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

Transit agency head’s departure comes following video of woman dragged by train, revelations of defective vehicles, daylong Muni meltdown — and so much more


Embattled Muni boss Ed Reiskin today announced he will step down after eight-odd years at the helm, following his contract’s expiration in August. Mayor London Breed, who had grown openly critical of Reiskin as Muni’s performance increasingly resembled a disaster-movie montage, simultaneously released a letter to the transit agency’s board, marking the commencement of a national search for Reiskin’s replacement — and announced an early afternoon press conference doing the same.

So, the only way this could’ve been more choreographed is if there was a song-and-dance number to go along with it. Who knows: Perhaps at today’s press conference, there will be.

Reiskin’s announcement was met with virtual gasps on the internet. But it shouldn’t have been. All of these things happened just last week, culminating in rail service being knocked out for 10 hours on Friday.   

This is, rather literally, no way to run a railroad.

As such, crass attempts to circumvent the rules by ride-share companies or VC-backed scooter outfits — which are often one and the same — were given undue credence because San Francisco’s public transit system has grown so unpleasant and unreliable.  

Muni has had such an awful run that many of you may have forgotten about last year’s service meltdown. Well, Mayor Breed hasn’t.

In a nutshell, while our transit service diligently publicized the closure of the Twin Peaks Tunnel for necessary upgrades, it failed to publicize that it would backfill service affected by the tunnel’s closure by secretly syphoning buses and drivers off of other lines — some of Muni’s busiest lines, in fact. Statistics obtained by Mission Local reveal this resulted in de facto service cuts of 33 percent or more on some of the city’s most critical and crowded bus lines.

These lines were often miles from the Twin Peaks Tunnel, and riders were blindsided. Sans an explanation, they were left to grind their teeth, grumble “Muni sucks,” and hop on a scooter or summon an Uber. It really is incredibly cynical and damaging to not only shield yourself via Muni’s evil reputation but to reinforce and enhance it.   

But wait! There’s more! In an astoundingly cavalier move, Muni failed to inform the mayor’s office that it planned to do this, leaving Mayor Mark Farrell and, subsequently, Mayor Breed, flat-footed. You’d think, in a normal city, this combination of presumptuousness, insubordination, and callousness would lead to a mass of gratuitous dismissals.

Data obtained by Mission Local revealed a tremendous spike in missed service hours following last summer’s closure of the Twin Peaks Tunnel. While this move was planned by Muni, it was not publicized.

But this is not a normal city. Former Muni transit head John Haley was shown the door not for this, nor other questionable moves, but after a female underling filed suit, claiming he discriminated against her and put his hands on her. And Reiskin, his boss, was not eased out until a week of gruesome and public Muni miscues that grew in intensity like the closing stanza of a fireworks show.  

To wit, in just the last week and change: A second woman sued Haley and the agency; reports surfaced that Muni’s costly new custom-designed train fleet of the future came with bum doors (and video surfaced of a woman being dragged); a story broke that the agency is rushing potentially unqualified drivers into those trains; it came to light that braking issues cause the Siemens trains’ wheels to flatten, knocking many of them out of service prematurely; and service went into the toilet because Muni was relying on drivers working on their off-days to fill routes and they refused.  

And then an electrical failure knocked out service in the Metro Tunnel for 10 hours on Friday, resulting in transit scenes of the sort you’d expect in a city where rebel armies are dropping barrel bombs from helicopters. People seemed way more upset about this infrastructure failure than the system being intentionally kneecapped by Muni management — as did Mayor Breed — but, as the ballplayers say, it is what it is. 

All of this took place, incidentally, after Reiskin pledged to show Mayor Breed that things were on the up and up after she wrote him a sharply worded letter in August.

So, that’s what had to happen for Ed Reiskin to lose his job; he got more chances than Steve Howe.

But it wasn’t all bad. Muni did obtain billions of dollars worth of new vehicles. But even this came with caveats. Its new green hybrid buses were bought in 2013 via a bizarre handshake deal with the manufacturer in which the city’s unknowing Board of Supervisors was made to vote to fund the purchase of a fleet of vehicles they had no idea was already paid for and, in fact, sitting across the bay in an Alameda warehouse. What’s more, the deal conveniently undermined Muni’s own internal study on which manner of hybrid engine to invest in, tossing business to an ostensibly favored vendor.

And, as noted above, the billion-and-change spent on the new Siemens rail cars has, in too many ways, been a drag.

These are troubled times for Muni. Photo by Joe Eskenazi.

How did Reiskin hold on so long? Well, for one thing, the city would have been on the hook for a six-month severance payout if he left before the termination of his contract. That’s in the ballpark of $150,000 — which is a lot of money but is also around one-tenth what this city spends on toilet paper every year.

