Running my last pre-Christmas errands and for once in my life ahead of schedule, I cut across town through a neighborhood I don’t get to very often: Portola. I was marveling at the pigeon-crap-encrusted hulk of the Avenue Theater, a 1920s movie palace that had its own Wurlitzer organ until at least the ’80s, when I saw what looked like a 5-Fulton bus. Although some Muni lines run a lot farther than many people realize — the 43-Masonic runs all the way to Crocker-Amazon, spitting distance from the Cow Palace — I’ve definitely ridden the 5 all the way to its terminus at Ocean Beach, miles away from San Bruno Avenue.
But this wasn’t the 5-Fulton. It was the 54-Felton — which I’d never heard of, let alone ridden.
It’s folly to think you’ll ever master every last detail of San Francisco’s quirky streetscape, and on that same zigzagging crosstown drive, I found a hilltop mini-park in Merced Heights
I hadn’t known existed. The thing is, though, I’m a transit nerd who misses the 26-Valencia and the 53-Southern Heights and wishes he could have ridden the 13-Guerrero and the long-gone B Geary streetcar. When I was in Mexico City, I made sure to ride every single Metro line (although not necessarily its full length). Same with Disney World’s colored monorail trains.
Looking at the Muni system map, the 54 is both easy and hard to miss. It’s a tertiary route, indicated by a thin blue band, that treks across the southern third of the city, from the Bayview to Daly City BART. It’s a long line, but much of it overlaps with busier routes, obscuring it further. Chagrined at this stunning oversight, I was determined to ride the whole shebang and see what’s what.
Taking the M-Oceanview to the nearest stop to Daly City BART, the first infrastructural wonder I discover is that there exists a parking permit zone lettered CC. (Alamo Square got Area Q only last year, but the system did already extend past Z to the double letters AA, BB, and CC.) In any event, I board an empty 54 at its point of origin with one other passenger, a young East Asian guy, and before setting off north on Junipero Serra Boulevard to Alemany Boulevard, we swerve through that patch of San Mateo County that’s occupied by a heavy S.F.-oriented transit footprint, like an exclave of Italy that’s wholly within Switzerland.
Trundling through Oceanview and Ingleside, the bus seldom fills up, and virtually everyone who gets on is Asian or Latino. In spite of its great
length, the bus behaves like one of the neighborhood loops — the 67-Bernal Heights, say, which exists primarily to funnel commuters from their hilly urban village down to 24th Street BART. At one point, a middle-aged woman flags the driver down after he’d already passed her stop, and he agreeably lets her board the bus while it’s at an awkward, mid-intersection diagonal. By the time we get to Balboa Park, with its transfers to BART and several Muni streetcars, only a handful of people have gotten on or off — but then 15 people board at once, and the tenor of the ride changes, with groups of people talking unself-consciously with respect to the volume of their voices. A woman holds a loud phone conversation. Three teenage boys compare the various grades in junior high. (“Each semester, you have to do the Bible,” one says.)
At Mission Street and Geneva Avenue, the bus virtually empties, and another, smaller clutch of passengers gets on. At no point (yet) on this weekday am I alone, but — probably because the kids weren’t in school — there is but a brief period where anybody had to stand for want of a seat.
Consulting the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s own figures, the 54 falls somewhere in the middle in terms of overall ridership, about on par with the 21-Hayes — but it’s longer and so decentralized that even the driver wasn’t sure which direction was inbound and which was outbound. One young Latina on her way to work, a Portola resident who gave her name as Miykel, says she barely takes the 54 but did that day, because it arrived just as she left the house. It’s not hugely crowded, she says — mostly.
“In this area, there’s not a lot of people, but as soon as you hit San Bruno …” she says, trailing off to indicate the hordes about to arrive.
The 54 is evidence that, owing to San Francisco’s challenging topography and the relative siting of residential and industrial neighborhoods, the SFMTA uses nothing like a hub-and-spoke system. Insofar as a city this small can be considered to have “outlying” neighborhoods — in a strict geographical sense, not per the snobbery of urbanites who think West Portal is the boonies — the 54 stitches them to major transit hubs, enabling a plausibly automobile-free commute in a swath of the city built for cars. You might think of its route as covering the County of San Francisco, as opposed to the City of San Francisco: lower-density, not especially full of trees, and working and middle-class (as the rest of America understands those terms).
