Am I riding a Muni bus, streetcar, or subway?

what am i riding muni original

Ugh, isn’t it so annoying when out-of-towners call everything a bus? Actually, there are probably plenty of people who live here and still can’t get it right. The good people at AAA Architecture made a nice guide of transit-speak so you don’t sound like a tourist. Now you can finally work the phrase “articulated coach” into your next dinner conversation and know you’re doing it right.

Photo by AAA Architecture


  • A Vuncular

    Looks like may need to have Articulated Coach and BRT have a partial overlap, and that overlap may need to include both Trolley Coach and Motor Coach.

    • Perhaps. I actually kinda regret including BRT since we are still a ways off from having it, and as it will be implemented, the equipment will be the same as Muni already operates, so it is more of a guideway thing than a vehicle thing.

  • Dexter Wong

    You could also add that streetcars have poles and run on rails, while cable cars do not have poles but run on rails (which have a slot in between the rails). Too many people cannot tell the difference between streetcars and cable cars. Also motorized (or fake) cable cars have rubber tires while real cable cars have steel wheels and run on rails.

    • That is not entirely true. Cable cars are a type of streetcar. That is why they are both in the “Streetcar” bubble. The fake cable cars fit in the “Buses” category since they are driven on roads. The diagram takes some shortcuts for the sake of graphic simplicity, but putting cable cars in streetcars is accurate. I expected more people to quibble over whether or not LRVs are streetcars, which is arguable.

      • Dexter Wong

        Well, LRVs and older types of streetcar can share the same tracks (just look at the E Line which shares space with the N Line as it heads toward the Caltrain Station). The LRV has European roots. In Belgium, there is a system that has their streetcars running on the streets on the edge of town then enters a subway to enter downtown. They call that pre-Metro because they have designed it to be improved to a full metro system at some later date.

  • Dexter Wong

    To split hairs, BART actually runs above ground between Balboa Park and Daly City (but in the larger picture, who cares?).

    • Larry Brennan

      Subway in the US is a generic term for rapid transit. New Yorkers take the subway, even on lines like the 7, which is 90% elevated. Chicago refers to the ‘L’ for CTA routes, though there are portions underground or at grade — some routes even have street crossings at grade, protected by lights and gates.
      I disagree with calling BART commuter, however. Its basic characteristics are rapid transit.

  • Dexter Wong

    To further split hairs, Caltrain runs through a number of tunnels in San Francisco (but that isn’t really important).

  • MUNI trains above ground are typically ‘trains, metro or streetcars’ vs catching “the underground’.

  • John Daniels

    I’ve driven motor buses, coaches, trolleys, and trackless trolleys for several coach companies and three different transit agencies.

    Let’s begin with the motor bus, or simply, the bus: that’s what it is–a bus.

    Next, we have the trolley bus, or trackless trolley. Trackless trolleys are electric powered; they run off of (two) overhead wires, to which the bus makes contact with trolley booms. Trackless trolleys can manoeuvre a maximum of about 14 to 15 feet out from under their wires without dewiring. (Many modern trackless trolleys also have batteries for away-from-wires operation.) It’s OK to refer to a trackless trolley as a bus because many of them are stock buses with electric drive trains. It’s noteworthy that in Municipal Railway jargon, trackless trolleys are frequently referred to as trolleys.

    Next, we have the trolley, trolley car, streetcar, tram, or tram car. Tram and tram car are standard or international English; trolley, trolley car, and streetcar are chiefly North American terms for tram or tram car. I’ll keep it simple and just use trolley. Trolleys are electric powered, and they run on rails. They use trolley booms or pantographs (those folding arms atop the cars) to make contact with the overhead wire–the track being the return conductor. Trolleys are versatile: they can run on ordinary street railways as a streetcar, but some street railways are off limits to cars. Trolleys can also run on completely separate rights-of-way, in tunnels, or on elevated trackways–els–as rapid transit cars. Boston, Newark, Philadelphia, and San Francisco have what are best considered subway-surface trolley systems–trolleys that run on city streets or separate rights-of-way on the surface, and then go into subways under city centres.

    San Francisco’s subway-surface trolley system is called the Muni Metro, which is fitting because its trolleys are the only ones I know of that have high/low steps for operating on surface streets and inside the city subway, for which the steps are raised to subway/el-type platforms. Many other trolley systems use low-floor cars.

    ‘Light rail’ is Newspeak for trolley systems; ‘light-rail’ vehicle (LRV) is Newspeak for trolley car. It was likely invented by transit agency bureaucrats who wanted to con the public into thinking that they came up with an great new idea instead of saying simply, ‘We’re bringing back the trolley.’ It’s a silly term, and I can tell you that most modern trolleys are NOT light-weight–and that they don’t run on aluminium rails. Muni’s J, K, L, M, N, and T lines are trolley lines–again and specifically–subway-surface trolley lines.

    Los Angeles has what I consider to be a rapid transit trolley system; its trolleys are exclusively high-platform like subway/el trains in that they don’t have steps–and they run on exclusive rights-of-way, even on streets, although they have many grade crossings.

    Next, we have the familiar subway/el systems, such as in New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Vancouver, BC, Toronto, Washington, DC, Atlanta, Boston, Baltimore, Miami, San Juan, PR, Los Angeles (separate from its rapid transit trolleys), San Francisco (BART), etc. El, by the way, is short for elevated. All subway/el trains that I know of are high-platform cars, and, with very few exceptions, they run on exclusive, rights-of-way with no grade crossings where they run at grade level. They are the rapid transit systems that most people think of, and they are referred to as metros in standard & international English. Subway/el trains usually–but not always–draw power from an electric third rail, again using the track as the return conductor.

    The person who drives a trolley or subway/el train is referred to as the motorman.

    Lastly, we have the trunk train, which is a railway that most people think of, and this is where CalTrain fits. (Trunk trains also include Amtrak.) They’re also referred to as commuter trains, and they may be electric powered (al CalTrain will soon be) or diesel powered. The person who drives a trunk train is referred to as the engineer–train driver in standard & international English. NOTE: The conductor DOES NOT OPERATE the train, the engineer does, and it’s the same for any subway/el system that uses conductors, specifically New York City, where the conductors operate the trains’ doors.

    There is one interesting rapid transit railway I should like to mention: suburban Philadelphia’s Norristown high-speed line (route 100) is an interurban railway which operates as one or two-car trains, draws power from an electric third rail, and makes stops on request (like buses & trolleys) at high platforms. It’s unique as far as I know. Aside from the Norristown high-speed line and the Chicago, South Shore, and South Bend interurban line is the only other interurban electric railway line in the USA. The diesel trams that run between Tranton and Camden, NJ is another interurban railway, and Seattle’s Sound Transit trolleys are interurban trolleys because they’ll be running to Tacoma and Everett.

    Cable cars are NOT trolleys, they’re powered mechanically by a moving underground cable, which is referred to as the ‘rope’ in Muni jargon. Furthermore, cable car gripmen and conductors frequently take umbrage when they hear cable cars being referred to as trolleys.

    Lastly, a coach is a bus that’s configured and designed for comfortable long-distance travel; transit buses are NOT coaches, though you’ll hear many Muni personnel refer to motor buses and trackless trolleys as motor coaches and trolley coaches, respectively.

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