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Should Visitors Ride San Francisco’s MUNI Buses?

November 7th, 2011 · 2 Comments · Muni Buses, Transportation

There are many different ways to get around the city of San Francisco, some of which are more for entertainment (like the city’s historic cable cars) and some of which are more for convenience (like taking a taxi). One of the most common ways that San Franciscans get around is to take MUNI, the public bus system. But is it right for you as a visitor? The answer depends upon your personal travel style and where in the city you want to go. We talked with the editors of MUNI Diaries, a website filled with stories from people who ride San Francisco’s buses, to help you get a feel for the pros and cons of choosing this form of transportation during your trip.

 MUNI Diaries

Before we get started on the ins and outs of MUNI, let’s talk a little bit about MUNI Diaries. This great website is a collection of stories that San Francisco bus riders submit about their true experiences on San Francisco’s buses. We spoke with Eugenia Chien, an editor and co-founder of the site. She and Jeff Hunt founded the site in 2008 in order to create a place where people could discuss their lives on public transportation since it’s such an integral part of the every day San Francisco experience. They work together with Tara Ramroop Hunt to run the site, providing them with comprehensive insight into MUNI. And Chien rides MUNI twice daily so she also has first hand experience with the system.

Running the site means soliciting, vetting and editing stories from riders. The content on Muni Diaries is 90% user-submitted by people who ride MUNI. Their stories range from touching tales of compassion on a tough trek to pure rants about the frustrations that come along with the frequent use of any form of public transportation. Chien and her co-editors also talk to the SFMTA (which runs MUNI) and other organizations about issues that face MUNI riders to give a well-rounded perspective to MUNI Diaries.

You can get a good sense of what this community-driven blog offers by reading their “greatest hits”. You can follow them on Twitter and Facebook, see MUNI photos in their Flickr pool and even attend a live on stage Muni Diaries storytelling event. This blog received a 2011 web award for “best public transit blog” and will really help you get a good feel for what San Francisco’s MUNI experience is like so that you can decide if it’s a form of transportation that is right for you.

MUNI Buses and Trains

 Before we start talking about the nitty gritty of getting around on MUNI, you need to understand that MUNI is made up of two different types of public transit vehicles: buses and trains. The MUNI buses are above ground buses that take you all around the city uses various routes that are numbered. The trains go both above ground and underground on a limited route between certain neighborhoods and are organized by letter instead of number. So when you hear someone talking about “the 30” or another numbered MUNI, they are talking about a bus but if you hear them talking about “the N” or a lettered MUNI then they are talking about a train. They are all a part of the same system and your fare, including transfers and passes, will work on both forms of MUNI but the experience you have on MUNI naturally may differ depending on whether you are taking a bus or a train.


Signs MUNI May Work For You

 MUNI is a public transit system that can take you between nearly any two points in the city of San Francisco. But is it right for you? Here are some signs that you and MUNI will be a good fit:


  • You are comfortable with public transit in urban areas. MUNI is comparable to bus systems in other urban areas. It may not be as convenient as light rail or subway systems in major metropolitan areas. If you are generally comfortable with taking public transportation in US cities then you should find MUNI to be a good option.
  • You don’t mind crowds. San Franciscans as well as travelers frequently use the MUNI system to get around the city. The buses are usually crowded and are sometimes standing room only.
  • You want to get around, not see the sights. If you want striking views during your treks around the city then you should use the historic cable car, a cab, a bike or your own two feet. Although some MUNI buses do include scenic views, they typically take a practical route, not a scenic route.
  • You are going a short distance but don’t want to walk. MUNI can be great for quickly getting from one place to another when the two places are a short distance apart but separated by a big hill that you don’t want to trek! Most buses in heavily trafficked areas run every 5 – 15 minutes so you can just pick a nearby stop, check the map to find the bus that will get you where you want to go and take the ride.
  • You are going a long distance to an area with a MUNI train stop. Many people take the lettered MUNI trains when they want to go from the Financial District to a destination outside the heart of the city. For example, you can take the N to The Haight, Golden Gate Park and Ocean Beach and you can take the L to the San Francisco Zoo. This is the most affordable option although may be slow in some cases.

    CC 2.0 via SillyGWaio

Ultimately, MUNI may be right for you if you want to take a ride that will probably be easy and uneventful but just might result in a fun San Francisco story. For example, Eugenia Chien of MUNI Diaries shared her favorite story that a passenger got to experience during a ride:

My favorite story is about a bus driver named Tammy who decided to throw an impromptu party on Muni because it was her last day driving that line. One of her passengers was so touched by the gesture that he took photos and sent us the story. Riders boarded the bus to find balloons, streamers, and posters that Tammy had made to say thank you to her passengers. The postscript to this story is sweet and sad at the same time — we stayed in touch with Tammy because of the story and later found out that her son had died in a hit-and-run and she had been on leave. We interviewed Tammy and asked our readers to help her with a foundation she set up in his memory. 

