In early July, a four-day strike of San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART, system of subway and light rail crippled the city, leaving about 400,000 riders – including tourists – struggling to find transit alternatives. Though a temporary agreement was reached, both sides are still in heated negotiations, and according to Bay Area news reports, a second strike could occur if a new contract or agreement isn’t reached by the August 4 deadline.
However, BART isn’t the only game in town when it comes to getting around the City by the Bay. So before you jump the gun and cancel your trip, here’s a beginner’s guide to making sense of San Francisco’s sometimes confusing public transit system. Your first order of business? Purchase a Clipper Card (available online or at dozens of retail locations like Walgreens all over the city), which can be used on all of the Bay Area’s transit systems with a single tap.
MUNI, San Francisco’s Municipal Railway, also known as MUNI, includes a wide network of buses, streetcars, and cable cars. In the event of a second BART strike, riders should expect longer lines and more crowded vehicles, especially during rush hour.
Buses: I’m a big fan of SF’s bus system, which is comprehensive and usually reliable. If you plan on using buses while you’re in town, download the easy-to-use app Pocket Muni ($0.99), which lists arrival times and routes, updated in real time. If you pay by cash (be sure to hold on to the bar, as many bus drivers hit the pedal while customers are still paying) be sure to keep your ticket receipt, which is officially good for two hours, but usually will get you a return trip regardless of when it was torn. Fares are $2 for adults.
Streetcars: The city’s streetcars offer an efficient and historic way to tour San Francisco. When locals speak of taking MUNI, this is usually what they’re referring to. The most well-known route is the F line, which runs down Market Street and the Embarcadero and offers a unique way to experience the city’s main tourist attractions. Not only does it stop near highlights like Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghirardelli Square, the vehicles themselves are pieces of history: Some of the most notable streetcars were built in the early 1900s and hail from Melbourne, Milan, as well as U.S. cities like New Orleans and Philadelphia. Fares are $2 for adults.
Cable Cars: Perhaps the most iconic means of transit in San Francisco are its cable cars, although they can also become quite touristy on weekends. Still, they’re a great way to experience the nostalgia of the city’s past while avoiding some nasty hills.
There are three lines: the California line, which runs east-west along California Street through the Financial District and Chinatown and over Nob Hill, Powell-Hyde, and Powell-Mason, has been operating since 1888 on its original route and with its original type of vehicles. Both the Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason lines start at Powell and Market streets, where there’s a car turnaround (and usually a long line), and run different routes to end up at different termini in Fisherman’s Wharf. Fares are a pricey $6, but it’s a must-do for a visit.
Caltrain: Used primarily by commuters, the Bay Area’s railway system could prove a handy alternative if a second BART strike occurs. As during the first strike, San Francisco’s airport would operate free buses between it’s BART station and the Millbrae Caltrain Center. (The most central Caltrain stations in the city are located at Fourth and King Streets in the SOMA neighborhood and 22nd Street/Pennsylvania in Potrero Hill.) Free buses would also operate at regular intervals between the airport and the South San Francisco (Oyster Point) ferryboat terminal.