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Better Cable Car Safety

IMG_0283With the strong support of Market Street Railway, Muni’s parent SFMTA is proposing an 18-month test that would remove everything but cable cars (and pedestrians) from lower Powell Street, specifically the two blocks between Ellis and Geary.

Here’s a good Hoodline story with details.

SFMTA recommends starting the test in November, but the Union Square Business Improvement District, led by Karin Flood, is concerned that the busiest shopping season is a bad time to implement changes, especially when seasonal shoppers will also be encountering stringent new automobile restrictions on Market Street, plus Central Subway construction.

Market Street Railway has been recommending the closure of lower Powell to automobiles to SFMTA for well over a year, after observing that gridlocked automobiles on Powell have greatly delayed cable car service.  Sometimes it takes cable cars leaving the turntable at Market Street ten minutes just to make the three blocks to Geary. We’re very sensitive to business’ concerns about timing and about maintaining access in special circumstances, and recognize that a few compromises will be needed.

But something simply must be done.  Even more troubling than the delays is the safety factor. Cable cars operate by gripping a constantly moving cable under the street like a giant pair of pliers. Each time the gripman (or gripwoman) clamps onto the cable, it causes friction and wear, both to the grip dies on the cable car and, more importantly, to the cable itself.  If one of the hundreds of strands that make up the cable breaks, it can eventually form a bulge in the cable that can catch the grip from behind. When this happens, the cable car is pulled forward on its own, at great risk of hitting pedestrians or other vehicles.

Since Ed Cobean joined SFMTA from Caltrain last year to head Cable Car operations, he has instituted rigorous measurement systems. The data has allowed SFMTA to understand the pinch points (pardon the expression) in the cable car maintenance and operating environments.  Cobean soon learned that the cable under Powell Street was being replaced far more often than in the past, and identified the inching up the first two blocks of Powell as a key contributor.

The first block of Powell, between Market and Ellis, was closed to automobiles when Hallidie Plaza was completed in 1973. (Before that, amazingly, cable car conductors and gripmen had to turn the car on the turntable while fending off passing automobiles!)

In the decades since, developments such as the Westfield Center (incorporating the historic Emporium facade) on Market Street have stretched the boundaries of Union Square, and fostered greatly increased pedestrian traffic through the area, especially on lower Powell.  Temporary “parklets,” sponsored by Audi, were built along the two blocks of Powell between Ellis and Geary to provide a little spillover space for pedestrians, but the crowds continue to grow.

Meanwhile, automobile traffic all over the city has increased, while the cable cars are tethered to technology more than a century old; technology that is truly historic and not really possible to update in a way that can cope with bumper to bumper autos on the tracks.

The same increasing automobile traffic has clearly tried the patience of some drivers, leading to stupid and dangerous moves that increase accidents and hurt people, particularly bicyclists and pedestrians.  That’s what has spurred the city’s “Vision Zero” program to greatly reduce accidents of all kinds.


In two recent separate incidents, motorists seriously injured cable car conductors who had stepped off their cars to help passengers safely disembark. This led SFMTA to give up valuable advertising space on the back of its Powell Street fleet to post signs reminding motorists that it’s illegal to pass a cable car (a law that has been in effect for at least a half century). The cable car safety program, which includes other measures, is official part of Vision Zero now.

Market Street Railway supports and applauds any action SFMTA takes to give cable car workers a clear track ahead, especially in the most congested parts of lower Powell Street.  These cars are the very symbol of our city.  The safety of the people who operate them, and ride on them, cannot be compromised.

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Great Video of 1992 Streetcar Centennial

