San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk is mostly famous as a gay civil rights leader, and for his saying, “You gotta give ’em hope!”
But he was perhaps less known for championing wider access to Muni.
In 1974, he became the first politician to trumpet (and regularly use) a new transit innovation which rocked Muni riders, spurring years of devotion and art.
Long before The City was a home of digital doo-dads, that new technology was a simple slip of colored paper: The Muni Fast Pass.
It may be old hat to San Franciscans now, but at one time, offering a monthly ticket for infinite bus and train rides was a novel idea, archivists told the San Francisco Examiner.
Now the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is honoring Fast Passes of the past in a historic photo gallery, available to view through the SFMTA Photography Department and Photo Archive.
The archive features tens of thousands of historical photos from 1903 on, all of which are available to the public.
Though many of SFMTA’s photos feature buses, trains, and The City, photo archivist Katy Guyon told the Examiner few of the archives are of “ephemera” like the Fast Passes.
“We have a small collection from what archivists usually call ephemera from years past,” she said. “Posters, tins, Fast Passes. They’re not part of our collecting scope, which is photographs.”
But when the SFMTA debuted its new ticket-purchasing smartphone app this year, called Muni Mobile, it spurred an idea with SFMTA’s photo archivists.
“We started thinking about the different forms of fare payment and fare collection,” Guyon said, “it was time to reflect on that.”
The monthly Muni ticket remains a “nostalgia trip” for many, she noted.
“People like to collect them as part of their San Francisco identity,” she said — even herself. Guyon has her own collection of personal Fast Passes from when she moved to The City. She’s not alone.
For some, sporting a Fast Pass can be as San Franciscan as displaying the SF Giants’ logo, or wearing the red and gold of the 49ers. On art website Etsy, Fast Pass posters, wallets, buttons and more can be found for sale — even a Muni Fast Pass mandala runs for $300.00.
One Fast Pass aficionado, John Kuzich, started a website called “Fast Pass Nostalgia,” where he features low-resolution color images of fast passes through the years. Kuzich’s Fast Passes were on exhibit at the De Young Museum, for a time.
On his website, Kuzich wrote Fast Passes are important to people because they’re “reminders, artifacts really, of their own personal history. Markers in time. Each ride and each day – a unique experience.”
The passes themselves are unique, said Alison Cant, an archivist and museum manager at the San Francisco Railway Museum.
From colors to patterns, from photos to quotes, printing elaborately designed Fast Passes were more practical than anything, she said. The creative presentation, she said, made them less easy to counterfeit.
To help prevent fake passes, “they started implementing techniques, making them different colors, and different designs,” she told the Examiner.
These design choices changed each decade, Guyon observed.
In the 1970s, some of the early Fast Passes featured photos of historical cable cars, for instance, and others were decorated with frescoes reminiscent of Diego Rivera.
Also of note, the cost: $11 for a month, in the 1970s. That’d be about $43 today. A monthly Fast Pass in 2015 costs $70.
In the 1980s, Muni added a magnetic strip to the sides of the passes, much like modern BART tickets. Muni sometimes featured interesting historical factoids on the passes, Cant said.
“January 27, 1977 Sutter Street Railway opens,” reads a Fast Pass from January, 1984. It cost $24.
The Fast Passes of the 1990s featured solid colors, sometimes with patterns, which changed by the month. The 2000s saw the monthly ticket adopt a fad of the 90s: holographic strips.
Inside the holograms are flowery patterns, and sometimes even little 3-D streetcars.
“It seems the color is coming out to reflect the time of year too,” Guyon said, when observing trends in the colors and patterns of Fast Passes.
When asked what the most boring Fast Pass of any year, or month was, Cant answered quickly.
“Definitely the most boring is the Clipper Card,” she said.
The Clipper Card is the the modern day replacement for the Fast Pass. You don’t buy a new pass every month, but simply pay $70 to reactivate the plastic pass, which is similarly sized and shaped as a credit card.
“All the fun stops here!” Cant said.
The Clipper Card is simply blue — not a pattern in sight.
To see Fast Passes on the SFMTA’s Photography Department and Archive website, head to here. More can be seen in person, by appointment. To see more Fast Pass photos scanned by SFMTA for the Examiner, visit here. You can visit the San Francisco Railway Museum at 77 Steuart Street, San Francisco, CA.