84% Support Historic Streetcars

84% Support Historic Streetcars

In the increasingly frothy world of online media, we’ve noticed a definite increase in stories designed to create a controversy where there really isn’t one. With today’s frantic competition for eyeballs, competitors will often build on each other’s story without doing any actual, you know, reporting. (Not that this is just an online media thing; who of a certain age can forget the Chronicle’s “crusade” against bad coffee half a century ago, under the unforgettable headline, “A Great City’s People Forced to Drink Swill.” But we digress.)

Recent case in point on the fake controversy front. The Examiner’s Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez ran a straightforward story on May 30 about SFMTA’s (Muni’s) application for a federal grant to fund the next steps in the proposed historic streetcar extension to Fort Mason. (Joe Fitz, as he’s widely known, routinely breaks good transportation stories through solid old fashioned reporting, only to have his work parroted, often with no credit, by numerous online sites.) This time, the site StreetsblogSF picked up Joe’s story (with full credit) but decided to spice it up with controversy by turning into a story that asked the question, “Is it Time to Modernize the F-line?” The story revived a post the site made back in 2009, asking the same question, that went nowhere. Both stories almost certainly were suggested to the editor by Tom Radulovich, executve director of Livable City, the non-profit associated with the blog. Tom’s a former BART board member and the primary proponent of replacing the F-line vintage streetcars with modern low-floor streetcars. (These would very likely require major track rebuilding wherever used because they would probably not clear crowns on the hills as is, but we’ll leave feasibility out of this discussion.) We’ve talked cordially with Tom on this topic numerous times and, in friendly terms, agreed to disagree.

Anyway, StreetsblogSF ran its story and the comments on the site were strongly in favor of keeping the old streetcars. Immediately though, other local online news sites jumped in to take advantage of the “controversy,” which wasn’t really that at all, just basically one guy’s opinion.

One of these sites, CurbedSF, which primarily covers real estate, jumped in a few days later and regurgitated the story (must have been a slow day in the development/property world). (Neither of these sites bothered calling us for our views before posting their initial story, by the way, though when we called them, CurbedSF did incorporate our comments in an update.)

CurbedSF did add something new to the “controversy”, though, which is the point of this post.They asked their readers to vote on whether they wanted the historic streetcars to stay on Market Street and the Waterfront, or be replaced.

More than 260 readers responded to the question, “Is it time to get rid of the historic streetcars?” 16% said, “Yes,” while 84% — 5 out of every 6 respondents — said, “No.” San Franciscans know there’s almost nothing in this town that gets 84% agreement.

So maybe we can bid farewell, at least for awhile, to this manufactured “controversy”, and focus efforts on making the historic streetcar service run more efficiently, with cashless boarding (pre-paid fares on the busiest parts of the line), even more automobile traffic reduction on Market Street along with consolidated stops from Van Ness to the Ferry, better line management on both lines, but particularly the E-line, and other low-cost measures that Market Street Railway has been advocating for years.

This survey should erase any remaining doubt that the historic streetcars are highly valued by San Franciscans. Now’s the time to actually do something about helping their riders complete their trips faster.

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Backlash Against Removing F-line wires for Super Bowl

Super Bowl Party on lower Market

Seven months ago, in April, we ran the photo above and this story. We based it in part on a Chronicle story that mildly said the F-line streetcars would have to be “rerouted.” We knew of course that they meant “bustituted,” since you can’t reroute streetcars without moving the tracks and overhead wires.

We looked at the artist’s conception of the “Super Bowl village” on lower Market Street and noticed that there’s no tangle of overhead wires showing — the ones that power the F-line, the 6, 21, and 31 trolley coach lines on Market, and the terminal loop for the busy 14-Mission. But, we thought, artists often eliminate the lines when they draw pretty pictures of Market. Our big concern was streetcar service on the F-line.  Since there’s nowhere to turn the streetcars between 11th Street and the Ferry Loop, it was clear that they’d have to put buses on the F-line to serve Castro.  At a minimum, this meant that the city’s biggest LGBT center and shopping district would be denied the attractive streetcars that so many businesses there rely to convey visiting shoppers from downtown. (This, despite the fact that the NFL had promised an “LGBT-friendly” Super Bowl celebration to the local community.)

