Ed Reiskin's eventful eight-year tenure atop Muni will conclude in August.

Mayor Breed ‘watched Reiskin undermine Ed Lee.’


Muni director Ed Reiskin last week penned a letter to Mayor London Breed pledging that service will improve over the next 90 days. “Behind each of these targets,” he promised,” is a plan to achieve them.”

Perhaps these plans were stored beneath the transit agency’s prior plan to backfill lost service during the summer’s Twin Peaks tunnel closure by haphazardly siphoning buses and drivers away from core Muni lines — and failing to tell anyone this was happening, even the office of the mayor.

Improving Muni’s performance following months of abysmal service due to a self-imposed kneecapping is a bit like improving your home life after evicting the alcoholic arsonist you earlier invited to live with you. It’s kind of what you’re supposed to do. It’s also a nifty way for Reiskin — whose own performance as Muni boss was essentially given a “no confidence” rating by Mayor London Breed — to make his case that he should stick around for, at least, another three months.

That may register as something of a feat after Breed’s recent blistering letter listing the shortcomings of Reiskin’s department. “Perhaps most significant are service reductions that should have been anticipated and mitigated,” she wrote.

“But I am also seriously concerned about the lack of background checks performed on major construction contractors … ” Well, that makes sense. A man died, after all, and, it turns out, Muni never did its due diligence regarding his employer’s safety claims.

Breed then went on to decry “an opaque process to select scooter pilot permit recipients.”

Well, huh. You’ve got a situation in which Muni executives, despite loads of lead time, couldn’t devise a solution to a non-emergency tunnel closure that didn’t wreck transit service citywide and ruin daily commutes for hundreds of thousands of riders — and then didn’t tell anybody what they were doing. And, to boot, Muni never checked on the safety record of a contractor hired to repair that tunnel — prior to a worker being crushed to death.

So, you’ve got all that … and scooters.

Now, scooters aren’t an insignificant issue. They’re something that gets people very excited and, for the companies involved, this process represents a potential massive windfall (or, if the city locks them out, the loss of one). But it’s odd to group them alongside the largely self-induced meltdown of an entire citywide transit system — which that system concealed from the people and our leaders — or a lack of vetting of a construction company whose employee was subsequently killed during a deadline-sensitive project.

The inclusion of scooters in the mayor’s letter was seen as something of a tell by multiple City Hall observers. When Mission Local asked if the mayor’s push to dislodge Reiskin from atop the Municipal Transportation Agency was due to his mismanagement and secrecy regarding citywide transit service or his antipathy to ride-hail companies and venture capital-backed scooter outfits, we were told, “it’s both.”

Mayor Breed, one source continued, “watched Reiskin undermine Ed Lee” by “failing to meet with TNCs” — Transportation Network Companies like Uber and Lyft — on the terms Lee would have preferred. Muni’s transit meltdown, says another source, “is being used as the beard for more general displeasure with Reiskin.” Even transit officials sympathetic to Reiskin claimed that his hardline tactics with TNCs haven’t helped San Francisco — refusal to engage with the companies has, in essence, left them to their own ends.

And, far from being “opaque” on the scooter licensing process, as Mayor Breed put it, the city has been rather overt about some details that evidently displeased Uber and Lyft — which are both making forays into the scooter business. On May 1, the MTA board unanimously approved a motion regarding scooter permitting, making an applicant’s “past experience including compliance with applicable law and its efforts to ensure compliance of its users with applicable laws” a factor in the process.

That was the subject of this excellent Chronicle article, which ran months later, on Aug. 17. This story, notably, shared inside information from unnamed MTA sources and others on the as-yet-unreleased permitting decision, indicating that Uber and Lyft’s extensive resumes of blowing off San Francisco rules were weighing them down in their quest to begin operating scooters here. (And not just Uber and Lyft: The same could be said for the companies that deposited thousands of scooters around town earlier this year, sans permission).

For those with skin in the game, these are anxious days. Muni has received no fewer than 36 public records requests this year about scooters and the scooter permitting process — with many, Mission Local is told, coming from participants in that very process hoping to essentially read their competitors’ homework. So this Chronicle article  — and the questions asked during its reporting — induced no small amount of consternation among the companies that figured they were unlikely to receive the city’s Golden Ticket scooter permits. These outfits employ a bevy of former City Hall workers and fellow travelers of Mayor Breed who, purportedly, made their displeasure known to their erstwhile colleague’s office.

“Right now, for Uber, Lyft and everyone on their payroll, Reiskin is a bad department head for them,” notes a longtime city politico. “Because he says no to them.” 

Breed’s letter to Reiskin, chiding him over his “opaque process,” was delivered three days after the Chron article’s publication.