Breed, who is running virtually unopposed for re-election in November, had not previously moved to dismiss any department heads (former health department boss Barbara Garcia, who was accused of steering contracts to her wife, voluntarily stepped down). The mayor is keeping an even hand on the city’s tiller up to this winter’s election.

But following Muni’s recent theatrical failures, something had to give. And, with the search for Reiskin’s successor under way as of this afternoon, an interesting dynamic will play out. Even among progressive politicos who, like many in this city, were critical of Muni’s ongoing slump, Reiskin’s antipathy to Uber and Lyft and move-fast-break-things scooter companies was seen as a big plus. It evinced the opposite reaction from Mayor Breed, however.

And now Reiskin is on his way out. Through it all, and through his eight-odd years atop Muni, he never appeared anything less than caring, decent, hard-working, and committed. Reiskin’s predecessor, Nat Ford, purportedly issued a verbal directive informing Muni staff not to speak to him unless spoken to. Reiskin didn’t do this. He biked around town and chatted on a one-to-one basis with Muni’s front-line employees and daily users.

Despite Reiskin’s gaudy salary, he wore notoriously ill-fitting second-hand suits. He was approachable. He was well-liked. Everyone thought he was a nice guy and, more than that, a good guy. But, for all that, it’s tough to say Muni is performing better now than it did under Ford. And Reiskin wasn’t a transit specialist. The transit specialists in his staff appear to have taken liberties a more expert boss may have noticed and not countenanced.

So, Muni is off the rails. It remains to be seen who, if anyone, can put it back on track.

Joe Eskenazi

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...

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17 Comments

  1. “Reiskin’s antipathy to Uber and Lyft and move-fast-break-things scooter companies was seen as a big plus. It evinced the opposite reaction from Mayor Breed, however.”

    That antipathy wasn’t coupled with much in the way of actual action though. Reiskin couldn’t really do anything about Uber and Lyft, since the state preempts local regulation, so his antipathy did nothing to curb the rise of these services during his tenure. It may have endeared him to certain members of the BoS, but it had no tangible benefit to transportation in this city. What it did do was add insult to injury during Muni’s many woes: when we found ourselves stranded waiting for non-existent buses, we could thank Reiskin’s antipathy for the lack of scooters and bikes and other alternatives that might actually help us get somewhere.

    It would have been one thing if this antipathy was directed in a useful direction: reducing VMT, getting Ubers and Lyfts out of bike lanes, fair labor standards for drivers, more red carpet bus lanes, providing frequent and reliable transit service so that people don’t resort to ride-hail cars, etc… But none of that happened. Under Reiskin’s watch, the city added hundreds of thousands of Uber and Lyft trips a day, further slowing Muni service, while blocking the availability of bikes and scooters—the one thing that actually seems to be successfully getting people out of cars. His antipathy consisted entirely of scoring political points with the Board of Supervisors (who, according to the city charter, he doesn’t even work for) and did nothing for those of us with places to go.

    1. I also found this snippet misleading in suggesting Mayor Breed wanted someone friendlier to ride-hail (i.e., Uber and Lyft’s core business). In fact, the link only says the mayor was frustrated that those companies’ attempts to pilot scooters were being slowed.

      Whatever your opinion of scooters and bikeshare, these options don’t send hundreds of San Franciscans to the hospital every year with serious injuries. Living next to a popular bike and scooter route does not poison your lungs and increase your asthma risk. And an SFMTA review of the scooter pilot concluded scooter share creates 4x as many transit trips as it displaces. All of this makes scooter offerings very different from ridehail that cannibalizes transit and puts more deadly cars on our street.

      If Mayor Breed wanted to encourage more use of Uber and Lyft (their core app where a driver picks you up in their car), that would be a big problem for me as a pedestrian, transit rider and cyclist. But while that was the impression given, it’s not the reality. This could stand to be clarified in what’s otherwise an excellent analysis by Joe.

        1. While what you say is true, it lacks any sort of context.

          In the last decade two pedestrians have been killed by cyclist, Compare that to 15 pedestrians killed by drivers last year alone.

          Certainly suffering a life-altering injury is a horrendous outcome, but implying that outcome is likely in different methods of transportation is deceptive.

  2. Yeah, sure, nice guy, but he can’t run a bus company. Right now, I’m looking at the NextMuni website for the 31, outbound to the beach. I’m downtown. The next bus is coming in 3 and 23 minutes. But the bus is supposed to run every TWELVE minutes, not every 20. There’s simply no excuse for that. Remember the case where the Japanese train left the station 20 seconds off-schedule, and the board of directors made a public apology?

  3. Finally

    Joe Eskenazi, who has led the charge against Muni incompetence all these many years, speaks.

  4. Is it just me or do the new busses lack the capacity of the old busses? The aisles are so tight. Many seats lost. I have not seen anyone comment on this. My daughter and I loathe the replacements on the 22. You cannot move around to get off the bus.

