Cable cars or no, San Francisco has a public transportation system that is capable of moving a lot of people to almost anywhere in the city or the Bay Area efficiently and in relative comfort - when it's working.
The transit system in the area basically consists of the Municipal Railway (Muni), which runs all forms of public transportation operating within the city, proper; the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), the far-flung rail system that began service in 1972 with much-heralded computer technology that didn't quite work out as expected; county, municipal, and private bus systems connecting with BART; the Southern Pacific Railway, serving the lower penninsula; and Amtrak, providing service to outlying areas.
Matching performance to capability is no easy matter, however. Here are some recent developments in major sectors of Bay Area public transportation:
* Muni: Hilly San Francisco is particularly hard on buses, and the transit system found itself so far behind on maintenance and repairs, for various reasons, that it borrowed some 60 ''mothballed'' vehicles from Los Angeles. About half of the diesel-powered buses were out of service almost as soon as they were put into use. However, the rest have provided much-needed relief to riders who were more and more frequently being passed by overloaded Muni buses or sometimes not picked up no matter how long they waited. Passengers seeing the L.A. relics pull up to bus stops soon got over the feeling they had stepped into a ''Twilight Zone'' scene.
Greeted with perhaps even more incredulity by downtown merchants was a recent proposal to tax commercial property in the business district to the tune of $20. 8 million annually in order to continue providing more frequent transit service to that area than to other parts of the city. Behind the proposal are two factors: first, the anticipated loss of $16.5 million in federal operating grants in the next two years; second, growth in the same period of people taking public transit into downtown San Francisco by 29,000.
* BART: The system that tunnels under San Francisco Bay and stretches north to Concord and Richmond, south to Fremont and Daly City, moves an average of 190 ,000 people a day. But its sleek silver trains have never lived up to the computerized efficiency promised before the system began service in 1972. Trips routinely take more time than they should, and frustrating delays of as much as 30 minutes are not at all unusual.
Now BART's board of directors - even with federal aid uncertain at best - have committed themselves to spend up to $162 million for 60 to 150 newly designed cars and a new train-control system. Said one director: ''We will finally be able to keep the promises we made to the people in 1960.''
* Southern Pacific: Muni recently cut back bus service from the SP station to the commercial area along Market Street (not an easy walk, especially when trying to get to work on time). At about the same time, the railroad balked at a proposal by the city to extend the commuter route over existing but unused freight rails to a more convenient site near the Embarcadero.