Streetcars to buses

The first motor coach Muni owned, White Motor Company No. 01, poses at the end of the A-Geary line in 1919. SFMTA Archive.

See gallery at end of story

The Covid-19 pandemic caused Muni to convert all its rail lines to buses in 2020, with rail service fitfully resuming, in stages, in 2021. Quite a reversal for the transit agency born as the San Francisco Municipal Railway, whose service was dominated by streetcars for the first 35 years of its existence, and had never before been strictly a bus operation for longer than a weekend at a time. Here’s a story we put together in 2017 to celebrate the centennial of Muni’s first bus operation.

In September 1917 the Municipal Railway left the tracks for the first time, by running its first bus—a leased vehicle whose make and model is lost to history. Still, it was the beginning of a protracted turning point for Muni.

The city’s first buses

When San Francisco got its first transit motor bus, 50,000 streetcars across the US were unquestionably kings of urban American streets. Many of those streets were paved with rough cobblestones or Belgian block when they were paved at all. Cobbles were fine for horses, but rough on any wheeled vehicle, often leading drivers of the primitive automobiles and trucks of the day to try to share the smooth streetcar track area.

​Muni’s first buses were small—just 19 seats—reflecting the technology limitations of the day. They were bought to complement streetcars, not compete with them. The first Muni bus route crossed Golden Gate Park from the end of the A-Geary line into the Sunset District. Muni’s guiding spirit, legendary City Engineer M.M. O’Shaughnessy, wanted to extend the streetcar tracks through the park, but was handed a rare defeat at the hands of another legend of city government, Parks chief John McLaren.

A newly arrived White Motor bus on the 7-Haight line passes a lineup of retired streetcars at the “Boneyard”, Lincoln Way and Funston Avenue, July 7, 1948. SFMTA Archive.

​Other early Muni bus routes ran out Taraval Street from the Twin Peaks Tunnel, until the L-line was built, and along Great Highway. They didn’t go anywhere near downtown; their job was to take San Franciscans to the streetcars that did.

Buses provide a cheaper alternative

By the mid-1920s, larger engines and better suspensions made buses practical on more city streets. Still, the bus was an afterthought. Muni’s private competitor, Market Street Railway Co., which bought its first three buses in 1926, used them to connect developing neighborhoods to its main streetcar lines, starting with the 14-Mission.

​A bus could be operated by a single driver, while San Francisco’s streetcars required two, a motorman and conductor. In the mid-1930s, Market Street Railway tried to convert some of its streetcar lines to use streetcars with just one crewmember, but a court overturned the move, which had been strongly opposed by labor unions. In response, Market Street Railway began converting some of its unprofitable, less patronized streetcar lines to buses. By 1941, the 19-Polk, the Third Street lines and three South of Market lines had been ‘bustituted,’ along with the Castro cable line, and in 1942, the Sacramento-Clay cable car line as well.

The last Sutter streetcar poses for newspaper photographers at 31st Avenue and Clement with Muni’s flashiest looking motor bus on July 2, 1949. This group of 10 Faegol Twin Coaches had been bought in 1947 for Mayor Roger Lapham’s voter-defeated plan to replace the Powell Street cable cars. MSR Archive.

​As a public agency, Muni faced less pressure to replace streetcars with buses at this time, and by the end of 1937, twenty years after running its first bus, Muni still only owned nineteen of them. That more than doubled by the end of 1941, with 43 motor buses running on eleven routes, almost all still serving as feeders for the streetcars.

Tires and wires: Early trolley buses

By the mid-1930s, motor buses could go anywhere in San Francisco there were streets—if they weren’t too steep). But electric trolley buses could climb virtually any hill; could use the same power generated for streetcars, and didn’t need tracks in the street. Market Street Railway converted its 33-Ashbury line through the Mission and over Twin Peaks into the Haight-Ashbury to trolley buses in 1935, followed by Muni with its first line, the R-Howard-South Van Ness in 1941. Muni planned to convert the E-Union streetcar line to trolley buses as well, but World War II intervened.

Wearing out

World War II tested American mass transit to the limit. Streetcars and buses all over the country were packed with riders who couldn’t use their automobiles because of gasoline and rubber rationing. Almost no new transit vehicles were built because their makers were building war vehicles. By war’s end, most streetcars and their tracks were worn out. With peace restored, families bought automobiles as never before, forsaking transit. Many privately owned streetcar companies around the country were scooped up by a partnership of bus, tire, and fuel companies and converted to buses.

