Most bus lines are scheduled to operate every five to fifteen minutes during peak hours, every five to twenty minutes middays, about every ten to twenty minutes from 9 pm to midnight, and roughly every half-hour for the late night "owl" routes. On weekends, most Muni bus lines are scheduled to run every ten to twenty minutes. However, complaints of unreliability, especially on less-often-served lines and older (pre-battery backup) trolleybus lines, are a system-wide problem. Muni has had some difficulty meeting a stated goal of 85% voter-demanded on-time service.
All Muni lines run inside San Francisco city limits, with the exception of several lines serving locations in the northern part of neighboring Daly City, and the 76X Marin Headlands Express line to the Marin Headlands area on weekends and major holidays. Most intercity connections are provided by BART and Caltrain heavy rail, AC Transit buses at the Transbay Terminal, and Golden Gate Transit and SamTrans downtown.
Bus and car stops throughout the city vary from Metro stations with raised platforms in the subway and at the more heavily used surface stops, to small shelters to signposts to simply a yellow stripe on a utility pole or on the road surface. 70% of stops are spaced closer than recommended range of 800–1,000 feet (240–300 m) apart.
Muni is short for the "Municipal" in "San Francisco Municipal Railway" and is not an acronym; thus, when it is written in plain text, only Muni (not MUNI) is correct. The Muni metro is often called "the train" or "the streetcar." Most San Francisco natives use 'Muni' when speaking about the system (Metro & buses) in general.
The E Embarcadero and F Market & Wharves lines are referred to by Muni as a "historic streetcar line" rather than as a "heritage railway."
Muni's logo is a stylized, trademarked "worm" version of the word "muni". This logo was designed by San Francisco-based graphic designer Walter Landor in the mid-1970s.
Bus and trolleybus lines have number designations, rail lines have letters and the three cable car lines are typically referred to by name only (Powell-Mason, Powell-Hyde and California).
Except for cable cars, cash fares are $2.50 for adults; $1.25 for seniors over 65, youth aged 5–17, people with disabilities, and Medicare card holders; and free for low- and moderate- income seniors, youth aged 5–18, people with disabilities residing in San Francisco, and up to three kids under 5 per adult. Clipper card fares are $2.25 for adults and $1 for seniors, youth, and people with disabilities. Proof-of-payment, which fare inspectors may demand at any time, is either a Clipper card, Muni Passport, or paper transfer. One fare entitles a rider to unlimited vehicle transfers for the next 90 to 120 minutes. Cable cars are $7 one way, with no transfers unless the rider has a Muni Passport or Fast Pass. As of September 2014 monthly passes cost $70 for adults ($83 with BART privileges within city limits), $35 for low-income residents ("Life Line Pass"), or $24 for youth, seniors and the disabled. Passes are valid on all Muni lines—including cable cars—and the $83 adult Fast Pass allows BART transit entirely within San Francisco (between Embarcadero and Balboa Park). Other passes and stickers are valid on all Muni lines, including cable cars, but not on BART (with the exception of BART-Plus ticket types).
Cable car fare is $7 per trip, with no transfers issued or accepted. "Passports" are folding scratch-off passes that can be purchased by mail, or at various places throughout the city; they are good on all regular-service lines without surcharge, including cable cars, and cost $20 for a 1-day pass, $31 for a 3-day pass, or $40 for a 7-day pass, as of July 2015.
Muni has implemented a dual-mode smart card payment system known as Clipper (formerly TransLink). The transponders have been in use since at least 2004, and replaced most paper monthly passes in 2010. BART, Caltrain, Golden Gate Transit, VTA, AC Transit, SamTrans, and San Francisco Bay Ferry also utilize the Clipper system.
Muni operates 14 express lines, 6 Rapid lines, and 12 Owl lines, which run between 1 am and 5 am. For San Francisco Giants games, additional "baseball shuttles" supplement N Judah and T Third service to AT&T Park.