As many of you know, the historic streetcar movement in San Francisco goes back more than three decades. The strong impetus for a permanent F-line built on a foundation of successful summer demonstration projects in the 1980s called the San Francisco Historic Trolley Festivals, initiated by the contemporary leaders of Market Street Railway and key folks inside Muni.
During construction of the permanent F-line, vintage streetcar service was suspended, with a few exceptions that lasted just a few days. The most notable event during this period was the celebration of the 1992 centennial of streetcar service in San Francisco. Streetcars from the city’s historic fleet paraded down Market Street two abreast by closing the street and using both tracks.
We were just invited by a new follower of this blog, Bob Docherty, to link to the video of the centennial celebration he posted on You Tube. Upon viewing it, we were excited by the variety of scenes, although it is not put together in a linear or chronological way. The 1992 scenes are intermixed with scenes from at least one of the five Trolley Festivals, maybe more (leased streetcars entered and left the city during that period, and we’d have to check the annual rosters to be sure, but 1985 is included for sure). And the initial title scene is confusingly dated 1995, which is the year the permanent F-line actually opened, though no footage of that appears to be included.
Little matter. There are some fabulous scenes here, including rare footage of Veracruz, Mexico, open-sided car No. 001 (dubbed the “Jumping Bean” because of its bouncy ride) and 1912 Moscow/Orel single trucker No. 106, “Streetcar Named Desire For Peace,” in its red livery.

Share your observations in the comment section below.

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Clearing Cars from Market Street

Traffic cops on Market Chron photo

Market Street is fundamentally different today: private automobiles, including ride sharing services such as Uber and Lyft, are banned from turning onto the city’s main drag between Third and Eighth Streets. SFMTA, Muni’s parent, implemented the changes in support of the Safer Market Street initiative, designed to reduce the number of bicyclists and pedestrians hurt on Market.

The Chronicle has a good story on this.  We thank them for the use of the photo above, by Liz Hafalia.

The new restrictions build on earlier rules that force eastbound automobiles to turn off Market Street at Tenth Street, then again at Eighth and Sixth.  As bicycle traffic has mushroomed over the past decade, the street has gotten more difficult to navigate for everyone.  That’s especially true of transit vehicles, including of course the F-line streetcars.

Perhaps the biggest news for F-line riders in the new change is this: Muni is extending the “transit only” lane on Market — the track lane — from its current end at Sixth, eastward to Third Street in both directions.  And they’re going to paint that lane bright red, like the existing portion westward on Market.

This should speed F-line loading because the way it has been, automobiles were allowed to use the track lanes in the busiest two blocks of Market, between Fifth and Third. They’d stop next to the boarding island on red lights and delay streetcars from reaching the island to load and unload passengers. This could add another minute or more to running times per stop, slowing overall service.

We may not see the total benefit of this change right away in that stretch, because right turns will temporarily be permitted onto Market from northbound Fifth Street while Ellis Street is closed for Central Subway construction.

And of course, enforcement will be everything in making this work. A common complaint about Muni’s network of transit only lanes in the city is that you never see police enforcing them. Muni vehicles now have forward facing cameras, but under California law they cannot be used to issue tickets for the moving violation of driving a non-transit vehicle in those lanes.

Yesterday, though, many tickets were issued to drivers who ignored the clear new signage and turned onto Market Street.  We hope the SFPD will keep their motorcycle teams out there every day to ensure the new arrangement works as it should.

In the longer run, Market Street Railway is participating with many other groups and city agencies in a total redesign of Market Street, due to be implemented late this decade.  For the streetcars, this will include creation of limited stop service along Market between Haight Street and the Ferry, to be shared with a couple of major crosstown bus lines.  Having fewer stops will greatly increase the efficiency and capacity of the F-line, because riders just going a block or two will instead use the plentiful local bus service at the curb.  We have also successfully advocated to install a short-turn streetcar loop on McAllister and Seventh Street North (Charles Brenham Place), to allow a better balancing of streetcar service along the six-mile long F-line.

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Still Space on Our August 22 & 23 Trolley Tours!

Seats are going fast for our next two Market Street Railway Trolley Tours, but you can still get on board!

Saturday August 22nd, Market Street Railway joins with The Exploratorium for a very special charter that includes VIP tickets to the Exploratorium at a discount on both. It’s a family oriented event, with discounts for kids who ride along. (But note, the way to get kids’ tickets is to call our museum at 415-974-1948 between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., because of limitations with our online e-commerce system.)

Sunday, August 23, we reprise our popular Night Train excursion, for folks 21 and over only.

All the details are here.  Please join us for one of these upcoming Trolley Tours.

