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'There needs to be a bit of brazenness to run for office—for better or for worse.'

She’s a passionate bicycle advocate who just won a seat on the BART board. (“I’m a BART therapist now.”) Meet SF’s rising political star who can fix your commute. Maybe.

Janice Li

 

This is "Think Tank," an occasional series of conversations with Bay Area power players, conducted by San Francisco editors. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity. 

 

Name: Janice Li
Occupation: Newly elected member of the BART board of directors
Age: 31
Residence: Outer Sunset

San Francisco: You’re the former advocacy director of the SF Bicycle Coalition and live in a part of the city that doesn’t house a lot of riders—nor any stations. How can someone who’s spent the past five years being a voice for cyclists and living in the avenues represent BART riders?
Janice Li: This is all about how we can get from point A to point B in the city and throughout the Bay Area. I’m transit-dependent—someone who needs to consistently figure out the most affordable, accessible way to get around. Transit isn’t an urban planning thought experiment, but something I rely on. It’s integral to a healthy, beautiful city.

You are only the third queer Asian American to ever hold elected office in San Francisco. No pressure, right?
I’ve been out for a while, but I’m not really in the scene or date much. It was weird to be thrust into this very public way of being out. It was difficult because of Josephine Zhao [the Chinese-American candidate for the board of education who made anti-LGBTQ statements]. I was often asked to comment, and I struggled about what to say. One campaign promise I made to myself was that I would build a pipeline for Asian-American women. There aren’t a whole lot of queer Asian ladies in politics. I don’t know if I’m equipped. I don’t know if I’m the right person. But that doesn’t matter. This is who I am now.

Riders south of San Francisco don’t get to vote for BART elected officials, even though there are BART stations there. Is that a good idea?
There are two sides to the San Mateo problem. Some people say that the people who live there aren’t paying their fair share. Others say that they’re losing out because they have no representation. I’m not totally sold that BART should even have a voter-elected board. It is extraordinarily rare.

You must be hearing horror stories from everybody now. Yesterday, when I got off at my home station, there was a kid peeing in the stairs while the fare agent just watched him.
I get these messages on my phone now, like ‘Janice, you won’t believe what I saw on BART today.’ I’m like a BART therapist now. Would I say something is deeply wrong? No. But BART doesn’t take responsibility for what happens because they just focus on running trains. Simply running trains—and only doing an OK job—does not make for a high-quality system.

Violent crime is at a five-year high within the agency. Do you think it should hire more police officers? As a woman of color, I don’t feel more safe when there are a bunch of armed cops around. Reforms were forced on SFPD [after the Oscar Grant shooting in 2009], and Chief Greg Suhr was fired. Now it seems like public sentiment is at a place where they can staff up again. But I don’t think that reforms around enforcement practices has been done at BART yet.

I pay my fares every day. I’m not sure why other people shouldn’t.
Yes, from a practical standpoint, fares are being lost. It’s something like $25 million a year. Even if it were $50 million, that’s a small fraction of our overall budget. BART’s fare box recovery rate is 70 percent. It’s extremely high. MUNI is about 35 percent. Even if BART dumped all the resources to get to 100 percent, which no American city is at, you’d spend a ton of resources to recoup a small part of a $2 billion annual budget. BART is really expensive. It should be doing more around affordability.

What do you think about assembly member David Chiu’s new law proposal that would allow BART to build housing on its parking lots?
I support it strongly. About 90 percent of the land that BART owns is in the East Bay, but the largest in San Francisco is the Glen Park station parking lot. I would love to be creative about its use of space. There have been studies about up-zoning that didn’t go anywhere. This might be a good time to revisit that.

This is random, but why doesn’t BART reference its map colors anywhere else? Like, call it the Yellow Train (like they do in Boston, say), instead of Pittsburg/Bay Point.
They are formalizing that now. For a long time, BART saw itself as only running trains. UX hasn’t been a top priority.

Any advice for the growing number of people taking the leap into politics?
I still think it’s scary, weird and absurd to be an elected official. But since candidate life started, I now am like, ‘Everyone should run for office!’ There needs to be a bit of brazenness to run for office—for better or for worse. What I’m saying is that there are no perfect candidates, and so for everyone out there, you should run for office.

 

Originally published in the January issue of San Francisco 

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