Having been told that the wire removal was a “done deal” and that there was “no way” streetcars would run on Market Street during Super Bowl Week, we focused our efforts on ensuring that at a minimum F-line streetcars could keep running between the Ferry and the Wharf.  SFMTA leadership supported our position and, we are told, have won that small victory. F-line streetcar shuttles will operate from the Wharf to the Ferry, using the loop on Don Chee Way, Steuart, and Mission Streets to turn around. (We plan to keep our San Francisco Railway Museum open during Super Bowl Week if at all possible, but we have heard zilch from anyone at the Super Bowl Committee or the City about how much access people will have to us.)

We have not gotten support, however, for our strong recommendation to run E-Embarcadero line service daily throughout Super Bowl Week along the waterfront from the Wharf to Caltrain. This would have provided an connection to the front door of the Super Bowl Village at Ferry Plaza for people using the Peninsula commute trains or parking remotely in the many lots of Mission Bay.

Meantime, people in the press figured out the missing wires. The Examiner’s Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez got on the story last week, sparking lots of complaints on social media, which yielded today’s follow-up story, in which Sup. Jane Kim, quoted in Joe’s first story as saying she thought the wire removal plan was well known, is now calling for a public hearing after many constituents contacted her to complain.

Most of the social media commenters have focused on issues of cost (which could be considerable — the first Examiner article cited “seven figures”) and time (it would probably take several days both before and after Super Bowl Week to take down and restore the wires, meaning the total F-line disruption could be two to three weeks). Interestingly, though, some talked about the overhead transit wires as being “part of our city,” even beautiful in their own way. And many railed at this amorphous Super Bowl Committee ordering transit out of their way with no public input first.

Seems to us the only way to save the F-line streetcars on Market during Super Bowl week is if the directly affected businesses along the route speak out loudly, immediately. We’ll see what happens in the next few weeks.

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Boost for E-line Extension to Mission Bay, Dogpatch

Vintage streetcars already run through Mission Bay and Dogpatch on their way in and out of service, so why not run E-line historic streetcars here?

Vintage streetcars already run through Mission Bay and Dogpatch on their way in and out of service, so why not run E-line historic streetcars here?

Market Street Railway has been strongly advocating for extensions of the E-Embarcadero vintage streetcar line west from Fisherman’s Wharf to Fort Mason, and south from the Caltrain Depot at Fourth and King. The southern extension would use the existing T-line tracks via Fourth, Channel, and Third Streets to serve the proposed Giants’ Mission Rock development and Warriors’ Arena, UCSF Mission Bay, three new shoreline parks, and thousands of new residences now coming on line or in the pipeline in Mission Bay and Dogpatch.

A new opinion piece in the Examiner offers strong support for our idea. Penned by J. R. Eppler and Tony Kelly, the leaders of the influential Potrero Hill Boosters neighborhood group, it notes the benefits of the southern E-line extension to residents and businesses alike. The Potrero Hill Boosters join neighborhood and small business groups in  Dogpatch and Mission Bay/South Beach/Rincon Hill in supporting the extension. In fact, it was neighborhood initiative that led us to extend our vision for the E-line all the way through Dogpatch. (We originally envisioned an extended E-line turning back near Pier 70, but neighbors urged us to consider the projected explosive residential growth from there to Islais Creek, and we agreed.)

As the Examiner story points out, the historic streetcars currently run this route every day anyway, going to and from Muni Metro East at 26th and Illinois, where they are currently stored. maps vietnam An existing, underused loop track through that facility could provide a terminal for the extended E-line at no capital cost, or a new terminal track could easily be constructed on Illinois between Cesar Chavez and 25th Street, leveraging the existing switches at Third Street to keep costs to a minimum.

