Celebrating F-line enablers this Pride Month

There would be no F-line today without the concerted effort of a group of advocates and enablers in the early 1980s. Many of them were openly gay. No better time to celebrate their achievements than Pride Month.

That list simply has to start with Maurice Klebolt, a force of nature. Klebolt, who came to San Francisco from Chicago, ran a one-man travel agency, served as a part-time Muni operator, and cultivated elected officials on a single issue: operating historic streetcars on Market Street after regular streetcar service on the J, K, L, M, and N lines went underground with the opening of the Muni Metro Subway in the early 1980s. Others talked about it and began to plan for it, but Klebolt believed in actually DOING something instead. And did he ever. This story from the San Francisco Chronicle captures his activism perfectly.

Maurice Klebolt (left) with the Hamburg streetcar he brought to San Francisco, flanked by then-Muni General Manager Harold Geissenheimer in about 1984. MSR Archive

Klebolt and then-downtown business executive Rick Laubscher, who mobilized that community through the Chamber of Commerce, teamed up in something of a “Mr. Outside, Mr. Inside” pairing to win acceptance of a proof of concept in the form of a summer “Historic Trolley Festival” in 1983, which was renewed for a total of five seasons and built public support for the permanent F-line in 1995 and its extension to Fisherman’s Wharf in 2000.

Klebolt brought numerous international vintage streetcars to San Francisco for Muni’s fleet, and led the charge to grow the new, seven-member nonprofit known as Market Street Railway into a vibrant membership organization by personally shaking down – er, soliciting – everyone he know (and many he didn’t) for what were then $10 memberships. that remains in Muni’s fleet (and remains in need of restoration). Maury’s untimely death in 1988 at just 58 left a real void, but the success of the Trolley Festivals had put a permanent F-line squarely on City Hall’s agenda. Read our tribute to him here, with more hard-to-believe (but true) tales, including his personal version of Cold War-era glasnost.

“Streetcar Named Desire for Peace”, Moscow/Orel Car 106, brought to San Francisco by Maurice Klebolt, participated in a 1992 parade honoring San Francisco’s centennial of streetcars. MSR Archive

While Klebolt may have been the most visible openly gay man associated with the creation of the F-line, several others played very significant roles. The solid and enduring support of then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein was essential to the Trolley Festivals and permanent F-line, but the implementation of her wishes was carried out by her top transportation staff member, Alan Lubliner. Alan’s attention to detail and follow-through kept the project progressing, even when some inside Muni and other city agencies didn’t see the urgency of action. Alan went on to a very successful career in New York with the transportation consulting firm Parsons-Brinkerhoff (now WSP).

The city’s nonprofit partner in facilitating the first two Trolley Festivals was the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce (Market Street Railway took on that role starting in the third year). Lee Knight led the internal Chamber team that made dozens of arrangements on a faster schedule than the City’s procedures would allow. Lee later joined Muni’s then-parent, the city’s Public Utilities Commission as planning manager, before his life was tragically cut short by AIDS.

Once in operation, the spirit of the Trolley Festival was definitively captured by the senior motorman operating the vintage streetcars, Jack Smith, the son of one of San Francisco’s first African-American streetcar operators. Jack literally learned the craft of piloting streetcars at his father’s knee. His encyclopedic knowledge of San Francisco transit history and his unquestioned expertise in streetcar operation was looked up to by the other operators and by management as well. After his retirement from Muni, he served on Market Street Railway’s board of directors with distinction for several years, and was a long-time volunteer on restoration activities of our organization, focused on original San Francisco streetcars. Here’s how we remembered him after his unexpected passing in 2004, at age 72.

Motorman extraordinaire Jack Smith (left), who could operate any streetcar (or cable car), including the complicated Russian Tram 106, at first sight, receives a mock “tribute” from Maurice Klebolt, who brought the tram from Russia, at 17th and Castro in 1987. MSR Archive

There were many other members of the LGBTQ community that played positive roles in the Trolley Festival, particularly residents and merchants the Castro’s District, whose embrace of the vintage streetcars were a significant boost to their success. The Festival streetcars had to go where tracks already were, making Castro Street the logical terminal. Several gay business groups came together to issue a guide to introduce streetcar riders to neighborhood businesses. A booster committee was formed, led by a gay man named Robert Hunter, who asked the Chamber if they could create their own poster. Of course, came the reply. We have recently been offered a mint-condition copy of this artifact and offer this rough photograph we’ve been sent here.