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Photo of the (Past) Moment: 7-line Detour

Streetcar Track Construction at Lincoln Way and 36th Avenue Looking West | December 1, 1931

Streetcar Track Construction at Lincoln Way and 36th Avenue Looking West | December 1, 1931

SFMTA has been posting some wonderful photos from their Archives on their blog.  We especially liked this one, which we’d never come across before. The text identifies it as Lincoln Way and 36th Avenue in 1931, with no further explanation.

Which made us curious. Especially about that obvious track detour for the 7-Haight and Ocean streetcar line, which comes back onto Lincoln Way a block farther west.

We found this blurb on a Tumblr posting four years ago by the Department of Public Works, accompanying a different photo of Sunset Boulevard (which is situated between 36th and 37th Avenues) in 1931.

An extensive program of Street and Boulevard work utilizing unemployed workers was established by the City of San Francisco and employed by the  Bureau of Engineering.  These workers assisted in many street and roadway improvement projects including the development of Sunset Boulevard, which traversed the undeveloped sand dunes near Ocean Beach.  The construction of Sunset Boulevard stimulated public activity in the region adjacent to the work, spurring a building spree in the area.

Other sources confirm that Sunset Boulevard was built in 1931, but we hadn’t known it was a Depression-era job creation project. Our search didn’t determine whether Market Street Railway, which operated the 7-line, was asked to pay for the detour itself, or whether the city underwrote it. Afterward, the tracks ran across the new bridge constructed to carry Lincoln Way over Sunset, until the 7-line closed in 1948.

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E-line Gets Going


The E-line had a successful first day of operation August 1. Five double-end PCC streetcars cruised the waterfront from Fisherman’s Wharf to Caltrain from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., the standard weekend schedule that will be in place until full-time, seven-day-a-week service starts early next year.

The stations south of Market Street were very well marked with clearly worded signs and banners in multiple languages, created by SFMTA’s Communications Division. The signs, on both the low-level E-line side platforms and the high-level center platforms used by the light rail vehicles of the N-Judah and T-Third lines, directed people to the appropriate stop for the line they wanted.IMG_0198

People who had been given a brochure by an SFMTA ambassador or Market Street Railway volunteer docent (both there to help riders navigate the new line’s stops) climbed on board for a single-seat ride between South Beach and the Wharf, including the woman in the top photo of the post, who boarded at Brannan.


Some cars took good-sized loads north from Caltrain, particularly those whose departures from Fourth and King Streets coincided with the hourly arrival of the Peninsula trains from San Jose. Others only carried a few people on the southern part of the line; not surprising as the word will take awhile to get out to people, and operating on weekends, in and of itself, is not a true test of the drawing power of the E-line. Market Street Railway considers this initial Saturday-Sunday operation “Spring Training in the Summer,” with the Regular Season arriving with seven-day service.

Even the cars that weren’t crowded on the southern part of the route, though, served an important purpose. When they joined the F-line tracks immediately south of the Ferry Building, they sucked up people from the packed platforms of the Ferry Terminal, many of them already having been passed up by jam-packed F-line cars heading north to the Wharf from Market Street. This has always been a key goal for the E-line: relieving the chronic overcrowding of the F-line on the northern Embarcadero, and it passed that test with flying colors its first day.IMG_0228

While the signage south of the Ferry was wonderful, signage was lacking at the southbound stops north of the Ferry, which now serve both the E- and F-lines. Some riders were confused, despite clear signage on the E-line cars themselves about the destinations along that line. Market Street Railway has recommended to SFMTA that signage be installed on those southbound combined stops as well (northbound combined stops don’t need it, since both E- and F-line cars go all the way to Jones and Beach Streets at the Wharf.

Market Street Railway’s Board chair, Bruce Agid, was on hand to monitor the day’s activities, along with MSR President Rick Laubscher, and numerous volunteer docents, coordinated by MSR Board member Katie Haverkamp. SFMTA’s operations team was led by Ed Cobean, who has handled the whole startup. Ed was on top of the few gaps in service that did develop (caused by what seemed to be more automobiles than usual interfering with the streetcars on Wharf streets — possibly related to the shutdown this weekend of the BART Transbay Tube). Generally, the 15-minute headways were kept pretty close. Cars on the line the first day were Nos. 1006 (painted in its original Muni Wings), 1007 (Philadelphia Red Arrow Lines), 1009 (Dallas), 1010 (Muni blue and gold), and 1011 (Market Street Railway tribute “zip stripe” livery.

