Taken with Transportation

Cleanliness Is Next to...Comfort and Safety

June 30, 2023 SFMTA Episode 2
Taken with Transportation
Cleanliness Is Next to...Comfort and Safety
Show Notes Transcript

An important part of the SFMTA’s commitment to safety is maintaining a clean fleet of Muni vehicles. In this episode, we meet three members of our transit car cleaning staff: Manager Myra Phillips, Assistant Supervisor Anthony Jackson, Jr. and Cleaner Ronald Brown. They’ll take us through the cleaning process and explain how the team keeps our buses, streetcars, light rail vehicles and cable cars spick and span. It’s a dirty job, but our very dedicated car cleaners do it well and with pride.


MELISSA CULROSS: It’s mid-morning in downtown San Francisco, and some of the hundreds of thousands of people who ride Muni every day are getting on and off various bus and streetcar lines both below ground in the metro and here on the street…

ANNOUNCEMENT: 38 Geary to Transit Center

MELISSA: But what these passengers don’t see and may never think about are the people who clean all those vehicles, not to mention the vast majority of the messes they scrub away. 

MYRA PHILLIPS: Different times of the day, different types of cleaning going on, but all day long, cleaning goes on. It’s 24 hours. :06

MELISSA: Welcome to TAKEN WITH TRANSPORTATION, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s official podcast. I’m your host, Melissa Culross, and today we’re going to meet a few of the SFMTA’s transit car cleaners and learn how they keep our buses, light rail vehicles and cable cars in tip top shape.

MYRA: My staff is responsible for making sure our first customer, operators, are pulling out a clean vehicle to service the riding public. The riding public need to have clean vehicles when they, you know, get on the vehicles. So that’s what we mainly do. That’s our focus.

MELISSA: Transit Car Cleaner Manager Myra Phillips has been with the SFMTA for about 30 years. She began as a car cleaner then drove a bus for about a year but returned to the cleaning team and became a supervisor in 2001 then a manager in 2020. We’re at the agency’s Flynn Division bus facility in the Mission talking about the car cleaners’ role in making sure the public is safe and comfortable while on board. Phillips says while many of the rest of us are sleeping, some of her staffers are working work to get Muni’s fleet ready to hit the road:

MYRA: They actually go in the vehicles, make sure it’s graffiti free. The vehicles are mopped. The vehicles are wiped down in, uh, specific locations, especially the driver’s area. We’ve done a little bit more than we used to because of COVID. So we’ve had to enhance our, um, cleaning efforts to support that. During the day, let’s say the vehicle was out, and there was a spill on the bus. We have a mobile unit, and they’ll go and clean up health hazards, like spills to prevent slip and falls. Um, if a dog got on the bus and there was feces on the bus, they’ll go and clean it. Someone threw up on the bus; they’ll go and clean things up like that. Normal paper and things of that nature, they’re not called for. The only things that’s gonna cause a safety hazard.

MELISSA: All of what Phillips is describing at this point is maintenance. Every vehicle ALSO goes through a detailed general cleaning every few weeks. That’s a top to bottom scrub covering every inch and every screw.

RONALD BROWN: We use a pressure washer, high power pressure washer, commercial pressure washer and basically blast everything that’s in the bus to make sure that it’s 100-percent sanitized, 100-percent clean. Normally it takes us about 30 minutes to a hour on each, on each vehicle. After that, we’ll come through with a, a commercial chemical, sanitize it really well, dry it down and have it prepped for service.

MELISSA: Car cleaner Ronald Brown is part of a crew that does detailed general cleaning at the SFMTA’s Woods Division transit facility in Dogpatch. He’s only been with the agency for three years but hit the ground running.

RONALD: I’ve busted my butt since I’ve been here. I haven’t had it easy, and I’ve… I came in during Covid, so it’s been non-stop ever since. 

MELISSA: And what’s the most unusual thing he’s come across while working?

RONALD: Used condoms…on a bus…is the strangest thing that I’ve ever encountered. I’ve done many…we call them ‘hot lunches,’ which is vomit…I’ve done many of those. I’ve done many buses with feces on ‘em, and not just from animals. But condoms is definitely (chuckles) the strangest out of all of them. 

MELISSA: But Brown says NONE of that stops car cleaners from getting the job done…so riders never know that anything unsavory that might have ended up on a vehicle was ever there.

