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Transit Stories: San Francisco Municipal Railway – 3 (Part 1)

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San Francisco Municipal Railway operates a comprehensive set of transit options that bring visitors and residents around the city, and Muni Metro plays a vital role in keeping the City moving. Opened in 1912 to supplement the overhead streetcar system, Muni Metro now operates with a modern fleet of Breda Light Rail Vehicles (LRVs) from Italy, which have very good air conditioning and operate through many of San Francisco’s most crowded neighborhoods. However, its safety reputation can be called to question due to numerous incidents, many of which happen when a train breaks down inside a tunnel or underground area.

Muni Metro operates seven lines, six of which see daily service, and one operating mainly as a rush hour or game day shuttle service (thus called line S) between Downtown or South Beach (for AT&T Park) and the Castro or West Portal. The six main lines, shown on the top image (J, K, L, M, N, and T), operate mainly between Downtown and the outlying districts of San Francisco, with two of them (lines K and T) operating as an upside-down “horseshoe” loop around San Francisco, making them a spliced, yet continuous, line: 

  • The inbound K becomes the outbound T at West Portal Station — by 511‘s definition, this line is called “KT-Ingleside/Third Street, inbound” because it is inherited from the original K-Ingleside line
  • The inbound T becomes the outbound K at the Embarcadero Station — by 511’s definition, this line is called “KT-Ingleside/Third Street, outbound” because it is inherited from the original K line.

A map of the system follows below:

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With a system length totaling around 71.5 miles, Muni Metro has 151 vehicles; operates 9 subway, 24 high-platform overground, and numerous surface street stations; and carries over 151,000 riders on a daily basis. Complementing Muni’s bus network, the Muni Metro provides a faster alternative to the buses, as well as a more comfortable experience because most of its trains have working air-conditioning, as well as having dynamic head and side-facing signs that depict a train’s (final) destination and spaces for the disabled. It seems interesting, though, that a few cyclists use the Muni Metro system because as far as I’ve known, there is no dedicated space for bicycles unlike the Santa Clara VTA’s light rail that have dedicated bicycle spaces–instead, cyclists use the space dedicated for the disabled to hold their bikes as trains zoom through the underground portions of the Metro. Also, despite the fact that I’ve seen disabled people use the Muni Metro, I have not yet seen a disabled person loaded or unloaded beyond the high-platformed stations which require a train’s floors to be raised to accommodate a loading or unloading wheelchair or scooter (the floor area near the train doors can move up and down, depending on location, to accommodate on-street boarding), which makes me think that such passengers use the buses instead of the Metro to continue trips beyond the Metro network (for example, to or from the Outer Sunset, Ocean Beach, or Ingleside).

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Despite its train interior limitations, the Muni Metro provides a safe, viable alternative to the buses that can take longer to travel between point A and point B (especially on areas close to Market Street). However, their original service area dates back to the 1930s with two streetcar tunnels, namely the Sunset Tunnel and the older (and the longest operable streetcar tunnel in the world) Twin Peaks Tunnel, that were opened to extend its streetcar operations beyond Downtown to serve the rest of San Francisco. It was only in 2005 that Muni Metro extended its reach even further to serve the more isolated, transit-dependent eastern districts of the City, mainly serving along Third Street, a major artery that stretches from South of Market all the way down to Visitacion Valley, through several neighborhoods, such as South Beach where AT&T Park is located, little-known areas as Dogpatch and India Basin, and the mainly working-class but “notorious” Bayview and Hunters Point neighborhoods. Their long operating times, as well as frequent service throughout the day (more frequent during the rush hours), provide thousands of commuters the convenience enjoyed similarly by bus riders as well.

Muni Metro has also embarked on another extension of its system, this time extending the current Third Street line at Fourth & King Streets (near the Caltrain Station) to run under Fourth Street northwards (logical) that will connect to the existing Market Street subway and continue north on Stockton Street to eventually serve Union Square and Chinatown, two very popular neighborhoods close to Downtown. Called the Central Subway, it will be served by, more than likely, the T-Third Street line that will continue through the new tunnel and connect to the Moscone Center, Union Square (at Stockton between Geary and Market; also provides connections to BART and several regional agencies via Powell Street Station), and it will go towards Stockton and Washington Streets, at the heart of Chinatown, with a further extension to Broadway to serve North Beach and Little Italy. A map of the new extension can be viewed below:


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The Central Subway has started construction last May 2011 and expected to be opened in 2018. As of today, traffic diversions are already in place as crews have started moving utilities along Stockton Street in preparation for the upcoming heavy tunneling construction that will take place soon.

In Part 2 of the Muni Metro Transit Stories series, I will discuss the many issues facing the Metro, as well as suggestions–as I might say–that Muni Metro can address to improve the system as well as improving their image toward their passengers. Discussing a further issue on rampant fare evasion by passengers on Muni vehicles and stations will take place after I’ve discussed the rest of the transit agency’s other modes, including the streetcar and cable car.

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