For ten years, Luis Castillo has used Muni as his gateway to The City from the Tenderloin. Sometimes, he would take it a few blocks down the road. Other times, he’d take it as far as Golden Gate Park, where he frequently went before the pandemic to find fresh air and green space.
When Muni suspended the 31-Balboa bus line in March 2020, Castillo, a 72-year-old who uses a wheelchair, understood drastic measures had to be taken in the face of disaster.
Sixteen months later, MUNI still hasn’t restored the route. Castillo says he feels trapped, robbed of the ability to move through The City independently. Cabs and rideshare are too costly. The city-run paratransit service, though useful, requires him to schedule trips ahead of time. He foregoes spontaneous visits with friends or trips to the park.
“It’s not the same. I don’t have the freedom,” he says.
San Francisco is almost entirely reopened, but certain pockets still lack Muni lines that were essential to their pre-pandemic lives. The people left without adequate service often are those with the fewest mobility options: seniors, individuals with disabilities and low-income residents.
“For us, we believe that we really are trying to bring things back and get things back to normal,” said Daniel Landry, an organizer in the Western Addition. “It’s not taking more, it’s giving back that which we were used to the pandemic before.”
Though the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency will roll out more service in August, designed to fill many of the existing gaps, numerous lines — including the 31-Balboa and 21-Hayes — still have no date slated for their return.
The transit agency has cited financial woes, a projected slow return to recovery and a slew of job vacancies as primary reasons it doesn’t plan to bring back more than 85 percent of pre-pandemic service hours by January 2022.
Finances or policy?
COVID-19 didn’t introduce financial uncertainty to SFMTA, but it certainly made it impossible to ignore.
For years, the transit agency has spent more than it earns. Essential maintenance has long been pushed to cut costs, creating an unreliable old system on the brink of crisis.
Without new revenue streams, SFMTA estimates it will face a $36 billion structural deficit between its capital and operating expenses by 2050.
That staggering sum has been the primary driver for austere service, SFMTA says, even with nearly $1 billion in federal pandemic relief. Officials have repeatedly said over-delivering service now that can’t be sustained long term would force layoffs and deep service cuts later.
“They are trying to create a public perception that there’s not enough money to do this, but I don’t think that’s the case,” Supervisor Dean Preston said, acknowledging deficit worries. “My concern is they’re trying to address those by not restoring service after a pandemic as quickly as they could, and that’s a policy choice.”
The supervisor called for a hearing, scheduled for July 23, to ask these policy questions in public.
Many residents of neighborhoods such as the Tenderloin, Fillmore and Western Addition say it’s no surprise that when hard choices have to be made, they’re left out.
“It feels miserable. It feels like we’re being hated just because we’re in the Tenderloin,” said Lisa Galinis, a 55-year-old resident who organized a rally in June demanding the return of the 31-Balboa, which runs all the way across town from Ocean Beach to the Ferry Building. “I think it’s unfair, seriously. It’s really hard.”
Meanwhile the agency unable to bring back routes that serve some of the lowest income neighborhoods plans to bring back cable cars this fall. Undoubtedly an elemental part of San Francisco’s very essence, the vintage vehicles are also a total resource drain.
As reported by Mission Local, the cable cars ran at a $46 million operating deficit in 2019 with the bulk of revenues coming from tourists, a reality that SFMTA hesitates to embrace publicly.
“While cable cars are great for tourists and tourism is the economic base of the San Francisco economy, people often forget that many locals take cable cars, too,” spokesperson Erica Kato said. “Cable cars provide critical north/south transportation […] and are a critical mobility source for San Franciscans in the hills which are also full of seniors.”
Distance to Muni
SFMTA touts the fact that despite financial hardship, 98 percent of all San Franciscans will live within three blocks of a Muni stop after the August service increase. Those living in neighborhoods identified as part of the agency’s equity strategy have been able to “conveniently access a Muni stop within two or three blocks of their home,” according to Kato.
Convenience looks different for everyone. Just ask Castillo.
While SFMTA introduced a re-routed version of the 27-Bryant to better serve the Tenderloin at the start of this year, Castillo says he still struggles to navigate narrow, often overcrowded streets in the neighborhood to reach this route. He has to use a crosswalk, where he worries about speeding cars — commonplace in the Tenderloin — won’t see his wheelchair, so he waves his hand as he crosses.
“It’s hard to do that every step of the way,” he said.
Distance to Muni is a fairly new metric the SFMTA uses to convey service levels to the public.
Some say it’s misleading.
“There’s the practical reality that it’s not just how it looks on a map,” Preston said. “If you’re a senior who lives up on the top of a hill and you lose the bus line that ran up that hill, it’s useless that you have a bus four blocks away on a parallel line if you literally can’t walk there.”
Changing metrics isn’t the only way some people feel misguided by the SFMTA.
Jaime Viloria, a community organizer from the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation, said The City’s outreach has felt disingenuous.
“It’s about us continuing to be ignored by The City, and every time they always use the word ‘equity,’ and they never really practice it,” he said. “They broke that trust.”
It’s this distrust between some members of the public and The City’s transit agency that’s arguably one of the most concerning legacies of the pandemic.
If more people grow disenchanted with the SFMTA, they could become less likely to participate in public outreach processes or support a potential 2022 ballot measure that would give the beleaguered agency a stable source of funding.
They could also stop riding transit altogether, triggering a different kind of transit crisis.
“I think for people to seriously talk about that transit death spiral but then not acknowledge how taking people’s lines away without any meaningful consultation just seems really inconsistent to me,” Preston said. ”During the pandemic, where people have relied on [rideshares] and private automobile trips we have to get them back on transit.”
In what was perhaps a first step toward repairing this relationship, SFMTA Director Jeffrey Tumlin showed up at a recent rally organized by residents calling for the immediate return of the 31-Balboa.
Tumlin’s remarks were candid, a departure from the typically buttoned up verbiage of public meetings.
“I don’t have a timeline. I am not one to bullshit people,” he said, though he did commit to the route’s eventual return.
The director went on to say that his two highest priorities are restoring train service on the M-Ocean View Muni Metro line before San Francisco State University returns to in-person learning later this year and adding service to the 31-Balboa, particularly the Tenderloin portion of the route.
“Tell us what you want the 31 to do,” he said. “We are happy to work with you.”
As for residents, their ask is simple: “Bring back the 31 now.”