RONALD-3: We try to make sure that we address every nook and cranny. So we just really want people to know that we do our best, um, to make sure the buses are maintained. Make sure that we are, um, diligent in finding every single piece of anything to make sure that the riding public is, is safe, to make sure that we are safe. 

MELISSA: He brings up a good point: clean vehicles don’t just look nicer. They’re safer for everyone. I got a chance to see the detailed general cleaning in action at the Flynn Division with the manager, Myra Philips, explaining it all:
 MELISSA: So this is the high pressure washer?
 MYRA: Yes, this is our detailed general cleaning or DGC. This is inside and out, top to bottom, front to back, right? The bus in front has already gone through this process, um, and they’re waiting to drive it through the wash rag. Then the final step is to drive it through the wash rag. It’s a big old car wash made for buses, right. Drive it though and park it in the yard. See they hand do, like, the rims. See the rims are soapy? They do those manually. The other places, um, that the brushes touch we don’t really need to do because it does a good job in that. Um, if the back of the bus is really dirty, we might hit that with the brush, you know, uh, to make sure that it’s really clean. 

This Division does about four of these a day, Monday to Sunday. Right? Cause we’re 24 hours, seven days a week, everywhere. It’s a real, real big process. Now in electrical, like trolley and rail, we can’t do this. It’s more manual, right? Um, so the wipe down and the cleaning with the wet rags, the mop, you know, we use very minimum water. But we can still get the same results. It’s censors on here, too, you’ve gotta be aware of. Like where there’s stop request, the censors for the doors….they know they can’t really saturate those areas with water. They, they got it down to a science.

MELISSA: Anthony Jackson, Jr. has been a car cleaner for just over two decades and now is an assistant supervisor at the Kirkland Division in North Beach. He delegates job assignments, assesses every bus that comes into the yard and makes sure staff is trained properly.

ANTHONY JACKSON, JR.: You need to be trained on, uh, blood borne pathogens and the proper PPE equipment and chemicals. Steps of using the chemicals. And you’d be amazed how many people don’t know how to use bleach, a mop, a broom and, and sometimes even gloves. This is not home. A lot of people think, ‘Oh, you dip a rag into a bucket with no gloves on, you’ll be fine.’ No, you won’t here. These are industrial chemicals (chuckles). They’re strong.

MELISSA: Jackson was a little shell shocked when he first started his car cleaner career at the age of 21. He’d never worked in public transit or even really RIDDEN public transit.

ANTHONY: It’s not a easy job, and it’s not for everyone. This job is not for everyone. You, you will… You have people that be like, ‘You know what? This is too much. I can’t do this.’ And you know, and some people do it and love it. You know, some people do it just for the check. You know, some people… But it’s not for everyone. It is an important job; it’s a high intense job, and it, it’s something that takes, uh, a lot. You know, because you’ll see a lot. You know, I’ve seen some things, and it’s like, it’s not, it’s not fun, you know. 

MELISSA: The car cleaners are instrumental in helping Muni make a good impression on riders, of course, including those from out of town.

KATE: Hi, I’m Kate from Edinburgh. 

MELISSA: We found Kate in the middle of Union Square, and she tells me that she had a lovely experience taking Muni to the Haight. 

KATE: It was super clean, and everyone was super helpful, as well. 

MELISSA: This isn’t Kate’s first visit to San Francisco. She’s been to the city FIVE times in the last year and has ridden transit every time.

KATE: Always super clean whenever we’ve taken them, yeah. Really easy to get around, really easy to navigate. It’s fab. 

MELISSA: Back at the Flynn yard, Myra Phillips notes that one TINY silver lining of the pandemic was that it shined a spotlight on the car cleaners and helped people recognize how critical their jobs are.

MYRA: Prior to Covid, we were the forgotten, you know, classification, right? When Covid came, the car cleaner was the only people that management had to turn to. And they did a excellent job in doing it. You know, and I just wanna commend the staff that worked every day and didn’t take off and, and seen the importance of it and kept the standard, you know, up. :27

MELISSA: It is possible…maybe even likely…that all of us riders take the car cleaners for granted and may only think about them on the rare occasion we might see a mess. But they should always be remembered for all of those things WE DON’T see on a regular basis while on Muni. 

Thank you for joining us on TAKEN WITH TRANSPORTATION. We’re a production of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, and you can find the latest episodes at SFMTA.com-slash-Podcast, as well as Apple, Spotify or wherever you listen. I’m Melissa Culross. Be well and travel well.