September is Transit Month in the Bay Area and Taken with Transportation is celebrating with San Francisco Municipal Railway, or Muni, riders. Host Melissa Culross talks with riders in multiple neighborhoods who use Muni's buses, streetcars and light rail vehicles as their principal means of transportation. Culross also speaks with SFMTA Transit Director Julie Kirschbaum about service improvements and investments the agency is making, as well as Director of Transportation Jeff Tumlin about his favorite Muni line and the first he remembers riding.
MELISSA CULROSS, HOST: What’s your favorite San Francisco Muni line?
LISTENER MONTAGE: The 44, the 8, the 9 and the 24. 49. The N, I take the 22 a lot. It has to be the 2, and I’m on Muni every day.
BUS SOUND: 2 Sutter to California and Presidio
MELISSA: Welcome to TAKEN WITH TRANSPORTATION, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s official podcast. I’m your host, Melissa Culross, and we’re celebrating Transit Month! Transit Month began as a humble Transit Day just under a decade ago and over the years, has expanded to Transit Week and now is a month-long party from the organizations San Francisco Transit Riders and Seamless Bay Area. Here at Taken with Transportation, we’re marking the occasion by talking with Muni riders. The San Francisco Municipal Railway, or Muni, was the first publicly owned and operated transit agency in a major American city when it began service in December 1912. Today, hundreds of thousands of people ride Muni’s buses, light rail vehicles, streetcars and cable cars every day. We’re asking riders just a couple of simple questions: what their favorite Muni line is and/or what was the first line they recall taking. We start our listening tour, so to speak, in a Muni Metro Station where we’re boarding a K-line LRV with teenager Juan Mendoza and a few of his friends. Juan tells us his favorite line is the J Church.
JUAN MENDOZA: Ever since I was a kid, I would always, uh, go through 19th and 24th with my mom, get donuts and stuff, and that’s ever since I was, like, 8. I would always take the J to my middle school, so it’s my favorite just out of the memories and the connection and attachment I have with the train.
MELISSA: Do you remember what the first line you rode was? Was it the J?
Yeah. I think it had to have been the J because, um, I would always ride the Muni train with my mom before I was old enough to, you know, ride by myself. And whether she was getting groceries, or I was getting dropped off at school, I would take the J.
MELISSA: Where do you to high school?
JUAN: I go to International High School.
MELISSA: So, what line do you take to get there?
JUAN: I mean, I could take any line, considering I’m at Balboa, I’m centered where every single train goes. So, I can take the K, M, J.
MELISSA: We say goodbye to Juan at the Church Street station and above ground hop on his favorite, the J line, to ride to Dolores Park.
LIGHT RAIL VEHICLE ANNOUNCEMENT: J Church to Balboa Park Station
MELISSA: Almost as soon as we get there, we meet Andrew Germond, who, like Juan, is a San Francisco native. He says he loves Muni and that the first line he rode regularly was the 1 California when he was a kid.
ANDREW GERMOND: It was great. It was easy, to and fro. I lived out in the Richmond District, so I took it…Arguello or farther, if I was allowed, but that’s where I was usually going.
MELISSA: I love it. Now, what would you say your favorite Muni line is?
ANDREW: Right now, probably the 24.
MELISSA: Why is that?
ANDREW: Ah, well, I live over here by Dolores Park, and, uh, my doctor’s office is over on Geary, and my kid’s school is up on 22nd, so it kind of gets me everywhere I need to go. I don’t have a car, so…
MELISSA: So, you said you love Muni. Why do you love it?
ANDREW: It’s convenient. It’s gotten me around my whole life.
MELISSA: Do you have an stories of meeting people who were particularly interesting while you were on Muni?
ANDREW: When I was younger, yeah. We’d be riding Muni and run into people and go to some party or end up at the beach or you know.
MELISSA: Across the park is a woman who tells us we can call her Firecracker. Her first Muni line, back in the 90s when she moved to San Francisco, was the 38 Geary.
FIRECRACKER: I lived across from the Great American Music Hall, and I worked in downtown on Market Street. So that was a quick and easy ride.
MELISSA: Now Firecracker takes a few different buses regularly.
FIRECRACKER: I have always owned a vehicle, and I sold my truck when I came back from traveling because I found that public transportation was so much more convenient than owning a vehicle. So, once I did that, I felt the freedom of not getting tickets and getting all sorts of drama, and I do have a number of favorite lines due to convenience, and I do live on Mission. The 49, the 14, the 33. So yeah…
MELISSA: And like Andrew, she has a real fondness for Muni and the routes she uses.
FIRECRACKER: Oh, I love the 14 and the 14R. It gets me straight to Giants, and then I just do a walk because I am a huge Giants fan, and it gets me to where I need to go. And the 49, now that they have completed the rebuild of Van Ness Street, it is a smooth, clear ride and clean. So, I can get all the way from South Van Ness down to the piers. But also, you can hop off, as anyone knows, and transfer anywhere else in the city, and San Francisco is 7X7. So, you can actually walk and do some exercise if you felt like it on a nice day. So, there you go. I’m a fan of public transportation. I talk about it at least on a weekly basis to friends, actually.
