The train lines serving downtown San Francisco are nearly empty, cruising beneath mostly shuttered skyscrapers and wind-swept streets. Workers who normally ascend escalators by the thousands during rush-hour commutes are virtually absent. Through thousands of small decisions, San Francisco, one of America’s wealthiest cities, had designed its public transportation around serving white-collar workers. Since the coronavirus pandemic struck, they’re nearly absent.
“Our transit system was oriented around our financial district,” says Jeffrey Tumlin, director of San Francisco’s transit agency, MUNI. “Covid has revealed the geography of our essential workers.”
A few blocks away, the buses and trains serving the city’s Chinatown are often full. The 14 MUNI bus leaving Excelsior, home to many of the city’s Hispanic residents, hums with people mostly wearing masks (by city order). Destinations in its outer, less expensive neighborhoods still bustle compared to the desolation downtown as workers head to hospitals, restaurants and other essential businesses from their more modest homes perched on San Francisco’s steep hillsides.