San Francisco health officers will allow pre-COVID capacity on Muni buses and trains when the state reopens on June 15. <ins>(Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)</ins>

San Francisco health officers will allow pre-COVID capacity on Muni buses and trains when the state reopens on June 15. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

How prepared is our public transit system for the big reopening? Short answer: It’s not

Daniel Landry, a lifelong resident of the Western Addition and community organizer, says life has gotten harder since the 31-Balboa and 21-Hayes were suspended as part of citywide Muni service cuts at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

His nearly 90-year-old aunt now walks from her home on Eddy Street to catch the bus; merchants on Fillmore Street fear they won’t be able to depend on a steady stream of visitors or workers for their storefronts; and residents with service industry jobs tell Landry they have had to find alternate ways to work.

“Low income and service jobs workers are already struggling and dealing with everyday quality of life issues,” Landry said. “To now add another issue to that list is, I think, unfair.”

With California still on track to ditch most pandemic-era cautionary measures on June 15, officials have started to paint a rosy picture of summertime in San Francisco, one in which entertainment venues open for live performances, watering holes welcome back patrons and schools fill their classrooms.

But Bay Area public transportation doesn’t appear to be on the same timeline.

Uncertainty around regional transit’s ability to handle summer swells of riders coupled with lack of clarity on Muni’s future plans could jeopardize San Francisco’s ability to fully embrace a new economic beginning, especially if those who depend on transit cannot use it to access jobs and services or to enjoy swaths of post-pandemic life.

As The City opens up, Muni will continue to operate at current service levels, about 70 percent of total pre-pandemic hours, with no plan for the return of suspended buses such as those mentioned in Western Addition. Late night service after 10 p.m. will remain skeletal, with only nine bus routes citywide running every 30 minutes, and some light rail vehicle routes such as the M-Ocean View will continue to be serviced by buses rather than trains.

BART has rolled out a plan to restore to nearly full pre-pandemic service by Aug. 30, but in the meantime, stations systemwide will continue to close at 9 p.m., which could leave many who work or play in San Francisco but live elsewhere in the Bay Area stranded at night.

As throngs of people return to in-person activities, thousands of others will be needed to staff these businesses, often working night or morning shifts. Many don’t live in San Francisco and depend on transit to move throughout the Bay Area.

Data also shows lower income individuals are the people who need regional public transportation the most.

About 63 percent of Muni riders before the pandemic earned less than $75,000, according to an analysis of San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency data conducted by local transit advocate Chris Arvin.

That share has only grown since the onset of COVID-19. According to SFMTA, transit-dependent riders and low income residents have made up the bulk of passengers for the better part of a year, as they typically can’t work from home or afford another mobility option.

BART has seen similar trends in ridership during the pandemic.

Once considered a pipeline for Patagonia-clad tech workers commuting to downtown offices, BART riders fell by nearly 90 percent with shelter-in-place. The crisis also underscored the rail agency’s centrality in the lives of lower income families.

According to a survey of riders last year, 51 percent of respondents earned household income under $50,000, nearly double the number in 2018. Additionally, 75 percent identified as non-white, up from 65 percent two years prior, and more than half of those who responded did not own a car.

The regional rail agency says it plans to double down on its commitment to getting these people where they need to go at a more regular, reliable clip come the fall, even if it means assuming risks in the form of operating costs up front.

“If we don’t provide service that could match potential increased ridership, we will never get increased ridership,” said BART Board Director Janice Li.

Meanwhile, SFMTA Director Jeffrey Tumlin told the Board of Directors on May 18 that, looking forward, the agency is focusing “all of our efforts on service recovery” and continues to “direct as many resources as possible” to removing access barriers for current or prospective riders in the greatest need.

Still, the question remains: how are the employees that drive The City’s hospitality, tourism and leisure economies supposed to get to work, and should these recreation activities only be reserved for the people who can afford to find another way home?

Landry says some of his neighbors will turn to cars. Others might exit the workforce. He says merchants on Fillmore Street will certainly struggle if Muni lines run shorter hours or bypass parts of the neighborhood entirely.

Sponsors of a pilot program that would make public transit free for three months this summer say that while the measure wouldn’t improve the number of buses and trains available to riders, it would address a different kind of access issue for many low income passengers: cost.

“The signifiance of a three dollar fare looks very different when you’re a person earning minimum wage,” said Supervisor Dean Preston, who co-sponsored the pilot legislation.

Part of the pilot’s appeal would be to collect data and test whether nixing fares actually improves acccess for the neediest in San Francisco, a city with robust existing transit discount programs, or if it just passes that benefit along to the people who pay full price.

Critics contend, however, that free transit would overcrowd buses and trains, making it even harder to put enough vehicles out on the streets to meet the growing demand. April was the highest ridership month on Muni since the pandemic started.

The $12.5 million plan to fund a three-month pilot from July 1 to Sept. 30 passed on first reading at the Board of Supervisors, with a vote of 7-4 on Tuesday. Mayor London Breed announced mere hours later she’d veto the legislation if it passed without a veto-proof eight votes at its final hearing on June 8.

For now, whether the public transit system is adequately prepared for an influx of new passengers remains unclear. Since it brought back the historic streetcars and a significant chunk of the subway in May, the SFMTA has been tight-lipped on its specific future plans. Officials have publicly committed to 85 percent of pre-pandemic service hours by January 2022, starting with another ramp-up this August, and expediting hiring processes for operator and supervisor vacancies.

The recent go ahead from the San Francisco’s Department of Public Health to return to pre-COVID capacity on buses and trains when the state reopens on June 15 could alleviate pressure on routes that have consistenly experienced overcrowding over the last year, such as the 9-San Bruno and 14-Mission.

But bureaucracy might get in the way. In order for social distancing to end, the agency must first take a number of steps on an accelerated timeline, including ironing out details with the operator union.

Without a clear picture of exactly how transit officials plan to handle the inevitable increase in demand, Tumlin’s comments earlier this month ring true: “We are expecting a very long and slow recovery until we get back to 100 percent.”

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