San Francisco Chronicle

Central Subway extension’s first ridership numbers are tepid

- By Ricardo Cano Reach Ricardo Cano: ricardo.cano@sfchronicl­; Twitter: @ByRicardoC­ano

Muni’s new Central Subway extension attracted high hopes and criticism in the years leading up to its long-awaited debut.

San Francisco transporta­tion officials projected that the $2 billion, four-station extension of the T-Third Street line would attract throngs of riders to make the rail line Muni’s most popular attraction.

Critics, meanwhile, feared that the Central Subway’s design to handle only two-car trains wouldn’t be enough to facilitate that crowd surge, rendering the subway ineffectiv­e.

Turns out, neither prediction is close to becoming reality.

Data from the Municipal Transporta­tion Agency, which operates Muni, shows that the first month of full Central Subway service brought tepid gains in ridership.

Since the subway’s official Jan. 7 debut, 2,000 more people, on average, are riding Muni’s T and K trains on weekdays, compared with October through mid-November. The T and K trains used to operate as a combined rail line before the subway’s opening.

The updated T line, which now heads directly north from Fourth and King Station to South of Market, Union Square and Chinatown, drew an average of 13,000 riders on weekdays, according to the transporta­tion agency. The SFMTA uses fares and door sensors to calculate what’s known as average daily boardings.

In January, the Central Subway-bolstered T line ranked behind the N-Judah train (19,400 weekday riders) and M-Ocean View line (13,900) in ridership.

The subway apparently has had little impact on the 30 and 45 bus lines. Both buses run above ground on Stockton Street parallel to the Central Subway and are notorious for being perpetuall­y overcrowde­d, even during the pandemic.

City officials and planners predicted that the subway would alleviate demand on those buses as Muni riders opted to travel undergroun­d. However, the 30 and 45 buses saw just 700 fewer combined riders on weekdays in January, compared with December, according to agency data.

About 8,700 people rode the T-Third Street train on Saturdays in January, and 8,100 on Sundays.

The transporta­tion agency aligned the Central Subway’s official debut to coincide with Lunar New Year festivitie­s in Chinatown, though the winter storms that pummeled the Bay Area during the first two weeks of 2023 kept some would-be riders away from transit.

It will take months to determine whether Muni’s T line will see similar success as the 49 bus, which is now more popular than it was before the pandemic with the debut of Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit.

And it could take longer for the Central Subway to realize the chief goal city officials set for the project before the pandemic. They expected the subway to attract 43,000 daily riders to the T line by 2030.

Muni’s rail lines, so far, have recovered only about 55% of their 2019 ridership levels, when K/T trains drew 35,000 riders on weekdays.

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