Back to the Future?

“New Orleans plans to outsource nearly every aspect of its mass-transit
system to a French company, an approach that could appeal to other
cash-strapped American cities looking to cut spending without
eliminating bus or rail services.”

So begins a story in this morning’s Wall Street Journal, accompanied by a picture of tourists riding a St. Charles line streetcar. Small irony here: New Orleans was one of the last privately owned big-city transit systems in the U.S., a subsidiary of an electric utility until the 1980s.

Most people in the Bay Area don’t know it, but most agencies here outsource at least a part of their service to contractors. The most common outsourcing involves paratransit van service, but some agencies such as SamTrans outsource some of their core routes to contractors as well.

But New Orleans would be the first vintage streetcar operation we know of in the U.S. to be operated by a contractor. Did we miss one? Any thoughts on the prospects of more outsourcing in the Bay Area (whether streetcars, buses, or other public transit)?

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California Street Cable Car Extension?


San Francisco Municipal Railway photo.

We’ve had a number of recent comments on the blog about possible cable car extensions. Ever since 1954, when the cable car system was cut in half, there has been talk now and again of “making it right,” most specifically restoring the outer portion of the California line, which used to run through Pacific Heights all the way to Presidio Avenue, instead of ending at Van Ness as it has since.

There’s no question that the California line is underused as it is, but what to do about it? Here, briefly, are options that have been discussed in the past. What they all have in common is the goal of ending the line at some kind of current or potential attraction or trip generator.


This almost happened in 1954: combine the inner end of the Cal line to the outer (northern) end of the old O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde line, taking riders from the Ferry to Aquatic Park via the Financial District, Chinatown, Nob Hill, and Russian Hill. (The Washington-Jackson line would have kept running west to Steiner, so we would not have gotten a Powell-Hyde line.) This could still be done, though tricky technically, giving us both Powell-Hyde and Cal-Hyde lines. There was some talk of enabling this during the 1983-84 cable car system reconstruction, but it would have required environmental studies that would have delayed the whole replacement project, so it was held in abeyance.

Extension to Japantown

This idea has come up a few times: extend the Cal cable west to either Buchanan or Webster, then south to Japantown. As Japantown has evolved and, many say, lost its special flavor, talk of this option has waned. A variation on this idea would terminate the line near FIllmore and Geary in the Fillmore Jazz District.

Extension to Civic Center

Mayor WIllie Brown proposed this early in his term: turning the Cal cars south on Polk to Civic Center, terminating somewhere near City Hall to serve the Asian Art Museum, Library, and other public institutions.

Extensions terminating farther west on California

Given the attractiveness of the portion of Fillmore Street near California as a shopping area, some have proposed terminating the line at Fillmore, or at Steiner where it could connect to the 1-California trolley bus. Others advocate taking it even farther west, running side-by-side with the 1-line to the Cal cable’s original terminal at Presidio Avenue.

What do you think?

Here’s your chance to tell us what you think about Cal cable extensions. But a serious caveat: this is not the place for dreamers who like to spin out their fantasies completely out of touch with reality. We’d like to see comments that put some thought into how to deal with the very real constraints that apply. For example:

  • ADA: the current cable car system is exempt by Act of Congress from compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The only other transit line I know of that shares this exemption is the St. Charles streetcar line in New Orleans, because of the combination of the established history of the lines and the historic fabric of the vehicles themselves. New lines, even those using historic vehicles (such as Muni’s F and future E lines) must provide disabled access. How would you address this issue?
  • Labor costs and fares: cable cars require two-person crews, doubling the labor cost over bus or streetcar service. The longer the extension, the higher the cost with little likely extra fare revenue, since visitors generally ride the lines end-to-end.
  • Duplication of service: Muni is trying to rationalize its service grid through its Transit Effectiveness Project. Any westward extension of the Cal cable would be parallel service with the 1-California bus which runs one block north on Sacramento Street as far west as Steiner, then on California Street itself. The 1-line is proposed as part of the “rapid network,” the highest priority type of route. How would you justify the cost of a parallel service?
  • Capital cost: Cable car extensions are very costly because of the depth of excavations needed for the trackway and cable vault, requiring extensive utility relocation. In addition, the current California cable is very close to its maximum feasible length, meaning another cable would be needed to power the extension, which in turn would require an additional set of winding machinery in a new location somewhere along the extension. How would you finance this extension? A general-obligation bond or new tax requiring two-thirds voter approval? Allowing a significant new development of some kind (like higher densities in Japantown) in exchange for developer financing of all or part of the extension?
  • Not in my back yard: I’ve heard people dismiss the idea of NIMBYs opposing a restoration westward on California since, “Cable cars used to run there.” Yeah, 54 years ago. What arguments would you use to overcome NIMBY resistance?
  • Alliance-building: Remember that the City Charter specifies the routes and levels of operation of cable car service, a measure put in to protect the existing system from any further cutbacks. Any change to the current system requires a vote of the people. What kinds of groups and interests could advocates of your extension convince to join them to mount a successful ballot measure for the extension. (For example, the F-line coalition included the Chamber of Commerce, SPUR, Castro Merchants, Market Street Merchants, Market Street Railway, and others.)

Other constraints, such as the number of cars allowed for the cable system as part of its National Historic Landmark status, are real and potentially serious, but probably too technical for this discussion. Assume that Muni craftsworkers could build the additional cars needed for your extension, just as they build replacement cars for the current system today. But also assume that your proposal would have to be strong enough to enlist the city’s “heavy hitters” in Washington (specifically, Pelosi and Feinstein) to overcome any federal bureaucratic resistance to extensions made to a landmarked system.

Keeping these caveats in mind, let’s hear your ideas. Those who think there’s grassroots support for such an extension are encouraged to forward this entry to other SF blogs and encourage their readers to chime in as well.

30 Comments on California Street Cable Car Extension?

A Salute to F-line Spirit

Peter Ehrlich F Is For FunI would like to salute the people who make the F-Line the fun line–the Muni operators! When passengers board and an operator greets them with a smile and a cheerful “Good Morning!,” a fun experience begins. After they have paid their fare and, if necessary, engaged in asking a question, they walk to the back of the car with a big smile. Even if the car is crowded, the goodwill given out by the operator carries over to everyone as they speed toward the Wharf or downtown.
Most F-Line operators have excellent people skills and enjoy being on the rails up above ground enjoying the sights along with their riders. This is why many with high seniority choose to work the historic cars over the subway.


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