Jeff Tumlin will join the SFMTA as Director of Transportation

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Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Jeff Tumlin standing next to new LRV4
On December 16th, Jeff Tumlin will join the SFMTA as the agency’s fifth Director of Transportation.

Tumlin is currently a Principal at Nelson Nygaard, an internationally renowned transportation consulting firm. He works with cities to align their operations with their values and leverage transportation investments to meet mobility, social justice, economic development, public health and environmental sustainability goals. He has also worked with emerging mobility companies to better understand how cities work and how their services can contribute to the public good.    

We interviewed him to learn more about him and his vision for the future of the SFMTA and transportation in San Francisco.

How did you get interested in transportation?

Against my better judgement.

I moved to SF in 1991 at the bottom of a recession. I was a month away from being homeless when I got a call from a former boss who was desperately looking for someone to help her manage the Stanford University parking system. It wasn’t really what I wanted to do but, at the time, I really had no choice.

I quickly realized that, working in transportation, I could have a huge impact on the issues I care about most. For example, as transportation professionals, we often have more control over public health outcomes than those who work in the health industry. The same applies to economics, social equity and the environment. And, in transportation, we have the resources at our disposal to make a real difference.

Back then, the transportation industry didn’t really understand any of this, so it was easy for me to stand out. I was able to advocate for changes in our industry and promote issues like transportation equity. Over the years, I have been quite outspoken about how the industry historically (and knowingly) devastated minority communities.

The great adventure of my career has been working to transform how we approach transportation to create social impact rather than simply promote social privilege.

How would you describe your vision for San Francisco?

First, from a practical perspective, our city is growing quickly. While San Francisco can house more people, we cannot accommodate more cars on our streets. It’s a simple geometry problem. Our challenge is to facilitate residential and economic growth while we continue to keep San Francisco moving.  

But I also think about this from the perspective of our values. As a city, we need to be more thoughtful about who we are prioritizing. Will we choose to provide more exquisite convenience for the privileged or will we choose to provide basic mobility services for those who have fewer choices? My priority is to build, operate and maintain our system in ways that keep our communities whole in the face of change and reduce the financial cost of mobility for all.

Already this year, 26 people have been killed in traffic collisions on our city streets. The trend is moving in the wrong direction and we need to take this seriously. That means making difficult, sometimes unpopular choices. We know that there is a strong correlation between speed and traffic safety and an inherent tension between traveler convenience and the safety of pedestrians, cyclists and motorists. Addressing this will require us to think deeply about our shared values and prioritize accordingly.

One thing we don’t talk about enough is how transportation can help foster the success of small businesses. I particularly like to call out small businesses because neighborhood commercial success also helps public transportation by reducing the demands on the system. In San Francisco, many of our small business start-ups are also women or minority-owned, so making sure that we have a transportation system that helps them succeed is a tangible way that we can help promote equity.

Finally, we must move quickly to decarbonize the transportation sector. Transportation is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and, while San Francisco operates the greenest transit fleet in North America, we need to focus on getting more people out of their cars and onto our buses and light rail vehicles. That’s how we can have the biggest impact.

Getting people to change their travel behaviors won’t be easy. But living in San Francisco has taught me that we’re all in this together and riding Muni taught me how to be a San Franciscan.

What do you consider to be the greatest challenges on the horizon? What do you plan to tackle first?

To deliver on our vision, the SFMTA needs to be the most welcoming, inclusive and professional workplace in the industry. We need to create an environment of respect for all our colleagues, regardless of gender, ethnicity, race, gender, etc. After all, this is San Francisco and we should be the best in world at this. I want to tap into our shared sense of service to the public as well as service to one another.

There’s no question that we have challenges around hiring, retention and succession planning. We need more bus operators to deliver service. But, to attract operators, mechanics and electricians, we must regain our position as a competitive employer. These jobs were historically a path to the middle class and bus drivers used to be able to live in San Francisco. Today we know that is a challenge. 

Of course, we have other challenges related to growth and the capacity of our core systems. We have challenges in the subway and regionally on the Transbay corridor. There is a lot of pent-up demand and we have projects that will open on day-one operating at full capacity. We need to learn how to deliver major capital projects quickly, professionally, on time and on budget. We have some work to do there.

As for what I am going to tackle first, I’m going to listen to our staff and rely on them to help me figure this out. They know the answer. I don’t yet.

I have worked with agencies across the United States and one thing I can tell you is that the SFMTA has the greatest collection of talent of any transportation agency in the country. As Director of Transportation, my primary function is to remove obstacles for our staff and provide them the support they need to be effective in their jobs. 

San Francisco is a small city with diverse, often vocal, stakeholders, all of whom have different priorities. How do you plan to build a coalition to support City and agency priorities?

We have an exciting opportunity to create broad coalitions because, as I noted earlier, our actions have powerful impacts on health, the economy and equity. I want to engage new stakeholders who care about these issues and make sure that we are involving more than just the professional meeting attenders. There’s often a gap between what we hear from vocal people at meetings and what we hear from people on the street. I’m excited to design community engagement processes that will reach more people and reduce the pain usually associated with getting involved in local government. 

Change is hard, so we need to start from a place of compassion. We need to dig deeper and understand that most of the complaints we hear are rooted in deep fears. In San Francisco, those fears are never far from the surface. For many San Franciscans, this is the fear of losing their housing. Many of our neighbors are a single paycheck away from homelessness. I know this feeling and it is terrifying.

This is the context in which we’re working to create positive change.

What excites you the most about your new role?

Of all the cities I have visited, I love San Francisco most.

We have talent, resources and some clarity about our values. And yet, there is a large gap between San Francisco’s potential and its current reality. I’m excited about working to close that gap. We have the tools and the resources to do so, unlike any other city in world. We just need to get out of our own way.

Another thing that excites me is that, in San Francisco, we incorporate a sense of delight into mobility. I love taking the F Line, riding the cable cars at dawn, biking on the Embarcadero, driving across Golden Gate Bridge. What we have here is special…and unique.