And speaking of posters, we celebrate John Wullbrandt, then a young San Francisco artist who had done whimsical posters of a PCC and a cable car when we approached him to create posters for the first two Trolley Festivals. John raised the money from two other gay men, Bob Campbell and Joe Caplett, and we gained wonderful promotional tools. John is now a renowned fine artist based near Santa Barbara. We offer John’s 1984 poster of famous San Franciscans riding the Boat Tram (shown below) in our online store and at our museum store. The Chamber of Commerce focused on patronizing LGBTQ businesses for the promotional services needed for the Trolley Festivals, including purchasing signage from a small business on Brady Street, Budget Signs, owned by a young gay man named Mark Leno, who went on to a very successful political career in San Francisco and Sacramento.

Beyond the openly LGBTQ people who helped enable the F-line to become reality, there were other prominent people involved who chose not to reveal their sexual orientation during their lifetimes, and we honor that choice. But their contributions are certainly remembered and appreciated. (Anytime one attempts recognizing people who contributed to a team effort, there is always the risk of missing someone. We apologize if so.)

The historic streetcars have always been wildly popular in the Castro District, from the first article we remember being written about them in a local gay publication (with the headline “Zing Went the Strings of My Heart” from Judy Garland’s ‘Trolley Song’) to loud complaints from merchants and residents when F-line service was threatened with extended interruptions. On several occasions, vintage streetcars have taken pride of place in the annual Pride Parade, something we hope will happen again in the future.

During the Trolley Festival’s first year, 1983, both the Blackpool Boat Tram and Muni’s very first streetcar, Car 1, participated in the Pride Parade. MSR Archive

On a national and international level, many gay men took leadership roles in rescuing streetcars from the scrap heap starting after World War II, and in creating museums to operate them. They did this in an era when coming out was to risk severe professional and personal consequences, so they often did not reveal their preferences. But you can see their legacy in museums all over the world. Our nonprofit has likewise benefited by the work of openly gay folks who have served on our board, among them Maury, Jack, Steve Ferrario, and our longtime board member and secretary, Art Curtis, who worked his way up from PCC operator to Chief Inspector at Muni.

Today of course, Muni’s parent, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) is headed by a gay man, Jeff Tumlin, a San Franciscan for 30 years and frequent F-line rider. Its board of directors currently includes out small business leader Manny Yekutiel and has had other prominent LGBTQ leaders in the recent past, including former State Senator and State Democratic Party Chair Art Torres, and long-time board Chair Tom Nolan, who was previously a San Mateo County Supervisor. Indeed, at all levels, from front line workers to leadership to governance, the LGBTQ community is extensively represented at SFMTA.

Happy Pride Month!

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Take a 1906 “Trip Down Market Street” with experts

April 18, 1906, a date forever seared into San Francisco history. The cataclysmic earthquake and fire divided eras and impressed unforgettable memories on all who experienced it.

Still frame from “A Trip Down Market Street”

All who experienced that horror firsthand are gone now. But by unbelievable good fortune, a compelling vision of the old San Francisco survives in the form of a motion picture, and the knowledge it provides us of the way it was keeps growing. Sunday afternoon, April 18, 2021, 115 years to the day after fire engulfed the shaken city, there will be a free webinar talking about how that previously little-known film became world-famous due to a combination of tireless detective work and creative technology. The link to sign up for the webinar is below.

We’re talking about the famous “Trip Down Market Street”, filmed just four days before the earth shook and the sky burned, by professional filmmakers the Miles Brothers, shooting a hand-cranked motion picture camera mounted on the front of a cable car as it rolled eastward on Market between Eighth Street and the Ferry Building. It was long thought to have been shot in 1905, and the only surviving copy, in the Library of Congress, was badly degraded.

But then, magic happened. Film historian David Kiehn, head of the Niles Film Museum in Fremont discovered the true filming date, greatly increasing the historic value of the film. Archivist and film preservationist Rick Prelinger arranged for a vastly improved transfer of the film, revealing many new details. And television’s most-watched news program, 60 Minutes, did a remarkable story, produced by David Browning and reported by Morley Safer, that brought much new attention to the film. (Safer later said it was among his favorite stories of the more than 900 he reported for 60 Minutes.)