Express lines only run during peak hours; during mornings they run towards downtown (the Financial District) and during the evening they run away from downtown. All express lines have an "X", "AX", or "BX" following the line's number. Some lines are divided into A and B Expresses. The B Express line is shorter and has stops that are closer to downtown, while the A Express makes stops further away from downtown and will make few or no stops in the area where the B Express stops. The 8 Bayshore, as the 8X Bayshore Express, was the only Express route that ran daily until April 25, 2015, the date where it is no longer an Express route.
Rapid lines (having an R following their route number) stop at only a subset of the stops of their corresponding "standard" line—typically every third stop.
Muni operates about 1,000 vehicles: diesel, electric, and hybrid electric transit buses, light rail vehicles, streetcars, historic streetcars, and cable cars. Many buses are diesel-powered, but more than 300 are zero emissions trolleybuses powered by overhead electrical wires. The electricity to run all of Muni's trolleybuses and streetcars comes from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park.
In 2006, Muni purchased 86 hybrid electric transit buses from Orion Bus Industries that are diesel-fueled but feature lower emissions and 19% reduced fuel consumption.
All Muni lines except for cable cars are wheelchair accessible. All bus lines have bicycle racks, but streetcars and cable cars do not. Because of San Francisco's geographical makeup (the city having neighborhoods located on hilltop-like areas, making it difficult for vehicles to drive up or down the streets), Muni operators are banned from using low-floor buses on certain routes with streets requiring buses or trolleybuses that are capable of reaching steep grades. But, as of 2013, high-floor vehicles are no longer available to be purchased by Muni; as of 2019, all low-floor ones are in service.
The longest Muni line is the 24.1-mile (38.8 km) 91 Owl, a nighttime-only route that blends several other routes together, while the longest daytime route is the 17.4-mile (28.0 km) 29 Sunset. The shortest route is the peak-hour only 88 BART Shuttle at 1.4 miles (2.3 km), while the shortest off-peak route is the 39 Coit at 1.6 miles (2.6 km). The steepest grade climbed by Muni vehicle is 23.1% by a diesel bus on the 67 Bernal Heights line, 22.8% by a trolleybus on the 24 Divisadero line, 21% by a cable car on the Powell-Hyde line, and 9% by a streetcar on the J Church line.
The busiest Muni bus corridor is the Geary corridor. The two major routes that operate on the corridor, the 38 Geary and 38R Geary Rapid, travel 6.5 miles (10.5 km) in the east–west direction along the Geary corridor, and has an average speed of only 8 miles per hour (13 km/h), taking over 50 minutes to travel from the Richmond District to the Transbay Terminal when operating on schedule. As of 2015, the corridor has a total of 55,270 average daily boardings, making it the second busiest transit corridor west of the Mississippi after the Los Angeles Metro Wilshire transit corridor.
At Powell and Market Streets and California and Market Streets, three types of rail gauges come within a few hundred feet of each other: Bay Area Rapid Transit's 5 ft 6 in (1,676 mm) broad gauge (which is underground in the lower level of the tunnels), Muni Metro's 4 ft 8 1⁄2 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge (also underground in the upper level of the tunnels), and the San Francisco cable car system's 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm) narrow gauge (at street level a few hundred feet away to the north of Market Street in both cases). The F Market heritage railway, which is also standard gauge, is also present here, at street level on Market Street. The rail lines, however, do not physically intersect.
Residents and visitors to San Francisco often remark upon the inefficiency of SF Muni. In November 1999 San Francisco voters passed Proposition E setting standards for performance of having at least an 85% on-time record In July 2012 Muni vehicles were on-time 60% of the time and in August 2012, they were on-time 57% of the time. A report conducted by the San Francisco Municipal Transport Agency in early 2013 noted that Muni was on time only 58% of the time. It delayed its customers a total of 172,195 hours and reduced the city's economic activity by $50 million USD per year. In 2013 the performance hit an all-time low of 57%, the on-time performance improved to 60% in January 2014, 60% in February 2014, and 60% in March 2014. A report by the city controller from October to December 2014 showed that Muni showed up late 56% of the time.
