Making a Pass
Tourist books famously brag about driving the length of our seven-by-seven-mile peninsula in 20 minutes; or walking it in 2.5 hours. Every day, half a million people opt instead to hitch a ride with one of the country's oldest public transit agencies. Roughly half of Muni passengers buy a monthly Fast Pass, which enables unlimited transfers between 80 different routes. Yet, 60 percent of those commuters never transfer. At $2 a ride, that's still a good deal. For the last five years, I've averaged five rides a day. Needless to say, I feel I've gotten my money's worth (more than $2,400 in passes). In May, however, the price jumped to $60 – up 33 percent from 2008 – for a pass that no longer grants BART access. Begrudgingly, I paid up. Then I decided to get even.
The Goal: Milk my Muni pass to the fullest.
The Plan: Spend an entire day aboard as many vehicles, touching as many routes, covering as much of San Francisco as possible, and maximizing my ride time. Strapped to my wrist, a Garmin GPS watch would log my every movement. While I had no idea where I was headed, by the end of the day, I'd know where I'd been.
The Rules: 1. No walking more than two blocks (90 percent of homes are within two blocks of a Muni stop, according to the SFMTA). 2. Each ride must last at least two blocks. 3. Board the first vehicle to arrive at a stop, provided I haven't ridden the line that day. I added this last rule to eliminate over-strategizing and to add some whimsy to my day. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Kind of.
At 9 a.m. on an overcast Wednesday in June, I step out my front door in Noe Valley and within a few minutes hop on the 35-Eureka heading south (the opposite direction I usually go), forgetting the bus would soon loop back around past where I got on. Frustrating if I were a normal commuter, but part of my plan to go for distance and boost my time-in-transit. For two minutes I’m the only passenger on the 35.
In some sense, solo-busing quashes the green pride you're feeling for removing one car from the road, and it confirms Muni's recent budget woes. On the other hand, a city employee has become your personal chauffeur – in a vehicle longer than a Hummer limo – for $2 or less.
I sit in the back, staring out the window, doing the math I should have done a lot sooner: A transfer is valid for 90 minutes. Riding from 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., without a monthly pass, I'd need to buy seven tickets at a grand total of $14. Conversely, Muni sells an all-you-can-ride 1-Day Passport for $13. Even with my monthly pass, I'd need to repeat this experiment four more times to make back the $60 I spent. Bastards.
I get off at Castro and Market at 9:28 a.m., and wait for the first underground train heading west. Why not east? I flipped a coin. Cruising the L-Taraval for 35 minutes, I rack my brain for ways to milk additional value out of Muni. I pass Guerra Quality Meats, a retro-looking butcher shop. Then the Pick School of Ballroom Dancing and a brick-fronted dive called Grandma's Saloon. If I was going to take on an all-day bus tour of the city, I might as well keep an eye out for places I've never been or forgot existed. From out by the Zoo, the end of the line for the L, I travel east then south on the 23-Monterey and M-Ocean View buses, arrive at Balboa Park Station, where I sprint to catch a 29-Sunset. I have no idea which direction it’s headed, but it doesn’t matter. I've never ridden the 23 or 29, so I’m off to a great start. Winding through a series of residential hills, I pass the Ingleside branch of the SF Public Library and Beep's Burgers. As I realize I’m going back out to the Stonestown Galleria, Muni's automated voice system calls out "Ulloa," which sounds more like "You love us." Not exactly.
When your destination is everywhere and nowhere in particular, it's easy to get stressed. Luckily, the 29 is one of the longest routes in the city. By 11:22 a.m., I'm standing on the clear opposite side of town in the Richmond awaiting the 38-Geary, a bus that – unbeknownst to me – ends at the Fort Miley Veterans Hospital. I pass a Best Cuts, which advertises $15 haircuts and a "bodywave." (I have no idea what constitutes a bodywave.) I ride the 28-19th Avenue for 20 minutes, all the way through the Presidio out to the Golden Gate Bridge where – never disembarking – I'm nevertheless treated to postcard-worthy views of Alcatraz, Angel Island, Crissy Field, and the Palace of Fine Arts.
