Chris Arvin isa member of the Market Street Railway board and the SFMTA Citizens’ Advisory Council. (Photo courtesy of Chuck Schoenberger)

Chris Arvin isa member of the Market Street Railway board and the SFMTA Citizens’ Advisory Council. (Photo courtesy of Chuck Schoenberger)

Q&A: For transit advocate Chris Arvin, trains and buses offer a ‘whole other kind of freedom’

The SF Examiner recently launched a Q&A series that seeks to connect readers with the people that keep San Francisco moving forward, literally and figuratively. Transit newsletter subscribers will get the first look at these conversations as they appear in the weekly Friday email. Subscribe here.

Chris Arvin has become a fan favorite in the world of San Francisco transit. You might know him from his Twitter analyses of SFMTA policy, his transit-themed pins and prints on Transit Supply or his online interactive streetcar map.

What you might not know is that Chris didn’t grow up with this passion for buses, trains and historic transit vehicles. As a kid from New Hampshire, car ownership was what he knew.

It wasn’t until he moved to San Francisco for a designer job that he started taking Muni to explore The City’s various neighborhoods.

“People usually think of cars as freedom and independence, but I actually think there’s a whole other kind of freedom, and a better one, that is just being able hop on a bus or train by walking a couple blocks in any direction,” he said.

Now, as a member of the Market Street Railway board and the SFMTA Citizens’ Advisory Council, Chris has turned that passion into action. We caught up with him to learn more.

How did you get into transit advocacy?

In some ways, it wasn’t intentional. Naturally, I’m kind of a conflict-averse person, but I’m also someone who finds it impossible not to care, and the more I learn about issues, the more I end up caring about them and feeling strongly about them. The fact that I can love transit but not everyone can have or love transit is something that I ended up wanting to fix as well, trying to think about it not only from my own interest but how it is serving or not serving everyone.

How did you become a member of the CAC?

I was appointed at the beginning of the year by Supervisor Preston. I think it started when I had reached out to him over email in the middle of the pandemic because I was concerned about seeing how much transit we had cut and not really seeing a way forward of how we get back from that.

When his team came to me, I was so honored to do it. I am still learning how it works and what it should be. It’s something that’s defined in the City Charter, but it’s not exactly laid out: here’s what you should talk about or how you should operate. For me as a new person, I want to come in and shake things up and demand more from SFMTA and have a higher standard for them.

What are the biggest challenges facing the SFMTA, as you see it?

Funding is probably the obvious one. There’s always this kind of breakdown between funding capital, which is infrastructure and buying new buses and things liek that, and then funding operations, which is actually just running service, paying operators, getting the buses out there. I am really into the idea of getting more operations funding. I think there’s a tendency to maybe prioritize capital funding at a political level because you can go do a photo shoot, but you can’t do a photo shoot with your bus that has a better wait time.

With the recent federal relief, that’s unprecedented, it puts us at a good point for a little while but I think we need to think about the long term, making service just super robust and really frequent everywhere. We have a pretty robust network in that there are a lot of places where you’re never more than a few blocks away, but if we had the funding we could do more routes and better wait times and those are things that get people riding transit.

I think the bus has been underinvested in and under-appreciated as a transit tool. If I could wave my magic wand, we’d have an entire subway system underground but in the meantime we could do a lot with buses.

What do you think about Free Muni?

I don’t think we’ve ever really had a time where it is as feasible to do this and also as important. It’s feasible because the amount we’re getting in fare revenue is so low. Giving essential workers fare relief is a huge thing we can do. Making sure that people are thinking about transit and not going to Uber or Lyft is a thing we should be thinking about.

What worries me is I don’t see a plan from SFMTA to get ridership back or even get full service back. When I hear this concern that we can’t handle more riders right now, I have to ask why — I haven’t heard a number for how many operators we need, how many are still doing temporary work.

What’s your hope for the future of the agency?

My first hope is that we have a transit network that is serving everyone at least as much or ideally better than before the pandemic, and that we are able to pass some ballot measures so we don’t have to worry about running out of funding at any time.

I hope we would really start to think about the path to eventual free transit whether that is solely decreasing fares overall or expanding our current discounts much more than they currently are.

I hope we are able to prioritize transit on all our corridors so that buses never have to wait in traffic, and I hope that Muni Metro is reliable and that we don’t have to worry about maintenance and shutdowns.

I’ll stop there.

What about your future?

I have never planned out anything, and I don’t plan to plan anything. I have just tried to put myself out there, put out content and analysis and try to be useful in helping people try transit or understand transit. I just like doing this stuff and doing it in a way that other people can appreciate and hopefully benefit from.

How much time do you spend on transit-related activities each day?

Probably about five hours. In addition to doing stuff on Twitter and doing CAC research and working on web projects, I also have my store and I have to sell my orders and keep stuff coming out.

What’s your favorite Muni line?

I always say the 33-Ashbury/18th. It has nothing to do with it being the most efficient. It’s one of the few routes that is more inter-neighborhood, and diagonal and it does this fun turn on Market Street where it almost does a u-turn and you get this amazing view of downtown and Corona Heights and it’s like you’re looking out at The City from the bus. It also goes to a lot of awesome places I love like the Mission, Inner Richmond and the Castro, so in those respects in terms of having a good time it’s a hard one to beat.

I also love streetcars. I think people give them second shelf compared to cable cars, but I love them so much because they have so much to do with our history.

What are your plans for Muni Metro’s reopening weekend?

This is my birthday weekend! I get to ride streetcars again and the N-Judah. I’m going to try out WiFi in the tunnel.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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