Public Transportation: Part II

Now that you have a basic primer on the Muni, let’s talk about San Francisco’s other public transportation options, the Caltrain and BART.

The BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) is like if the PATH and the Long Island Rail Road had a bastard child. Its primary function is to transport folks to and from Oakland and Berkley (San Francisco’s version of New Jersey – or a really far away Brooklyn). But it also makes several stops in “the city” (AKA San Francisco) making it sort of useful to navigate to a select few locations that may be under served by the variety of Muni options.

There are two significant issues with the BART. First, it’s carpeted, and that’s just not right. Second, I have no idea how to pay for the BART. If you’re taking the BART within San Francisco it costs the same as the Muni…

So let’s talk about that for a second. How much does the Muni cost? Well, officially all Muni rides cost $1.50, plus you can use your receipt for a second ride (in any direction) within two hours of your first ride. So that’s cool.

If your ride commences in one of the underground subway-like Muni stops, you will notice familiar turnstyles and booths and you’ll be required to pay the fare or show a transfer. BUT, if your ride begins at an above-ground Muni stop, you don’t really need to pay, because chances are no one will check. They ask that you pay the driver as you enter the car, but for the most part, they use the *honor* system here, although once in a while (typically near the first of the month in my experience) there will be police-type folks at the terminating station demanding to see your proof of payment – or else you’re hit with a substantial fine. I think $50? It’s much more than $1.50.

If you ride the Muni a lot (i.e. for commuting) you can also try and purchase a monthly Muni Card for $45. Not a bad bargain if you ride frequently, but one of the only place to buy the cards (as far as I can tell) is at a Safeway. Safeways are the major supermarkets in San Francisco, and they’re everywhere, sponsor everything and are the center of substantial consumer commerce. Monthly Muni cards go on sale near the end of the month and last until they sell out.

You can’t get them online. You can’t get them at the vast majority of Muni station. You can only get them for a limited period of time.

Welcome to San Francisco.

The monthly Muni passes also works on the BART, BUT ONLY within the city of San Francisco. If you’re going over the bridge to Oakland or Berkley, your Muni card won’t work. That’s not entirely true…it will work to get you ON the train, but the people on the other side won’t let you out of the station! So be careful if you’re planning a trip outside of “the city”.

I have no idea where Caltrain goes.

Ride safe!

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Oh, then there’s this

Evidently, if you can’t find your way on buses (either electric or gas powered), cable cars, street cars, trolleys or subways, there’s always this:

A cable-less cable car

A cable-less cable car

Yes, it’s a fake cable car. A cable car with wheels. And no cable. I’m not sure what this is called, or where it goes, but in the spirit of San Francisco’s public transportation smorgasbord, we’ve got at least one of these too.

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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…

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The Weather

I had visited San Francisco plenty of times. Sometimes it was warm, often, I now seem to remember, it was a tad chilly. In retrospect, I think because San Francisco was located in “California” (and I was a contented east-coaster), my impression / expectation of any city located in California clouded my own personal experiences.

I remember now a good friend of mine, an ex-New Yorker through-and-through, who was giddy with excitement, for years, about the prospect of moving to San Francisco. His voicemail message, hipster in its minimalism, proclaimed simply “California is sunny.”

He too unknowingly helped create fantasy that San Francisco, located in California, rife with beaches, palm trees and all sorts of other typically tropical accouterments was actually warm.

So let me be clear to you, my thinking about moving / already planning to move / evaluating a job relocation / following a spouse / lover / newly moved friend…

San Francisco is not warm. It’s not even a little warm.

Let’s be clear, shall we? It’s quite often cold!

Oh sure, every once in a while it will claw it’s way above 60-degrees, but for the vast majority of the time it’s COLD. To be fair, there are many days when (depending on what neighborhood you’re in – we’ll come back to the absurd phenomenon of neighborhoods having different weather patterns later) the fog will clear and a brisk quasi-warmth will fill the air. You may even be inclined to leave the house without a jacket, sweater and scarf.

DON’T! The weather here changes dramatically in ways you can not emotionally prepare yourself for. It’s like that Will Smith movie, “I Am Legend.” It will be sunny out so you jump in your Range Rover to hunt elk in the abandoned streets of San Francisco. The radio is blaring Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild” and your non-zombie dog / best friend is sitting happily in the seat next to you. You’re having a great time, not a care in the world, but then your watch beeps and you notice the sun is about to set…RUN HOME!!! Before you know it the sun has dipped behind one of the hills peppering the city landscape and the temperature starts to plummet! In 10-minutes a balmy 58-degree day will nose-dive into a windy, 43-degree night. At home you need to slam your windows closed, draw the blinds,  latch the doors and climb into the tub with your dog, blankets and anything else you can throw on yourself to keep just a little warm…

Welcome to August in San Francisco.

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