There’s no question more transit is needed in this fastest growing part of San Francisco.  We’re pleased that the Potrero Hill Boosters see the E-line as an important part of the solution.

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GM Conspiracy to Kill Streetcars? Not By Itself

In this 1940 shot from the SFMTA Archives, you can see automobiles jousting with streetcars for space on Market Street. This car-car clash was a big reason streetcars almost died out in the U.S.

In this 1940 shot from the SFMTA Archives, you can see automobiles jousting with streetcars for space on Market Street. This car-car clash was a big reason streetcars almost died out in the U.S.

One of the central beliefs in the heart of many U.S. railfans is that the golden age of streetcars was cruelly crushed by a 1940’s conspiracy led by General Motors and petroleum and tire companies in an illegal scheme to sell buses. The agent was a company called National City Lines.

There’s no question that National City Lines bought up dozens of privately owned transit operations around the U.S., including the Key System here in the Bay Area, and largely succeeded in converting streetcars to buses. But an excellent article in Vox by Joseph Stromberg argues persuasively that the conspirators were vultures picking at the carcass of a mode of transit that was already dead or dying in most American cities (San Francisco being, as in many things, something of an exception).

(Note to those already blowing steam out of their ears and raring to rant: no comments will be accepted on this post unless you can demonstrate in your remarks that you actually read the linked article.)

We hear the mantra of evil GM et al repeated all the time. It’s really a religion among some. But as Stromberg points out,

“The real reasons for the streetcar’s demise are much less nefarious than a GM-driven conspiracy — they include gridlock and city rules that kept fares artificially low — but they’re fascinating in their own right, and if you’re a transit fan, they’re even more frustrating.”

Every early “public” transit system was actually privately owned, and operated to make a profit. San Francisco’s experience was typical. Many pioneering rail transit lines (initially pulled by horses, then cables, then powered by overhead wires) were started by entrepreneurs. Soon, though, they were consolidated by bigger players — in San Francisco’s case, initially by the owners of the mighty Southern Pacific Railroad.

These rail transit lines operated under franchises from the cities that hosted them. In getting the rights to put tracks into public streets and a monopoly on operating routes, they agreed to maintain the street areas around the tracks and have fares regulated. In practicality, city after city forced private operators to keep the fare at five cents for decades, regardless of inflation.

Stromberg’s analysis doesn’t mention it, but the unchanging nickel fare forced private operators to keep cutting maintenance, which meant the streetcars, track, and overhead got increasingly decrepit. Many streetcar companies went bankrupt well before National City Lines came on the scene. Others got a boost in revenue during World War II when rationing forced automobile drivers back to transit, but this only prolonged those streetcars’ life, rather than curing the underlying ills.

Oh, those automobiles. What most conspiracy theorists choose to ignore is that the rise of the middle class and the power of mass production made automobiles affordable to more families every year. Many began to choose their cars instead of streetcars for many trips, eroding transit company revenues and increasing congestion on the streets the streetcars used. Later, many moved to new suburbs beyond the streetcar’s reach and drove their cars to work, again dueling with streetcars for street space. (We document this in our current exhibit, “Cars vs. Cars”, at our San Francisco Railway Museum.

Stromberg also gives too little attention to the real issue of labor costs. Most cities had increasingly powerful transit unions, which resisted reducing streetcar crews from two operators to one. This limited the spread of the comfortable, modern PCC streetcar, which industry leaders designed in the 1930s with the intent that it would be a single operator car. Transit companies that couldn’t win government approval to reduce crew size had no incentive to buy PCCs. Indeed, our namesake, Muni’s private competitor Market Street Railway Company won the right to run single-operator streetcars in the 1930s and drew up plans for PCC-line streamliners, but had the courts reverse that right and abandoned their streamliner dreams. (Muni PCC No. 1011 is painted in tribute to what might have been, if…)

Muni bought five PCC-like streetcars in 1939, but it was all they could afford, and they had to use two-operator crews to run them.  SFMTA Archives.

