Cable cars back on 148th birthday, Aug. 2!

In the early morning hours of August 2, 1873, Andrew Hallidie personally piloted his invention, the street cable car, over a precipice on Clay Street and launched a new era in street railroads. (There’s a free Zoom event August 2 at 6 p.m. talking about the cable cars and Hallidie. Details at the bottom of the post.)

Exactly 148 years and eight hours after Hallidie’s first trip, Mayor London Breed and SFMTA head Jeffrey Tumlin will preside over the rebirth of the city’s famed cable cars. The ceremony, at 10 a.m. at the Powell and Market cable car turntable, is the official re-start of the venerated system.

Sort of.

The little cars have actually been trundling around the system for several weeks now, retraining crews and testing after being shut down since April 2020 by the pandemic. But starting August 2, passengers will be allowed on the cars for the first time. And they’ll ride free for the entire month of August.

Caveat, though. SFMTA (Muni) says “we will test the system by inviting passengers aboard for the duration of a “mock service” trial, riding the lines where cable cars are operating and making stops. This mock service will be irregular, not following a particular schedule, as we work out any kinks in the system that might arise.”

That means you could wait awhile for a cable car to depart the terminal (but hey, wasn’t that standard operating procedure before the pandemic…a story we’ll be watching as the recovery proceeds). Also, with lots of folks wanting free rides, there could be long lines. (When Muni starts collecting fares in September, a family of four will pay $64 for a round-trip to Fisherman’s Wharf from Powell and Market, versus $12 or less for an F-line streetcar round-trip (after August 15, when all Muni services except cable cars become free for those under 18).)

Our unofficial advice: take advantage of August and minimize possible wait times for cable cars by riding early in the day (cable cars and F-line streetcars will both operate between about 7:30 a.m. and 10 p.m. daily), and perhaps riding the F-line to the Wharf and then taking a Powell cable car back downtown from one of the outer terminals (Hyde & Beach Sts. or Bay & Taylor Sts.). Or take the very under-rated California line from California & Market with the morning sun at your back up through the canyon of the Financial District, past the heart of Chinatown, and over Nob Hill.

Whatever you do, if you’re in town in August, be sure to enjoy the cable cars. And bring your mask. They’re still required on all public transit vehicles.

The venerable Mechanics’ Institute, with which Hallidie was associated, is hosting a free virtual event via Zoom at 6 p.m. on August 2, with MSR President Rick Laubscher and Mechanics’ Institute historian Taryn Edwards in conversation with author and podcaster Matthew Félix. Details and signup here.

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