All in all, a good start for the E-line, made extra special with a bit of history. One of Market Street Railway’s longest serving members, attorney Will Flynn, became the first revenue passenger for regular E-line service when he boarded the first pullout joining the line from the Muni Metro East car house.  As he passed AT&T Park on that first trip, Will completed a double play. He was also the first passenger on the first regular service car on the permanent F-line, September 1, 1995!



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E-line Kickoff; Boat Tram Debuts

San Francisco’s newest transit line started operation this morning, August 1, 2015, after an enthusiastic kickoff event on The Embarcadero yesterday. This photo, by Scott Badovick, captures the instant when dignitaries led by Mayor Ed Lee, Supervisors Julie Christensen, Scott Wiener, and Jane Kim, SFTMA Board Chair Tom Nolan and Vice Chair Cheryl Brinkman, SFMTA Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin, and SFCTA Executive Director Tilly Chang, simultaneously snipped a red ribbon to mark the occasion.

In the background, PCC No. 1006, one of the regular double-end service cars you’ll ride on the E-line. Next to it, Muni’s latest historic streetcar acquisition, No. 233, our second 1934 “boat tram” from Blackpool, England, purchased by Market Street Railway and donated to Muni through a generous donation from The Thoresen Foundation, with shipping underwritten in part by FedEx Trade Networks.  Michael Thoresen represented the Thoresen Foundation and Cassandra Lirio represented FedEx Trade Networks at the event. Both joined the civic dignitaries who rode to the event at Mission Street and The Embarcadero from the new E-line stop in front of AT&T Park at Second and King Streets.

At the ballpark stop, San Francisco Giants President and CEO Larry Baer took a break from his last-minute baseball trade deadline activities to greet the dignitaries. He thanked Market Street Railway President Rick Laubscher for his tireless advocacy for the E-line and noted what a great connection it will make for Giants fans as well as all other people coming to enjoy the length of the Northeast Waterfront.


After the ride up the Embarcadero on the boat tram, where Mayor Lee happily “rode shotgun,” standing in the morning breeze next to Muni trainer and motorman-for-the-ride Robert Parks, the dignitaries took turns praising the connectivity the E-line will bring between neighborhoods and attractions along its route from Fisherman’s Wharf to the Caltrain Depot at Fourth and King. Representatives of The Exploratorium and other attractions along the way were in the audience, while John Cannizzaro, President of the Fisherman’s Wharf Community Benefit District and Katy Liddell, President of the South Beach-Rincon Hill-Mission Bay Neighborhood Association both spoke. Each called for extending the E-line as soon as possible: Cannizzaro saying the environmentally-approved extension from the Wharf to Fort Mason needs to happen “sooner than later,” and Liddell endorsing Market Street Railway’s proposal to continue E-line service south from Caltrain over the T-line tracks through Mission Bay and Dogpatch.

The immediate focus, though, is working to see that the initial E-line service runs smoothly. SFMTA, Muni’s parent, has posted signs and banners at the exclusive E-line stops south of Folsom Street to make it easy for riders to distinguish them from the high-level N- and T-line platforms.  Both SFMTA and Market Street Railway have ambassadors in place for the first few weekends of service to answer riders’ questions and provide information on the new service.

For now, the service is limited to Saturdays and Sundays, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. It is expected to be expanded to seven days a week, with longer hours, early in 2016.

On the SFMTA side, the E-line startup effort has been led by Ed Cobean, head of cable car operations, on a special assignment under the leadership of Director of Transit John Haley.  Deputy Director of Rail Maintenance Lee Summerlott has led the work on ensuring enough PCCs were available, ably assisted by Manny Enriquez, who also led the final preparations of boat tram 233.  Director of Communications Candace Sue and Director of Service Planning Julie Kirschbaum led their teams’ efforts in getting the E-line up and running.  Thanks to all who were involved on the SFMTA side.

On the Market Street Railway side, our efforts were led by our very able Board Chair Bruce Agid, with enthusiastic help from Board Member Katie Haverkamp. In an unfortunate coincidence, Bruce wasn’t able to make the opening event, because he was doing his civic duty — jury duty that is!  But he got shout outs for his tireless advocacy on the E-line by Supervisors Christensen and Kim, among others.