Moving San Franciscans safely and efficiently around town is not rocket science. It’s bus science. And yet any notion of simplicity evaporates, and quickly, when one factors in the politics of this situation.

Ed Reiskin is just one man, and so he can either be MTA director or cease being MTA director. Those are the only options. And yet, city officials who may well want Reiskin gone, tout de suite, following the summer’s transit debacle could reluctantly find themselves of two minds: They may make their way into his corner if he’s perceived as the man who’ll say no to Uber and Lyft. It will be interesting to see who, if anyone, stands up for the besieged MTA boss when the supervisors filter back into town this week.

But while Reiskin is but one man and can only stay or go — and nobody we spoke to anticipated he’d be here when Breed (likely) wins re-election in 2019 — the question of how to best deal with the city’s unfolding transportation quandaries isn’t going anywhere. 

Reiskin “is under attack from the private sector,” said one city official. “Pretending they don’t exist is not an appropriate response. He’s just not willing to face the future.”  

But that figures to soon be irrelevant. Rather, what’s relevant is how much longer San Francisco’s new mayor desires this city’s transit future to be of one of Ed Reiskin’s choosing.  

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Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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28 Comments

    1. Thank you. You’re all but certainly right. We’re working out the kinks in our new website, and one of the most irritating ones is that main photos no longer have captions. We’re working on it!

      JE

  1. Why not put the existing MTA drivers into a range of different sized vehicles (Chariot-style commuter cans all the way up to existing city buses) and work with Uber and Lyft to devise an integration of these vehicles into their networks? Run a mix of fixed bus routes, on-demand van routes that flex depending on demand within the city, and integrated car + bus routes for people who live in less dense areas.

    Bill Lyft and Uber at existing bus fare rates for these rides which will be less expensive than their existing cost model, create requirements for ride sharing services to use a certain amount of high density transit in their networks in exchange for operating in the city, and maybe create a $1-2 per ride tax for uber, lyft, and taxi rides that are not shared to further push people towards these shared options.

    In addition to this, you could create a drop off point adjacent to busy streets every block or two to fix the pick-up/drop-off congestion issues we currently see and require the services to use these instead of just doing it anywhere they please (maybe with exceptions for handicapped or elderly riders). Ideally these would be near bike share and scooter hubs to help people go the last few blocks.

    Uber and Lyft don’t have to be the enemy. We can leverage these networks to fix our city’s transit problems without laying off MTA drivers.

  2. YES!! MAYOR BREED FIRE HIM YOU DON’T DO A GOOD JOB THIS MAN HAS BEEN IN THIS POSITION FOR QUITE SOMETIME, SO NO MORE GIVING HIM CHANCES!! HE HAS GOT TO GO!!

    1. 14,000 Uber and Lyft vehicles circulating daily in S.F. are destroying our streets and they don’t contribute to the City by paying their payroll and cash receipts share like the rest of businesses do in this city. My small company pays $14,000.00 yearly to the City for payroll and income earned in S.F.
      Why Uber and Lyft don’t pay these taxes?

  3. Well I guess now we know why the city refuses to do anything about the Uber and Lyft drivers who delay MUNI buses every single day. Uber and Lyft drivers are CONSTANTLY parking in and/or blocking MUNI bus stops, and constantly causing traffic snarls by double-parking all up and down busy thoroughfares such as Polk Street, and constantly endangering bicyclists by parking in bike lanes. Yet no matter how much we MUNI transit operators complain, the city does nothing. The Uber and Lyft drivers are almost never ticketed, their harmful behavior continues unabated, and Uber and Lyft as companies are never censured, held accountable, or asked to change their drivers’ behavior.

    It is completely unacceptable that the needs of Uber and Lyft are being prioritized over the needs of San Francisco’s public transportation system and its passengers.

      1. We HAD a solution to some of it. It used to be that any MUNI bus could take a picture of any car parked in a bus zone, and that car would get a ticket. Yet, for some strange reason, that no longer happens. A bus camera can still generate a ticket for a car parked in a red “MUNI only” lane, but not for one parked in a bus zone or bike lane.

        Bus cam tickets would be an effective deterrent to Uber and Lyft drivers parking in bus zones, and it would generate revenues. Why was this practice discontinued? This is free money the city is leaving on the table.

        Another desperately needed solution is to have dozens of motorcycle cops out in force ticketing Uber and Lyft drivers who block major thoroughfares, perform dangerous and illegal turns and U-turns across the paths of MUNI vehicles, etc.

        But we’re told SF’s police force is too small to provide that kind of enforcement. So pretty much all motorists in SF know they can violate all traffic laws with impunity.

