Cable car plea: fix the ficus

Wind and wet felled hundreds of trees in the Bay Area this winter, but one species in particular is dangerous to the cable cars. On March 21, most cable car lines were shut down by blown-down Ficus macrocarpa ‘Nitida’ trees and limbs.

Cable car plea: fix the ficus
A fallen ficus blocks the Powell cable tracks at Pine Street, March 21, 2023. Alex Shultz/SFGATE

Once widely planted as a street tree, for the past quarter-century the City has forbidden new street planting of these evergreen trees with their huge canopies, because their roots invade sewers and wreck sidewalks and their ponderous and heavy limbs can spontaneously fall off, crushing anything beneath. The City would like to remove more of them, but defenders of the trees have impeded that in many places.

Cable car plea: fix the ficus
Cleaning up Hyde Street after a ficus limb fell across the cable car tracks in dry weather in 2019. If it fell onto the wooden roof of a passing cable car… MSR photo

The March 2023 storms saw several ficus trees fall or lose limbs along cable car lines. A fallen ficus on Powell at Pine and fallen ficus limbs on Hyde in Russian Hill caused the suspension of cable car service for a time. While thankfully no cable cars were hit, falling ficus trees on cable car routes have crushed several parked automobiles in the past decade. It’s not just high winds and wet weather that cause ficus to fracture. As the photo above shows, overweight limbs can spontaneously fail and fall, even in dry, calm weather. The heavy limb bottoms could cut right through a cable car roof.

Cable car plea: fix the ficus
Several blocks of Hyde Street in Russian Hill are lined with ficus trees. MSR photo

There’s no question that the ficus-formed corridors are handsome to look at. It took persistent complaints from merchants along such a corridor on 24th Street in the Mission to push the Department of Public Works into removing the most sidewalk- and sewer-damaging trees and pruning others heavily to reduce the threat of falling limbs. We’re asking SFMTA to request their bureaucratic cousins over at DPW to do what’s necessary to lessen the danger of a ficus falling on a cable car. Many of these trees are nearing the end of their lifespan; it would be a tragedy if one ended the life of a cable car — and even more its workers and passengers — because it wasn’t properly tended to. This year, while we’re celebrating 150 Years of Cable Cars, would be a good time to take care of this.


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