Market Street Railway President Rick Laubscher was interviewed for the 60 Minutes story, in part because he had written and recorded a narration for the film, explaining what the camera sees as it moves along Market Street, adding economic and social context as well as explaining the extensive cable car system then operating on our main street. You can watch that narrated version here, and purchase your own DVD of it in our online store.

The webinar is sponsored by the Niles Film Museum as part of its annual 1906 earthquake commemoration. Rick Laubscher will moderate the webinar, talking with David Kiehn, Rick Prelinger, and two descendants of the Miles Brothers, covering all aspects of the film and the 60 Minutes story. The experts will answer questions you have about the film.

You can join the webinar via Zoom at this link. The webinar will then be posted online so you can watch anytime; we’ll update this post with that link when we have it.

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Play Ball…the Muni way!

Today is Opening Day at home for the San Francisco Giants, the first time in 18 months they’ll play in front of fans at Oracle Park. Often, sporting events like this feature a live band, though we’re probably not far enough in our reopening for that. But we can look back to such days, not just for the Giants, but for another San Francisco institution: Muni.

You might call this a double-header: band and ball team all in one shot. We got this photo from member Mike Parkinson. It’s dated February 2, 1930, and we like to think it demonstrates team spirit. Check out the detail by clicking on the photo above and looking at the crops below.

First off, the obvious: all men, and all white as well — the City was indeed discriminatory in its hiring practices 90 years ago, as we’ve discussed here before. We wish we knew more details about the band and the ball club. Who did the team play, for example? Were there grudge matches against Rec & Park, which kept Muni streetcars from crossing Golden Gate Park? Was there a District Attorney’s team, and if so did they prosecute stolen bases? Did the band ever “mount up” on Work Car C-1 and tour the town as “Musicians in Motion”?

For this post, we’ll just focus on style. The ball players look natty in those dark unis with the white pinstripes. But wait, there’s more than one uniform type.

The player lower center has this cool diagonal script thing going on his jersey, plus the interlocked “SF” on his sleeve; quite a style step up from the arched block letters on the “base” jerseys. And what else do we spy?

Yes, indeed, the famed “O’Shaughnessy logo”, supposedly designed by legendary City Engineer Michael M. O’Shaughnessy to symbolize the first big-city transit system owned by the people themselves: Muni. By this time the logo was placed on all new equipment Muni bought but was not yet universal around the system. An “alternate jersey” three-quarters of a century before Major League Baseball embraced the idea.

The logo also appears on the band hats. It looks like these are enamel pins; very stylish. Coincidentally, we offer these enamel logo pins in our online store, though we never knew before now that there was an actual prototype for them. For that matter, we don’t know whether the band played at the team’s games, either. But it’s cool to see this pride in the workplace. (By the way, you can get your O’Shaughnessy fix in a number of ways with us.)

Good luck to the Giants this season, and equally good luck to Muni. They had an extremely challenging “season” last year, but through the determination and hard work of their team, both the front line “players” and the “coaches” (pun intended) that kept moving San Franciscans on essential missions, they have emerged as winners in our book. With the best yet to come: F-line historic streetcar service slated to resume next month, and cable cars later in the year!

Play ball!

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Renting the street

FRANCHISES IN MOTION—Cable cars pass a horsecar on Market Street while another horsecar has just crossed from Third Street to Kearny, passing Lotta’s Fountain. It’s the 1880s, and transit franchises are hot properties in San Francisco. The stripes you see crossing the streets were granite crosswalks, but many pedestrians ignored them. SFMTA Archive.

Editor’s note: One hundred years ago—April 1, 1921 (no fooling!)—an old name appeared anew on the San Francisco scene: Market Street Railway Company. There had already been four transit companies bearing that name, dating back to 1860. This incarnation of the name came after a financial reorganization of the city’s dominant transit company, United Railroads, which with its predecessor had consolidated numerous private operators of cable cars, horsecars, and electric streetcars in the preceding 30 years. 

Our nonprofit took that famed name, Market Street Railway, for ourselves back in 1977, 33 years after Muni acquired our namesake. To mark the centennial of our namesake, our member magazine Inside Track published this story, illuminating how transit got started in San Francisco and how it brought to us the city we know today. To receive the rest of the series and other exclusive features, please join us as a member! 