          1. I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I think this city needs and deserves a robust public transportation system that is publicly owned and publicly operated. It seems counterproductive to cede public space and infrastructure to a private operator like Chariot, who pays its employees far less than MUNI does (and provides them with no pension), and who is driven by a profit motive, instead of a mandate to provide the best service to the greatest number of people.

            But on the other hand, Chariot drivers don’t cause us problems the way Uber and Lyft drivers do. Unlike the Uber and Lyft drivers, Chariot operators adhere to professional standards, don’t double-park all over the place, don’t park in MUNI bus stops, don’t block bike lanes, and don’t make erratic, unexpected, dangerous maneuvers in traffic.

            And it might be counterproductive to deny them the use of MUNI-only infrastructure simply because folks like me want to protect our jobs and our turf, and have an ideological objection to privatization. I don’t believe allowing Chariot to use those red carpet lanes would necessarily slow down MUNI service. But I don’t have a degree in transportation planning, so I might not be the best person to make that call.

        1. When did they get rid of the bus picture tickets? Is there any article documenting the change and explaining why it went away?

          1. I’m sorry to say I don’t know when or why that change occurred. And I have not seen any reporting about it.

    1. Traffic in MUNI’s tunnel has no one but Muni to blame. This is not Uber and Lyft’s fault. How could an enclose system have traffic backed up from Embarcadero to Van Ness Station every morning and evening, while train systems all around the world like Hong Kong MTR can turn trains around every 90 seconds without a single delay (over eight minutes) for 120 consecutive days.

      1. Hong Kong is not filled with mentally ill homeless people who overdose on drugs or have fist fights or bowel movements on trains. Do you understand that when one train needs to be stopped because of an incident like that, every train behind it must also stop? There’s no way for a train to go around the one in front of it. Those delays are not MUNI’s fault.

  4. The city ordered all the scooters off the streets by June 4th. They gave applicants two weeks to apply for permits and promised that they planned to issue permits “by the end of June.” June became July became August, and it still hasn’t gotten done. Meanwhile, the demand for scooters is higher than ever precisely because Muni can’t deliver its promised service: people were paying more and risking injury to ride scooters because it was faster and easier than Muni.

    I share the concerns over private uses of public space. And corporate pressure is a bad reason to force Reiskin out. But Reiskin’s approach toward any new transportation all along has been to stick his head in the sand. As Uber and Lyft caused sweeping changes in how streets have been used, Reiskin did nothing. Experiments like Lyft’s recent efforts on Valencia are exactly the kind of thing the city should have been doing from the start: working proactively to manage the biggest negative consequences with a combination of technical fixes, including more loading zones and app features that direct users to them, and enforcement for those who don’t comply. When scooters appeared, the agency’s initial instinct was to ban them and then become stupefied for months by the permit process they themselves initiated.

    There are hundreds of thousands of Uber and Lyft trips in SF a day; saying “no” is really not an option anymore because it’s happening with or without his blessing. Refusing to engage doesn’t mean they’re going to go away; it means refusing to do anything to fix the problems that have been created, including developing a comprehensive strategy to address pick-ups/drop-offs and stop double parking. Bike Valencia and spot the double-parked cars on every block, and the strategy of not engaging with this problem looks foolish.

    Sometimes it’s Reiskin’s job to say no to tech companies that want to use our streets, absolutely, but it seems that he doesn’t say no so much as wishes it would all just go away. And ultimately, that approach fails riders, who are desperate for more fast and reliable transportation options. We can’t legislate away every transportation innovation.

    1. Reiskin’s decisions come with big political implications. SF cannot simultaneously be the prophet of tech and of tech regulation. When have we ever been on the forefront of municipally regulating tech? Uber? Airbnb? Wasn’t us first.

      It’s not about legislating away as much as it is proper implementation. Obviously we still have control options at the local level — saying “no” is an option.

      Nobody I know is “desperate for options.” The scooter business is now a billion dollar business. Muni needs to come out looking smart on this one. It’s gotta be a lot of pressure for Reiskin.

  5. Red Lanes were added to Mission Street without permission from the Federal Highway Administration which granted only a few areas for the EXPERIMENT OF RED TRANSIT LANES! An experiment where SFMTA did not generate the required reports FOR RED LANES THAT WERE GIVEN PERMISSION! Quarterly reports were not given to the California Traffic Control Devices Committee (CALTRANS) or semi annual reports to the Federal Highway Administration! Why weren’t the reports generated!? Becsuse the reports would have shown that Red Lanes DO NOT IMPROVE TRANSIT TIMES! This is why bus stops were removed on Mission Street, to improve their bus times by TWO MINUTES! Without removal of bus stops, NO IMPROVED BUS TIMES!

    The SFMTA is a criminal organization headed by Mr. Ed Reiskin .