And the line is hilly, with neat vistas of Bernal Hill and even Downtown — not as stunning as the 33-Ashbury/18th’s views, but arresting, all the same. After passing through the Excelsior’s amusingly named intersections — the corner of Moscow and Russia streets, for instance — we cross the hill into Portola and turn onto Felton Street proper. But the bus only stays on its eponymous thoroughfare for 10 blocks, a fraction of its overall length. Its many, seemingly unnecessary turns add time to one’s trip, but increase the 54’s “catchment zone,” maximizing the number of people who can walk to a bus stop in a short time.
We pass AgeSong University, a set of collapsed greenhouses, the Portola branch of the public library, and a FoodsCo where many older people board with their groceries. They wish the driver a happy new year. On a bumpy downslope on Topeka Street, an empty soda bottle bounces from the back of the bus to the feet of an old woman in sunglasses, who unhesitatingly picks it up to recycle later.
I get out at San Bruno Avenue to walk around at the place I’d first noticed the bus. A lifelong neighborhood resident named Cornelius who’s waiting for a 54 in the other direction says she rides it almost every day. She agrees that it can be one of the least used lines, but “it takes you where you really need to go. It’ll take you all the way to Daly City BART!”
“The 54 is a good bus,” she affirms, before adding, “On school days, I try not to get on it. That’s the time it’s crowded, now that school’s back.”
San Bruno Avenue is lively, not unlike Clement Street in its ethnic diversity, but shorter. Aside from a Four Barrel Coffee, it shows virtually no signs of gentrification. I walk into a spiffy diner called Breakfast at Tiffany’s — which is owned by a woman named Tiffany and her uncle, and has nothing to do with the book or the film by that name. The Tiffany’s Classic comes with hash browns, English muffins, three eggs, and an impressive four pieces of bacon. It’s packed to capacity but the team-style service is friendly.
I get back on the bus. After passing through Silver Terrace, over the hill that Caltrain passes under, we hit Third Street, but no one from the T line transfers. Soon, we’re on the narrow, winding streets surrounding Hunter’s Point’s public housing. There’s been a strange collision between two passenger cars, with lots of people (and the seemingly unharmed drivers) gathering around two vehicles that had managed to total one another without hitting a single parked car. We pass streets I’ve never heard of, with fantastic names: Atoll Street, Cashmere Street, Dormitory Street. In contrast to the nearly treeless neighborhoods of the city’s southwest, it’s nearly bucolic here. I’m the only one on board now. The driver, who I’ll call George, pulls over on LaSalle at Ingalls Street, announcing that he’s got to wait a few minutes so as not to arrive ahead of schedule — and then realizes that I’ve been on his bus the entire time.
George doesn’t usually drive the 54 these days. Most of the time, he’s on the 48-Quintara “all the way to the beach,” which he likes because the salt air reminds him of where he grew up.
“I kind of like it,” he says, “because if you get a bit of a break, you can look at the waves.”
Although not as grueling as the congested route of the 29-Sunset or the hairpin turns on the 44-O’Shaughnessy, George says that in spite of its moderate ridership, the 54 can be tough.
“It’s a lot of turns,” he says. “And 62 stop signs. If you miss one, they’re gonna call you: ‘Hey! You missed a stop on that street!’ ”
How would “they” know?
“If we miss one, it goes to a satellite, it goes to Japan, and a man calls San Francisco Muni,” George says. “ ‘You know this bus number here, I think he missed that stop sign. I’m watching Tokyo news, by the way.’ They contact Muni — isn’t that crazy? For one stop sign, out of 62!”
I had no idea Muni was quite that Big Brother-ish. I ask George what the best route is, and he says the 52-Excelsior.
“It’s just Glen Park BART, a couple of cars in your way, and you get it done, you know?” he says, then confirms my (unspoken) opinion that the 9-San Bruno is the slowest, most unpleasant bus line in San Francisco.
He releases the parking brake, ready to continue driving, so I sit. A minute later, we’re in motion when George shouts that the 9-San Bruno should be punishment for excessive parking tickets. “Don’t give them a boot, give them the 9-San Bruno for six months,” he says. “After three weeks, they’ll go crazy.”
A few blocks later, just before Third Street, he announces his shift is over, and a new driver pops on. I skedaddle — the 24-Divisadero terminates near there, and it’ll get me home eventually. Working briskly, the driver preps the bus for its return trip to Daly City, not terribly far as the crow flies but miles and miles away via a part of San Francisco with few transportation alternatives to the pleasant, if slightly obscure, 54-Felton.