MELISSA: We’ve already found no shortage of Muni love, but when we head across town to the Richmond neighborhood, we meet a woman who literally has that love on display in her home. We’re chatting with Erin Livingston at a café at California Street and 8th Avenue. She came to San Francisco nine years ago and took to the transit system immediately.
ERIN LIVINGSTON: It was my very first semester at college, and I lived on Fell, and I was on the Panhandle, and it was at this beautiful Victorian apartment, and it was San Francisco living. And I took the 21 Hayes to get to Masonic. Just kind of, that was like my first experience of living in San Francisco, was being on that bus.
MELISSA: How reliable was it for you?
ERIN: You know, I don’t remember exactly. I…I…I don’t know (laughs). I guess I’m looking back at it with, you know, like a sentimental eye of, like, “Oh, it didn’t really matter if it was on time ‘cause it was, like, living in San Francisco, and that’s so fun and cool (laughs).”
MELISSA: So now, here we are nine years later. What’s your favorite Muni line now?
ERIN: The 1 California.
MELISSA: Why is that? Look, it’s right there.
ERIN: I know! So, when you ask me about Muni, like, each Muni line, for me, just represents so vividly, like, what part of my life that was, and right now it’s the 1 California ‘cause I live in the Richmond, and I take the 1 California to get to all my friends who live, you know, down the 1 California in, um, North Beach or in Pac Heights, and this part in my life is the 1 California. The 1 California chapter (laughs).
MELISSA: And you also have a car, but yet you still… Even though you have a car here, you still choose to take transit.
ERIN: Maybe that’s why I love Muni so much is because I just absolutely loathe driving, and the Muni gets me somewhere that I don’t have to drive. Like, I have such fond memories of days that I had nothing to do, and me and my friends just kind of bopped around, and we, you know, took the Muni to one neighborhood and then took it another, and just… you can take cool buses through cool neighborhoods and hop off and do something there and then hop back on the same line or a different line, and I love San Francisco, and I think Muni is so quintessentially San Francisco. It’s…it’s just…the Muni. Like (laughs), I don’t know how else to describe it (laughs).
MELISSA: And now we get to that display of love we mentioned a few moments ago. Erin tells us she recently rescued a large transit shelter map that wasn’t faring well during some inclement weather.
ERIN: Looking at the bus stop map is something that I’ve always done. But I, I had the idea of, like, I kind of want that in my apartment. I don’t know how I’m going to get that type of thing. Like, there’s a PDF online, a downloadable PDF. I was like, “Oh, maybe I’ll print that out and take it...” Like, it was kind of just a, a thought in the back of my head for many years. And one day, it was after all of the storms that we had this last, um, I guess winter. And I found one, kind of like… The wind had taken it into, like, a pile of trash, and it was just, like, totally gross and muddy, and, like, scratched up. I think a car had probably run over it or something. It was in not very good shape. And I was like, “oh, my gosh, is that what I think it is?!?” And so I grabbed it (laughs). And it was so muddy and drip…it was so gross. And I walked it, like, probably the six blocks back to my apartment, put it in the bath, gave it a little shower, a little scrub, disinfected it. There’s a, like, protective layer on top of it that I was very surprised, like, peeled off. So the car, the car tire marks came off, and then I framed it. I bought a frame, and I framed it, and it’s huge. And it’s the, like, focal point of my entryway, and I smile every time I see it.
MELISSA: Across Golden Gate Park in the Outer Sunset, we have the chance to chat with another lifelong San Franciscan, Jennifer Borromeo, who talks about her favorite Muni line.
JENNIFER BORROMEO: I’d say it would be the 48 right now just because it’s not too far from where I live. I think I only walk up to the next corner, and then it could take me, like, all the way down to Ocean Beach if I really wanted to not walk that day, or all way to, like, the Mission, or even just transferring lines now to, like, the underground trains is really nice ‘cause West Portal. It always took me to my middle school, which is Herbert Hoover, and then, uh, wherever I wanted to go. It’s just a really easy bus to, like, transfer wherever you need to go in the city.
MELISSA: The recent college graduate says her first lines were the L, the 18 and the 38….and that she always has appreciated the system.
JENNIFER: I remember growing up in the public school system, we always had, like, free Clipper cards or bus cards. And my family still doesn’t drive, I don’t drive. Still learning, but I’m so, like, happy that I have a transportation system that’s reliable, um, something I can easily navigate with my parents as they’re getting older.
MELISSA: We also took to social media and asked people to tell us their favorite and first Muni lines, and the F Market, 28 19th Avenue and 28 Rapid, 43 Masonic and T-Third were mentioned, along with some of the lines we’ve already talked about. We compiled a list of these favorites and firsts and are discussing them with SFMTA Transit Director Julie Kirschbaum.
