BART, Muni / SFMTA, San Francisco, Wayfinding / Signage

Downtown SF Stations: Frustratingly Amateur

I generally try to keep the posts here above the realm of merely whining, but every once in awhile, a little whining is in order. You may have caught the recent SFist article about the broken change machine at Church Station — and the would-be rider pleading with the station agent to take her money, only to be told to go to another station with a functional change machine.

Sorry, but it is inexcusable to require that patrons use these change machines, and then allow them to sit broken and unusable for any period of time longer than about one hour. San Francisco only has a handful of subway stations to begin with, and of those, even fewer feature SFMTA-maintained change machines. The fact that riders without passes are still feeding fistfuls of coins into turnstiles to pay fare is already pretty deplorable — but telling riders (customers!) that their only option to pay fare for the train is to somehow travel to another station (not on the train, of course) and make change there is the type of interaction that only cements the widely-held view that Muni really could not care less about its riders, customer service office notwithstanding.

I recently found myself at Powell Station without fast pass, because the pass had mysteriously hidden itself under piles of paper on my desk. Upon opening my wallet, what do I discover but… a single $5 bill. Great: the denomination of bill you cannot get change for at the downtown stations. One minute later, I was back upstairs purchasing a bottle of water to get change, and then again on the platform — apparently having just missed a train I would have taken. Is this really the sort of complication riders should have to deal with? Of all things that Muni should make easy for riders, paying the fare is right at the top of the list.

All of the above is a clear reminder of the fact that San Francisco’s downtown subway stations could stand to be improved, especially in terms of making them clearer to navigate. Imagine you are a traveler entering one of these stations for the first time, with little to no familiarity with BART or Muni. Perhaps you wander for a bit between station booths, trying to ascertain the difference between the two systems and to determine where to catch the right train. There, you are greeted by the following “professional” signage:

You would like to ask a question but …

No Agent on Duty.

Two signs about making change… no dice. Your only resource is a cluttered collection of signs littering the booth, including Microsoft Word documents that look like they were printed on someone’s home computer and then messily affixed to the booth with Scotch tape. And although more official printed signs have been posted indicating that you should press “H” on a BART machine to make change for Muni, some older MS Word signs remain, despite providing redundant content in a decidedly amateur way (see image at right). Please note, however, that even on the so-called “official” sign, Muni is spelled once as “Muni” and another time as “muni” — and BART is spelled incorrectly not just once, but twice: once as “Bart”, and once more in E.E. Cummings style as “bart.” Infuriating, but at least consistent with the similarly infuriating all-lowercase signs used on platforms, as well as for the headers on many other signs (this one included).

And while we are on the topic of the magical “H” button, it is not necessarily intuitive that you have to find a BART ticket machine (and then press a button labeled “H”) to make change for Muni fare — particularly after having been abruptly informed that BART is “not Muni” and that Muni is “not BART.” Having two sets of change machines might only add confusion, but it would be nice to have more elegant signage and a better interface to make it clear to new riders that the machines are used jointly.

Okay, end rant. Admittedly, station signs have improved somewhat, if slowly. Muni Metro’s station-specific maps on the platforms leave something to be desired, but finally, complete system-wide maps were recently added to platforms — though of course with the the standard misguided diagonal header that has graced every SFMTA publication since last year. But the four downtown stations shared by BART and Muni are the most heavily-traveled transit hubs in the Bay Area, used by locals, commuters, and visitors alike. As such, they should be made as comfortable and as intuitive as possible. For many visitors, their first glimpse of San Francisco is through one of these stations, after riding BART from the airport. Ideally, these stations would be civic centerpieces in their own right, but they fall considerably short. Is this really the best that a self-proclaimed “world-class” city can do?



