How COVID-19 Is Shaping Local Transportation and Livable Streets: a Conversation with SFMTA, SF Chamber of Commerce, and Remix


Rodney Fong, Tiffany Chu, and Jeff Tumlin discuss the impact of the COVID crisis on San Francisco and other cities.

In a recent webinar hosted by the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, SFMTA Director of Transportation Jeffrey Tumlin and Remix CEO Tiffany Chu discussed how the City is responding to the unprecedented challenges that the COVID-19 crisis has created for public transit systems.

With San Francisco Chamber of Commerce CEO Rodney Fong, Tumlin and Chu explored the impact of the crisis, as well as the critical role that the transit system plays in creating achieving the City’s equity goals and rebuilding the economy. They also addressed the long-term changes and economic challenges that the City and its transit system will likely face in the wake of the pandemic.

Here are a few of the most important takeaways from their conversation.

1. Public Transit Plays a Key Role in Economic Recovery

As Tumlin observed, “Our primary function in mobility is creating opportunity and supporting the economy."

All participants agreed that if people turn to private vehicles rather than transit, congestion will impede economic recovery. Tumlin said that data collected with the help of Remix during the COVID crisis has enabled the SFMTA to make a convincing case for transit-only lanes as an effective method for avoiding that. During shelter-in-place, the data showed that many primary lines were operating 20% to 50% faster due to the absence of traffic congestion. On existing transit-only lanes, however, there was no gain in speed: those lanes already permitted transit to move as if there was no congestion.

Like many other cities during this time, SFMTA is embracing the temporary to implement projects quickly. Three primary routes will see temporary transit-only lanes installed this summer, but they could be made permanent in time. 

Embracing modes beyond the single-occupancy vehicle is essential for recovery, so the City has prioritized transit-only lanes, the Slow Streets program, and other street planning innovations.

2. Transit Is Critical to Equity

The pandemic, Fong pointed out, has reminded us “how symbiotic an urban setting is between commerce, transit, equity, [and] workforce.”

To enable essential workers to travel efficiently during the pandemic and promote recovery afterwards, the SFMTA approach is to prioritize people with the fewest mobility choices over those with the most. “It often takes a lot more staff time to do what is equitable rather than what is easy,” Tumlin said, but he adds that doing so will help the city survive and recover.

The SFMTA is also offering a number of new public transit solutions to promote equity and economic recovery, including the Essential Trip Card, Shop-a-Round Shuttle, and Essential Worker Ride Home programs.

3. Times of Crisis Require Innovation and Cultural Change

Chu asked Tumlin how, in a time of such crisis, he kept his agency motivated and moving forward.

Tumlin noted that first and foremost, empathy for the SFMTA’s “deeply, deeply dedicated workforce” was crucial. The “twin financial and health crises” of the pandemic have left a significant emotional impact on every SFMTA employee, which can’t be ignored.

He also said that the crisis required the agency as a whole to pivot to a culture of innovation. The constantly-evolving nature of the virus required shifting away from the public sector’s “tendency to expect perfection” and its emphasis on avoiding embarrassing mistakes. COVID-19 forced the SFMTA to move quickly and allow for risks of political upset or embarrassment in order to protect public safety.

Chu shared that in her experience, the SFMTA is not alone in the need for a lightning-fast response. In March, as the COVID-19 crisis intensified, Remix saw a huge increase in use. Transit agencies everywhere were running new service plan scenarios every day, trying to find the best ways to respond to the pandemic.

“We realized that what this meant for agencies was just the exponential number of scenarios that you can plan for,” Chu said.

4. Methods for Building Trust

Chu, Tumlin, and Fong all agreed that building trust is crucial.

Tumlin favors a “blunt and transparent approach to leadership,” not just with his workforce, but with the public. Only by “being real” can public buy-in be leveraged for making the changes needed to respond to crises as they happen.

Chu, for her part, has been inspired by the model of “moving quickly, but moving at the speed of trust.” Moving forward effectively is going to require both innovation and public trust, which cities around the world are beginning to recognize.

“The sheer energy and experimentation around cities is one thing that’s keeping me going right now,” Chu said. “It’s so fulfilling to see that happen in Remix and through our work.”