Muni bought five PCC-like streetcars in 1939, but it was all they could afford, and they had to use two-operator crews to run them. SFMTA Archives.

Even America’s first urban transit system that was government-owned — Muni — felt the mix of economic pressures Stromberg describes. After acquiring the assets of the old Market Street Railway in 1944, Muni proceeded to do just what National City Lines did: convert most of its streetcar lines to buses, as quickly as they could. Equipment and track was worn out, increased automobile traffic was slowing streetcar service, and voters wouldn’t approve single-operator streetcars.

This isn’t news. We wrote about this at length in our member newsletter, Inside Track, in 2002 and later, posted the piece here, so no need to plow all that ground again. But because the over-simplified conspiracy trope keeps popping up, we think it’s important to remind people that it took more than a few corporations to almost kill the streetcar.

Speaking of reminders, we depend on YOU to help us keep today’s historic streetcar and cable car operations alive and vibrant through our advocacy and support programs. Please consider joining or contributing to Market Street Railway.  Thanks.



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Warriors Arena in Mission Bay Boosts Importance of Extending the E-Line

The Warriors now say their future lies on the border of Mission Bay and Dogpatch, instead of a mile farther north on Piers 30-32. The 125-foot tall, 18,000-seat arena the basketball team proposed to build over the Bay along the southern Embarcadero is now slated for a site the Warriors just bought on the east side of Third Street, between South and 16th Streets. Unlike the Pier 30-32 site, this site fits within current zoning and would need only a… — Read More

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Mid-Market Comeback

PCC No. 1060 enlivens the scene at Seventh and Market Streets. (c) Melissa Wuschnig. In his Chronicle column today, former Mayor Willie Brown said of the mid-Market area, “After decades of nothing but talk, that area is really taking off.” Decades is right. I grew up on Market Street. My family had delicatessens between Fifth and Sixth and between Fourth and Third in the 1950s (and one at Fifth and Jessie as well). As a kid, I watched the stretch… — Read More

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Another Vision for the E-line

An excellent article by Aaron Bialick in Streetsblog San Francisco discusses the possible demise of the northern end of Interstate 280 as a means to help facilitate — and pay for — undergrounding of High Speed Rail and Caltrain to reach Downtown. A version of this plan has been mooted by the Mayor’s Office. The article includes a link to a fascinating and very thoughtful study by Ben Caldwell, studying for his Master’s at UC Berkeley’s School of Urban Design.… — Read More

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More Auto Restrictions on Market Street?

A nice summary on SF Streetsblog about today’s SFMTA Board discussion on possible further restrictions on automobile traffic on Market Street east of 10th Street. Market Street Railway is a strong supporter of actions that speed F-line service (and other Muni lines) on Market. F-line boarding island at Fourth Street The current restrictions, which seem to have been accepted by everyone, including Downtown businesses, force eastbound automobiles to turn right at 10th and again at Sixth Street. But automobiles driving… — Read More

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Pier 70 Development: Streetcars Included?

The Monday Chronicle lays out an impressive potential future for Pier 70 on the Central Waterfront. What the article describes (accurately) as “the most intact 19th century industrial complex west of the Mississippi River” is being pitched by the city as a new and very attractive home for high-tech businesses. Mayor Newsom calls the 69-acre bayside site “an extraordinary asset that is vastly underappreciated.” We think so too. That’s why we have consistently advocated Pier 70 as the ultimate terminal… — Read More

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Storage & Link: Tale of Two Photographers

Our 2011 calendar has just gone to the printer. We should have them in stock at our San Francisco Railway Museum around Labor Day. One of our best contributors over the years is Market Street Railway member Bill Storage, who takes fantastic night shots in particular. In Bill’s photo blog, “The Eye Game,” he describes what went into some of his distinctive historic transit shots, like this one of a California Street cable car. It’s well worth a read, even… — Read More

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