SFMTA head addresses challenges of reopening Muni

What must we do to bring public transit back into our lives? (Not a rhetorical question, please give us a list other than stay the f*ck home.)

In an NPR interview this week, SFMTA head Jeffrey Tumlin shares what he’s learned about how other cities got back on buses and trains, while waxing poetic about the cultural value of life on transit. We knew someday they’d see things our way.

Tumlin says that SFMTA had a Zoom call with the mayor of Taipei to learn about their approach. (Taiwan has been praised internationally for its COVID response). But he says that “fear and exhaustion” remain the biggest challenge in reopening public transit.

Our workforce, all of them are working ridiculous long hours and they are exhausted and our front-line workers in particular have been carrying with them a huge amount of fear. There is an emotional toll to our workforce that is going to take a long time to heal and it’s going to impact our ability to deliver service. That fear is also present amongst members of the public. If Bay Area residents retreat to their cars out of fear, the economy can never recover.

While public transit is essential to our city life and economy, Tumlin also sounds like a fan of the random acts of humanity on Muni—which this comMUNIty knows all about.

Public transportation brings us back to our common humanity. When you get on the bus you have no idea who you’re gonna see. There are the casual flirtations, there’s also the kind of witness of tragedy that kind of breaks your heart, and opens you up to gratitude if we’re lucky. Public transit is not always fun or efficient, but it certainly brings us back to our common humanity.

Listen to his full interview here on Planet Money. We think we’re on the same page about the importance of public transit, but how that takes shape safely remains to be seen. Tumlin says that most Taipei transit riders wear masks; there are temperature probes at subway stations; and importantly, the country has effective contact tracing. It wasn’t clear whether or how the SFMTA might consider similar measures in order to restore transit service.

What will it take for you to get back on the bus?

Photo by @mwichary.

Poetry in motion on Muni

Sometimes when you see something that really speaks to you—you gotta have it. Rider David G. sent us the story of how he came to own a piece of honest-to-goodness Muni poetry, and we’re convinced it was meant to be. Here’s his story:

In the ’90s, the group Streetfare Journal and bus-advertising company TDI placed literary placards on Muni buses, streetcars, and cable cars. When visiting a friend’s apartment, I saw one of the posters. It featured a poem about fascist leaders and was written by the Serbian poet Aleksandar Ristovic. The last three lines read: 

Time of fools is coming, 

time of the know-nothing teacher 

and the book that can’t be opened at either end. 

I loved it and asked where she found it. Were they selling them? 

She chuckled and described how she saw the poster while riding the 30-Stockton through the Marina. She was struck by the words and so she asked a random fellow rider to hold her coffee. Then she simply took it down — in a bus full of commuters no less. She said that people stared, but no one uttered a word. “If you’re nonchalant, no one will do anything,” she suggested. 

Being less adventurous, I didn’t follow her advice. Of course, one day all the placards were removed. 

I was living in a residence hotel and taking the California cable car to work. Months later on my morning commute, to my utter surprise I saw the Ristovic poster. They obviously missed this one. Unfortunately, there was no chance of stealing it: in the closed confines of a cable car, both Muni operators were nearby.  

I resolved to go to the cable car barn that evening and see if I could ask someone for it. I  believed it was my last chance. 

Not knowing what to expect, I walked into the barn and was met with strong welding fumes. I gingerly stepped between rows of vehicles sitting on tracks. A middle-aged mechanic was on duty and he emerged from under the tracks. Nervously, I explained the situation: I’m looking for poetry.

He seemed surprised but he told me to “look around and take whatever you need,” and returned to his tools. My footsteps echoed as I explored the empty carriages. I finally found the poster and tucked it under my arm.

On the way out, I noticed the mechanic in street clothes and cleaning his work area. We nodded to each other as I departed. Not only did I walk out with the Ristovic poem; I also found one with a verse excerpt from Muriel Rukeyser

Time comes into it. 

Say it. Say it. 

The universe is made of stories, 

not of atoms.

Thank you, David, for submitting this story, especially in the midst of missing Muni—and all semblances of normal life—lots. Fun fact: For Muni’s centennial in 2012, we partnered with SFMTA for a “100 Days, 100 Muni stories” competition, where the most quotable winner earned placement on a placard just like these.

Since the universe is made of stories, we know there are many untold ones in our corner of the world. Indulge us with that tale that’s been burning a hole in your pocket by emailing muni.diaries.sf@gmail.com, or by connecting with us @munidiaries on all the socials.

Photo by Views from the Grip

A tribute to a fallen transit hero

We met Courtney Brousseau at Muni Diaries Live last year, and he was so immediately warm and full of joy that I thought we must have met him somewhere before. He walked right up to us to introduce himself, and it was clear he loved the city so much and wanted to make it better for bus riders.

On Friday, Courtney was shot in the Mission, a bystander caught in what The San Francisco Chronicle says were 50-60 bullets that were fired on that block. This was just minutes after he tweeted that he was enjoying a burrito in Dolores Park and that “for a brief moment everything felt okay.” He died Monday night. He was 22.

We can’t stop thinking about the evening when we first met Courtney. He was wearing a jacket full of transit buttons and had just hosted an afternoon transit pub crawl with Chris Arvin (one of our storytellers that night), which terminated at the show.

Read more

Wanted: A few good Muni drivers

Driving Muni is probably one of the most challenging jobs in the city, and a writer-artist pair is working on a book to honor their contributions to our community. Artist Keith Ferris and writer Lia Smith are creating an art book about Muni where Muni operators who participate will get their portrait drawn and participate in an interview to help us get to know the folks getting us from Point A to Point B.

Whether they are doling out life advice or playing Jedi mind tricks with you if you don’t pay attention, Muni operators have been a big part of the storytelling on Muni Diaries. Lia tells us that she and Keith have already interviewed 17 Muni operators, and are looking for eight more participants, particularly drivers who might be new to the job. The pair is also keen to interview Muni mechanics for the project.

If you are interested in participating in this project, or would like more information, you can contact Lia Smith at ljsmith[at]ccsf.edu. Lia and Keith sent us the portraits above, featuring Muni drivers David Chin and Veronica Jackson.

A new anthem for Muni riders

Remember those days when our biggest problem was getting this oversized dresser out of the train at Civic Center Station, or figuring out the best angle to film a wriggling dildo stuck in a bus stop? We miss those days, too. Today, we celebrate the 100th episode of the Muni Diaries podcast, featuring a hilariously NSFW ode to being considerate to fellow humans on the bus.

This episode features songwriter Jefferson Bergey, a professional musician based in Oakland and a regular performer at Bawdy Storytelling. He wrote a new song called “Give Up Your Seat” just for Muni Diaries, and even added a sexy love song about BART as a bonus to this episode. We highly recommend you put on those headphones (or blast it at full volume!) to add some levity to your day—especially now that “NSFW” is mostly “Are your kids in the room?”

Listen to our 100th episode:

While many of us haven’t been on a bus lately, we will continue to bring you stories from everyday San Franciscans. Nothing says “we’re in it together” more than that collective shout of, “Back door!” forever burned into our brains and hearts.

Send your stories to muni.diaries.sf@gmail.com, or tag us @munidiaries on FacebookTwitterInstagram.

Photo by Amanda Roosa.