Since the passage of Proposition E in November 1999, Muni has been part of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), a semi-independent city agency created by that ballot measure. The agency, into which Muni, the Department of Parking and Traffic, and the Taxicab Commission were merged, is governed by a seven-member Board of Directors appointed by the Mayor and confirmed by the Board of Supervisors. The executive director and CEO of the SFMTA since August 15, 2011 has been Edward D. Reiskin, who previously headed the San Francisco Department of Public Works.
Muni has its origins in the period following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Until then the city had been served by a number of commercial horsecar, cable car and electric streetcar operators. Many of these had been amalgamated into the United Railroads of San Francisco (URR) company. In 1909, voters approved a municipal rail line down Geary. Three years later in 1912, the city declined to renew the franchise that bestowed cable car operator Geary Street, Park & Ocean Railway the privilege of operating on Geary Street, and converted the line into a municipal electric streetcar line, the first line of Muni. In 1912, the average speed of the city's public transit was approximately 8.5 miles per hour – slightly faster than the average speed of 8.1 in 2007.
Muni soon started on a large building program. On December 29, 1914, the new Stockton Street Tunnel under Nob Hill opened, allowing streetcars from downtown to go to North Beach and the new Marina District. On February 3, 1918, the Twin Peaks Tunnel opened, making the southwestern quarter of the city available for development. On October 21, 1928, the Sunset Tunnel opened, bringing the N Judah streetcar line to the Sunset District. These improvements plunged Muni into direct competition with the URR on the entire length of Market Street. The two operators each operated its own pair of tracks down that thoroughfare, which came to be known as the "roar of the four".
In 1941, Muni introduced its first trolleybus line, the R-Howard line. Trolleybuses had been running in San Francisco since 1935, but operated only by the Market Street Railway Company, successor to the URR. By 1944, the MSR was in financial difficulties. Thus, at 5 am on September 29, 1944, Muni acquired its commercial competitor. Along with the routes and equipment, Muni adopted its competitor's more expensive seven-cent fare. Following national trends, Muni replaced most of its rail lines with trolleybus service in the succeeding decades. A few lines with dedicated rights-of-way (including those serving the Twin Peaks and Sunset tunnels) continued as rail lines running 1940s-era PCC streetcars through the 1970s. These lines became the foundation of the Muni Metro.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the regional BART system was conceived as a much more extensive system than was eventually built, with plans for express trains through San Francisco and local service within San Francisco. Because it was assumed BART would provide local rail service, investment in Muni infrastructure failed to keep pace with major urban redevelopment projects. For example, BART was intended to provide Richmond district and Western Addition service as part of its Golden Gate Bridge/Marin line. This leaves a legacy of the inadequate 38-Geary bus serving these neighborhoods.
Construction on BART's Market street tunnel started in 1967, with two decks tracks – the upper intended to provide local service. Major cost overruns in the BART project forced the state legislature to rescue the project in 1969: curtailing local service in San Francisco and converting the partially constructed stations into the basis of a new light-rail subway called the Muni Metro to connect the downtown stations to the Twin Peaks Tunnel and continuing along reserved tracks to St. Francis Circle. Construction on the metro began in 1970, but the project suffered from further cuts and design changes throughout the 1970s. The Muni Metro finally opened in February 1980, for one line (N-Judah), with other lines following later in 1980, but the many design compromises and piecemeal planning led to long-term operational challenges and inefficiencies.
In 1970, Muni also suffered a severe diesel bus crisis.
Muni experienced a diesel bus availability crisis in 1981-2 when most of their diesel buses, 401 GMC and Flxible "New Looks" purchases in 1969, reached the end of their 12-year design life and funds for their replacement were not available. Most of the rest of the fleet were undersized 36-foot AM Generals purchased for neighborhood routes, and their use on heavier lines exacerbated conditions. The trolley bus fleet was in good order and had excess capacity at the time so Muni improvised a few temporary services with them to help out. One such service was a trolley 14-Limited that used the abandoned trolley overhead on South Van Ness. The diesel 82-Chinatown was replaced with short runs of the 30-Stockton. But the trolleys could only go where their wires went.
