There is no heaven for Muni buses.
Day after day, the rubber-tired fleet carry hundreds of thousands of riders in San Francisco. But after about a dozen years, transit officials say it’s time for those buses to retire.
So where do Muni buses go to die? There are two options.
In what may not be a surprise to anyone, many are destined for the scrap heap. But others serve a second purpose after leaving Muni.
One could almost call it a Muni “afterlife.”
These lucky buses are reincarnated as mobile showers for the homeless, airport shuttles and odd uses all across the Bay Area — even after accruing more than 400,000 miles on the road apiece. That’s due to the ingenuity of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s 300 or so mechanics, according to John Haley, the agency’s director of transit.
“It’s a chance for them to show everybody how skillful they are,” Haley said of his mechanics, which breeds almost an “institutional arrogance” but also genuine pride.
The retirement of buses is determined in the SFMTA’s Fleet Plan. In 2012, the average age of the fleet was 14 years old; Haley said the ideal average age for retirement is seven years.
The SFMTA had not purchased a new fleet of buses since about 2007, what Haley calls a “large fleet turnover.” So when the agency started purchasing state-of-the-art buses from New Flyer Inc. in 2013, it quickly ran out of space to store them.
That’s when they converted Muni’s Islais Creek Yard, a bus yard in San Francisco’s south side, into a staging area for buses that were set to be sold, scrapped or otherwise discarded.
Think of it as bus limbo.
Muni’s fleet had buses from manufacturers Gillig, Electronic Transport Inc., North American Bus Industries, New Flyer and more — a diversity in buses that requires an equal diversity in maintenance techniques.
“Half the mechanics are sitting there with a laptop taking diagnostics from an onboard computer,” said Haley. “On the other side, you’ve got guys slamming away with hammers the old-fashioned way.”
Because of that, buses are retired in order of when they’re recieved, according to Neal Popp, deputy director of maintenance at the SFMTA.
Aging out groups of buses based on the manufacturer also helps mechanics keep around parts that work with specific brands of buses, Popp said.
No matter when or where buses are retired, their sale or donation must go through the Federal Transportation Administration.
“Just like selling a car, you transfer a title,” Haley said.
All buses must be stripped of useful parts, said Popp. He toured the San Francisco Examiner through one such bus at Islais Creek Yard that had wires dangling from the ceiling and other parts glaringly missing. All Muni decals are also stripped.
That’s when things get interesting, Haley said, as stripped buses are repurposed in many novel ways.
“Now that you’ve retired with all the ‘laurels’ from Muni,” Haley said, jokingly, “you’re going to serve the citizens again.”
SHOWERS FOR THE HOMELESS
In 2015, the nonprofit Lava Mae made a splash by converting four old Muni buses into mobile showers for San Francisco’s homeless residents.
Doniece Sandoval, who started Lava Mae, previously told the Examiner the buses help many homeless people who “in order to keep their jobs … have to stay clean, so the gratitude we see from these people is just overwhelming and humbling.”
Popp, from the SFMTA, said he’s now getting calls across the country asking how to replicate the shower buses for other communities.
Two Muni buses now save lives, in a second life as “Mass Casualty Transport” emergency vehicles on 24-hour standby at the Islais Creek yard for the San Francisco Fire Department.
Popp toured the Examiner on one of the buses, which had been retrofitted to have a dozen gurney-like beds to carry patients, and medical equipment hung from the walls. They were even painted fire-engine red.
“Their inauguration was a year ago, out of county, when there was an elderly home evacuated,” said Jonathan Baxter, a fire department spokesperson.
They’ve also been used in a hazmat situation for a recycling center and are kept on standby during New Year’s Eve, Baxter said. The emergency buses are available to counties across the Bay Area.
Former Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch and former New York Giants quarterback Josh Johnson acquired a retired bus in 2016 for their nonprofit, the >Fam 1st Foundation.
“The purpose of this bus is to take these babies and do multiple things with them. Take them to visit places they ain’t seen before,” said Johnson, in a video promoting the IndieGoGo campaign to pay to refurbish the bus.
“We gonna need the community to come together,” said Lynch, who grew up in Oakland and attended UC Berkeley. The pair raised $35,170 to spruce up the bus to ferry students to libraries and afterschool programs.
Very few buses net the honor of a near-eternal afterlife as part of Muni’s historic fleet, which are trotted out for Muni Heritage Weekend once a year.
Muni has historic coaches from 1950, 1969 and 1975 — the 1970’s bus sports the iconic orange known to Muni riders from the 1980s and 1990s, a color scheme chosen by industrial designer Walter Landor.
Much to the consternation of a group of local bus-enthusiasts, Haley has opted not to keep an ETI articulated bus for their historical collection. “We’ve got enough for Muni heritage now,” Haley said.
Speaking of bus-enthusiasts, a small group of transit operators and other bus-nerds in the Bay Area purchase old Muni buses and restore them.
Muni operator Tony Marquardt bought two Muni buses to restore, one for $1,000 and another for $3,000. His 1969 GMC Muni bus is resplendent in red white and blue bi-centennial colors, and made its way into a few episodes of the 1990’s TV show “Nash Bridges.”
A maroon Muni bus used from 1969-1975 was privately restored by another hobbyist, and sports period-specific advertisements –– “Ride the new no. 82 Chinatown Line!” reads one.
Some five buses are living a second life as shuttles at the San Francisco International Airport, said Doug Yakel, a spokesperson for the airport.
The buses were transferred last July, he said, and are used to ferry passengers to parking lots. Instead of the usual Muni grey and red, they now sport a deep SFO blue.
Not every bus sees a second life. Ones that are past their prime are stripped and sent off to Bar None Auction, in Sacramento, for sale. Though some of those buses are netted by hobbyists — like Marquardt — most are destined for the scrap heap.
That’s especially true of Muni’s “trolley buses” (electric buses with poles), Haley said, since so few other transit agencies in the U.S. use trolleys.
Josh Seidel, an auctioneer at Bar None, said some buses sold from auctions in Southern California make their way to South America for use by transit agencies there.
But that’s rare for a Muni bus, he said.
“You can’t drive ’em any longer. They do a good job getting all the life they can out of them,” he told the Examiner, and most Muni buses are sold and scrapped.
May they rest in peace.