 So maybe you’ll get on MUNI and nothing will happen between one stop and the next but maybe you’ll find a party on the bus and a San Francisco community that welcomes you with open arms.


Negatives of MUNI to Be Aware Of

 As a public transit system, there are drawbacks to MUNI that you must be aware of when determining whether or not to choose it as your preferred form of transportation. MUNI Diaries told us that the two biggest problems regular users cite are overcrowding and delays. And although MUNI is a family-friendly transit system, there are naturally sometimes difficulties that arise when riding crowded public transportation with people from all walks of life.

As a visitor riding MUNI, you should be aware that you may face delays. MUNI Diaries points out that the SFMTA has a budget deficit of about $23 million in the next eight months, so funding is a big cause of the problem. They did an interesting interview with San Francisco’s mayoral candidates who proposed some ideas for dealing with this issue but as of right now delays are an ongoing issue.

You can plan your MUNI trip around the city online (see “navigating MUNI” below) but the times you are given are not always accurate. The buses sometimes get delayed. There are real-time updates on many bus stops but they aren’t always accurate. And sometimes the bus shows up on time but is too full so it passes the stop by. Be aware that taking MUNI is usually efficient but can have delays and therefore you should give yourself a cushion of time when taking it to San Francisco activities with a specific start time.

When you do ride MUNI, it may be crowded and you may not always be comfortable with the people you are crowded in next to. There is just no politically correct way to say this so we’ll just be honest; there are homeless people, loud teenagers and people who may try to sell you stuff. For the most part, MUNI is filled with regular people who are friendly, polite and keep to themselves. But this is a public transit system and there are sometimes problems with other riders. Homeless people asking for money, teenagers playing loud music in the back of the bus and people arguing are not uncommon on some MUNI rides. Despite this, most people agree that MUNI is a family-friendly option. Eugenia of MUNI Diaries told us that she sees a lot of parents who take their kids on MUNI and that a lot of families in San Francisco do depend on MUNI as their main form of transit.


CC 2.0 via Tom Prete

Navigating MUNI

 There are several options you can use to plan your trip on MUNI, find the right buses to get where you want to go and check on MUNI travel times. Here are the best ways:


  • 511 Transit. Use this online system to plan your trip from point A to point B using San Francisco’s public transportation. It is not limited to just the MUNI system but includes it and will provide you with a variety of options to get where you want to go along with costs and timing information.
  • Google Maps. You can input your start and end locations into Google Maps and choose the public transit option to get MUNI directions between locations. It is convenient because most people are familiar with the Google Maps format. However, it doesn’t offer you as many route options as 511 transit does.
  • MUNI map. If you are a more visual person then you might prefer to use a map that shows the entire layout of the MUNI system so that you can select the lines you want to ride. There are official MUNI maps online.
  • NextBus. Once you know what bus you want to take and between which two stops, you can check for real time bus status updates using NextBus on your computer or mobile phone. This is also the system that provides expected bus arrival times at some San Francisco bus stops. It is usually, but not always, accurate. Curious why it’s sometimes wrong? A MUNI Diaries interview with NextBus gives some insight.
  • MuniDiaries on Twitter. The MUNI Diaries site is the collective diary of San Francisco bus experiences. Their Twitter account is frequently a way that the community shares real time information with each other. If you’re already standing at a San Francisco bus stop and you want to see the latest MUNI updates then this is a good place to start.


CC 2.0 via Tom Prete

Some Tips for Taking MUNI During Your Travels


One of the most important things to know about MUNI is that you need a MUNI pass or exact change to ride the buses. There are MUNI passes for visitors as well as monthly passes, transit cards and single-ride tickets with transfers. Learn more about rates and payment options through SFMTA.

 Another important tip is to be aware of your own personal safety when riding MUNI. Most of the time, you won’t have any problems but you should use common sense when riding public transportation. Keep an eye on your valuable belongings and stay aware of your surroundings.

If you get lost or confused about the MUNI system ask someone for help. The bus drivers are there to answer your questions. There are ticket agents at the underground MUNI train stations who can help you. And most MUNI riders are friendly San Franciscans who will lend you a hand.


Share your MUNI Story

 If you do decide to take MUNI during your San Francisco trip and you have a story from the trek to share, you can submit it to MUNI Diaries through their website.

This post by Kathryn Vercillo.  Kathryn is a San Francisco based writer specializing in sharing her love of travel and the City.  Follow Kathryn’s writing and updates on Twitter to learn more.




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