    1. They absolutely lack the capacity of the old buses. The front aisle may be slightly wider, but with everyone facing in to the bus (an arrangement that gives me, at least, motion sickness), everyone’s feet are on top of each other — good luck getting up one of the hills without someone crushing you foot if you happen to be lucky enough to be sitting (usually with someone’s rear end in your face!). The staircase in the middle blocks the flow of people in and out of the bus. The old buses you could also next to a window to see where you were. Riding the bus home after work has become a total nightmare, with buses running way farther apart than every 12 minutes (more like every 25 minutes now), way too crowded to let people on and off quickly, and no where to sit (which if you need to take the bus for a long amount of its route can be tiring). So, in general there’s less seating, LESS room for people to get on/off, and less buses running in general. Yet, everyday at 5pm I see a minimum of 3 empty non-in-service buses driving up 3rd Street back to the bus yards. Sometimes more. That’s 3 drivers who could be driving a scheduled bus filled with riders during one of the peak transit times of the day, during rush hour traffic.

  5. I wish this level of accountability could be applied to politicians like Ronan and Breed who have neglected the homeless crisis.

    1. … what the heck are you talking about? London Breed is the one not only trying to address the homelessness problem, but paying a heavy political price for doing it, getting shouted down on the embarcadero for proposing a navigation center there. Or was that a different ‘Breed’ you claim is neglecting the homelessness crisis?

  6. Joe,

    Great piece as always.

    You own the Muni story, frustrating as that must be.

    I’d only partially privatize two departments.

    First, I’d bring back the jitneys which were mostly
    these little surplus short school buses.

    Rode them when I went to the Mission 40 years ago.

    Drivers owned them and acted like it.

    Don’t misbehave on my ride.

    Curtains, Mexican music and enough statues of
    the Blessed Virgin to cure a cold.

    Same price as Muni.

    Second, of course, the Cops.

    Make 1,000 of them Patrol Specials.

    Through attrition,

    To see how they worked, Google the Kevin
    Bacon movie on SF Patrol Specials.

    There used to be hundreds of them and
    they owned their own beats and knew every
    merchant on them and the citizens.

    POA harassed them into near extinction.

    Last I looked there were a couple of dozen
    of them left.

    Cops sent two thugs into their Chief’s
    bedroom where she lay dying to give her
    a summons for missing a court date.

    The citation was for ‘Jay-Walking’ while
    policing the Castro on Halloween night.

    She cried and the cops gloated.

    Now the Plaza there is named after her.

    That would be Jane Warner.

    Go Giants!

    h.

  7. Campers,

    OK, looked it up.

    Movie is ‘Kuffs’.

    Star is Christian Slater.

    Sorry to confuse you but I’m not as sharp as
    I used to claim to be.

    Go Giants!

    h.

  8. The problem with Ed, an educated and intelligent man with MBA and Public Administration degrees, was that his constituency was the Bicycle Coalition, the Transit Riders Union and Walk San Francisco. No one else, notably transit riders and San Franciscans, counted. The Taraval Street makeover is a hideous bust as are the changes for Mission Street where businesses have greatly suffered. The MTA Board rubber stamped all staff recommendations, despite public protests. Bicyclists crash traffic signs and ride on the sidewalk to the peril of seniors and the disabled. The taxi drivers, on Reiskin’s initiative, had their medallions expropriated and the modifications and eliminations of bus routes and bus stops have subverted the comprehensiveness of the MUNI service delivery system. Ofcourse, there were problems of service delivery before. But these modifications, at great taxpayer expense, is not a solution. The real problems has been to make the buses run on time and not be missing or broken down. The real problem has been the communication, control and command structure of MUNI and its daily operations. This has never been addressed under the present and previous MUNI administrations. Unfortunately, Reiskin never took steps to remedy this and simply approved the status quo. I have been critical of Reiskin throughout his administration. But he might be an asset in another city agency, as the Port or Housing Authorities, given his intelligence and academic background. MTA itself needs stricter oversight and better representation on its Board. Transit Riders, motorists and bus drivers should be represented. Presently, the Board is insulated from the public and only listens to the Transit Riders Union, the Bicycle Coalition and Walk San Francisco. MTA management is different from the San Francisco Giants, because it always strikes out.

  9. > And then an electrical failure knocked out service in the Metro Tunnel for 10 hours on Friday, resulting in transit scenes of the sort you’d expect in a city where rebel armies are dropping barrel bombs from helicopters.

    A like hyperbole as much as the next person but having actually watched some syrian war footage, this is a bit much.

    1. I hear you, but the comparison wasn’t to war footage but transit service in war-torn nations. Comparing anything in San Francisco to warfare short of warfare would be too much, I agree.

      Best,

      JE

  10. Joe,

    One of your article links showcased the “smoking gun”. Always loved that touch.

    Cameo by the Marx Brothers, right on the mark, very close to the Keystone Cops.

    Your return to San Francisco’s Muni fiasco is long overdue

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