About two dozen Tenderloin residents shut down traffic at Ellis and Jones streets Friday afternoon. The group was nearly as diverse as the Tenderloin itself: seniors and people experiencing disability, lifelong residents and recent transplants, seasoned organizers and new-to-the-cause advocates, immigrants, the unhoused and essential workers.
Their demand? Bring back the 31-Balboa and 27-Bryant.
“We need a bus! We need a bus,” the group chanted at the behest of James Pounders, a resident and a member of the Tenderloin People’s Congress.
Attendees held handmade signs with slogans such as “SFMTA, why do you discriminate?” painted on poster boards.
Pounders has severe arthritis and walks with a cane. He also has three stents in his chest to treat his congestive heart failure. He relies on the bus to reach the Trader Joe’s at Fourth and Market streets, the closest full-service grocery store to his residence.
But when the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency cut the 31-Balboa and 27-Bryant in April, along with all Muni rail lines and 40 percent of its bus routes to balance a severe budget deficit, limited operator availability and declining ridership demand, Pounders and other residents of the downtown-adjacent neighborhood lost a lifeline.
Lisa Galinis and Laura Sinai spearheaded Friday’s protests. Like the majority of their neighbors, they don’t own a car, and they depend on federal financial support to pay their most basic bills.
Both women suffer from knee troubles, and Sinai from vision impediments as well.
“Everybody here is on a fixed income, and we desperately need the buses back. Money doesn’t grow on trees,” Galinis told the crowd.
In other words: a taxi or rideshare isn’t an option. And the essential trip card — an SFMTA program that subsidizes $60 worth of taxi rides monthly or about two to three round trips — only applies to those over 65 years old and individuals with disability for trips to the doctor or grocery store.
SFMTA’s projected $568 million revenue loss over the next four years puts a tremendous strain on its ability to provide services, a harsh reality rally organizers recognize but don’t believe explains the Tenderloin’s continued marginalization.
“Where a city invests its money is a reflection of its values,” Evan Oravec, co-chair of the Tenderloin Traffic Safety Task Force, said during his remarks. “SFMTA, please listen to this community.”
Muni plans to bring back a number of bus lines Aug. 22, as well as expand service on a few targeted routes currently running with high ridership.
But the Tenderloin is conspicuously left out of this round of service increases.
Longtime residents say this is unsurprising, evidence of decades-long discrimination against the neighborhood that’s long been treated as a “containment zone” instead of a place where real people live.
An SFMTA spokesperson said they’ve heard residents “loud and clear,” encouraged residents to continue providing feedback and pointed to three functioning lines — the 5-Fulton, 19-Polk and 38-Geary — that do serve the Tenderloin.
“We understand that the Tenderloin is a dense neighborhood with a high percentage of low-income San Fransicans who need more space for physical distancing and getting to essential trips,” an SFMTA spokesperson said of the agency’s efforts to address community needs.
But those who live in the neighborhood, specifically along the now-dormant routes of the 28 and 31, say what’s available is far too difficult to reach for people who have mobility constraints, live up on one of the area’s numerous hills or worry about overly crowded sidewalks.
Claire Amable grew up in the Tenderloin, and she’s now a transit justice advocate for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. She’s “never once” thought about getting a driver’s license because parking is too expensive, and Muni has been central to how she navigates San Francisco.
“Some of the things we don’t have […] are because of historical racist land use policies and because The City doesn’t view this as a residential neighborhood worth investing in,” she said, listing the neighborhood’s lack of schools, parks, hospitals and health food options as reason it’s essential bus routes return.
“We are still human beings out here in San Francisco,” Larry Martin, another speaker, said in a direct plea to SFMTA. “We would highly recommend that you people that have all the power and all the money don’t forget about us in the Tenderloin.”