Public Transportation, Part I: Muni

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!

Electric Bus

Electric Bus

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, 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…

Trolley 1

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

Street Car

Street Car

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…


About adamahata

On February 5, 2008, after 15 amazing years in New York City, I got married, changed careers, and moved out to San Francisco. All within a three-week period, and with very little preparation. This blog is for those of you who follow me out to San Francisco (or have been here for a while and are still trying to figure this place out). You're not in Kansas anymore Dorothy.
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16 Responses to Public Transportation, Part I: Muni

  1. Pingback: I’m back… | San Francisco is Weird

  2. Matthew says:

    I am not a liar! I rode the cable car down the hill from Nob Hill for eight years. My apartment was on the cable car line so I took one home at night and one to work in the morning.

    And they do have a universal ticketing system LPK – it’s a Fast Pass ( they no longer work on the cable cars but I left SF in 2000 so that’s a change I’m not aware of. So if you’re still living there LPK I’d check out the resources. For gawd sakes – learn to live in the city you live in for christ sake boy!

    All that being said – enjoyed your blog about SF. I is weird! But fun…and so is Manhattan – weird and fun.

  3. jenny says:

    For the record people do not call it “The MUNI” it is “Muni”. You only use “the” when referring to a particular line, i.e. take “The N” to Ocean Beach… just here to help saying I take “the Muni” to work makes you sound like an out of town hick.. or my grandma

  4. jo says:

    hi again,

    my bf (who i endearingly refer to as a “liar” on a daily basis) has just informed me that his new commute to work from our new place in lower haight involves a cable car… i just wanted to validate a statement you made in this article.

    “every once in a while some righteous San Franciscan will try to convince you they commute on a Cable Car. They’re lying.”

    They ARE lying.

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  11. LPK says:

    Adam – you have to write about the fact there there are SO many forms of transportation in SF, yet no universal ticketing for them. At least when I lived there; You could transfer between the Muni and the bus but that’s it. To punish SF for their stupidity, I rode the “honor system” Muni for free for an entire year. Mind you, had they provided some rational form of monthly ticketing, I gladly would have paid.

  12. peggyluwho says:

    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!

    It’s because of the hills. The diesel engine busses can’t get up them. The electric busses can.

    At least we have public transportation. I invite you to try living in Los Angeles, and then you’ll have something to complain about.

  13. adamahata says:

    I would totally subscribe to!!!

  14. Eric Heiman says:

    Oh, you New Yorkers are so whiny! MUNI’s really not that hard to figure out and variety is the spice of life, as they say. The BART fare thing, though, does deserve a post. I’ve never understood it in the 16 years I’ve lived here.

    I think I’m going to start the website,



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