Seattle Transit: Moving in the Right Direction

In which city will you find a downtown transit tunnel, subway trains & light rail, streetcars, commuter rail, diesel/electric hybrid and electric trolley buses, ferries? If your answer is Seattle, you will of course be right. And if your answer instead is San Francisco, you’ll also be right. So how do the two cities compare?

During our recent trip to the City by the Bay the spouse, daughter and I used almost all the transit modes the city has to offer:

  • BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) from the airport to downtown.
  • Muni Metro light rail in the downtown subway and out to Haight-Ashbury, Castro and the Mission.
  • F line historic streetcar along Embarcadero to Fisherman’s Wharf.
  • Diesel/electric hybrid or electric trolley buses everywhere in between.
  • And of course we rode the Cable Cars too.

Downtown Ride Free Area

San Francisco does not have a ride free area. All travel on Muni and BART requires proof of payment. Seattle’s ride free area is a really nice amenity – an advantage that I feel is worth keeping and one I hope the city will continue to support.

Downtown Transit Tunnel

Taken together San Francisco’s current 5.4 miles of Market Street Subway and Twin Peaks Tunnel make Seattle’s 1.3 mile Downtown Transit Tunnel seem puny, plus there are no buses to mess things up, only trains. And between the Embarcadero and Civic Center stations, to separate the BART & Muni systems, the tunnel has two levels: heavy rail BART below and light rail Muni above.

However during the next ten years Seattle is going to catch and pass San Francisco, eventually having more than 8 miles of light rail running underground versus Muni’s 6.9 miles.

  • University Link – 3.2 miles of additional tunnel
  • North Link – 3.5 miles of additional tunnel
  • East Link – 0.5 miles of additional tunnel (Bellevue)
  • Muni’s Central Subway – 1.5 miles of additional tunnel

BART vs Link

At first glance it might seem as though comparing 1960s heavy rail technology to state of the art light rail is an apples to oranges exercise. But in the context of each system’s airport to downtown service, I believe the comparison is a valid one.

The distances are similar: they both take about 35 minutes. Both operate in their own dedicated right of way: partly on the surface, partly as a subway. The only meaningful differences I see: although sporting far fewer cars, Link trains are more frequent than BART. And Link’s price is significantly lower too: $2.50 each way vs $8.10 in my example.

Another significant difference is ticketing: whereas Link tickets are individual journey based, BART uses a stored value fare card. At the ticket machine you can load a card with an exact fare amount, or choose a larger amount good for multiple rides. But at no point in the transaction do you select a destination: in order to purchase exact fare you need to know what it is ahead of time, or check the printed fare chart that should be on the front of the machine. I found the BART machine complicated to use – and I’m a techie.

A significant advantage of the Link ticket vending machine is that besides selling Link tickets it also sells Orca cards for use on Link and all the other regional transit services. Even though BART accepts the Bay Area’s version of Orca – “Clipper” – their machines don’t sell it.

So, in the airport scenario, I feel Link has an edge over BART. And when Link is fully built out I believe Seattle will have a regional rapid transit system with similar coverage to BART that offers better service at lower cost. Rider capacity may ultimately turn out to be the only downside of Link.

Additional information:

How to Ride BART | How to Use Up Your BART Ticket | BART for Short Attention Spans

San Francisco Muni

Muni is the transit agency that serves the city (and county) of San Francisco. As such Muni operates Metro Light Rail, City Buses, and the Cable Cars. Muni is a typical large city system that, for the uninitiated, can seem overly complicated at first. However, except for the few issues I describe below, we found our way around Muni without too much hassle. Some general recommendations:

Buy a Muni Passport : Good for unlimited travel on all Muni services for 1, 3 or 7 days (including Cable Cars).

Either buy the official San Francisco Transit Map or pick up one of the free visitors maps. Trust me, don’t even attempt to use Muni, especially buses, without a map that shows at least the major routes and where the Metro lines run.

Metro Light Rail vs Link

Metro is a hybrid subway/streetcar system using essentially the same modern light rail technology as Link. However Metro was born out of the 1970s conversion of San Francisco’s five surviving 19th century streetcar lines. As a result, its surface segments follow the original streetcar lines, with some extension, and are therefore comparable to Seattle’s separate streetcar network (Metro, like Seattle Streetcar, is not traffic separated; whereas Link is). This makes Link a far superior above ground system, closer in performance to BART than Metro. Within its Market Street Subway and Twin Peaks tunnel segments Metro is comparable to Link.

During one of our Metro rides, where it transitions from streetcar to subway, we noticed it suffers a problem in common with Link: it seems tunnel access and control presents a major challenge during peak hours and frequent delays do occur. However I suspect the causes affecting Metro in San Francisco are different than those impacting Link in Seattle.

