Bus tourism: The little idea that could

This bus-tourism article from The New York Times Travel section just tickles me. I’m a big proponent of buses (yes, really), especially as a way for visitors to get a quick-and-dirty look at local life. The NYT story claims that by using one of their suggested $7.50-per-day city bus tours – an idea likely borne out of the dismal economy – you can see most of Manhattan in 3.5 hours of bus time, plus a few short walks and/or Subway rides.

Since it takes an hour, roughly, to get between any given Point A and B in San Francisco on Muni, bus tourism is a tragically laughable concept once you translate the idea for our fair city. For comparison’s sake, based on square-footage, Manhattan Island is a little less than one-half the size of San Francisco.

San Francisco has an identity crisis. This manifests itself in a number of ways, including copious, self-conscious references to it being a “world-class” city with “world-class” stuff. You can find such references in everything from Mayor Gavin Newsom’s 2008 inaugural address to his endorsement of a contemporary art museum in the Presidio to just about any time someone official talks about San Francisco International Airport. Sadly, the world-class city with world-class stuff doesn’t have world-class transportation, effectively disqualifying it from consideration to host the 2012 Olympic games.

Like many other Muni-related uh-ohs, it doesn’t have to be that way. So to start, I’ve crafted a helpful tally to keep track of all the WTF issues related to Muni + tourists. All prices are taken from the Muni website.

  • Passports

Passports are $11 for one day, $18 for three, and $24 for seven. A bit much, don’t you think? The cost includes unlimited rides on cable cars, which cost $5 a ride. I don’t find tourists riding the cable car more than once, thanks largely to the popularity of the historic lines and the resulting hourlong line at the start of every route. Visitors are also concentrated mostly in the northeast quadrant of town; meaning they take a ride or two on the F-Market/Wharves, and spend much of their time walking on the pedestrian-friendly Embarcadero and Wharf to get to their destination (Ferry Building, Market Street, North Beach, etc.) The smart ones spend even more time walking when they realize how much easier and more fun it is than waiting for a bus.

The extra fee is insulting, especially given the cost of the Passports in the first place. If you refer back to the NYT story, you’ll find that getting to Museum Mile doesn’t cost you extra. And if we had a transit system that worked properly, we wouldn’t need a gimmicky idea like the Culture Bus to begin with.

Yes, everything is more expensive if you’re a tourist. $5 for a cable car ride is a lot; but it’s a San Francisco cable car, so you quickly get over it. However, a Muni bus is just a bus, especially if/when it doesn’t get you where you want to go and you find yourself frantically consulting your map looking for your next best option.

  • NextMuni Fail

Fine, forget us commuters; NextMuni and its “10 minutes…20 minutes…2 minutes…8 minutes…” joke of a time estimator confuses the hell out of visitors. And, as I’ve said in previous posts, they’re not going to find the F-Market/Wharves line so quaint and charming if it and NextMuni continue to fail at their respective tasks.

This line goes by quite a bit of visitor-oriented destinations, which is probably why tourists are always looking for it. And I know they’re always looking for it because they always ask me where it is.

I work on Stockton at North Point. But the 30 doesn’t start traveling on Stockton until half a mile south of my office. I know that, but people who don’t spend a lot of time here do not. Calling it a Stockton line is perhaps a stretch … Columbus/Stockton might make more sense. Don’t these Passports come with bus route maps? Seems like an oversight if they don’t. To be fair, ditto for New York City: grid systems aren’t easy to navigate on a bus, especially if you don’t have a map of where that bus is taking you.

In sum: Bus tourism in San Francisco will only be cost-effective and efficient if there are easier transfer points, more logical routes and buses that show up on time.


One comment

  • The area of the city that contains most of our tourist attractions is relatively small, and mostly level. It’s well-served by Muni, for the most part, but in nice weather (which we enjoy here, oh, 7,000 days per year), I say walk it. Certainly don’t take a cab. I agree that a better map of the system, maybe just in the core, would be nice. Like, if they handed that to tourists with their passports. But it’s mostly a two-part grid in that part of town.

    What needs to be reformed, desperately, is the system for getting tourists out to the burgeoning museum pocket in Golden Gate Park, as well as to the park itself. The Culture Bus is a joke. I suppose once the Fisher art museum opens in the Presidio, the PresidiGo will serve it well. Though I’ve never ridden that thing.

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