Rick Laubscher
Market Street Railway President

For the first half-century of our city’s transit (and really, all of America’s), the driving force was private companies using public streets to try to make a profit, by essentially renting those streets—paying for the exclusive transit use of them. Today, of course, we think of public mass transit as not only serving the public, but owned by the public as well—a function of government, not a for-profit business. Yet public ownership of a big-city transit line didn’t happen until 1912, right here, with Muni. 

Before that, all over the country, mass transit was provided by companies that aimed to make a profit. In the Gold Rush-enriched San Francisco of the 1850s, the first public transit vehicles were horse-drawn omnibuses (yes, that’s where the word ‘bus’ comes from). They were basically urban stagecoaches. But what few streets existed then were rough at best. 

FIRST FRANCHISE—A drawing of Hayes Valley in 1864, probably at Hayes and Gough Streets, showing the steam dummy and trailers of the first transit franchise to operate in San Francisco, the Market Street Railroad Company, awarded to (surprise!) Thomas Hayes. SFMTA Archive.

To provide a smoother ride on larger vehicles, a man named Thomas Hayes won the right from the government in 1857 to lay tracks in a few streets for his exclusive use. It was the first street railway franchise awarded in California.

Hayes named his operation the Market Street Railroad Company, and on July 4, 1860, began operating a steam-powered passenger car on tracks from Third Street out Market and then South on Valencia. He then ran a branch out a street he named for himself to Laguna Street, to help him develop land he owned, land now known as Hayes Valley.

Hayes paid the government for his franchise, basically renting the streets his tracks were laid on. The success of his company immediately attracted competitors. The government took bids for the franchise rights to other streets, with the winners paying fees and a percentage of their fares. 

HORSES RULE ON MARKET—After noisy steam dummies were banned from Market Street in 1868, the first franchisee converted its lines to horse-drawn streetcars like this one. The cobblestone pavement provided sound footing for the horses, but made the wagons and buggies they pulled bounce, attracting many passengers to the smooth ride of horse-drawn rail vehicles. Market & Post Streets, about 1870. SFMTA Archive.

After steam operation on Market Street was banned in 1868, horses took over, pulling little trailers along the tracks on many routes owned by various start-up companies. In 1873, Scotsman Andrew Hallidie won a franchise on Clay Street, not for horse-drawn cars, but for little cars pulled by an underground cable. This high technology innovation was twice as fast as horsecars, and could climb hills that horses couldn’t. But the uncertainty of long-term franchise rights discouraged large-scale investment until 1879, when the state granted San Francisco the right to award long-term street railway franchises, up to 50 years. Existing small-scale franchise holders applied for the new, longer franchises, increasing the value of their companies. This in turn drew bigger financial players to San Francisco transit, since these franchises now had predictable value. 

Stanford on Market Street

In 1882, Leland Stanford, former California governor, a builder of the transcontinental railroad, and soon to become robber-baron-in-charge of the mighty Southern Pacific Railroad (whose tentacles all over the state gained it the nickname of the Octopus), bought up the company Thomas Hayes had started, by this time a horsecar operation calling itself Market Street Railway. 

FIRST CABLE FRANCHISE—Andrew Hallidie’s Clay Street Railroad Company had its eastern terminal at Portsmouth Square, Clay and Kearny Streets. SFMTA Archive.

Stanford’s plans were to replace horsepower with cable power and build more lines radiating off Market. Appropriately, he renamed it the Market Street Cable Railway Company. (Stanford soon got kicked out of his rail interests by Collis P. Huntington, who lived a couple blocks from him atop Nob Hill, but consoled himself with a US Senate seat and a university built on his farm in Palo Alto, which he named for his late son.)

Other San Francisco transit companies, led by the Omnibus Railroad, quickly followed Stanford’s lead in converting the franchises for their horsecar lines to cable power, but after Frank Sprague made the electric streetcar practical in Richmond, Virginia in 1888, companies switched to this latest high-tech transit mode, which was twice as fast as cable cars and cheaper to install and maintain. 

San Francisco got its first electric streetcar line in 1891, built by two brothers named Joost, from Market and Steuart Streets (just steps from our San Francisco Railway Museum) via a variety of South of Market and Mission District Streets to reach the county line. Again, it was the grant of an exclusive long-term franchise that justified the capital investment.

