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Summer of Muni: Riding the late-night Owl lines

A San Francisco dad and his two kids will attempt to ride every Muni line—from terminus to terminus—this summer

Inspired by San Francisco Chronicle journalists Peter Hartlaub and Heather Knight, who embarked on a the entirety of Muni in a single day, one father and his two kids will ride every Muni line from end to end until the school year starts.

With the finish line just on the proverbial horizon, last week I tackled two lines that aren’t as popular with nine-to-five commuters—the Muni Owls—as well one of the few lines that exit San Francisco’s borders.

76X-Marin Headlands

The 76X-Marin Headlands is the only Muni line which only runs on the weekend. Because of this, it’s also the only line that the San Francisco Chronicle’s team had to leave off their list. And it runs like this: The 76X departs Baghdad by the Bay, crosses the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin County, and then climbs a winding grade on the bluffs of the headlands before finally dipping down behind a ridge line.

This line surprised me as it felt very much like a SF-only line. A number of Sunday morning riders used the bus as the most expedient route from the Financial District to the Marina. Unlike a typical express route, however, it stops every few blocks until it reaches Doyle Drive. At least half of the seats went to folks who had no intention of spanning the Golden Gate, contrary to my assumption that the bus would be exclusive to tourists and day trippers.

Photo by Mc Allen

As we left the Marina, a fellow passenger introduced himself as a fan of Summer of Muni. Jon, a 40-year-San Francisco resident, I chatted about San Francisco and Muni history with another long time resident, David, who has been riding the Headlands bus semi-regularly for 42 years. David explained to us how the 76 got its out-of-sequence number: The route is named after the year it entered service, as a special event line for San Francisco’s 1976 celebration of the U.S. bicentennial. The 76 proved so popular that SFMTA decided to keep it.

Arriving at Fort Cronkhite, I said goodbye to David and Jon, and headed onto the sand of Rodeo Beach, where surfers were nursing small swells. After lunch, my son and I walked to the nearest inbound 76 stop, an unmarked piece of gravel margin where Field Road ends in Bunker Road.

Next up: It’s time to take on Muni’s late-night Owl lines—alone.

90-San Bruno Owl

Leaving North Point and Van Ness at 1:21 a.m., I hopped on the 90-San Bruno Owl. My operator told me he prefers driving owls, because there’s never traffic and it fits his schedule allowing for him to have time with his family.

“You know exactly what you’re going to get,” he said. “Customer service is different, you can be a lot more direct when talking to the passengers. Daytime buses, we have to be a lot more politic.”

But right after he told me everything he likes about driving Owls, he told me he’s twice been assaulted in the four years he’s been driving the late night routes, including having a broken beer bottle thrown at him.

While the operator was telling me this, a nearby passenger carefully sipped from an open bottle of Anchor Steam, poorly concealed inside a motorcycle helmet. At least he’s not riding his bike, I thought.

91-Owl

The 91-Owl, the granddaddy of all late night buses, is a sweeping 23-mile route that is the amalgamation of four regular service routes, the 8, the 28, the 30 and the T.

I rode the 91 from Visitation Valley to the Outer Mission, Ingleside and West Portal, then back through through Bayview, Dogpatch, Mission Bay, SOMA, Chinatown, North Beach, Marina, Presidio, Richmond, Golden Gate Park, Sunset, and to the terminal at SF State.

Phew.

Google Maps/SFMTA
91-Owl route.

This trip took two hours, and I found myself about as far from my home as possible. There was no better option for getting back than to stay aboard the 91 and ride all the way back around the city to Dogpatch.

But the Owls, and the 91 in particular, serve passengers who remain onboard for the ride’s entirety. These buses serve two primary purposes: helping folks get around in the wee hours of the night, perhaps going home after late shift work or late night drinking, and as a rolling shelter for people who have no other place to sleep.

While riding the 91, I spotted two other passengers sleeping the entire three and a half hours I was on the bus. As many as 10 passengers were sleeping at some point during the trip.

Operators I spoke with agreed that this is an appropriate function of the Owls, however unofficial. Unlike most daytime routes, Owl drivers don’t ask the passengers to scram at layovers—instead they turn off the lights and let people rest.

One traveler I met with whom didn’t want to spend too much time sat right next to me and immediately started up a conversation. Seemingly in an addled state, he told me about his plans to take care of people when the next big earthquake hits. He said he was just trying to get home, but he didn’t seem how to get there.

He also surprised me when he took off his shoe and sock to show me where he was experiencing foot pain. I think in daylight it would be beyond the pale to seek podiatry advice of a random benchmate, but it seemed to fit right in with the general tenor of the afterhours coach.

67-Bernal Heights

The next day, with my kids healthy and back in tow, we picked a short route: the 67-Bernal Heights. The 67 crosses the top of Bernal Hill on a north-south course, from 24th Street and Mission to the Alemany Farmers Market. It’s about a 17-minute ride. In that time, we went from a sunny, warm midday in the Mission to a blast of cold wind at the southern foot of Bernal Hill.

With only a handful of days left available, we will have to make up for lost time by riding the final 15 lines on a more aggressive schedule, including a few three-route days, which could result in a photo finish for our summer marathon.