Muni adopted some policies to alleviate future service issues due to an aged fleet. They would stagger bus purchases so not as large a portion of the fleet would hit retirement age at once. They would arrange for mid-life rebuilds to keep the buses more serviceable in their final years. And they would work to reduce the role of diesels in the total operation. Three trunk diesel lines were converted to trolley bus service in the next twelve years.
But these efforts have not been as successful as hoped. Out of necessity most of the fleet, 330 standard bus equivalents out of 506, were replaced in just two years in 1985-6. (Standard bus equivalents factor the 30-foot and 60-foot into their equivalent capacity in 40-foot buses). And seven years passed without any new buses coming on board before Muni started its next full diesel fleet replacement cycle in 1999. This was fourteen years after the previous cycle instead of the twelve years that buses are designed to last. Muni is now aware that they must expect to keep diesel buses past their design life and have also found that funds granted for mid-life rebuilds require that the buses be kept longer still. As the fleet replacement cycle begins again in 2013, Muni has arranged for life-extending rebuilds of 142 buses, by count over 30% of the fleet.
In September 1982, the cable car system was shut down for 21 months for rebuilding, and there were massive line reorganizations as Muni restructured their route network to provide stronger cross-town services.
In 1983, Muni temporarily ran streetcars down Market Street as part of the San Francisco Historic Trolley Festival, initially conceived of as a substitute attraction for tourists during the one summer when no cable cars would be in operation. The service became so popular that the festival was repeated for several years following. Anticipating the return of permanent streetcar service on Market Street, Muni began rehabilitating tracks in 1987, a process that culminated in the opening of the F line in 1995.
The first modern Muni shelter was installed in front of the War Memorial Opera House in 1987.
During the late 1990s, with aging equipment and poor management, Muni developed a reputation for poor and erratic service. In 1996 a group called Rescue Muni representing transit riders formed to organize concerns and press for change, advocating for the successful 1999 Proposition E that formed the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and set service standards for Muni. In an effort to improve service, Muni began to replace its troublesome fleet of Boeing-Vertol light rail vehicles with newer Italian Breda light rail vehicles. In 1998, San Francisco residents witnessed a protracted malfunction of Muni Metro during the switch to automatic train control, culminating in an event that is known as the Muni Meltdown. The two-decade-old fleet of Flyer trolleybuses were replaced with Electric Transit, Inc. (ETI) trolleybuses in the early 2000s. Likewise, the diesel bus fleet saw an infusion of 45 new NABI buses from AC Transit in 1999.
Meanwhile, the F line was reintroduced in 1995 as a heritage streetcar service. Initially designed as a temporary tourist attraction to make up for the suspension of cable car service for rebuilding, the F has become a permanent fixture.
Construction on a sixth light rail line from Caltrain Depot in Mission Bay to Visitacion Valley and Bayview/Hunters Point was completed in December 2006. The new line, named the T Third Street, consisted of 19 new high-platform stations at street-level.
On October 8, 2007, SFMTA's cable car signs were awarded the AdWheel Award as the best in print promotion by the American Public Transportation Association. Nathaniel Ford, executive director of Muni, said that the "marketing group has done an outstanding job making the key boarding areas more attractive and inviting for residents and our guests."
On November 15, 2007, city officials announced that they were looking into the possibility of adding double-decker buses to the Muni fleet, which would be operating mostly on the 38 Geary and the 14 Mission routes. The test period started on December 12, 2007, and ended on January 8, 2008.
On December 1, 2007, Mayor Gavin Newsom announced that the entire city fleet, including all of Muni buses, are henceforth powered with biodiesel, a combination of 80% petroleum diesel fuel and 20% biofuel, to reduce carbon emissions. Muni's current hybrid bus fleet currently runs on biodiesel.
On July 17, 2009, a Muni LRV rear-ended another at West Portal Station. That accident injured 50 people.
On December 5, 2009, the Muni system underwent its most extensive changes in over 30 years, in an attempt by the SFMTA to reduce its budget shortfall. This involved changes to over 60 percent of its bus and light rail routes, including the elimination of six bus routes. Changes included reduced frequency of service, shortened or altered routes, and earlier termination of service, although a few of the busiest lines, such as the 38 Geary, saw service increases.