FIRST ELECTRIC FRANCHISE—The San Francisco & San Mateo Railway Company opened in 1891, running from the site of our San Francisco Railway Museum on Steuart Street just south of Market all the way to Daly City. This early electric car is much like preserved “Dinky” 578, built just five years later. SFMTA Archive.

In 1893, the Southern Pacific interests snapped up a number of smaller companies (and their franchises), naming the new entity Market Street Railway Company. Its intent was to convert routes to electric streetcars (if they weren’t too steep, as cable lines such as Powell were). It was able to convert several cable lines to electric streetcars and built new electric lines too. 

Uniting the railroads

But the Market Street Railway of 1893 lasted less than ten years. In 1902, a group of eastern capitalists bought out the Southern Pacific interests and consolidated its holdings with several other rail transit companies it had already purchased. These included the Sutter Street Railroad, operated by cable power, and the San Francisco & San Mateo Electric Railway (the company the Joosts had founded, which had just opened a new carbarn at Geneva & San Jose Avenues, a site now home to Muni’s vintage streetcar fleet).

The new company, holding dozens of valuable street franchises, as well as the track and vehicles that operated on them, was known as United Railroads (URR). Getting the most value from its most valuable franchise, along Market Street, was a top priority for the new company. That required converting the five Market cable car lines to electric streetcars. But a city ordinance pushed by merchants forbade overhead wires on Market (and on Sutter, the company’s most direct route west to the fast-growing Richmond District). URR didn’t want to pay for the expensive electric conduit operation that city leaders demanded (already installed in New York and Washington DC). So, the cable cars soldiered on along Market Street, already antiquated by national standards.

GO BIG OR GO HOME—As quickly as it could afford, United Railroads upsized the streetcars on its electric lines to gain more revenue from its busiest franchises. Car 1352 was built by the St. Louis Car Company in 1904, part of a class of 125 cars of this type that survived the 1906 earthquake and fire and played a key role in the city’s recovery. SFMTA Archive.

The stalemate continued until April 18, 1906, when the earthquake and fire destroyed most cable machinery in San Francisco. URR, aided by bribes paid to members of the Board of Supervisors, won the right to string “temporary” overhead wires on Market and Sutter Streets and substitute streetcars for the old cable cars. These immediately became, along with Mission and Fillmore streets, some of the company’s busiest routes.

Unequal service

The franchises that United Railroads depended upon were not distributed evenly across the city. For example, in the 1880s and 90s, several competing companies built east-west lines from downtown into the Richmond District, both to take advantage of the residential growth there, and to serve the then-new urban oasis of Golden Gate Park. Transit service on almost every block caused the Richmond to grow even faster. Meantime, on the south side of the park, transit service in the Sunset District was sparse, as was also true in neighborhoods starting to develop in the southern part of the city. 

FAIR COMPETITION—United Railroads was struggling financially in the 1910s, and the rise of the new Municipal Railway didn’t help. The City backed Muni’s expansion with several new lines that directly served the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in what’s now the Marina District. These United Railroads streetcars on Market near Haight can only offer riders transfers to reach the fair. (This is obviously a posed shot, with the mystery man in-between the 7-Haight and 8-Market & Castro streetcars possibly demonstrating the clearance between the tracks). John Henry Mentz photo; SFMTA Archive.

Attracting private transit companies to invest in substantial new lines to these areas got harder in 1902, the same year URR came into being. A new, progressive, city charter in 1900 had set the goal of eventual public ownership of utilities, including transit. Two years later, in furtherance of that goal, the city government cut the length of new transit franchises to 25 years. By this time, many of the original 50-year franchises were at or nearing the halfway point in their lives. Seeing the writing on the wall, the original backers of United Railroads sold their shares. New shareholders, backed by hard-nosed URR President Patrick Calhoun, took an approach less friendly to the city and downright hostile to organized labor, leading to a bloody carmen’s strike in 1907.

Even with a hostile city government, URR leaders had reason to feel they were in the driver’s seat as they fought the carmen’s strike. The city government had twice asked voters to approve bonds to start a municipal railway, and both times voters had said no. Besides, no other big city had publicly-owned transit lines, and most of URR’s important franchises were good for at least 20 more years. But the ugly 1907 strike, in a union-friendly town, started changing minds about the privately-owned transit company.

