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

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… — Read More

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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… — Read More

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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,… — Read More

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