It’s March 29, 1951 looking east on Market from Second Street, and the big change is almost complete on the city’s main street. Trolley buses have taken over the 5, 6, 7, 8, and 21 streetcar lines on Market, 25 more modern PCC streetcars are on the way, and most of the street has been rebuilt, except for the now-disused outside track on the right. SFMTA Archive.

​In San Francisco, the transition from streetcars to buses played out differently. The city itself bought out the private Market Street Railway Co. in 1944 and combined it with Muni. Soon after, a city consultant prepared a post-war plan that would have retained strong streetcar lines such as the K, L, M, and N, and lines on Mission, Geary, Stockton, Sutter, and Haight streets.

​But with fare revenue rapidly plummeting along with ridership, labor costs became an overriding issue. Single-operator buses began substituting for two-person streetcars on some lines evenings and weekends. A 1947 plan, tied to a bond issue, emphasized single-operator trolley buses instead. It passed and changed the face of the city.

 The big switch

The end of the 1940s saw buses pass up streetcars as the main public transit vehicles in San Francisco. In mid-1946, Muni owned 600 streetcars and just 225 buses. By early 1952, buses numbered more than 800 (about equally split between motor and trolley buses), while active streetcars were down to about 200. Two dozen streetcar lines had been converted to bus operation. The rising cost of two-person streetcar crews, increased automobile traffic competing for street space, and worn out streetcar infrastructure all contributed to this changeover.

Muni built bus shelters at the West Portal of the Twin Peaks Tunnel in the early 1950s, primarily because rising operating costs forced the substitution of buses nights and weekends on the outer ends of the K, L, and M lines. This abated when more single-operator PCC streetcars were acquired. Here, “Iron Monster” No. 162 (reacquired from a museum by our non-profit Market Street Railway in 2003) heads downtown after loading riders transferring from the 17-Parkmerced feeder bus using the shelter on the right. MSR Archive.

​A fleet of White motor coaches, gasoline powered and very smelly to ride, provided bridge service during the conversion from streetcars to electric trolley coaches. The new trolley coach fleet was mostly Marmon-Harrington buses in three different sizes, augmented by sleek-looking Twin Coaches and hulking, hard-to-drive St. Louis Car Company buses.

​By 1951, only 19% of Muni’s streetcar service was covering its operating costs, compared to more than a third of the bus service—especially distressing because buses were stuck with all the lowest ridership routes. Muni responded by minimizing streetcar service on nights and weekends, running only the N-Judah and a shuttle service on Market through the Twin Peaks Tunnel to West Portal, with the rest of the streetcar routes operated by buses during those lower-ridership periods. 

The last streetcar-to-bus conversion came at the end of 1956, when new Mack diesel buses like this one replaced the venerable “Iron Monsters” on Muni’s first streetcar service, the B-Geary, shown here at the Playland terminal. MSR Archive.

​Finally, voters repealed the requirement for two crewmembers on modern streetcars in 1954, and within four years, only ‘PCC’ streamliners, the type seen on the E- and F-lines today, remained in regular service. Five streetcar lines, the J, K, L, M, and N, were saved, mostly because they used tunnels or rights-of-way difficult or too expensive to convert to bus use, but the busiest streetcar line, the B-Geary, which had no such protection, fell at the end of 1956, becoming the 38, still Muni’s busiest line overall.

Stable state

Most of the big change to buses was completed by 1952, except for Geary, which got buses in 1956. San Francisco’s mix of buses and streetcars stayed pretty steady for the next four decades.

​Several generations of motor coaches and trolley coaches have carried San Franciscans since then. Macks dominated the motor coach fleet from 1956-1969, followed by GMC ‘New Look’ coaches (which Muni was the last major property to buy new, in 1969). The ‘Fishbowls,’ as the GMCs were called, were augmented by smaller AM General buses (nicknamed ‘Gremlins’ after the small American Motors automobile of the area). The first fleet of articulated coaches (or ‘bendy buses,’ as the British call them) were delivered to Muni by MAN in 1984. Since then, most motor coaches have come from Neoplan or Flyer Industries. Flyer supplied a new generation of trolley coaches in 1975, replaced by Czech-designed ETI trolley buses starting in 2001. Various other bus manufacturers supplied smaller numbers of coaches over the past 50 years; these fleet details are beyond the scope of this story.

Three generations of trolley coaches, spanning more than 65 years of service: 1950 Marmon-Herrington 776, 1975 Flyer 5300, and an ETI coach.

