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A crowd of people waiting to get on a subway. Photo via Shutterstock

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17 tips for riding Muni like a pro

How to load your Clipper Card, where to sit and stand, and the best apps

Muni, San Francisco’s execrable transit system, can be an exercise in degradation and suffering. N Judah trains, few and far between, are too packed during rush hour. Switchbacks on the T-Third enrage even the most Zen-like passenger. Stations are a mess. The breakdowns. The breakups. The 38. And no amount of ink or @ing the transit agency seems to do the trick.

But a glimmer of hope has pierced the dark clouds as of late. For example, Jeffrey Tumlin, San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency’s (SFMTA) new director of transportation, apologize on Twitter Monday on behalf of his agency after the subway suffered five breakdowns in three hours.

And while Muni will always have its woes, taking public transportation is such a good thing. It helps denizens feel more connected to the city. You’ll see new places and interact with more people. You won’t rely as much on Uber and Lyft. Plus, it’s a good way to lower your carbon footprint.

Here are the basics: SFMTA, a city department responsible for the management of all ground transportation in SF, has a growing light rail network that intersects with BART at four stations and a fleet of buses that cover San Francisco.

Whether you’re a visitor, a transplant, or a longtime resident willing to ditch your car, you’ll need some advice to feel like more like a pro while riding public transit. Below are 18 tips to make your daily commute a better one.

1. Use a Clipper Card: A ride on Muni costs $3 (cash) and $2.50 using Clipper/MuniMobile for adults. Clipper Cards are the way to go for regular riders. Monthly Clipper Cards cost $81 (Muni only) or $98 (Muni plus SF Bart). Youth (ages 5 to 18) and seniors (65 and older) receive a 25-cent discount.

You can refill you Clipper Card at ticket vending machines found at all Muni stations, but it can prove to be a frustrating endeavor as machines are buggy and often have trouble reading debit/credit cards. (During a recent mishap while trying to reload our card, a Muni worker told us, “Don’t bother using the machines.”) A better way is to refill is by registering your card online—which gives you the security of balance protection if your card is lost, stolen or damaged—and set it to autoload.

Not into using a Clipper Card? No worries. All stations, buses, and light rails accept cash.

2. Allow passengers to exit first: This golden rule is so easy, yet so often ignored. If you’re waiting to board a bus or light rail, please step to the side to allow passengers to exit before you board. This will result in a speedier process with little to no congestion at the door.

3. Board any door: Bus and light rail cars are accessible via any door. To open rear bus doors while trying to board, look for the green-lit button on the side of the bus. To open doors on light rails that aren’t underground, look for the lit-up circular button at the sides of each door. All doors on underground light rail cars open automatically.

4. But boarding the front door is best. Why clog up the rear or middle doors? That’s where everyone seems to congregate and rush inside. Instead, head to the comparatively calm and less crowded front door.

5. Don’t block the doors: “Don’t try to force the doors open, it’s not worth it!” says Eugenia Chien, editor of Muni Diaries. “The stories of injuries on the new vehicles are still giving me nightmares.”

The SFMTA is trying to fix the doors on its new light rail vehicles to make sure they no longer run the risk of closing on intruding hands and potentially injuring impatient riders who try to slide in at the very last second. Here’s a YouTube video of a courageous SFMTA manager putting her fingers on the line to illustrate the new safety features.

Nevertheless, please don’t use your hands or anything else to try to stop the doors on buses and especially trains from closing. For one thing, it’s dangerous no matter how well-designed the failsafes are; for another, older Muni trains make the most distressing screeching noise when obstructed, a feature that is supposed to discourage riders from doing this very thing.

In fact, doors on the old trains are so sensitive that attempts to keep them open sometimes cause the entire vehicle to go out of commission. So, please, don’t do that.

6. Take off your backpack: It bears repeating: Take off your backpack while riding.

Even if the train isn’t packed and you are standing, your backpack belongs between your feet,” says Mc Allen, transit expert and writer of the poetry series in the Bay City Beacon. “Backpacks on backs mean you take up two peoples worth of standing room and will hit seated people in the face.”

