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‘We in transportation have to clean up the mess of bad housing policy,’ says new SFMTA director

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He also rides the K, L, and M lines—when he isn’t commuting by bike

Jeff Tumlin joins SFMTA as the agency’s fifth director of transportation.
Photo by Jeremy Menzies, courtesy of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency

When Jeffrey Tumlin was selected by Mayor London Breed to lead the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), a hiring she announced last week, hopes were high but still cautious.

Tumlin, a 28-year San Francisco resident, last helped reform the Oakland Department of Transportation as principal at Nelson Nygaard, a transportation consulting firm. But he has yet to manage a public agency. And this isn’t any ordinary public agency. This is one that—in addition to having more than 6,000 employees, an annual budget of $1.2 billion, and roughly 714,000 passengers each day—comes saddled with issues ranging from a sexual harassment scandal to malfunctioning train doors to a dearth of service in black communities.

Just to name a few.

“We have a responsibility to correct for the past,” Tumlin told reporters on Wednesday. “We used transportation to strip away opportunity from specific classes of people, and that’s wrong.”

Above all, the Stanford graduate, who holds a degree in urban studies, would like to get Muni service running seamlessly—an feat that has escaped the agency for decades. And he has a decent shot. After all, when he isn’t biking, he takes Muni regularly—specifically, the K, L, and M lines—except for the horrid J Church. Being a resident of Noe Valley, where he lives with his husband, he’s all too familiar with the dismal line.

A gray above ground subway train near a park with a cityscape in the background.
Although lauded for the gorgeous views along its route, the J Church is infamous for being unreliable and crammed with passengers.
Photo via Shutterstock

“It’s not my favorite, because I like getting to work on time,” he tells Curbed.

Questioned about how he would get execrable lines like the N Judah and the J Church to run effectively, he says, “The correct answer is, I don’t know yet. I need to talk to people. The most important thing I will be doing for the first month is listening to my talented staff.”

He also plans to draw upon some hitherto unused ideas that might work.

“But the speculative-fantasy-transit-nerd answer to your question is, I’m interested in getting more out of the subway,” he says. Noting that Muni platforms are very long and trains are very short, “one question we’re exploring is running 3-car trains” instead of the usual one- to two-car offerings. This would help at congested stops like West Portal, Duboce Park, and King and Fourth.

He also wonders, “Can we give a better ride to J Church passengers if we take the J out of the subway?” He says that part of the failure of the Muni system is that it tries to be everything for everyone. He suggests the possibility of having the troubled line terminate at Market and Church in lieu of going underground, which can often be a time suck.

When it comes to transit-oriented housing development, Tumlin says he’s in favor of it—especially for SFMTA’s dwindling fleet of operators.

“Being a bus operator used to be a middle-class career, where one could buy a home in the city,” says Tumlin. “That’s not the case anymore. My operators now have to live in cities like Patterson and Manteca,” which are located hours away in Stanislaus County and San Joaquin County, respectively.

A sunset breaks through gray clouds above a street with a gray streetcar and homes.
The N-Judah train in the Outer Sunset, a onetime middle-class neighborhood that needs more housing near transit stops.
Photo via Shutterstock

“We in transportation have to clean up the mess of bad housing policy.”

Taking it one step further, Tumlin says, “If we want better Muni service, we have to build more housing. We need more housing everywhere.”

He even suggests that aggressive NIMBY enclaves, like the one he calls home, have to concede, saying, “At the risk of offending my Noe Valley neighbors, there’s no excuse for single-family zoning anymore.”

Noting how cities like Vancouver and Minneapolis have attempted to radically rezone single-family housing, Tumlin notes that San Francisco needs to welcome more people with more growth, especially near public transit stops.

He says, “SF doesn’t have room for more cars, but SF has plenty of room for more people.”

Tumlin comes to the executive director job of SFMTA with 25 years of transit experience. In addition to working for Nelson/Nygaard, he worked on a bicycle infrastructure plan for Silicon Valley, as well as the San Mateo Sustainable Streets Plan aimed at reducing driving and meeting goals to decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

He’s also the author of Sustainable Transportation Planning: Tools for Creating Healthy, Vibrant and Resilient Communities.

“I’ve spent 25 years advising cities and transit agencies on clarifying their values and using transportation to make values manifest,” Tumlin said shortly after landing the job. “Now it’s time to serve the city I most love.”

But he was among few people who wanted this seemingly coveted gig. Issues like the long-delayed Central Subway and excessively complicated politics haven’t made the job alluring for many candidates.

And there’s also another big reason: According to Phil Matier of the San Francisco Chronicle, “No one wants to say it publicly, but several sources close to the selection process said another reason many experienced transit heads said ‘thanks, but no thanks’ was Breed’s very public berating of former Muni chief Ed Reiskin after a meltdown that choked the city for 10 hours in April.”

Before accepting the job, Tumlin reportedly negotiated a severance package of only $342,483—a full year of pay—which would make it painful to get the pink slip.

As he told Matier, “My job is to stand up and make the hard decisions.”

Tumlin officially starts December 16.