16 thoughts on “Downtown SF Stations: Frustratingly Amateur

  1. Agreed! I’ve been in that position way too many times.

    Posted by HastingsChris | 14 May 2008, 8:59 pm
  2. As someone who uses Muni sporadically, I couldn’t agree more. The system’s incredibly confusing and it’s such a pain when you find yourself without the correct change. Sometimes I’ve just left the station and walked or taken a cab.

    On the other hand though, imagine riding from the airport to the East Bay and emerging from a BART station there. It’s incredibly confusing to find an AC Transit bus and there is NO signage to direct you. So while changes need to be made to Muni, I think this problem is widespread and needs to be dealt with throughout the region.

    Posted by Becks | 14 May 2008, 9:39 pm
  3. On the other hand though, imagine riding from the airport to the East Bay and emerging from a BART station there. It’s incredibly confusing to find an AC Transit bus and there is NO signage to direct you.
    It’s a slightly different issue, because there isn’t the confusion of two rail services (with two different methods of payment) under the same roof, but you’re right, this is another important issue to work on. Rail-to-bus connections should be made much clearer than they are, at basically all Bay Area stations.

    Posted by Eric | 14 May 2008, 10:56 pm
  4. I visited San Francisco two years ago (and loved it). I spent considerable amounts of time on transit, mostly on Muni, and I have to say it reminds me of my original home system, MARTA (also Marta, marta, and M.A.R.T.A). I always hated the unprofessional MS Word or (dare I say) hand-written signs, but I was usually just happy to get where I needed to get.

    Now I live in Washington, where riders are given advance warning about delays, signs are (for the most part) done up in WMATA’s strange font, and employees treat the customers like customers.

    Anyway, all of that is a side note. I think one really great solution for the Bay Area, with its myriad transit systems, would be a smart card like Washinton’s SmarTrip.

    Apparently, one Baltimore finishes upgrading their system, passengers will be able to use their Washington SmarTrip card on the Baltimore Metro, LRT, MARC Train, and Bus System. This will be helpful, because Baltimore is really just a large, dense Washington Suburb anymore. Lots of people use MTA to get to the MARC Commuter Rail to Washington.

    For details, see:

    Anyway, keep up the good work!

    Posted by Matt' | 14 May 2008, 11:29 pm
  5. Thanks for writing in, Matt, with the Washington/Baltimore perspective. For the Bay Area, a similar plan is the Translink card, which has been in the works for years. It’s been rolled out partially and very slowly, but we’re still waiting for the card to get mainstream use on BART and Muni. There have been delays up the wazoo to the point that any new announced release date is basically a joke, but whenever we do get it, it’ll be a good way to free riders from the hassle of different fares and payment systems for different agencies.

    Posted by Eric | 14 May 2008, 11:37 pm
  6. The muni subway is a complete disgrace. We should just abandon it and give it over to BART. BART knows how to run a transit system. All of their trains are always on time and they never have missed runs. I’d gladly pay more for BART running the MUNI subway trains. How did this mess ever happen? How is it that voters of the past ever thought that having two competing subway systems was a good idea? Muni has zero competence. They’ve proven to us time and time again that they don’t care at all about the service they’re supposed to provide. Why are we putting up with this? Let’s just give it over to BART and be done with it. Let’s get serious about our transit system.

    Posted by Ziggy Tomcich | 15 May 2008, 12:29 am
  7. I was confused just reading your post.

    Posted by Doug Cress | 15 May 2008, 6:19 am
  8. In the joint stations,the fact that when BAR(ancid)T put in the newer TVMs they were allowed to ignore selling Muni fares is criminal.

    Posted by david vartanoff | 15 May 2008, 2:30 pm
  9. “The muni subway is a complete disgrace. We should just abandon it and give it over to BART. BART knows how to run a transit system. All of their trains are always on time and they never have missed runs.”

    sorry, but that just makes me laugh. the BART system has its own wide set of problems, thanks very much… yesterday, because of some “weather-related problems” (high temperatures, presumably), they had system-wide 20 minute delays. and i had the joy, on my approximately once-monthly BART ride, of being on car for 30 minutes with no A/C and about 75 people. i think i sweat about 5 lbs off.

