From its christening as the first major, publicly owned, land-based transit agency in the United States on December 28, 1912 , the San Francisco Municipal Railway, known the world over as "Muni," has operated with a singular mission: to provide safe, accessible transportation to all of the city's diverse and disparate populations, neighborhoods and communities. Today, Muni serves as the transit arm of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), the umbrella agency responsible for operating and managing the city's integrated surface transportation network. This multimodal network includes walking, cycling, transit, parking, traffic and taxis.
San Francisco has always been in the vanguard of public transit, dating from the mid-19th century when the city of sand dunes emerged from three pivotal activity centers: the Mission, the military presence at the Presidio and trade at Yerba Buena Cove.
Specifically, transit service in the city debuted in 1851 as a horse-drawn omnibus that was more of a local stagecoach line. In the wake of the Gold Rush, growth in port activity and a burgeoning population, rail transit emerged and extended outward to developing areas. These horse-powered rail lines were private ventures operated by entrepreneurial land developers.
By the time of the Civil War, the Red Line, which had been reincorporated as the Omnibus Railroad Company, was serving South Park, North Beach, Rincon Hill and the Mission along Howard Street as well as in the Jackson Square area. This early service entailed nearly 11 miles of track over which 90 men and 140 horses operated 24 cars. The line’s major competition was the Yellow Line operated by the North Beach and Mission Railroad Company. Four more companies were in operation by 1870, when the city’s population had grown to 150,000, and by 1875 eight companies were providing service along 80 miles of rail employing 700 men and 1,700 horses. Despite the popularity of horse power, it was prone to multiple problems including equine diseases and pollution of city streets in crowded areas. These negatives led to the use of steam dummies and small steam locomotives to pull coaches, but these, too, were eclipsed by steam-powered cable for propulsion.
At the outset of 1873 transit operations in San Francisco were very similar to any other large U.S. city, but by the end of the year a revolutionary source of propulsion would be in operation in San Francisco. Specifically, Andrew Hallidie, a Scottish immigrant who manufactured wire cables in a North Beach factory, ingeniously adapted mining industry technology to street railway operations on August 1, 1873 on Clay Street between Jones and Kearny streets, thus starting the inevitable demise of horse-drawn transit. In an interesting side note, many of the horse-drawn cars were recycled as housing that spawned a unique neighborhood of these former vehicles known as Carville-by-the-Sea.
Cable cars proliferated throughout the city for over 30 years until the arrival of electric streetcars around 1900. Once perfected, electric streetcars soon became practical on most grades in hilly San Francisco, albeit their high capital costs relegated their development to a slow pace and cable cars continued to dominate up to the 1906 earthquake and fire. This period also was characterized by the consolidation of many independent and competing systems into the first Market Street Railway Company in 1893 and further consolidation of all but three of the remaining independents as the United Railroads in 1902. This monopolistic enterprise so angered the public that voters approved bond measures to create a municipal streetcar line in 1909.
In the wake of voter approval of the bond measure, three years would pass until December 28, 1912 when the San Francisco Municipal Railway inaugurated streetcar service on the A and B lines on Geary Street between downtown and 33rd Avenue. Although the new Muni expanded service, the United Railroads continued as the much larger operation. After being renamed the Market Street Railway in 1921 its operation, including two cable car lines, was subsequently acquired by the City in 1944. With this acquisition, the former Market Street Railway more than doubled in size.
The years after World War II, a national conversion from streetcar lines to bus service and electric trolley coaches was ushered in.
Concurrent with this new trend, Mayor Roger Lapham attempted to close down the cable car system in 1947. That same year Friedel Klussman rallied the new Citizen’s Committee to Save the Cable Cars which advanced a charter amendment for voter consideration. It won handily and forced the city to maintain and operate the Powell Street system. However, in 1951 the three privately owned California Cable Car Company lines were shut down, only to reopen the following year when the city purchased them. In short succession the Jones Street Shuttle and the O’Farrell, Jones and Hyde lines ceased operation, and the California Line was shortened. The fate of the city’s iconic cable cars was ultimately determined by Proposition E which was narrowly passed by voters in 1954, but the changes resulted in the number of cable car lines being reduced to three by 1957. In 1964 the cable car system was declared a National Historic Landmark. These three lines continue to operate today as a testament to San Francisco voters who ensured their survival in the age of Sputnik. The cable car system was rebuilt and historic cars were refurbished from 1982 to 1984. Rehabilitation of the California Line that began in 2010 was completed summer 2011.
The high status of transit in San Francisco was recognized on March 19, 1973 when the Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution “declaring that Municipal Railway vehicles and other transit vehicles be given priority over other vehicles on San Francisco streets.” This commitment was taken to an even higher level when the city’s voters in November 1988 approved creation of the Department of Parking and Traffic with the proviso that “transit first is, has been, and continues to be the policy of the City and County of San Francisco.” Thusly, the Transit First policy was embedded in the City Charter where it remains in force today.
The importance of transit was once again highlighted through the disability rights movement, which has its roots in the San Francisco Bay Area. As early as 1975, the Coalition for the Removal of Architectural Barriers (CRAB) began to advocate for the railcars, soon to be purchased for the new Muni Metro system, to ensure that they were accessible to people in wheelchairs. In March of 1975, in large part through the advocacy of CRAB, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a resolution making it official city policy that “elderly and disabled people” have the same right to transit, and that full accessibility of the transit system be the eventual goal.
More than a decade before passage of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, Muni recognized that achievement of this the goal of full accessibility, door-to-door paratransit service and accessible bus and rail services, would be required. The Paratransit Coordinating Council, a community advisory committee made up of disabled people and seniors and other stakeholders, was formed in 1978 to advise Muni on door-to-door paratransit services. Paratransit services began the following year, in 1979, with 80,000 van rides. In 1983, Paratransit services expanded to include taxi. In 1980 Muni began replacing the bus fleet with lift-equipped buses, making Muni one of the first US transit properties to make a commitment to both accessible transit and paratransit services.
Also in 1980, Muni formed the Elderly and Handicapped Advisory Committee, which was a Citizen’s Advisory Committee (CAC) composed of 16 members, all of whom were senior and/or disabled. This committee played a major role in advising staff on the development of accessible transit service. While the name has changed, this committee still survives today as the SFMTA – Muni Accessibility Advisory Committee, and is one of the oldest CACs of its type in the nation.
Today the SFMTA provides one million door-to-door paratransit trips per year and has a fully accessible bus fleet with rail accessibility at all underground stations, key stations on the surface portions of Muni light rail lines and full access via the new sections of the F Historic Streetcar Lines and the T Third Line.
The SFMTA continues to collaborate with disabled customers through its citizen advisory committees, thus creating a transit system that is designed to go beyond legal requirements to meet the needs of its customers.
Not just a commuter system, Muni is a mode of choice to the city’s wealth of cultural, sporting, shopping and entertainment venues. It also provides good connections to other Bay Area public transit systems such as BART, AC Transit, Golden Gate Transit and Ferries, SamTrans, Caltrain, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority and the Marin and East Bay ferries.
Moreover, the original Muni organization has been transformed into the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) that operates and manages the city’s integrated surface transportation network which includes all modes including: pedestrians, bicyclists, transit, paratransit, parking, traffic and taxi regulation.
With over one hundred years service to San Francisco, Muni and the SFMTA are a unique and vital part of the nation’s transit and transportation history, serving one of the greenest cities on the planet.
Historical images reflect the long history of the SFMTA in San Francisco.