InstaBlog: San Francisco's Twin Peaks Tunnel Shutdown, Transit History, & an Urban Adventure

Author's note: Warning—this is a blog-style post based on a social media post. Beware typos and poorly elucidated thoughts. For more polish, perhaps try an article!

On Sunday, June 24, 2018, I found myself on my way to San Francisco, for a week of urban exploration, research, and—yes—vacation. A few weeks before my trip however, I had gotten some frustrating news: the day after I arrived, the Twin Peaks tunnel—a major part of the city's light rail/subway infrastructure—was closing for a two month long reconstruction and refurbishment. This was a minor inconvenience, to be sure—even though I wasn't staying somewhere I needed to use the tunnel, no one wants to experience a city's major transit disruption. But more than that, I am a self-avowed transit nerd, and for all of my love of San Francisco, I had never found the opportunity to ride this part of its transit system in all my adult trips to the city.

No problem, I figured: since my flight was scheduled to arrive in the late afternoon/early evening, I would have a brief window to check out the tunnel before it closed. It would be a long and hectic day, to be sure—especially since that Sunday would also be the last night of San Francisco Pride—but I wasn't about to let that stop me. Little did I know just how brief my window would be, however. Four and a half hours of mechanical delays and ATC issues at JFK meant I didn't step onto the terminal carpet in SFO until 7pm, and didn't get checked into my Airbnb until a little after 8. It was a late Sunday evening, I was exhausted, but with a little bit of help, I was determined, and made my way through the city. Finally, at around 9:30PM Pacific Time—12:30AM my time—and after working my way through boisterous Pride crowds at both Church and Castro stations, I made it through to West Portal, mere hours before the tunnel’s closure!

To keep things a bit on topic and professional, the Twin Peaks tunnel & the Muni Metro services that run through it play an interesting part in American transit & urbanism history. The tunnel itself was opened in 1912 under the hills whose name it shares, and at the time it was the longest streetcar tunnel in the world. Connecting the city's major commercial artery, Market Street, with its western neighborhoods, it was a major spur for the growth of the Sunset and San Francisco's other southwestern neighborhoods.

Fast-forward to the 1960s and 70s, and the US Federal Government was looking for ways to modernize transit in American cities. Alongside new regional rail systems—for example, Bay Area’s own BART—the government would also start to promote a new(-ish) idea: light rail. Old streetcar lines would be upgraded with new equipment, and would run in new (or upgraded) subways under busy downtowns while continuing their routes on the surface in less-busy neighborhoods. As part of BART's construction, a two-level subway was built under Market Street, with one level reserved for the newly rechristened Muni Metro—streetcars running underground into downtown. The Market Street Subway itself would open in 1973, and Muni Metro services began running through it in 1980. As a side note, the reconfiguration of the Twin Peaks Tunnel led to San Francisco's only abandoned subway station—Eureka—which was very close to today's Castro station. It is still visible from passing trains, and indeed, the tunnel work meant it was lit up as we rode through—above you can see a video of us passing through it. Back on topic, West Portal remains one of the major locations where light rail cars rise to the surface and start running along streets and other rights of way.

Anyway, while I could go on further, offering my thoughts on a two-month infrastructure shutdown, etc, this has already been more than enough. It was a crazy but fun end to a stressful day (one made even more of an experience as we tried to find a place for a late dinner that was open amongst the jubilant Pride crowds). So many props to my partner, who was traveling with me, and who, though tired, knew this was important to me and pushed me to follow through with it. So much love and thanks!

Hope you enjoyed this little micro-adventure. Ah, the crazy life of a transit and urbanism nerd!

Based on an Instagram post.
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