    MUNI is still foobar’d, IMHO, but BART aint no magic wand…

    Posted by AlexJB | 16 May 2008, 11:03 am
  10. Bart breaks down too sometime. I was on it yesterday when it did… but the Muni Metro has problems ALL THE TIME. Wasn’t the Muni Metro Market Street subway originally built for BART?

    Posted by PhilSironi | 16 May 2008, 11:20 am
  11. Phil & Ziggy,

    Early designs for BART had the transbay line we know today, but the upper level was originally to be a local BART line running through the Twin Peaks Tunnel to St. Francis Circle and would have completely replaced Muni streetcar service. Further out, the streetcar lines like the L-Taraval would have been replaced with connecting bus service to BART. The plan evolved into what we know as Muni Metro today which is why BART owns West Portal, Castro, Church and Van Ness stations even though it doesn’t run through them.

    Posted by Jamison | 17 May 2008, 12:38 pm
  12. Politically has BART ever shown any interest in becoming more of an urban subway and expanding in urban areas?

    It seems the way the system is structured politically this is virtually impossible. For the next 30 years we might see some weak attempts at ineffectual TOD (which is a slight improvement on the past) at new suburban stations and these new ridiculous EBart ideas coming to fruition but certainly nothing in Oakland or SF.

    It seems it would take some serious vision on the part on SF leaders and higher sales taxes for SF residents for there ever to be more BART in SF. Even if there was the will it seems this would step on the toes of entrenched SF agency turf.
    Central subway is going to be slow as hell. I am not very hopeful about BRT on Geary running in traffic EAST of Van Ness. With all of this new development something is going to have to give here eventually. The J-church line I ride is beyond terrible.

    Posted by Zig | 24 May 2008, 5:28 pm
  13. I ride MUNI every day. The downtown stations should be improved drastically.

    Posted by Gopal | 27 May 2008, 9:32 am
  14. Zig:

    Geary BRT east of Van Ness won’t be the real deal, but more of an enhancement variety. There really should be a subway tunnel here, but:

    The cost per new rider metric does favor the sort of exurban BART extensions we’ve been getting. But sooner or later, no matter what the politics are, we will reach maximum throughput for the Transbay Tube. We’ll need a second tube, and that will give us a new urban line. One alternative MTC has mentioned that I don’t especially care for runs from the Transbay Transit Center along Folsom, Van Ness, and Lombard to the Presidio. A slightly better version provides relief to the Geary corridor west of Van Ness, but still skips over the Tenderloin through a SoMa detour, so that the new line can “connect” to the existing line at a joint Civic Center/Van Ness station. Of course, this would all be extremely long-term.

    Posted by Eric | 27 May 2008, 9:48 pm
  15. Every time I have to take MUNI I just hake my head in disbelief at the amateur hour on display in the joint Muni – Bart stations. Then worse I have a sense of embarrassment as my wife (who is from Spain and where I spent 6 years) points out another area where Europe is miles ahead of us. I mean everywhere else we have machines for dispensing a ticket that excepts bills. And as Americans the country that relies on credit cards more than anywhere in the world, why on earth can’t I use my credit card? This change ritual would have been archaic even 20 years ago. While the rest of the world has credit cards machines, infra red pass readers, etc. we are still fumbling with quarter and token machines. The only possible reason I can imagine for this crappy system is probably due to the Unions. Screwing the public over so a few overweight, bad attitude, with zero customer service or language skills can sit on a stole all day and be zero help. I really feel sorry for someone like a tourist who doesn’t speak English fluently, because trying to figure this system out would be impossible.

    Posted by Angry San Franciscan | 4 October 2008, 11:18 am


  1. Pingback: Rescue Muni » Blog Archive » Transbay Blog on Muni/BART Station Customer Service - 14 May 2008

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