SF’s Central Subway shows a drop in ridership

San Francisco’s new Muni Central subway saw a slight drop in its daily usage in February, the project’s second month of full operation, according to data from the Municipal Transportation Agency.

The $1.95 billion 1.5-mile extension of Muni Metro’s T-Third Street line made its much-anticipated official debut on Jan. 7. Three of the project’s four stations are located underground at Yerba Buena/Moscone Center, Union Square and Chinatown. The Union Square station connects the line to BART and the city’s light rail system.

However, hub data through February shows that the Central Subway’s three subway stations have seen limited use so far.

In February, an average of 2,966 people entered the subway stations each day, while an average of 4,501 people rode the T line and exited through these stations.

Union Square Station, which connects to BART and Muni on Market Street via an underground concourse, is the Central Subway’s most popular subway station, according to the data. This station in particular had an average of 1,498 daily entries and 2,227 average daily exits in February.

The subway stations saw the busiest use on Feb. 4, the Saturday when the city held its annual Chinese New Year parade. That day nearly 6,500 riders entered the three stations with 8,846 exits, including 3,828 exits at Chinatown-Rose Pak Station.

But the subway actually saw a drop in average daily admissions in February compared to most of January, data shows. Average daily entries into the central subway fell to 2,966 in February from 3,227 at the three stations in January.

Of the subway stations, the Yerba Buena/Moscone station is the least busy. For the past month, an average of 300 people have entered the station every day.

Howard Wong, a retired architect and transportation advocate who is part of the Save Muni group that has long criticized the central subway project, shared with The Chronicle the data he obtained from the SFMTA through a public records request had received.

The data included daily entrances to each of the underground subway stations for January and February, and daily exits at those stations for February. The transport authority, which operates Muni, calculates entrances and exits through a combination of sensors and when people tap or “tag” their Clipper cards or pay for a ticket to enter train station turnstiles.

In 2012, Save Muni tried to stop the construction of the subway by filing a lawsuit. The group has long belonged to the camp of critics who viewed the Central Subway as an expensive goodie that they argued didn’t give transit riders enough of a boost to justify the cost of construction.

City transit officials predicted before the pandemic that the subway, which cuts through the city’s densest neighborhoods, would draw 43,000 daily riders onto the T line by 2030. Since COVID, ridership in downtown San Francisco β€” which the subway intersects β€” has been particularly low compared to ridership in other parts of the city and region, and realistic expectations for subway ridership have also fallen.

But past usage of the subway, Wong said, is “pretty dismal for the amount of money that’s been spent.”

“That’s what we said,” Wong said, “this project wasn’t very well designed … to increase ridership.”

SFMTA officials planned to start full central subway service ahead of the Chinese New Year celebrations. But the project’s official debut — it began in November with limited operations — was also unfortunate to coincide with a historic series of atmospheric river storms that battered the Bay Area with rain — causing some would-be riders to skip transit. However, midweek ridership on BART has gradually increased since the beginning of the year.

It will be a few more months or even years to determine the success of the central subway and how it will affect the way people use public transport around the city. City transit officials say the central subway will be a crucial part of downtown’s recovery, and have credited the project with a slight increase in the T line’s total ridership.

“We expect ridership to continue to grow — as this line serves one of the densest neighborhoods in the US across the Hudson and takes riders to key destinations and attractions in San Francisco,” SFMTA spokeswoman Erica Kato said in a statement .

β€œThe new T-Third line improves connections to BART, Muni Metro, Chase Center, Oracle Park and Caltrain. The time saved on these trips benefits families, commuters and visitors every day. This new connection not only relieves congestion on our busy roads, but is also undeniably faster and more convenient.”

Reach Ricardo Cano: ricardo.cano@sfchronicle.com; Twitter: @ByRicardoCano

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