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New Boat at E-line Ceremony July 31


Muni’s new “boat tram,” Blackpool, England open-top Car No. 233, will officially debut on July 31 at the opening press event for the new E-Embarcadero line. The new boat tram, Muni’s second example of this popular 1934 design, was acquired for Muni by Market Street Railway in 2013, thanks to a very generous donation by the Thoresen Foundation, and ocean shipping subsidized by FedEx Trade Networks.  The boat, pictured above when on display during 2013’s Muni Heritage Weekend, has been out and about testing and training operators this week.

Photo seekers should be able to get excellent shots from the new Brannan Street Wharf on the Bay across from the Brannan Street Muni Metro Station.  The new boat, and PCC No. 1006 will pass by on E-line track about 10:30 a.m.  The two streetcars will proceed along the E-line right-of-way on The Embarcadero, branching off where the N- and T-line lines go into the subway at Folsom, and continuing north to Mission, where the press event will take place. We’ll be looking for one of these images for our 2017 Market Street Railway calendar, so please submit them to our Flickr group, tagged 2017msrcalendar.

You can also view the E-line press event at Mission and The Embarcadero, starting at 10:45 a.m. If you come, stop by our museum at the Steuart Street F-line stop, and be one of the first to pick up our new 2016 calendar, just delivered to us.

Remember, weekend E-line service starts this Saturday, August 1, from 10 a.m.-7 p.m. between the Caltrain station at Fourth and King, and Fisherman’s Wharf. Streetcars will operate every 15 minutes.

IMPORTANT: Though boat tram No. 233 will be “christened” on July 31 as part of the E-line celebration, it will not actually operate on the E-line, nor will its twin, No. 228, because the E-line requires double-end streetcars. While the boats operated as double-enders in Blackpool, Muni needed to create a wheelchair space on board to conform to the Americans With Disabilities Act. This required the doors on one side to be blocked. So No. 223 is not expected to carry regular passengers on Friday. Market Street Railway is working with SFMTA to try to get both boats into regular service for a number of days on the F-line later this year, and we expect both to operate for Muni Heritage Weekend, September 26-27.

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Three Trolley Tours in August. Sign Up Now!

The two streetcars scheduled to be used on August Trolley Tours: PCC No. 1050 (left) and venerable Muni Car No. 1.  Peter Ehrlich photo.

The two streetcars scheduled to be used on August Trolley Tours: PCC No. 1050 (left) and venerable Muni Car No. 1. Peter Ehrlich photo.

August will be the busiest month Market Street Railway has ever had for our private Trolley Tours on Muni’s vintage streetcars. Three very different excursions, but equally interesting events.

Let’s cut to the chase: click this link and sign up for one or more of them now!

The first excursion is Saturday, August 1. It features venerable Muni Car No. 1, built in 1912, and goes from our San Francisco Railway Museum all the way to the San Francisco Zoo and back via the F, J, K, and L lines. This just so happens to be the very first day of E-Embarcadero line service (the charter was scheduled before the E-line date was set), but hey, as they say in Silicon Valley, that’s not a fault, it’s a feature.  Now you can do both with one trip. (Have to issue a caveat on this one: that’s also a day that BART Transbay Service is down — again, happened after we scheduled the charter — so  keep that in mind if you’re coming from the East Bay.  Or, try one of the others!)

The second is Saturday, August 22 at 12 Noon, again from our museum, and co-sponsored with the Exploratorium, one of the world’s great interactive science facilities. You’ll ride the new E-line and then switch onto the T-line for a trip through the fast-developing Mission Bay and Dogpatch neighborhoods, plus the rare opportunity to ride through Muni’s Metro East rail storage and maintenance facility.  When you return, you’ll get admission to the Exploratorium included.  It all happens on one of Muni’s streamlined PCC streetcars. This is a great deal for families with kids (of any age).

The next day, Sunday, August 23, is an excursion distinctly not for kids — in fact, it’s 21 and over only.  It’s our second “Night Train” event, leaving our museum at 7:00 p.m. aboard Car 1. There’ll be libations and live music; good times with good people.

