First-ever woman named SF Muni chief

The first-ever woman to lead Muni at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency was appointed last week, following the retirement of a man dogged by sexual harassment allegations.

Julie Kirschbaum is the new acting SFMTA director of transit, which she announced to the agency’s transit division on October 29.

“It is a great honor for me to step into the role,” she wrote in an internal email to all of SFMTA’s 6,000 or so staff. “As a rider and a parent of two small riders, I am eternally grateful for the excellent service you deliver every day under increasingly challenging conditions.”

Kirschbaum joined the SFMTA in 2007 and has more than 20 years of experience in transportation, according to SFMTA. She served as a senior transportation planner with the San Francisco County Transportation Authority before joining SFMTA to lead its Transit Effectiveness Project, which overhauled Muni routes across The City to meet the needs of a shifting San Francisco. She served as acting deputy director of transit, directly subordinate to former transit director John Haley, before stepping into his role last week.

As acting deputy director, Kirschbaum managed day-to-day Muni operations, led a system-wide redesign and managed the transit planning and scheduling group, according to SFMTA.

Rick Laubscher, a local transit historian who heads the Market Street Railway nonprofit and museum, said “the transit industry, in general, has been male-dominated in the United States for a long time. Still is.”

Municipal Railway (Muni) streetcar operators and conductors at Sutro Car House in 1947 (Courtesy SFMTA)

Muni saw its first influx of women bus drivers and train operators in World War II, Laubscher said. “That’s when Maya Angelou, under Market Street Railway, became the first African-American woman streetcar conductor,” he said.

Kirschbaum is also entering her role during a time of great turmoil for women at Muni and SFMTA.

Haley, the outgoing director of transit, was sued by his long-time assistant Sabrina Suzuki for allegedly groping her and making untoward sexual comments about other women, and also stood accused of bullying by many in the agency who later came forward to the San Francisco Examiner. The accusations made him a flashpoint within one of The City’s largest agencies.

When the lawsuit was revealed, women at SFMTA voiced concern he still held his job despite mounting allegations, prompting more and more to come forward and accuse management of ignoring their sexual harassment complaints. Mayor London Breed intervened and appointed an independent ombudsperson to investigate allegations that SFMTA fostered an internal harassment culture.

The San Francisco Transit Riders advocacy group touched on that controversy when commenting on Kirschbaum’s appointment.

“She is an expert on Muni, with the potential it holds, and with the challenges inherent in delivering service,” said Rachel Hyden, executive director of the transit riders. “We hope she takes advantage of this pivotal moment to truly change the culture in the transit division.”

In her email, Kirschbaum told staffers she hopes to do exactly that.

“The past several weeks have been difficult ones for the SFMTA and for the Transit division in particular,” she wrote. “I look forward to working with you to foster and restore an environment in which all of our Transit colleagues feel that their work is respected and valued, and where they feel safe and fulfilled in their work.”

SFMTA confirmed Monday that Kirschbaum was the first woman to step into the director of transit role. There is some gray area, however, in that SFMTA’s organizational responsibilities have shifted over time since its formation in the year 2000 as an agency that, uniquely in the United States, oversees street planning, parking enforcement and other responsibilities as well as day-to-day Muni operations. SFMTA is overseen by Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin.

Before Reiskin was hired, Debra Johnson was acting director of transportation, overseeing multiple departments. Carmen Clark also was interim executive director of SFMTA for a time, which oversaw Muni responsibilities. However, Kirschbaum is the first woman to take the reigns as Director of Transit at SFMTA, directly and principally responsible for Muni.

In the Bay Area, however, women-led transportation agencies are the norm. Grace Crunican is general manager of BART, and Tilly Chang oversees the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, which primarily serves as a congestion management and transportation planning body.

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