NIMBY pushback isn’t the only obstacle to San Francisco’s housing plans

By Chronicle Editorial Board, Opinion StaffUpdated April 1, 2024 2:07 p.m.

    While the traditional downtown commute might not come back, ridership has increased on Muni routes such as the Van Ness Avenue bus line.

    Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle 2022

    Riders board a Muni Metro train at the Van Ness Station in San Francisco. With many people working at home, fewer commuters are heading downtown.

    Jessica Christian/The Chronicle 2023

    Rail service on the L Taraval Muni Metro line is scheduled to resume this year after track improvements are completed.

    Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle

    In an ideal world, San Francisco will fulfill its state mandate to add 82,000 housing units by 2031. It will do so by living up to the city’s "housing element" plan by enacting zoning changes the Planning Department is weighing to allow for more residential density along transit corridors, including in low-slung areas such as the Richmond and Sunset districts, Cow Hollow and the Marina. To get around, new residents in these neighborhoods will take Muni, which has added service in anticipation of a population shift.

    In the real world, however, this vision may never happen.

    You’ve no doubt seen the stories about how the city’s rezoning plans have ignited yet another contentious fight over housing in San Francisco. Just this week, San Francisco supervisors imposed new development restrictions on land in the city’s northeast waterfront, in what felt like a harbinger of more shenanigans to come.


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    But NIMBY pushback isn’t the only roadblock the city faces.

    The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency still hasn’t recovered ridership that plunged during the pandemic. It also faces a fiscal disaster in 2026 when pandemic bailout funding runs out.

    Ambitious housing plans without adequate public transportation for new residents will clog the city with cars, hamper efforts to make our streets safer, and obliterate climate progress.

    To keep this from happening, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission is proposing a tax measure to fund transportation. SB1031, authored by San Francisco state Sen. Scott Wiener and Hayward state Sen. Aisha Wahab, authorizes the region’s public transportation agencies to ask voters in the nine-county Bay Area to approve a tax measure that earmarks $750 million a year for transit. Funding sources for the measure could come from regional payroll, parcel and sales taxes or a regional vehicle registration surcharge.


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    If the tax measure doesn’t make it onto the ballot or isn’t passed, budget cuts could eviscerate public transportation agencies in the Bay Area.

    "I think you’re looking at draconian cuts across the board, massive layoffs," Rebecca Long, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s director of legislation and public affairs, told the editorial board.

    In San Francisco, ridership on Muni is up to 71% of 2019 levels as of December, the agency said. Muni has the highest ridership of the region’s transit agencies. Even if ridership recovers, it still needs an infusion of funds because fares now only make up 7% of its budget. Muni said it could be forced to make deep cuts in service after 2026 rather than grow and adapt to any new housing that is built in San Francisco during the next decade.

    The Municipal Transportation Agency’s $309 million share of $776 million in state and regional bailout money is about a quarter of its budget. Other Muni funding sources, such as parking fees, aren’t much help. Parking revenue hasn’t recovered because fewer tourists are driving in the city, and more people are using Uber and Lyft.

    "Our ridership numbers are improving, and our revenue numbers are improving, but not fast enough to close that gap," Jeffrey Tumlin, the agency’s director of transportation, told the editorial board.


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    The proposed rezoning in San Francisco’s housing element was designed with future Muni service in mind that would serve population growth on the west side and other areas.

    "The best transportation plan is a good housing plan," Tumlin said.

    Even before the pandemic, Muni had long-term plans for improvements to accommodate residents of additional housing in neighborhoods that haven’t historically had much growth.

    The L Taraval Muni Metro rail line is scheduled to restart this year after track improvements are finished, and similar work is planned for the N Judah, two lines that connect the west side to downtown.

    But working from home has upended the traditional downtown commute and it might never return. Muni is responding by enhancing service on bus lines where ridership has increased since the pandemic, such as the 14 Mission, 22 Fillmore, 29 Sunset and 49 Van Ness.


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    Muni has also implemented a technology called headway management on busy lines to keep buses properly spaced apart and avoid "bunching," Tumlin said. Drivers receive alerts on how far the buses in front and behind them are, allowing them to adjust their speed to maintain spacing and consistent service times.

    Other small changes, such as widening the sidewalk at bus stops, can speed up the loading and offloading of passengers. Making the process even just 30 seconds faster at each stop "results in a significant percentage of travel time savings," Tumlin said.

    When asked if Muni can expand its service enhancements after 2026 without new funding, Tumlin was blunt: "No."

    New taxes are rarely popular, and a recent Metropolitan Transportation Commission poll showed a ballot measure would not pass if voted on today.

    "Voters are not going to support transit improvements throughout the region unless we can demonstrate that we are making effective use of our limited resources," Tumlin said. "And we’re doing that by demonstrating that Muni can be so much more efficient and reliable than it was five years ago."


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    The advocacy group San Francisco Transit Riders supports a tax measure and also said there needs to be more public funding dedicated to transportation, especially if thousands of units of new housing are built in the city.

    "Ideally, on the state level, we would get some funding tied to transportation and housing," said Dylan Fabris, the group’s community and policy manager. "But in the absence of that, there needs to be some leadership locally as well to approve a budget that adequately funds Muni."

    San Francisco, and the state, need to find a way to properly fund public transportation. Anyone who’s been stuck in San Francisco traffic or stranded underground in a delayed Muni train can attest to that need.

    Reach the Chronicle editorial board with a letter to the editor at

    Correction: An earlier version of this editorial misstated the regional tax measure’s possible funding sources. It has also been updated to reflect SB1031's role in the proposal.

    March 30, 2024|Updated April 1, 2024 2:07 p.m.

    The editorial positions of The Chronicle, including election recommendations, represent the consensus of the editorial board, consisting of the publisher, the editorial page editor and staff members of the opinion pages. Its judgments are made independent of the news operation, which covers the news without consideration of our editorial positions.

    About Opinion

    The editorial positions of The Chronicle, including election recommendations, represent the consensus of the editorial board, consisting of the publisher, the editorial page editor and staff members of the opinion pages. Its judgments are made independent of the news operation, which covers the news without consideration of our editorial positions.