Market Street Railway Members get 25% on up to two tickets for each tour.  You can even join when you sign up and get the discount applied. Instructions are all on our Trolley Tours page.

No need to scroll back up.  Here’s the link to our Trolley Tours page again.

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Charlotte Trolley Collision

Charlotte replica streetcar No. 91, the one involved in the July 19 accident, when new in 2005. These streetcars operated briefly on a demonstration line before being stored until the new downtown line opened recently. Rick Laubscher photo.

Charlotte replica streetcar No. 91, the one involved in the July 19 accident, when new in 2005. These streetcars operated briefly on a demonstration line before being stored until the new downtown line opened recently. Rick Laubscher photo.

There was a collision July 19 on the new streetcar line in Downtown Charlotte, which just opened. Here is a must-see video taken from the streetcar’s security camera, published by the Charlotte Observer as part of an article on the investigation.  (By the way, Muni’s vintage streetcars now have these cameras, too.)

The Observer story quotes transit agency officials in Charlotte as saying the operator neglected to switch the controls from one end of the car to the other at the terminal. (The cars can be operated from both ends.)  They said he somehow released the brake on the car while the controls were still activated for the opposite end.  The transit agency said that’s why the so-called emergency brake, electromechanical track brakes, wouldn’t activate, nor would the regular brakes.

However, these Charlotte replica streetcars, built by Gomaco Trolley Company and modeled on the double-truck Birney design from the 1920s, also include a third braking system, manually applied brakes not dependent on electricity or control location, activated by the large wheel visible to the operator’s right in the video.  The agency says central control told him over the radio to activate that handbrake (we see the operator talking on his microphone as the video begins), but that the operator never did that.  And indeed, we can see in the video that he never touches the handbrake wheel either before or after the streetcar clips an SUV from behind.  (The car finally stopped when it ran out of downhill.)

The Charlotte handbrake appears very similar to the ones on the Milan and Melbourne cars do Muni. Muni trains its streetcar operators to stop streetcars from speeds of 25 mph with the handbrake alone. They also receive extensive training in all the systems of the historic cars. (The handbrake is a reliable, proven, mechanical mechanism. It remains a mystery why the Charlotte operator didn’t use it, unless he was not trained to do so.)

What’s also unexplained to this point, at least in public, is how it could be possible for an operator to release the brake on a streetcar, whether accidentally or on purpose, before the controls at that end of the car have been fully activated.  If that’s what actually happened, it’s a stunning design flaw.  (To be clear, Muni does not have any replica streetcars or streetcars that allow this kind of thing to happen.)

Fortunately, no one was hurt in the Charlotte accident.  Yet we’re seeing rantings from some folks there that one accident, in which no one was hurt, and whose cause is under investigation, is cause to shut the whole system down.  But many of these ranters were clearly opposed to the new streetcar line on other grounds,  One commenter on the video page linked above wrote that on the new streetcar route,

“you can see a whole lot of ‘ghetto’ and ‘little Mexico’ . None of our rail systems do anything for the middle or upper-class residents that payed [sic] for them (unwillingly) with our taxes.”

(U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, a former mayor of Charlotte, calls opinions like this racist and noted that it was precisely to reach underserved communities that he championed the streetcar as mayor.)

In Atlanta, a new streetcar line using modern streetcars debuted earlier this year and drew terrified comments in various forums from automobile drivers about how dangerous the streetcars were, without saying why.

As kids, native San Franciscans used to be taught to respect the streetcars because of their size but not to be afraid because, unlike a bus or automobile, they followed an exact course — where the rails are.

Any public transit vehicle, like any vehicle on a roadway, will eventually become involved in accidents. You need strong public policy, like the Safer Market Street plan, supported by Market Street Railway, the Bicycle Coalition, and WalkSF, among other advocacy groups, that would have prevented accidents like this one on Market Street the other day. You also need a transit agency that either already deeply understands rail transit, as Muni does, or makes sure it hires people who do.

Most of all, when new streetcar lines start up, you need extensive public education campaigns to teach drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians that steel wheels on steel rails simply cannot stop as fast as rubber tires on asphalt, and that trying to cut off a streetcar in traffic as though it was an automobile isn’t a smart idea — no matter how capable and well trained the streetcar operator is.

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