  6. 14,000 Uber and Lyft vehicles circulating daily in S.F. are destroying our streets and they don’t contribute to the City by paying their payroll and cash receipts share like the rest of businesses do in this city. My small company pays $14,000.00 yearly to the City for payroll and income earned in S.F.
    Why Uber and Lyft don’t pay these taxes?

    1. How are they “destroying” our streets?

      The alternative is thousands more single occupancy vehicles clogging the streets and sitting underutilized in street parking. Uber and Lyft have shifted thousands of commuters towards shared transit alternatives (carpools) versus very inefficient single occupancy vehicles. If it weren’t for Uber and Lyft’s carpool feature, I’d have a car.

      I rarely see a ride share vehicle sitting empty and most rides I book are slightly delayed while the driver completes his/her previous ride or picks up other carpool passengers. Their systems have extremely high utilization rates.

      The bus system in SF isn’t reliable enough to be a primary form of transportation for many residents, so unless you propose banning single occupancy vehicles within the city and closing down the bridges to commuters, it’s the best option we currently have available.

      It would be good to hear other proposals for how this system can be fixed, but simply stigmatizing Uber and Lyft isn’t going to fix the problem.

  7. Just give Ed his papers and tell him you are looking for an experienced successful bus operator to run the San Francisco pubic bus system. Everything else Ed has taken on are getting in the way to making a reliable transit system for pole who need it.

  8. This is some thin reporting joe, only comments you got were on background, no news, lots of bias and hunches it seems.

    1. Tom —

      My sources are well-placed, and there are more than a few of them. Getting stories quadruple- and quintuple-sourced is no small feat, sir.

      Best,

      JE

  9. Reiskin is a symptom of the problem of how the MTA was cobbled together 19 years ago with Prop E and how it has since been mis/governed. The MTA Board of Directors is an inert body, sitting on the dais but doing whatever Reiskin wants. The MTA Director (wasn’t Nat Ford the CEO?) reports to the Mayor. The department in effect is an extension of room 200.

    The MTA weaponizes information. I thought it was just us on the CAC who were kept in the dark when I held the D5 seat on the MTA-CAC from 2011 to 2013 under Mirk, Olague and Breed and we’d see 1 out of 10 projects presented to us, reading about the rest, fait accompli, in the Examiner. But when Mark Farrell was supervisor, he called the MTA out on the same issue, being surprised on matters he should have been informed of.

    When there has been continuity in leadership from Brown/Newsom/Lee/Breed, the problem must be confined to that political operation. The question then becomes, what has changed within the governing coalition with respect to the MTA? Has Reiskin simply overstayed his welcome and the Mayor needs to replace him to show that the system can be responsive to some degree? Or are there resources Breed wants directed to favored recipients in the form of contracts? In cities with city managers, the manager lasts 3-5 years after which the council throws a big brouhaha so it can appear that they are in charge. That might be going on here.

    My concern is less the political machinations but the governance arrangements that have led to our current circumstance. The governance of the MTA, created in 1999 with Prop E, has failed. That needs to be revisited. The merging of DPT and Muni should be reconsidered. The mandate that the MTA balance everything is flawed, considering everything improves nothing. Running a municipal railroad on time and reliably must be the first concern of any agency that contains Muni.

    And the tensions between the Planning Department/MOEWD, DPT and the Muni must be resolved in Muni’s favor. This means that intensification of land use must be linked to identified and programmed funding for transit infrastructure , capacity investment. And it means that the ancillary crap like parklets, bike lanes, pedestrian improvements, traffic calming and the like must take a back seat to transit run times and capacity.

    Run times and capacities should be treated as a capital asset. Every discretionary public policy choice should be evaluated against impacts on those run times, depletions of that public asset, and rejected unless they mitigate 100% of impacts. The same thing for bicycle lanes and pedestrian facilities.

    Why? Many more people will take transit than walk or bicycle. The more attractive Muni is to those who won’t bike or walk but will drive or take TNC, then the greater the mode shift from cars and the safer streets will be for peds and cyclists. Transit first means transit comes first, then alternative modalities and finally private autos. This will require structural changes to Section 8A of the Charter. And we can count on the nonprofit class that gets contracts from the MTA to protect their access and present a united front in defense of the existing dysfunctional arrangement.

  10. With the mention of electric scooters in San Francisco, I think they should be permanently banned. One day, months ago, on a day off from work, I just wanted to take a peaceful stroll along the Embaracadero, between the ballpark and the Ferry Building. The walk wasn’t what I expected. There were lots of scooters whizzing by me at high speed, and other pedestrians too. I felt very uncomfortable and I was thinking to myself, ” If I get hit by any of these scooters, I will sue the person riding it and the city for allowing this to happen!” If the scooters wont ride in the bike lanes or roads then they shouldn’t be allowed in the City.

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