SF leader on ‘Smart City’ challenge leaves SFMTA for Google X

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s Office of Innovation, which looks to pioneer transit of the future like driverless cars, needs to find a new chief dreamer.

Tim Papandreou, head of the Office of Innovation, is leaving his city job to join Google X, the company’s self-driving car project, Papandreou announced at the SFMTA Board of Directors meeting in late June.

He was the lead point of contact with Google and other tech innovators on developing policy initiatives around driverless cars and other transit innovations.

When asked if losing Papandreou would slow down those efforts, Ratna Amin, transportation policy director at SPUR, wrote in an email, “There could be a lag,” but not if “someone else is made accountable soon.”

“We can’t rely on one person to hold the entire vision,” she wrote.

Papandreou told the SFMTA board, “It was a really hard decision to leave” after seven and a half years of service. He will now work as the new head of partnerships for Google X, he told the board. “I believe the future is automation. I want to get ahead of it.”

His departure comes on the heels of an unsuccessful bid by San Francisco for a $50 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation in a national contest called the “Smart Cities Challenge.” San Francisco was one of seven finalists pitching tech-oriented solutions to launch transportation systems of the future.

The city of Columbus, Ohio, won the contest June 21.

At the meeting, SFMTA Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin said he was “disappointed” San Francisco did not win the challenge, but many ideas from the challenge will “endure without the grant.”

The plan pitched a dramatic revision of San Francisco’s streets: semi-autonomous Muni buses connected by wireless technology, increased shared bike access, driverless Uber and Lyft vehicles and shuttles to connect less dense neighborhoods to core transit lines.

The SFMTA also pitched a unified mobile phone app to access all those transit modes.

Google, Uber, Lyft, General Motors, UC Berkeley and a bevy of other technology and transit companies partnered with San Francisco for the challenge.

“The immediate reaction we had from our partners was, ‘Let’s continue forward in any case,’” Reiskin said.

SFMTA Board of Directors Chairman Tom Nolan congratulated Papandreou on his new job, and added, “Can we each get one of those new driverless cars? We can test them for you!”

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