OK, so you’re from New York (or, gasp, some other major metropolitan area) and you have enough international travel under your belt to confidently and efficiently get around just about anywhere in the world. You’re thinking, “San Francisco is just another small city where everybody speaks English, give me five minutes with the map and I’ll be ready to roll.”
Here’s a link to a few system-wide maps, good luck: maps.
Done? Bewildered? Allow me to give you some insights as to how it all breaks down:
The “Muni” (evidently short for the SF Municipal Transportation Agency) is sort of like the MTA in New York. Sort of. It’s actually comprised of dizzying array of vehicles.
First, there’s a bus. Ahhhhh…a bus. You know what a bus is! Sure, you’ve never actually been on a bus, but at least you recognize it as a vehicle that other people use for transportation. Fantastic!
Next, we have the electric bus. Looks like a bus, except that metal rods connect the bus to dangerous power lines that are stretched precariously above the streets.
I’m not 100% sure why someone would think it’s a good idea to weave live electric cables 15′ above the street in a city that’s prone to earthquakes, but they did!
My favorite form of public transportation in San Francisco doesn’t even have a proper name. People here tend to generically call it “The Muni,” but before my first trip I called it a “subway” because it sure damn well looked like a subway to me! You enter underground, you pay at a turnstile, there’s a big long track in a tunnel…you know…subway.
Sure, it’s significantly cleaner (off putting, but nice) and there are electronic signs hanging over the platform that lets you know when the next train is scheduled to arrive (nice touch – especially since you can actually access the schedule on the internet or even your PDA at NextBus.com), but overall your brain recognizes the environment as a subway station.
Until the “train” arrives.
That’s when everything slips into pretend-magic-bizzarro-land. Imagine a big, long, quasi-normal, nicely smelling subway platform filled with lots of white people (lots of white people). You’re standing at one end and you see the familiar light of a train heading into the station. It arrives at the track, but something’s missing…what is it, what is it…oh yes…the rest of the train! There’s only one little car! It’s not a train at all, but a trolley. A cute, Mr. Rogers trolley stops in the middle of the track and you need to run half-way down the platform to get on.
It’s quieter than most other subways you’ve been on, and there’s really only one track so delays are frequent and common (since there’s no way to reroute trolleys around obstacles in front of them), but once you’re on it you can pretend you’re on a normal subway with multiple cars…
And then it pulls up out of the ground and starts riding along street level tracks. I know, you’re thinking no big deal. I’ve taken a subway to Queens or the Q to Brooklyn crosses the Manhattan Bridge, nothing strange there. Except there is. In San Francisco the trolleys ride along with traffic. They stop at red lights and cars need to navigate around them. It’s just very odd.
The next SF transportation option is the Street Car. Similar to a “Muni” the Street
Car travels along tracks (exclusively) above ground. Like the above ground Muni and the bus it needs to stop for red lights. And as far as I can tell the Street Cars don’t really go anywhere particularly interesting. They are, however, super cute. For years San Francisco has been buying up other cities obsolete Street Cars (because other cities realize they’re completely impractical!), fixing them up and setting them loose. Since I’ve never met anyone who has ever ridden a Street Car I’m pretty sure they are primarily a tourist form of transportation.
The last type of Muni vehicle is a Cable Car. Like the Street Car, it’s primarily for tourists, but every once in a while some righteous San Franciscan will try to convince you they commute on a Cable Car. They’re lying.
Next postings will cover the other San Francisco public transportation options (Caltrain and BART) and the absurdity about how one actually pays (or doesn’t pay) the fares…