Competition

Then, after a third failure at the ballot box, bonds to create a municipal railway were finally approved by voters in 1909, starting with the acquisition and conversion to streetcars of the Geary Street cable line, which had eluded United Railroads’ grasp. (We’ll chronicle the birth pangs of Muni in our next issue.) Now there would be competition, at least in some parts of town. And as the years ticked by, those franchises that were the foundation of URR’s business would lose value unless renewed, which was now contrary to city policy.

The first lines of the new Municipal Railway were concentrated in the northeast quadrant of the city, but its biggest spur to the city’s growth came when it opened lines where its private competitors couldn’t get a franchise: underground. The opening of the Twin Peaks Tunnel in 1918 suddenly made the empty lands of the city’s southwest quadrant attractive to homebuilders, replacing the long, indirect surface slogs provided by United Railroads surface service with a quick trip on Muni tracks through the tunnel. The private company lobbied city officials hard to be granted the right to share the tunnel with Muni, but failed. Increased public ill-will toward the company following another bloody strike in 1917 no doubt played a part.

END OF THE LINE—Barely a month before handing the system over to Market Street Railway Company, a final indignity for United Railroads on February 21, 1921: a cave-in of its tracks on Stanyan Street between Frederick and Carl Streets, near the corner of Golden Gate Park, swallowing an auto. Luckily, these tracks were connectors to the Haight carbarn and didn’t carry cars with passengers. The 6-line car will turn east on Carl Street, later sharing trackage there with Muni’s N-Judah line. John Henry Mentz photo, SFMTA Archive.

And yet United Railroads’ problems went far deeper. Physical damage from the 1906 earthquake and fire was followed by plummeting revenue from fewer riders as the city recovered. URR President Calhoun siphoned off money for his own purposes. Competition popped up on busy corridors from unregulated jitneys—private automobiles offering faster rides for the same five-cent fare as the streetcars (a nickel was called a “jit” in the slang of the day). And to top it off, a runaway streetcar in Visitacion Valley, along what’s now Geneva Avenue, killed eight passengers and injured more than 70 in 1918. It was the worst streetcar disaster in California history, resulting in large damage awards to victims.

Taken together, these circumstances caused the financial failure of United Railroads. Since its very formation in 1902, there had been talk that the original investors had paid too much for the properties and franchises they took over, and negotiations had been going on for several years to reorganize the company on firmer financial ground by paying off bondholders in the company at a significant loss. These negotiations accelerated even as a number of civic leaders called for a city takeover. But that wasn’t in the offing, not yet. Instead, a reorganization ended the life of United Railroads, its assets going to a familiar name: Market Street Railway Company.

What did the future hold for this new operator with the old name? What kind of transit service could San Franciscans expect from a company whose franchise rights were ever closer to their end? Would the city government help or hinder Market Street Railway? All questions we’ll address in the near future.


Owning, using, and paying for the streets

Our city’s streets are unquestionably owned by the public (except a handful of private streets in gated communities, a rarity in San Francisco). But owning, paying for, and using are three different things. 

As you can see in our exclusive narrated version of the famous 1906 “Trip Down Market Street” film, horses, buggies, large dray wagons, bicycles, pedestrians, and transit vehicles were all using the city-owned street space. But only the companies operating the cable cars, streetcars, and horsecars were paying for the right to use the street, making money by collecting fares (some of which they shared with the city under their franchise agreements). 

FREELOADING ON THE FRANCHISE—A jitney, at left on Market at Front Street, looks to grab the nickels of riders for a trip in direct competition with United Railroads’ 9-Valencia line. By the time of this 1914 photo, Muni’s Geary streetcars, including the D-line car to the right, were running all the way to the Ferry, providing more competition for URR. John Henry Mentz photo, SFMTA Archive.

In 1914, some private automobile drivers started picking up passengers on the same routes as United Railroads, poaching the five cent fares but not paying “rent” on any kind of franchise. The city eventually regulated these “jitneys” and forced them from Market onto Mission Street instead, a practice that lasted all the way to 2016. Author Don Anderson quotes Uber’s founder, Travis Kalanick, as calling his company the modern equivalent of the jitneys. (See Don’s excellent story on the city’s jitneys here.)

