Years after becoming a victim of sexual battery on San Francisco’s public transit, Sharon Lai can still feel the anger, the sense of injustice. It’s what drove her into advocacy and one of the city’s most prominent leadership roles in public transit.
“It’s not fair that women have to accept this as part of transportation,” Lai said. “It’s really one of the reasons why I advocate so hard on equity—especially gender equity issues.”
Lai—a 39-year-old mother of two, urban planner by trade and Chinese immigrant who grew up in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Canada—was appointed by Mayor London Breed in mid-2020 to the seven-member San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA) governing board.
She spent the ensuing years becoming an outspoken voice for victims, pushing her colleagues to consider ways to make the city’s public transit safer for riders.
Especially those of Asian descent.
Lai was sworn in during the early part of the Covid pandemic, which prompted a marked increase in reported hate crimes and discrimination against Asian Americans—locally and throughout the nation. As a new board member, an Asian American and a victim of violence on public transit, Lai pushed MTA to collect data on attacks against Asian and Pacific Islanders on its buses and trains.
It took months, but her persistence paid off.
Sharon Lai poses for a portrait on the T-Third Street line in San Francisco, Calif., on Friday, July 1, 2022. | Juliana Yamada/The Standard
MTA produced a data report in 2021 based on Lai’s advocacy and it showed an uptick in violence experienced by Asian transit operators since the start of the pandemic.
According to Lai, MTA staff then wound up tripling the transit safety budget, ramping up bilingual communication and outreach for monolingual riders. MTA also began working more closely with local law enforcement to keep closer track of crime on city transit lines.
Representing the Riders
Asian Americans—particularly older Chinese Americans—represent a significant share of Muni ridership, comprising about a third of those who use Muni more than five times a week. But until Lai’s appointment, there was a year-long vacuum of Chinese American representation on the MTA board.
Filling that void has led to historic milestones for Muni’s Chinese American passengers.
Under Lai’s tenure, the MTA board began offering free fare for the Chinese New Year parade weekend. It also brought back express bus lines linking Chinatown and the heavily Asian American Visitacion Valley community for the first time since the pandemic prompted its suspension.
Lai also worked behind the scenes to make sure Chinatown community members who sounded the alarm about construction delays on the long-awaited Chinatown-Rose Pak Station were among the first to tour the new terminal.
“I do think representation and lived experience matters,” Lai said. “I spend a lot of my time trying to rebuild relationships for the agency with the community.”
Investing in Public Transit
In the June election, San Francisco voters shot down a $400 million Muni bond on the ballot as Proposition A, which came about a percentage point shy of the 66.7% threshold needed to pass.
Though some projects, like the Central Subway, might get mired in complications and fall behind schedule, Lai said San Francisco’s public transit needs more investment, not less. A month after the primary election, she said she has yet to recover from Prop. A’s defeat.
“I will forever be sad for San Francisco that we did not do more to secure the 1 ½%,” she lamented.
Sharon Lai poses for a portrait at the Castro Muni Station in San Francisco, Calif., on Friday, July 1, 2022. | Juliana Yamada/The Standard
The agency will have to move on from the loss without her, though. At least for the time being.
Lai resigned from the board to pursue a master’s degree at Harvard University in public administration. As she leaves San Francisco, where local politics is often toxic and divisive, she offered one piece of advice for the city she plans to return to after completing her degree.
“One of my biggest hopes for San Francisco is that we can move away from making enemies of each other when we disagree,” she said. “San Francisco needs to band together. … We need to set a good example and try to rebuild our community.”
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