Here's what Bay Area transit leaders are doing to prepare for return of San Francisco workers

ByPhil Matier and Ken Miguel KGO logo
Friday, March 26, 2021
Here's what commuting will be like when SF workers return
Before the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of people would get in their cars, pack BART and Muni, and crowd the ferries to get into the Financial District. When people come back to the office, how do we find a path forward that will get them there safely?

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Emerging from the pandemic is proving to be incredibly complicated, especially in downtown San Francisco.

How will offices open? What will happen to the city's big shopping district? When will tourism come back? Those are questions ABC7 insider Phil Matier has been asking all week. He joins us now to talk how we will get people in to and around downtown.

PATH FORWARD: Bay Area journey ahead 1 year into the COVID-19 pandemic

Before the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of people would get in their cars, pack BART and Muni, and crowd the ferries to get into the Financial District. Not so much these days -- the downtown commute doesn't exist for most people because they are working from home.

But employers say they are already hearing that people want to come back to the office, but how will they get there, and how do we find a path forward that will get them there safely?

Even the city's iconic cable cars are expected to stay in the barns until the fall.

"Just one more thing we will need to wait for as we follow this path forward back to normal," said Muni chief Jeffrey Tumlin.

"Cars, like all transportation, is highly regulated...not just by the PUC, but the federal government too. And as you already know, bureaucracy slows everything down," Tumlin said.

In the case of cable cars, all of the operators -- who have been working at other jobs that past year -- need to be retrained.

Meanwhile, for offices throughout the downtown, like at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, time has stopped. Everything is just where workers left it when the pandemic sent them home. The employees of the commission have all been working from home since last March.

VIDEO: How will San Francisco's Union Square, downtown businesses recover from COVID-19 pandemic?

Union Square was facing challenges before the pandemic, including competition from online businesses and years of construction on a new subway line. But what will happen when millions of tourists and office workers just stop coming downtown?

"Really, it was here, and at a lot of offices around San Francisco, and around the whole country and it's affected the transportation system, our lives in just a big way, and now that we are thinking about coming back. But we're kind of coming back to like a movie, it's like a movie that stopped at one frame," said MTC spokesman Randy Rentschler.

That movie looks like it is on the verge of starting again.

"I think we're going to come back to different for sure. What that different is I think is uncertain. I think the best estimate now is that employers are going to allow their employees to work from home a lot more than they used to. So, obviously, COVID is speeding a lot of things up. And I think transferring from the office to a home work environment is certainly one of those things," Rentschler said.

"For those of you who have been commuting into the city every morning during the pandemic, that means your commute is about to get worse. The MTC believe people will drive into downtown alone to avoid contact with other people, when the traffic gets bad," Rentschler said.

But with so many people working from home, how will people get around? Will they feel safe packing BART trains or buses?

"We're going to come back to a lot different. But we're also going to come back to what we're accustomed to. I think people will pick up their behaviors that they once had, there's a great value for people to be together. You know, this is way better for us to do this than on Zoom. So I do think things are gonna pick up. It might take a long time, it may never be at the level. But look, BART functioned for decades and decades, and about 200 to 250,000 riders per day. Just before COVID, they were like 450. So this model of a much less stressed out public transit system functioned in the Bay Area for decades, will likely go back to a form of that. And that's going to take some change, and it's going to be painful in some extent," Rentschler said.

VIDEO: How will San Francisco's downtown Financial District bring employees back to work in high-rise offices?

Here's how San Francisco offices are preparing for workers to come back to work in high-rises in the downtown Financial District.

And you will be able to see the difference as buses roll by carrying only 30 of the 120 passengers they carried before the pandemic.

Tumlin says that the city will continue to run buses this way until masks are no long mandated. How many riders Muni will have then is an open-ended question.

Employers big and small are telling workers they can stay home after the pandemic ends, even the center's corporate sponsor, Salesforce. It just just canceled its lease for 325,000 square-feet of new office space that was going to be built right next to the center, saying it won't need it.

Tumlin thinks a slow comeback will actually help mass transit in the long run.

"It buys us time for recovery, frankly. So we're operating about 70% of pre-COVID service right now, thanks to federal relief, we can go to about 85% of our pre-COVID service, we're going to need additional operating support in order to get to 100%. So telecommuting buys us time for recovery," Tumlin said.

That means Muni and other transit agencies will have to look for ways to convince people that public transit is safer, and more convenient than sitting in your car.

When we talked to Tumlin here in 2019. He was just about to take his job. He was considering the possibility of charging people to drive downtown in order to force them on to public transit.

"Cities are all about proximity and efficiency. And it's our job to welcome as many people as we can get to San Francisco, as will fit in our street space."

When asked if congestion pricing - tolls on city streets- is still in the future, Tumlin appeared to indicate the tolls are still up for discussion.

"Congestion pricing is about charging the lowest price that makes sure that traffic can flow smoothly," Tumlin said.

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