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Politics & Policy

Muni boss on the hot seat as San Francisco mayor’s race heats up

Jeff Tumlin in a suit speaks at a podium, arms outstretched. Behind him, there’s a collage of buses, bicycles, stop signs, and a city map.
Longtime Muni head Jeffrey Tumlin faces a storm of criticism. | Source: Illustration by Jesse Rogala/The Standard; photo by Nick Otto for The Standard

Jeffrey Tumlin frequently talks about making San Francisco’s streets more “joyful,” which may sound pollyannaish for a transportation director who has people calling for his head while his agency careens toward a quarter-billion-dollar budget deficit.

Merchant associations in multiple San Francisco neighborhoods say new bus and bike lanes that eliminated street parking are killing their businesses. Community organizers across the city have accused Tumlin of kowtowing to Big Bicycle while disregarding the concerns of seniors and people with disabilities. Autonomous vehicle boosters like Y Combinator CEO Garry Tan are plugging a petition that calls for Tumlin to resign or be fired. And no fewer than two candidates for mayor said they would can the transportation chief if they win in November.

Almost five years after taking the job as the head of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, Tumlin is hardly sparking joy.

Lily Ho, president of the Delta Chinatown Initiative and a newly elected member of the local Democratic Party, said that Tumlin’s agency hasn’t shown a real interest in gathering community input before pushing forward on projects that have hampered the post-pandemic recovery of small businesses.

“The Chinatown community of 17,000 residents and hundreds of small businesses requires all forms of transportation,” Ho said. “Muni’s anti-car agenda is not congruent with the cultural needs of Chinatown, which include many health care services such as a hospital, eastern and western medicine doctor’s clinics, and food and produce stops that aren’t on Instacart.”

Mayor London Breed and SFMTA Director of Transportation Jeffrey Tumlin are engaged in conversation. The woman, with long black hair, wears glasses, a purple shirt, and a colorful necklace. The man, with gray hair and beard, is in a suit with pins.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed is running for reelection, and the outcome of the race will have a direct impact on the future of SFMTA Director of Transportation Jeffrey Tumlin. | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

Tumlin’s contract expires at the end of this year, and while he seems relatively zen about his job security—“I serve at the pleasure of the SFMTA board,” he said—he counters criticism with a firm conviction that he’s making streets safer and, yes, more “joyful” while confronting climate change, the housing crisis and a bleak fiscal forecast. SFMTA has a projected $240 million deficit starting in 2026 while the city has massive infrastructure projects looming.

The nature of Tumlin’s portfolio all but ensures that he’ll take the blame when construction nightmares like the one on Taraval Street bring traffic—and business—to a standstill. He says he should be judged in the context of the problems he inherited.

“Much of the city’s water and sewer infrastructure is past the end of its useful life,” Tumlin said. “It is far less disruptive to upgrade and modernize that infrastructure than to let it fail completely—to the point where you can’t flush a toilet anymore.”

Few projects under Tumlin’s watch have been more controversial than the center bike lane on Valencia Street in the Mission. One business owner who’s seen revenue plummet announced a 30-day hunger strike in response to the funky thoroughfare, and an online petition launched by the Valencia Association of Merchants, Artists, Neighbors and Organizations—aka VAMANOS—called on Mayor London Breed and the SFMTA board to terminate Tumlin. The petition had almost 900 signatures as of Friday. 

Ryen Motzek, president of the Mission Merchants Association, said the Valencia Street bike lane has been a complete mess.

“We represent the entire Mission District, and we were pretty caught off guard by the execution and rollout of Valencia Street,” he said. “I wish I could say it’s joyful, but it’s not. It looks like total shit.”

A long view down a street shows cyclists and a scooter rider in a green painted bike lane with a crosswalk in the foreground.
Cyclists ride in the center-running Valencia bike lane, which some business owners have blamed for a loss of revenue and storefronts closing. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

Even some of Tumlin’s biggest defenders seem to be tepid in their praise.

Albert Chow, president of the merchant group People of Parkside Sunset, said that Tumlin may not be perfect, but he’s an upgrade from his predecessor, Ed Reiskin.

“I hear the winds blowing in a negative direction, but I think that’s going to happen with anyone who takes that chair,” Chow said, adding that Tumlin has spent time meeting with local businesses to hear their concerns. “He’s been a lot better than Ed Reiskin ever was.”