Delays in the downtown Seattle tunnel almost always stem from its shared bus and light rail operations, but I suspect Muni’s issues result from Metro running above ground as a streetcar. We experienced Metro being held up by stop lights at intersections followed by a wait to enter the tunnel. Unpredictable arrival of the trains at the tunnel portals must make it difficult if not impossible to maintain a schedule.

However, once in the tunnel, operating as a subway, I thought Metro was great. Between West Portal and Embarcadero you can ride any K, L, M and T train in either direction, and between Van Ness and Embarcadero, all Metro trains may be used. It’s like riding between stations in the downtown Seattle tunnel – any bus will do – except in San Francisco it’s not free.

I do have one serious bone to pick with Metro: the stupidity that is the K and T lines. While trying to get a train from Powell to the Mission district (Church & 18th), I got confused and took the K by mistake (should have been J). The first station on K after the lines split is Church so you don’t realize the mistake until three stops down the line at Forest Hill. Of course you can backtrack like on any subway system but what a time waster.

Metro lines K and T are described by Muni as if they are separate lines but they are actually one single line. Inbound K trains change to T when entering the tunnel at West Portal and continue to the Sunnydale terminus. Conversely T trains change to K when entering the tunnel at Embarcadero and continue to the Balboa Park terminus – this is nuts – just call it one line, and give it a single letter.

Muni Buses vs Seattle’s Metro Buses

I think this is where San Francisco (Muni) and Seattle (Metro) are most similar, and – once you figure out the couple of Muni oddities – it is really hard to say that one is any better or worse than the other, their bus operations are just too similar. In general we found Muni buses to be numerous, frequent, and convenient to use except, as I said, for a few things:

Coming from Seattle, where we’re used to every Metro stop having the familiar yellow and white BUS sign attached to a pole, it isn’t always obvious where Muni buses stop. Stops with a shelter or a red Muni sign are easy to recognize but we found many secondary stops that were nothing more than the words “Bus Stop” and a route number stenciled vertically in black or yellow paint on a utilty pole. To begin with you feel there are no bus stops anywhere – your eyes are simply not tuned for what to look for. Then a local points out a stop to you and suddenly you see bus stops popping up everywhere.

OK, so you’ve located a bus stop: now you encounter the second gotcha… It isn’t obvious where the buses go by their destination signs. Even buses headed downtown don’t necessarily say “downtown” on them, instead displaying some cryptic destination that presumably refers to the specific street or a feature where they terminate.

Again, coming from Seattle, we’re used to inbound buses displaying “DOWNTOWN” or “SEATTLE” on them, and buses headed out of downtown displaying the destination neighborhood or transit center they’re headed to. In San Francisco, without street-level local knowledge, you may have no idea where the bus goes. So be sure to know which route number(s) will go within two or three blocks of where you want to go, particularly at stops served by multiple routes, and especially when you want to get downtown.

What I just talked about is the main reason why I say don’t try to use Muni without a map. But another reason is that unlike Seattle, which has few crosstown routes (most start and end downtown), San Francisco has many. Muni buses inbound to downtown may terminate there or they may pass through on the way to their destinations. For example: the first couple times we found ourselves in the North Beach neighborhood wanting to get back downtown to Market Street, we let #45s pass while we waited for a #30, not knowing we could take both.

Many Muni bus stops have an electronic board showing real time bus arrival information and there is the 511 service as well. 511 works much like Seattle’s OneBusAway using the unique ID number that is posted at every Muni stop (which is not always the case in Seattle). We found 511 easy to use and reliable.


Several ferry operators provide passenger only services from the San Francisco waterfront to various bay area communities. Unlike Seattle, which lacks bridges across the Sound, San Francisco’s Golden Gate and Bay bridges make vehicle ferry service unnecessary. Schedules are not as frequent and fares in San Francisco appear to be a little higher than the Seattle area services provided by Washington State Ferries

We rode the Golden Gate ferry from Sausalito, which uses the downtown San Francisco ferry building as its terminal, kinda like how WSF uses Colman Dock in Seattle for its terminal. And like Seattle, which requires a hike from the ferry to the transit tunnel, San Francisco requires a similar hike from ferry to Embarcadero Station. I feel in both cases this presents an unacceptable accessibiity barrier (for seniors, disabled, etc.) which should be addressed.

My Conclusions:

Seattle is best…

Ride free area
Link – better airport to downtown than BART
Link – better above ground light rail than Muni Metro
Buses – are easier to use
Orca – use and availability

San Francisco is best…

Muni Metro – better streetcar, no need to transfer to light rail
Muni Metro – lower fare than Link, 90 minute transfer provided
Cable Cars – just ’cause they’re still there


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