between the East Bay and San Francisco that starts at midnight. Another big problem is patchy bus service that takes too long to deliver riders from outside the city center to central locations, or requires transfers between multiple lines.

The survey also found that although 51 percent of late-night commuters knew of Municipal Transit Authority (Muni) bus lines and where they ran after midnight, 33 percent weren’t aware of where these lines dropped off. Sixteen percent didn’t even know that late-night transit options were available.

Security was also a major concern. Nearly 40 percent of women say they choose not to use transit at these times because they don’t feel safe. People working at bars and restaurants are also reluctant to hang out at bus stops at 3 a.m. with a pocket full of cash tips.

A worker without a car has other options, such as ubiquitous on-demand ride services like Uber and Lyft as well as regular taxis, but local transit supporters say those aren’t ideal in the long-term push for a more equitable transit system.

“One of our big question marks is how much congestion and pollution is being caused by the influx of Lyft and Uber,” says Thea Selby, a spokesperson for the San Francisco Transit Riders Union. She also notes that workers without their own cars may not be able to afford integrating these services into their daily commutes. “So you’re left with the choice of sitting out in the open [at a bus stop] or spending a lot more than you can afford to get from point A to point B.”

Building trust around the city’s late-night public transit options is the first major hurdle, and the transit working group has already rolled out a few go-to spots for people interested in planning out their commute ahead of time. Over at San Francisco Bay’s 511 site is a page specifically designated to AllNighter routes, with downloadable transit maps that show lines running between midnight and 5 a.m., along with fare and planning information.

Donnalynn Murphy, associate director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, says this site marks a big first step in forging a new relationship between transit and transit riders. If this part of the campaign is successful, the city’s line expansions will encounter a larger, more eager base of riders when they rollout in the next few years.

“What’s great about the AllNighter is that for the first time there’s this organized network […] that combines the five major transit agencies in one place so people can say ‘Oh, I don’t have to look at five different websites to piece my commute,’” she says.

Back when the working group was putting together their report, at the end of 2014, BART and AC Transit, a bus line that serves Alameda and Contra Costa counties, debuted a year-long pilot project to reduce the average wait time for two late-night Oakland and San Francisco buses by 10 to 20 minutes. The operators also introduced a new bus line that ran from San Francisco to east Contra Costa County.

A year later, BART and AC Transit decided to extend those two original bus schedule changes for another year, as they serviced an estimated 3,000 riders during weekend late nights. The new bus line got cut, however, because it only delivered 50 to 75 riders each weekend.

This is the kind of trial and error San Francisco employees should expect as the city filters out which bus lines need a schedule update versus which areas would benefit from entirely new branches of late-night service. But for restaurant owners like Heisler, any steps toward reversing the transit deficit her workers face are worth celebrating.

“Every restaurant person I’ve spoken with right now says they’re challenged in a way they’ve never been challenged in hiring,” she says. Low-income and wage workers are getting pushed farther and farther out of the city, meaning some service industry employers are getting fewer resumes for entry-level jobs than before the tech boom.

She’s happy to see glimpses of change, but thinks the city still has a lot of work to do to make sure everyone gets the same stake in these new conversations on transit.

“Until an individual really trusts a transit system, they don’t use it, and unfortunately the only way to develop trust is to use it a lot. But if you get let down once or twice, then you might not go back to that system,” she says. “Some of it’s about building new habits, and some of it is about overcoming old ones.”

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

Johnny Magdaleno is a journalist, writer and photographer. His writing and photographs have been published by The Guardian, Al Jazeera, NPR, Newsweek, VICE News, the Huffington Post, the Christian Science Monitor and others. He was the 2016-2017 equitable cities fellow at Next City. 

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