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Muni buses still rolling, 100 years later

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First Muni Motor Coach 01 and Streetcar 101 at End of A Line on 10th Avenue and Fulton Street, pictured Dec. 16, 1917. (Horace Chaffee/SFMTA Photo Archives)

Light up 100 candles and stick them under a Muni bus’ tailpipe: Muni’s bus system is officially a century old this month.

The Sept. 1 centennial is near-perfect timing with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Muni Heritage Weekend, which runs today through Sunday.

Over the weekend, two trolley buses, a 1950 Marmon-Herrington 776 and a 1975 New Flyer 5300, will run the 41-Union route to Washington Square in North Beach. Other historic Muni buses will be free to ride, starting at the Market Street Railway Museum on 77 Steuart St. by the Ferry Building on Saturday and Sunday.

And to celebrate the Aug. 11 centennial of the J-Church line, Muni’s Streetcar 1 — the first vehicle Muni ever ran, at its birth in 1912 — will run on the J-Church line over the weekend.

But the main attraction this weekend will be Muni’s historic buses, said Market Street Railway President Rick Laubscher.

Original Print of Municipal Railway Superintendent Fred Boeken with Muni’s First Five Motor Coaches at Geary Car House circa January 1918. (Horace Chaffee/SFMTA Photo Archives)

Two historic San Francisco titans, M.M. O’Shaugnessy and John McLaren, The City’s chief engineer and Golden Gate Park’s superintendent, respectively, were at odds over the creation of a new streetcar line going north and south through Golden Gate Park, Laubscher said.

The A-Geary streetcar line, one of Muni’s first routes, ran east from downtown to 10th Avenue, where it ended at Fulton Street. O’Shaughnessy wanted to connect Inner Sunset neighbors to a quick route downtown.

“John McLaren, [O’Shaughnessy’s] nemesis, said, ‘Over my dead body would you bring wires into my park,’” Laubscher said.

McLaren won that battle — one of O’Shaughnessy’s few political losses. San Francisco’s city engineer instead introduced San Francisco’s first Muni bus, the 1-Park, which ran inside Golden Gate Park past the DeYoung Museum, much as the 44-O’Shaughnessy does today.

Those first buses didn’t pack much power and carried just 19 seats.

Outdoor Shot of New GM Motor Coach in Service on 34 Line, August 11, 1969. (Photo courtesy Marshall Moxom/SFMTA Photo Archives)

“The limitations of propulsion at the time were tremendous,” Laubscher said, and weren’t capable of carrying large loads.

By 1925, the buses became considerably larger, and by the 1930s, buses advanced to the point where they’d be “roughly recognizable by today’s standards,” he said. Buses of that era will run during Muni Heritage Weekend.

At that point, however, streetcars were still largely dominant. Buses were seen as a “last-mile” solution, ferrying residents from the outer neighborhoods to major streetcar lines headed downtown. In the 1920s, the creation of those bus lines made it possible for people in the new neighborhoods to commute.

“At the same time, you were building a lot of neighborhoods inward from the Sunset, Forest Hill, Miraloma Park,” Laubscher said. “They did not have good streetcar service or any at all, nor was it really feasible, because you had curvy streets and hills. Buses were natural for that.”

It wasn’t until World War II that buses began to boom.

Arctic Coach series, 1970-1980. (Photo courtesy SFMTA Photo Archives)

Up through the 1940s, San Franciscans still mostly rode streetcars, but the click-clacking machines had one large limitation: They required two operators.

Technologically, one-operator streetcars existed, but voters consistently rejected new city regulations to allow their use, Laubscher said.

Rising labor costs, ailing trackways that were expensive to replace and labor’s opposition to single-operator streetcars all contributed to a need for cheaper transit.

Buses rode in, then, as a cheaper alternative.

“The City opted to make most of the streetcar lines at that time into buses,” Laubscher said.

The 14-Mission, 22-Fillmore, 21-Hayes, 31-Balboa, 24-Divisadero and many more streetcar routes soon were transformed into bus routes. The buses changed, too — from orange and black, to maroon and gold, to green and cream, and the locally famous Landor-designed poppy-orange color of Muni’s 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s buses.

Though modern buses are larger, faster and stuffed with technological doodads, many San Franciscans still ride the same bus routes that have existed for nearly 70 years.

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