Cities struggle with how to reopen public transit : Planet Money Public transit systems are vital to cities. Many have been shut down or slowed during the pandemic. Now city administrators have to figure out how to reopen them.
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The Public Transit Problem

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The Public Transit Problem

The Public Transit Problem

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This is THE INDICATOR from Planet Money. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. As cities across the U.S. start opening back up, there is a question looming over many of the country's biggest economies - public transit. Trains, subways and bus lines are crucial to cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco. But public transit tends to pack people together. It is basically a social distancing nightmare.

Jeffrey Tumlin is the director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. Right now, streetcars and rail systems in the city are not running, and many bus routes have been shut down. But as San Francisco starts to reopen, Jeffrey has to find a way to safely restart public transit. We called Jeffrey at his home. Our connection, by the way, gets a little spotty in places.

But Jeffrey, we are so thrilled to have you with us. Thank you for joining us. So how long have you been with the San Francisco MTA?

JEFFREY TUMLIN: I started on December 16. It was a pretty intense first hundred days.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, my gosh. You just started.


VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) I'm sorry. That's a lot really fast. So Jeffrey, what steps did you take when the pandemic started?

TUMLIN: As soon as the emergency order was issued, a kind of military-style strategic war room council gets formed. And we formed that quickly, knowing that the issues around the virus were going to hit our department first. So we put all of that together at the end of February, and then - in a war room style, like in the movies.


TUMLIN: Yeah. I mean, you know, you're spaced out in a big conference room with whiteboards, trying to figure out, what on Earth are we going to do?

VANEK SMITH: So from what I understand, like, there are some cities that have opened up. And you've been kind of taking some inspiration from cities like Taipei that have gotten their public transportation system up and running. And I think I read that you had, like, a Zoom call with the transit director in Taipei. Is that right?

TUMLIN: That's right. In fact, the mayor of Taipei joined us, which was a special treat. Not only as a city are they reducing COVID dramatically, but they are having a very, very low transmission rate on their public transit. And their public transit - their ridership is nearly back to a pre-COVID level.

VANEK SMITH: Oh. So what are they doing?

TUMLIN: They have rigidly enforced wearing of face coverings. They put up temperature checking stations at the fare gates before you get on the subway, little infrared pens that, like, basically - it goes near your forehead, and it's an infrared reader off of your forehead.

VANEK SMITH: So mask requirements, temperature checks. What else are they doing?

TUMLIN: Contact tracing is a really, really big deal. And this is another area where we're going to struggle in the United States - the intensity of the contact tracing that they do, in part because of the public surveillance cameras.

VANEK SMITH: How do you feel about the prospect of getting San Francisco public transit, like, ready for - you know, to have, like, its normal 700,000 people riding it?

TUMLIN: We know more now about how to protect our workers. And so more workers are coming back to work. That is the first step. And then the second step is having that uncomfortable conversation with our city leaders about, how much are we prepared to enforce the rules?

VANEK SMITH: So Jeffrey, a lot of the changes you're talking about would be quite expensive. What is the San Francisco MTA's budget situation?

TUMLIN: So back in January, San Francisco was at the peak of a boom economy - wealthier than it has ever been, one of the wealthiest cities in the world. And the transportation agency had a $60 million structural deficit, meaning our expenses were rising significantly faster than our revenue. And we were going to have to cut something or find new revenue just in order to be able to keep swimming in place.

By the time shelter-in-place was ordered in mid-March, our primary revenue streams were down 80- to a hundred percent. So the city is devastated economically and the transportation department more so at the moment than most other agencies because we are so dependent upon transit fares and parking fees and fines. And all of those went to zero.

So that's the other thing that keeps me awake at night. How on Earth do I deliver service to the public in this time of intense need at the same time our revenue has completely collapsed? And the absolute last thing that I want to do is to lay off a single worker in a time of economic crisis unprecedented since the Great Depression. We have to figure out what gets cut. We can't afford to deliver the service that we had been delivering back in January. And it will be awhile before the city's economy comes back. But at the same time, pointless bureaucracy is set aside. Mission clarity is front-of-mind. And holy cow, can government get stuff done when it knows what it's doing and has a clear charge.

VANEK SMITH: I mean, it feels like the success of what you're doing right now is going to be pretty crucial to the ability of San Francisco to kind of come back from this. Is that fair to say?

TUMLIN: Public transit is at the foundation of San Francisco's economy. If people can't get to their work, the work is not going to happen. And if everyone tries to retreat in a fear-based way to their cars, the system gets gummed up. No one can move if everyone tries to drive.

VANEK SMITH: That's a lot of pressure.

TUMLIN: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: Jeffrey, I'd love to talk about the future, how you're approaching reopening San Francisco's public transit system. I'm going to talk with you about that after a quick break.

So Jeffrey, what is the biggest challenge you are facing in reopening San Francisco's public transit system?

TUMLIN: The biggest challenge is fear and exhaustion. Our workforce - all of them are working ridiculous, long hours, and they are exhausted. And our frontline workers in particular have been carrying with them a huge amount of fear. There is an emotional toll to our workforce that is going to take a long time to heal. And it's going to impact our ability to deliver service. And that fear is also present among members of the public. If Bay Area residents retreat to their cars out of fear, the economy can never recover. So finding ways of bringing back civic joy is going to be fundamental to every government agency's work in the next 18 months, really, 'cause this is a long, slow tragedy.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah, it is. How do you bring civic joy back to public transportation?

TUMLIN: I mean, part of it is just that public transportation brings us back to our common humanity. You know, when you get on the bus, you have no idea who you're going to see. There are the casual flirtations. There's also the kind of witness of tragedy that kind of breaks your heart and opens you up to gratitude, maybe, if we're lucky. Like, public transit is not always fun or efficient, but it certainly brings us back to our common humanity.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, my gosh. That's, like, the - that's beautiful. That's, like, a Shakespearean description of public transit.


TUMLIN: Well, public transit can be rather Shakespearean.

VANEK SMITH: That's true (laughter). It really can, in the best and worst ways (laughter).

TUMLIN: That's right - the tragedy and the comedy.

VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Camille Petersen, fact-checked by Brittany Cronin. THE INDICATOR is edited by Paddy Hirsch and is a production of NPR.

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