JULIE KIRSCHBAUM, TRANSIT DIRECTOR: Some of these routes, like the 48 Quintara, take dozens of kids to school each day. Routes like the 38 connect neighborhoods and get people to and from Downtown. Some of our, uh, most challenging lines, like the 1 California, have been critical to developing technology like our trolley buses. It used to be that we would have loud, old-school motor coaches climbing the hills, and with the introduction of trolley buses decades ago, uh, we now have a quiet and clean ride.
MELISSA: Again, we’re talking about all these Muni lines because it’s Transit Month, and Kirschbaum reflects on the work she is celebrating for the occasion this year.
JULIE: I am really excited by the investment we’re making in service quality. We really want Muni to be something our customers can rely on. So, that means if you schedule service to come every ten minutes, that it comes every ten minutes. That the customer predictions are accurate; that the operator is friendly and safe. And that’s what I’m seeing in the system today. So, it’s something we’re really proud of. We’re proud of the pro-active investment we’ve made in maintaining our equipment and our infrastructure. New trains are rolling out every day, getting our customers where they wanna go but in a more reliable way, uh, than what we have done historically. Investments like Fix-It Week also give us an opportunity to get caught up on dozens and dozens of different maintenance tasks that, without doing them, would put service at risk. So, we’re seeing a huge reduction in breakdowns. We’re seeing great customer feedback. We still have some areas where we can do better, and so we are committed to working through that, but in this Transit Month, I’m excited about service quality.
MELISSA: All the riders who spoke to us for this episode use Muni regularly, and as you have heard, they all have good things to say. Now, that isn’t always the case, but nonetheless, it doesn’t surprise Kirschbaum.
JULIE: I believe that our riders truly understand the value of Muni. Whether they use it every day, or they use it for one-off appointments or trips to special events, it’s a big deal that we live in a city where you don’t have to drive to get where you need to go. Some of the highest customer approval ratings are coming from our regular customers cause they’re seeing the investments we’re making, and they know that the service is more reliable than what we had before and during the pandemic.
MELISSA: Andrew Germond…the dad we met in Dolores Park…says very succinctly how he feels about Muni.
ANDREW: I want to see it survive and stick around.
MUNI METRO ANNOUNCEMENT: Arriving westbound: two-car K to Balboa Park Station. Next J in six minutes, K in ten minutes…
MELISSA: Finally, we decide to talk to the big boss, SFMTA Director of Transportation, Jeff Tumlin about his first and favorite Muni lines. As for the first line he rode, he tells us that depends.
JEFF TUMLIN, DIRECTOR OF TRANSPORTATION: I remember, of course, a family vacation when I was twelve and taking the Powell-Hyde line, which was so amazing and transformative and contributed to my certainty that it was a celestial typo that had me born at St. Francis Hospital in Los Angeles, rather than in the city of San Francisco. But then I finally was able to move to San Francisco and slept on the couch of friends and lived in the Ingleside and took the K. And then when I finally moved to San Francisco permanently, I lived in the Mission and was a regular 14 rider.
MELISSA: His favorite is easier to choose, even though he loves all his Muni line children.
JEFF: I have always been a huge fan of the 22 Filmore.
BUS ANNOUNCEMENT: 22 Fillmore to UCSF-Mission Bay
JEFF: And especially when I first moved to San Francisco because the 22 goes through the most unlikely sequence of neighborhoods of any bus line in the world, and everyone rides the 22 Fillmore. So, I attribute the 22 to helping me learn how to be a San Franciscan. Helping me figure out that I had to pay attention to where my backpack was and give up my seat, uh, for older people. The 22, because it made me understand how to resolve conflict, and that every time you get on a Muni bus, you’re arriving in a new society, and you get to be whoever you wanna be then and relate to people in this little microcosm for the, you know, 10 or 15 minutes that you’re on the bus. And so, as a young person, it helped me figure out who I was and what my responsibilities were to other people and what my responsibilities were living in a city. I also love the 22 because, together with the 49 Van Ness…
BUS ANNOUNCEMENT: 49 Van Ness-Mission to City College
JEFF: We believe the 22 and the 49 have the highest percentage ridership recovery compared to pre-Covid of any transit lines in the United States. And this is in the city that has the slowest rate of return-to-office. We’re really proud of the fact that we’ve been able to deliver speed, reliability and frequency improvements on the 22 and the 49 that are driving such extraordinary increases in ridership even when ridership is down in the Financial District.
MELISSA: Thank you for joining us on TAKEN WITH TRANSPORTATION. We’re a production of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, and you can find the latest episodes at SFMTA.com-slash-Podcast, as well as Apple, Spotify or wherever you listen. We had production assistance on this episode from Michael Roccaforte, and I’m your host, Melissa Culross. Be well and travel well.