The San Francisco Muni is turning 100 this year. And in that century of great technological progress, in which an aircraft broke the sound barrier in 1947 and a supersonic car did the same in 1997, Muni has actually become slower.
In 1920, the F-Stockton streetcar carried passengers from the Financial District at Market and Stockton Streets all the way to the Marina at Chestnut and Scott Streets in a zippy 17 minutes. Today a very similar trip on the 30-Stockton, the successor to the F-Stockton, takes a half-hour if the stars are properly aligned.
“Streetcars ruled the road, and there wasn’t much getting in the way — no car traffic — and we didn’t have all the traffic lights and stop signs,” said Peter Straus, a retired Muni service planner. “Back then it was basically ‘load and go,’” he added, “and there was nothing to slow them down.”
San Franciscans were not shocked to learn that Muni ran faster 100 years ago.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if a horse-drawn carriage got there faster than Muni,” Angie Murphy, a regular Muni commuter, said recently as she waited for a bus in the rain in the Financial District.
Muni was born in 1912 as the Municipal Railway, with a streetcar line, the A and B, which eventually ran from the ferries to the beach. An excited crowd of 50,000 celebrated the inauguration in downtown San Francisco.
Before that, private companies had operated streetcars here and all over the United States. But San Franciscans, angered by corruption and demonstrating their independence from the status quo even a century ago, voted for a $2 million bond to build the first piece of the publicly owned “people’s railway.”
In 1920, the B line, replaced by the busy 38-Geary in 1956, departed from the spot where the ferry building stands today and zoomed out to near Ocean Beach in 35 minutes. The fare was a nickel.
Today a similar $2 trip on the 38-Geary takes 54 minutes, while the 38 Limited, which makes fewer stops, takes 43 minutes.
Many of the early Muni lines were faster because of “less competition for street space — there was no surface traffic, and the streetcars would fly through,” said Rick Laubscher, president of Market Street Railway, a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving Muni’s history.
An archivist for the organization, which is exhibiting photos of Muni’s centennial at the San Francisco Railway Museum, provided travel times dating back to 1920.
Building the Market Street subway in 1980 was supposed to speed the streetcars that traveled on crowded Market Street before heading off to the foggy outer limits of the city. But even lines that now use the tunnel, like the N-Judah and the L-Taraval, have not become faster over the past century.
The popular N-Judah, born in 1928 with the opening of the Sunset Tunnel, made it from the ferries to Ocean Beach in 33.5 minutes more than 80 years ago. Today the same trip is scheduled at 38 minutes.
The L-Taraval, which runs underground for 5.5 miles from the Embarcadero station before emerging at the West Portal station, now takes 36 minutes to take passengers out to the zoo, the same as it did in 1939.
Riders of the K-Ingleside and the J-Church, at least, have reason to rejoice. Both lines have sped up three minutes since 1920, although the J-Church is still chugging along at its 1939 rate.
Commuters pining for the quick old days of Muni may soon get some relief. Officials at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency are preparing a plan to speed several routes, including the 30, the J and the N.
This is scheduled to be done by removing stop signs, programming traffic signals so they stay green for buses, creating additional bus-only traffic lanes and removing some bus stops. The plan is known as the Transit Effectiveness Project.
“We have a pretty good sense of different things we can do to speed up the transit service,” said Ed Reiskin, head of the transportation agency.
The steps Muni is taking, Reiskin added, “are going to help us reverse that trend and get us back to even better than where we were 100 years ago.”
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