Making a Pass

Jul 14, 2010 at 12am
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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.





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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.



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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.

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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.



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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. 





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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.


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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.

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