​Rapid Transit came to San Francisco in 1973 with the opening of the BART Transbay Tube. By 1982, Muni’s five surviving streetcar lines moved into the Muni Metro subway under Market Street, and after successful summer demonstrations in the 1980s, vintage streetcars returned to the surface of Market permanently in 1995. In fact, the F-line and later the E-line run routes once served by buses: the 8-Market trolley bus on Market and the 32-Embarcadero along the waterfront. Then, in 2005, modern streetcars (called ‘light rail vehicles’ by some) replaced buses on one of San Francisco’s longest thoroughfares, Third Street, 66 years after buses replaced streetcars.

​Today, Muni is midway through a multi-year process of replacing its rubber-tire fleet with a standard design, manufactured by New Flyer Industries. Both the hybrid motor coaches and trolley coaches share the same sleek body design, the first time that’s been true across the Muni rubber tire fleet. Both types of bus are being delivered in 40-foot (standard) and 60-foot (articulated) lengths.

Munis new-design New Flyer buses come as both trolley coaches and, shown here, hybrid diesels (substituting on the F-line).

​It all adds up to one of the lowest emission transit fleets in North America, including 200 zero-emission streetcars/light rail vehicles (both modern and vintage), plus more than 400 zero-emission electric trolley buses, in addition to hundreds of hybrid diesel-electric motor buses.

​Both buses and streetcars are essential to moving both residents and visitors around San Francisco, and along with the world-famous cable cars, provide the pulse along the arteries of the City by the Bay.

Original Print of Municipal Railway Superintendent Fred Boeken with Muni’s First Five Motor Coaches at Geary Car House, January 1918. SFMTA Archive.
When the Twin Peaks Tunnel opened to streetcars on February 3, 1918, Muni’s first buses wer e there too. This shot is at Portola Drive and West Portal Avenue, at St. Francis Circle. SFMTA Archive.
After the L-line made it to Ocean Beach in 1923, the 2-Ocean bus line connected riders to the outer end of the B-Geary line on the other side of Golden Gate Park. Wide-open spaces at 48th and Taraval on May 15, 1925 with a White Motor 25-seat bus, probably newly delivered No. 012, not yet equipped with Muni logo. SFMTA Archive.
After the L-line made it to Ocean Beach in 1923, the 2-Ocean bus line connected riders to the outer end of the B-Geary line on the other side of Golden Gate Park. Chutes (later Playland) at the Beach, March 20, 1927, with a brand new 29-seat White Motor Model 50B, numbered either 021 or 022. Note the streetcar gong on the bus’s roof, typical of early Muni motor coaches. SFMTA Archive.
On January 27, 1927, Mayor “Sunny Jim” Rolph (waving) opened Muni’s 4-Embarcadero bus line on the waterfront street, which had too many freight rail tracks serving the piers to make streetcars feasible at the time. (Today, of course, the freight tracks are gone, and the E-Embarcadero vintage streetcar line runs in place of buses.) SFMTA Archive.
One of Market Street Railway’s first buses, a 1927 Faegol “Safety Coach”, signed for the 51-Silver Ave. line, poses at Elkton streetcar shops, probably to get that gouge on the front left fixed. Cameron Beach Collection, MSR Archive.
In 1938, Muni began buying 32-passenger White Motor model 784 buses, a new type of transit bus with the engine in back, providing more capacity. This photo, taken in Golden Gate Park to show off the new driver’s uniform (right, on the front steps of coach No. 056). One coach of this group, No. 042, has been preserved by Muni and operates on special occasions. SFMTA Archive.
In 1935, Market Street Railway replaced streetcars on its 33-line with electric trolley buses built by Brill. The Golden Gate Park terminal, shown here, was at Stanyan and Waller Streets. MSR Archive.
Three of Muni’s first nine trolley coaches, built in 1941 by St. Louis Car Co., sun themselves on the “flight deck” built above the Potrero streetcar barn to house them. One of these first nine, No. 506, has been preserved cosmetically and is displayed now and then by Muni. March 29, 1947. MSR Archive.
World War II drove ridership so high that Market Street Railway had to bring back streetcars to help out buses on a few lines they had already converted, such as the 19-Polk, shown here at Larkin and Hayes Streets. MSR Archive.
When the war ended, Muni moved ahead with its delayed plans to convert the E-Union streetcar line to buses. At Washington Square, a wartime White Motor model 798, delivered in gray primer paint, was already running the portion of the line from North Beach to the Ferry Building in 1947. As soon as the streetcar wire was modified, trolley buses took over all of the E-line, combined with the R trolley coach line to become the 41-Union-Howard line. MSR Archive.
Muni worked hard to publicize the big change from streetcars to “modern” buses, even staging a parade of 55 White Motor coaches down Market to Civic Center on June 4, 1948 to show off the new ‘hardware.’ SFMTA Archive.
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