On February 26, 2010, the SFMTA board, which oversees Muni operations, voted for Muni to undergo further extensive changes in a further attempt to reduce its budget shortfall.
On July 1, 2012, Muni was the first transit agency in North America to implement all-door boarding throughout its system. Such practice already exists in the Muni Metro as Proof-of-Payment.
In April 2015, the SFMTA launched a plan titled "Muni Forward". Service changes involve renaming routes designated as "Limited" to "Rapid", a redesigned system map, and increased levels of service on the busiest bus routes. Infrastructure improvements include the addition of transit signal priority, bus bulbs, and bus-only lanes to more locations, and trackway repairs along the Muni Metro system.
A further underground expansion for the T line is under construction. Dubbed the Central Subway, four new underground stations at Moscone Center, Market and Stockton Streets, Union Square, and Chinatown are being built with a target opening date of 2018. Construction will include tunneling up to Columbus Ave and Washington Square Park but the T line will stop at Chinatown. A future extension into North Beach and Fisherman's Wharf or to the Marina District and The Presidio may be built in a third phase. This project is expected to cost about $1.4 billion. A critical problem with the proposed subway is that the stations will be much narrower and shorter in comparison to existing Muni Metro stations on Market Street; ridership projections reveal that the line will run at near capacity from the start of operations with little or no ability to increase capacity. Some activists have criticized these long-term plans as catering to the needs of visitors at the expense of city residents, asserting that Muni's resources would be better spent on a seventh light rail line running along (or under) Geary Boulevard into the densely populated Richmond District.
On February 19, 2016, MUNI released a Draft Rail Capacity Study, which outlines proposed system improvements through the year 2050+. This three tier proposal consists of enhancements that will improve system efficiency and expand the system; estimated cost is $9B - $16B.
Expected smaller changes to service include rerouting the 22-Fillmore and extending either the 30-Stockton or 45-Union-Stockton into Mission Bay when the area becomes developed, and extending the E Embarcadero and the F Market and Wharves into the Mission Bay and the Fort Mason Tunnel is possible.
Additionally, there are plans to expand trolleybus service in several parts of the city. Several extensions to existing trolleybus lines are planned, including 14-Mission service to the Daly City BART station, 6-Haight-Parnassus service to West Portal Station, 33-Ashbury-18th service across Potrero Hill to Third Street, 45-Union-Stockton service to the Letterman Digital Arts Center in the Presidio and 24-Divisadero service into the former Hunters Point shipyard. Other expansion plans include electrification of some diesel bus lines, with the most likely lines for conversion being the 9-San Bruno, 10-Townsend and 47-Van Ness. Electrification of the 10-Townsend line would likely be joined by an extension of the line across Potrero Hill to San Francisco General Hospital. Other lines that may be electrified are the 7-Haight-Noriega, 27-Bryant, and 43-Masonic.
However, the average speed of Muni vehicles has been slowly declining over the years due to increasing vehicular congestion and is now merely 8 miles (13 km) per hour. In response, Muni has launched plans to make its transit vehicles move faster through the city. The Transit Effectiveness Project was launched in May 2006 to take a comprehensive look at the entire Muni system and to see where service can be improved or streamlined to provide faster and more reliable service. Twenty-five years have passed since the last comprehensive review, and travel patterns have changed, traffic congestion has increased, operating costs have risen and on-time performance has dropped since then. Automatic passenger counters will help to provide an accurate picture of where riders get on and off.
Two bus rapid transit projects have been approved along the Geary Boulevard and Van Ness Avenue corridors, costing $240 to $270 million and $126 million respectively. For Van Ness BRT, there will be two dedicated bus lanes in the median between Lombard Street and Mission Street. Geary BRT will have dedicated median lanes in the Richmond District area, then curbside bus lanes east to Market Street. Both corridors will include transit signal priority, all-door boarding, new low-floor buses, and improved stations. Construction will begin on Van Ness BRT in October 24, 2016, with completion by 2018. Geary BRT is projected to begin construction in 2017 and also be in service by 2018.