Tumlin has been accused of playing favorites in the way his department crafts contract language and awards bids. The city’s Open Book portal shows that San Francisco Bicycle Coalition was awarded a contract starting in May 2023 that could be worth up to $5 million. The group became a target for social media howling this month after it made the sole bid to receive a $1.5 million contract to teach people how to ride bikes and scooters.

Christopher White, interim executive director of the Bicycle Coalition, said his organization doesn’t always agree with Tumlin and “change can be difficult and uncomfortable,” but there is no reason for the SFMTA boss to be removed.

Tumlin said his efforts are the only way San Francisco will meet its Housing Element, which requires 82,000 new units of housing to be built in the city by 2031.

“We have to emphasize the most space-efficient modes of transportation,” Tumlin said. “I’m not a better person when I take Muni or ride a bike, but I do take up one-tenth of the roadway space that I do when I drive a car. So the math of San Francisco streets doesn’t work in the future unless we make Muni a lot more convenient, and unless we make walking and biking and using wheelchairs and scooters safer and more joyful.”

Jeffrey Tumlin the San Francisco Director of Transportation raises his arm while giving a presentation with mayor london breed in the background.
San Francisco Director of Transportation Jeffrey Tumlin said that hard decisions on city streets are being made to help achieve a variety of goals. | Source: Nick Otto

Politics is rarely a joyful experience in San Francisco, and perhaps even less so in election years. Mark Farrell, a former supervisor and mayor who is once again running to reclaim the city’s highest office, said he would fire Tumlin if he wins the mayor’s race in November.

“Unfortunately, ideology, not pragmatism, has been driving decision-making at the SFMTA on Mayor Breed’s watch,” Farrell said in a statement. “I believe we need new leadership that better balances safety, convenience, and legitimate neighborhood and merchant concerns.”

A spokesperson for Breed noted that the mayor has said she will not make personnel decisions based on people calling for someone to be fired.

Farrell supported the plan to ban cars on JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park, but he said SFMTA’s insistence on keeping private vehicles off of Market Street has hamstrung downtown’s economic recovery, a position that rankles Tumlin.

“People who want cars back on Market Street, I am curious to know what problem they’re trying to solve,” Tumlin said. “There’s no parking on Market Street. There’s no garage entry. You can’t turn left. I’ve driven on Market Street for years and I always regretted it because it was always faster to take a different street.”

Robin Pam, the co-founder of Kid Safe SF, which advocated for car-free JFK Drive, suggested that many of the arguments being used against Tumlin have parallels to the groups that oppose new housing development.

“We can’t bounce back by looking to the past,” Pam said. “We have to look to the future. I think this is a ‘change is hard’ story, kind of similar to housing.”

Four elderly men, dressed in black suits and gloves, are carrying a coffin labeled "Mike's Chinese Restaurant" down a city sidewalk.
Pallbearers carry a coffin during a “funeral” mourning a loss of local businesses on Geary Boulevard on Aug. 14, 2023. Business owners and community leaders blamed decisions made by SFMTA Director of Transportation Jeffrey Tumlin. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

David Heller, president of the Greater Geary Boulevard Merchant and Property Owners Association, said that Tumlin held a meeting earlier this year with business owners in which the transit chief defended infrastructure projects in the Richmond, saying SFMTA would lose future funding if the agency didn’t spend it. Meanwhile, he said, businesses like Belly Burgers and others have suffered due to parking and traffic flow changes.

“He doesn’t want to lose the money, but it’s OK to put you out of business,” Heller said. “How the hell would you feel?”

One change that could be welcomed—and maybe offer a potential reprieve for Tumlin—is the expectation that city officials will scrap the center bike lane on Valencia Street and recommend that lanes be moved to the sides of the street.

The question for the transit chief is whether such a compromise would be a case of too little, too late.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to show the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition received a $5 million contract from the SFMTA starting in May 2023. The city’s Open Book portal incorrectly reports an additional contract after the SFMTA mistakenly paid out $474,229 to the Bicycle Coalition’s 501(c)4, which can do political advocacy. A spokesperson for the Bicycle Coalition said that money was transferred internally to the SF Bicycle Coalition Education Fund, which is a 501(c)3 nonprofit.