The early jitneys took revenue from United Railroads and the nascent Muni. A century later, the appearance of Uber and Lyft decimated the taxi business and reduced Muni ridership as well. Taxis pay “rent” to use streets by purchasing SFMTA-issued medallions, which cost $250,000. Competition from Uber and Lyft have made the medallions worth only a fraction of that, and taxi owners are suing the city. Uber and Lyft didn’t pay any “rent” to use the streets at the beginning, but many cities now impose some kind of tax or fee on them. In San Francisco, that’s a voter-approved 3.25% tax on most trips. That tax money goes to SFMTA. Additionally, because the city considers Uber and Lyft cars to be private automobiles, SFMTA bans them from Market Street, while taxis are allowed (with conditions). 

BARELY CONTROLLED CHAOS—This still frame from the famous 1906 “Trip Down Market Street” film shows a streetcar, cable cars, buggies, automobiles, a large dray wagon, and lots of pedestrians filling up the intersection of Fourth and Market.

In the past few (pre-pandemic) years, the numbers of bicycles and scooters, both manual and electric, have grown rapidly in the city. Companies that rent them have to get a franchise and pay a fee to the city for the right to operate on the streets. Private owners of bicycles and scooters pay no fees. Automobile owners pay gas taxes and state license fees. They pay to park both at meters in commercial districts and at the curb in many residential districts, though parking permits. Additionally, they pay to park at both SFMTA-owned and private garages, with a hefty parking tax imposed at all garages.

This complex array of charges for various transportation modes is the source of continuing and vigorous policy debate in the city. The city’s overarching goal is to reduce street congestion and vehicle emissions by providing more exclusive street space for Muni vehicles, bicycles and scooters, reducing the space for private automobiles. Increased parking fees are also intended in part to discourage private automobile operation in the city, and the city is now studying a proposed congestion charge on private automobiles that enter the downtown area (similar to what’s in place in London and Singapore). The city has also considered imposing its own license fee on cars registered in the city.

PART OF THE COST—Street railway franchise holders were required to properly pave the tracks and the space in between, even if the city hadn’t paved the rest of the street yet. Here we’re looking east on Clement Street from 30th Avenue on the 2-line in 1914. Note the Belgian block flanking the rails, the San Francisco standard for track installation. John Henry Mentz photo, SFMTA Archive.

Many automobile owners are outraged by what they consider the assault on their long-time primacy on the streets of San Francisco, but the revenue from fees on autos and other modes of transportation is channeled to SFMTA, intended to subsidize Muni service, including of course the historic streetcars and cable cars.  

San Francisco lost 53,000 residents in the first eight months of the pandemic, most of them to neighborhood Bay Area counties. Major downtown employers such as Salesforce, Twitter, Google, and Facebook have said they’ll let employees work from home most of the time for the foreseeable future. As the pandemic wanes, we’re likely to see a far different congestion picture than before. Our nonprofit’s goal is making sure the historic streetcars and cable cars still “own” the place they’ve earned on the streets of San Francisco.

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End of (last original) track

When street railway companies laid tracks in San Francisco streets, they were responsible for maintaining the area around the tracks. That’s part of the reason it was customary to lay a row of basalt pieces right next to the outer rails. The dense, heavy, gray stone is correctly called Belgian block or sett though often mistakenly called cobblestone. (Cobbles are more egg shaped.) The Belgian block provides a buffer between the rails and the street paving. When streets are paved… — Read More

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Streetcars to buses

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… — Read More

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Market Street 1932: Wowza!

Market Street, in color, in 1932, when essentially all film was black and white. And not just static, like the photo above, but in full and glorious rumble. Click the video below and prepare to get lost in the past for the next four minutes. This trip up Market Street between the Ferry and Grant Avenue was original actual black and white motion picture footage that our friend Rick Prelinger, founder of Prelinger Archives, turned us onto several years ago.… — Read More

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Pedal to the metal: “Finding room to run”

We all know that old saying, “They don’t make them like THAT anymore”. With the late Art Curtis, that’s the truth. In his 37-year career with Muni, Art solved all kinds of operational problems as Chief Inspector, but as a “young buck” (his term) operator, he created his share of mischief, too. We’ll be sharing a couple of stories here told by Art himself. This one comes from a 2009 issue of our member magazine, Inside Track. (Join us to… — Read More

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