At Lombard, I transfer to the 22-Fillmore and seat myself in the back. To my left, a teenager is rolling a blunt. I pretend not to notice and hope he doesn't think I'm writing what I'm writing in my notebook ("12:18 p.m., guy rolling a blunt") or the haiku I tweet :"Muni blunt-rolling/Teen does whatever he wants./Dude's got major BALLS." Next, four chatty high-schoolers board, sit directly in front of him and – within minutes – begin discussing the relationship between grades, cardiovascular health, and smoking pot. I begin to see how Mr. Hand from Fast Times at Ridgemont High could conclude the whole world is on dope. I see the Mauna Loa Club and debate stopping for a mai tai. The blunt-roller exits to smoke on Haight Street. I jump off at Market.
By the time I've ridden the J-Church all the way out to Balboa Park Station (again) and get on the 54-Felton at 1:09 p.m. (where I see yet another dude rolling yet another blunt) and the 28 and the 17-Parkmerced, it occurs to me I've covered only half the city and, even worse, gotten stuck in a strange loop of sorts around Stonestown Galleria, which I've passed, literally, three times.
Eventually, I get to West Portal (vowing to return for buffalo burgers at the Bullshead) and over the hill to the Mission on the 48-Quintara-24th Street. It is 2:50 p.m. and there is, frankly, no way I'm going to touch every line in the city. Not even close. But I look at my watch and remember that distance still counts. I hop the 14-Mission, a crowded 24-Divisadero, then my second 23 of the day, which takes me and 15 other commuters, including a homeless couple and two elementary school-age sisters transporting a piñata, on a 15-minute tour of the industrial yards of Bayshore. From there, the T delivers me to Potrero via the 22 and 10-Townsend – passing Pennsylvania Garden, a flourishing guerrilla community garden and the unfamiliar vistas atop the Potrero Hill Playground, and back north to Market on the 9-San Bruno.
The next 2.25 hours are a blur: 49 Van Ness-Mission, 19-Polk, 31-Balboa, and 27-Bryant to an intersection where I board the Powell-Hyde cable car, and then the Powell-Mason cable car. It's the third time I've ever ridden one, and I've hit two in 20 minutes. Since each ride costs $5 a piece for those without a Muni pass (read: actual tourists), I chalk this one up as a personal victory. From North Beach, the 30-Stockton winds through Chinatown and is far less crowded than I would expect for a rush hour bus. An elderly Asian woman with legitimately purple hair sits directly in front of a woman wearing an oversized purple hat. From Market, I ride the 8AX-Bayshore Express two blocks and transfer to the 45-Union-Stockton, which drops me at the Caltrain station. It is only the third time all day I've intentionally cut a ride super short just to cross another bus off my list. It feels like cheating. As I ride the 30 back up to Market, a girl notices my note taking and the fact I keep looking at my watch. "You work for Muni or something?"
Exiting near Market St., I'm exhausted. It's 6:45 p.m. All totaled, I've ridden 32 vehicles operated by the SFMTA – 27 buses, three trains, and two cable cars – running on 25 different lines, 12 of which I’d never been on. According to my GPS unit, I traveled a total of 72.17 miles (literally, the length of the city and back, five times over). I touched the Pacific, the northwest tip – where Kim Novak dove into the Bay in Vertigo – Russian Hill and North Beach to the northeast, Bayview to the southeast, and Daly City on the far south west. During my 9.5-hour trip, I never stood still for long, remaining in motion for 7 hours, 29 minutes and 25 seconds. And yet, as the GPS map would later show: Vast swaths at the heart of the city went completely untouched.
Not altogether sure of what I just accomplished and disappointed I hadn't hit more routes, I look up. A 71-Haight-Noriega bus is roaring west on Market. I start running to catch it. Then sigh, "Ah, fuck it." I cab it home that night.
See how many Muni routes you can hit in one day. Pick up a 1-Day Passport ($13) from Muni or go whole hog and add a monthly Fast Pass ($60 for unlimited rides on Muni only, $70 for Muni and BART rides within SF) to your Clipper card, a plastic, swipeable card you pre-load with money for use on any transit system in the Bay Area.