The agency, as well as BART, even has a new ad campaign going specifically to deter this issue.

7. Don’t hog seats: While BART punishes seat-hogging passenger with fines, Muni is more lenient. Only public scorn will stop you from putting your feet, backpack, or bag on an empty seat. Please keep seats free of your debris or accessories for your fellow passengers.

8. See something, say something: Everything from fist fights to violent muggings are commonplace on Muni buses, platforms, and trains. San Franciscans tend to shy away from face-to-face confrontation, but when you see a mugging or physical attack in progress, alert the driver and other passengers, contact authorities, and, if you sense no immediate physical danger, intervene with extreme caution if someone is in danger.

In the event of a crime occurring on Muni, SFMTA suggests: “When a crime occurs, note details like the time, location and Muni vehicle number. If safe, also note a physical description of any suspects. It can also help to—once again, only if safe—discreetly take photos or videos of the incident to provide to police.”

Same goes for people sexually harassing or assaulting other passengers.

9. Find your app: Muni lines can arrive and depart at erratic intervals. And not every bus stop comes equipped with an electronic arrival schedule. Which is why you may want some digital assistance mapping your route.

Muni has its own dedicated app called MuniMobile, which allows you to buy tickets instantly via a credit/debit card, PayPal account, Apple Pay, or Google Pay. It also comes with trip planning, arrival times (via NextMuni), and even the ability to rate your ride.

Another choice option is NextBus, which comes with real-time arrival information for over 100 transit agencies, including Muni, BART, and AC Transit. It also shows arrival times of nearby lines, which is super helpful.

Other similar apps include Routesy (iOS only), Transit, and Citymapper.

10. Know where to sit or stand: People tend to cluster near the doors, which, during rush hour, causes grief for passengers trying to board. Please move to the center of the coach once you board.

Against the doors opposite the platform side (i.e., not the doors that open) is secretly the best place to stand. Just beware that the steps will move down once the light rail emerges from the tunnel and goes above ground.

New light rails come with red and blue bench seating. The blue seating is for passengers with disabilities and seniors. For buses and older light rails, please allow passengers with disabilities and seniors to use the front seats, which, unlike the new vehicles, are not color coded. This means that you will have to get up from your seat and stand. It’s the right thing to do.

11. People will try to steal your phone: Asking you to stop gazing into your phone is a fruitless and, frankly, judgmental task. But beware that many riders have fallen prey to brazen phone thieves who will grab smartphones right out of users’ hands, usually done on platforms or when a train or bus comes reaches a stop.

12. See if you qualify for discounted fare: Muni provides seniors, youth, and low-to-moderate income San Francisco residents with disabilities free access to Muni. People can apply here.

13. Stand to the right of an escalator: If you’re entering or exiting the platform area via escalator, the rule is: stand on the right, walk on the left.

14. More than the T-Third goes through Dogpatch and Mission Bay: Mc Allen says, “If you are in the Market Street subway heading to Mission Bay or Dogpatch, don’t zone out waiting for a T. Keep an eye open for a bonus N, L, or M train that extends its run to 23rd Street and Third Street before going out of service. These trains are headed to the trolley yard on Illinois Street, but you’ll miss out if you don’t check the destination signs.”

15. Don’t hail a bus—it’s not a taxi: Driver Doug Meriwether, author of The Dao of Doug: the Art of Driving a Bus or Finding Zen in San Francisco Transit and one of the many operators who have shared stories with Muni Diaries, says that when you’re waiting for the bus, have your Clipper Card ready, and, as the bus approaches, put your arm out pointing downward to let the driver know you’re ready to board.

16. Say thanks to your driver upon exiting: It’s a nice thing to do.

17. Catch the California Street cable car: Riders will line up around the block for the historic cable cars on Powell Street, meanwhile the east-west crossing California Street line that boards outside Embarcadero BART/Muni station largely goes overlooked by locals and visitors alike, rarely suffering a line. If you’re one of those San Franciscans who feels sheepish about riding the cable cars for fear of looking like a tourist, not to worry—most tourists opt for the Powell line.

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