New SFMTA director’s tweets show aversion to free parking, cars

The City’s new transit leader has a bumpy relationship with cars.

Jeffrey Tumlin, who was appointed as director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency on Tuesday, thinks free car parking is a “privilege” and a “subsidy,” has called parking requirements for new developments “climate denial,” favors congestion pricing in San Francisco, and has stated support for the development of automated, driverless buses over automated cars.

That’s according to a San Francisco Examiner review of more than 2,000 Twitter posts written by Tumlin since June 2018, the earliest tweets he wrote which are publicly available.

Tumlin has retweeted a columnist claiming in all capital letters, “CARS ARE DEATH MACHINES,” and speculated that during a BART strike the Bay Bridge should have become “bike-only because the simple math says that’s the way to move more people.”

While Tumlin has granted myriad public interviews since his impending appointment was announced last week, he’s also been careful in his phrasing, even polite.

But in his tweets, Tumlin clearly outlines his stances: He views housing obstruction as anti-San Franciscan, housing density as a necessity, and sees a clear need to charge more for city parking to favor public transit and bicycling.

“Why does your city still promote traffic congestion, inequity, and economic waste by forcing buildings to have excessive car parking?” he tweeted in December 2018.

In an interview with the Examiner Wednesday, Tumlin said his role as SFMTA director will not necessarily give him a larger platform to air his views — in fact, quite the opposite.

“Now that we’re moving inside to city government I need to make it clear I do not set policy,” Tumlin said. “The SFMTA board does, the Board of Supervisors does. It’s my job to help them understand tradeoffs.”

Just last year, Tumlin hotly criticized the Board of Supervisors’ stances on housing.

In June 2018 he tweeted an Examiner news article covering former Supervisor Jeff Sheehy’s decision to preserve a small parking lot in Glen Park that neighbors wanted to see developed into housing, adding his own comment that read, “SF Supes: In this housing crisis, housing for cars is still more important than housing for people.”

Tumlin’s tweets clearly reflect the views of organizations like YIMBY Action, SPUR, Walk San Francisco and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, in favor of urbanism.

“Isn’t that the root of the problems of my American generation? That we think we’re made of sugar, and need 4000 lbs of metal to protect us from our fears?” Tumlin tweeted in January this year, alongside a GIF of the Wicked Witch of the West melting in the film “The Wizard of Oz.”

This also may spell trouble for neighborhood groups looking to stall transit projects in favor of parking, sources speculated on reading Tumlin’s tweets. While perhaps holding similar views as former SFMTA Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin, on social media Tumlin’s style is markedly more assertive.

“He sounds like a true urbanist who understands the environmental and moral imperative to have great housing and great transit in our urban centers,” Todd David, executive director of the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition, said.

“I don’t think everyone should expect that just because he has these beliefs that he’ll be dismissive of neighborhood concerns,” David added. “We should still have the expectation of respectful conversation.”

Tumlin said he thinks he can bridge the divide between merchants and urbanist thinking. Parking and transit needs need not compete, but are part of a transportation ecosystem, he said.

“If it’s more cost-effective for me to strike a deal with a merchants association to give all their employees Muni passes than building a parking structure, let’s do that,” he said.

He told the Examiner he would begin tracking sales tax returns of small businesses by neighborhood commercial district “to ensure we’re doing right by our small business partners.”

SFMTA has tracked such data in a limited capacity before but has never done this citywide.

“The success of our transportation system is actually dependent on the success of our small businesses,” Tumlin said.

Maryo Mogannam, president of the San Francisco Council of District Merchants Associations, said Tumlin’s transit and housing density-friendly tweets didn’t surprise him — but he said that Tumlin needs to start seeing a driver’s perspective, too.

“He knows what one side thinks, but now that he represents the two million people here every day, he needs to reach out to the other side,” Mogannam said.

Tumlin has also tweeted support for state Sen. Scott Wiener’s locally controversial Senate Bill 50, which would allow taller housing to be built along transit lines. He spared no ire for San Francisco’s “refusal to build more housing” and against “local control” that has been known to stall housing production for neighbors’ concerns.

“‘Local control works when the local majority puts the needs of others over their own irrational fears and privilege,” Tumlin tweeted in July this year. “‘Local control’ are also the words my Mississippi grandmother used to defend the South’s position in the War of Northern Aggression.”

He often frames transit and housing issues through the lens of social equity. Tumlin frequently tweeted the need to increase support for women in workplaces and people of color.

Perhaps that’s due to early exposure to racial disparities.

Tumlin told the Examiner his family left Lynwood, CA amid the Watts Riots of 1992, which saw tensions flare over the mistreatment of the black community by police.

“Lynwood was the center of redlining in Southern California,” Tumlin said. “My parents made the traditional suburban escape to what became ‘Little Saigon’ in Orange County.”

That also points to the “only thing” Tumlin misses about his former home: “Really good Vietnamese food.”

He’d dreamt of living in San Francisco since he was 12 years old, when he first realized “I knew I was a weirdo” but “I was not aware that I was gay.” He came out between the ages of 18 and 22.

Tumlin finally got his wish after his Stanford apartment crumbled in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. “It was just torqued. I was inside, all the plaster came down, the windows shattered, the chimney came down through the ceiling and cracked the mantle through the basement,” he said.

So Tumlin was forced to live out of his car for a month and eventually moved to San Francisco’s Ingleside neighborhood with his roommates.

“Coming to San Francisco, it was just utterly breathtaking to me seeing the array of people, seeing a sense of near-limitless possibility,” he said.

And that first experience perhaps gives a clue to his staunch stance on transit.

One of his earliest Muni memories was aboard the K-Ingleside, headed to a temp job in downtown San Francisco in 1989. Tumlin had fallen asleep on the train — “I had a particularly good night, before,” he said — when he felt the train shudder to a stop.

He woke up sharply, looked around, and saw the sign for Eureka Valley, far before his actual stop.

“What happened? Have I gone through an interdimensional portal?” he remembered thinking to himself. “Someone should do something about this!”

Now that someone is Tumlin himself.

Thirty years later, he just may tackle parking as no SFMTA director has before in order to “do something” about Muni service.

joe@sfexaminer.com

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