The 15-Third is back

White Brand Motor Coach 0359 at Ocean Division Bus Yard, Geneva and San Jose Avenues, May 2, 1962. SFMTA Archive. Note the wonderful message below the windshield, visible whenever the front advertising holder was empty.

Though not this exact bus. In a time when many of its well-established lines, including the F-Market historic streetcars (which carried more than 20,000 riders a day) are still suspended because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Muni is adding an entirely new route. No, wait. What they’re doing is reviving the well-known bus line known as the 15-Third, and setting it up kind of like a T-Express, to provide faster service downtown from the Hunters Point neighborhood and points along Third Street from the Bayview District through Dogpatch, Mission Bay, and the South of Market areas to Market Street.

Here’s the SFMTA announcement of the route, along g with its rationale for starting it up. They summarize it this way: “This community-designed route connects the hilly communities east of Third Street to Downtown and was chosen by residents who voted in a fall 2020 survey. The process and the route demonstrates our commitment to working with communities to provide equitable Muni service.”

15-line’s route starting January 23. The loop through Hunter’s Point wasn’t part of the original 15 bus.

Streetcars, ultimately run by our namesake Market Street Railway, provided service the length of Third Street until 1941 when buses replaced them. (Read the wonderful recollections of our late historian Phil Hoffman of the Third Street streetcar era, with great photos.)

BUSY BRIDGE— Third Street Car 961 is bound for Visitacion Valley, crossing the old Islais Creek Drawbridge, which it shared with both Southern Pacific and Santa Fe switch locomotives. Streetcars had only a few months left on Third Street in this mid- 1941 shot, but Muni’s huge Metro East light rail facility now sits just three blocks from this location, at center right. Tom Gray photo, MSR Archive.

When Muni took over in 1944, the 15-Third bus line became the workhorse of the east side of town, ultimately running from Fisherman’s Wharf all the way to the county line, then west to Geneva and Mission and later on to City College. But when a new sales tax for transit projects passed in 1988, residents in the Bayview lobbied hard for a light rail line to replace the 15-bus, saying other parts of town had rail service and they deserved it too. Muni agreed, and half a billion dollars later, the T-line opened in 2007 to replace the 15. (Another nearly two billion is being spent to extend the T-line under Fourth and Stockton Streets to Union Square and Chinatown, but that project, the Central Subway, won’t open until at least the end of next year, four years late.)

A 15-Third bus leads a pack of Macks up Third Street at Market, October 21, 1959. Marshall Moxom photo, SFMTA Archive

The 15-line, now officially called the 15-Bayview Hunters Point Express, starts service January 23, the same day the T-line goes back to streetcars from the buses that have substituted for almost a year during the pandemic. On the SFMTA website story, there was one comment echoing long-running complaints that the T-line operates much slower than promised and that the old 15-bus was better. Guess we’ll find out starting January 23. And yes, they’ll be using new buses.

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Keeping the streetcars ready

“Bumblebee” Car 1057, painted in tribute to Cincinnati, with Cable Car 13 on display at the Powell turntable behind it. Matt Lee photo.

They’re not back yet. At least not for passengers. But the streetcars in Muni’s historic fleet are at least more visible these days where they belong: on the streets of San Francisco.

1928 Milan Tram 1815 on San Jose Avenue near Dolores Street. Jeremy Whiteman photo.

Muni’s F-line and E-line streetcars have been sidelined for nine months now, victims of the Covid-19-related collapse of Muni ridership. But electric vehicles need exercise to stay in good condition. Streetcars just back from outside contractors or inside maintenance have to be tested. And operators have to be trained or retrained for the day passenger service resumes. (No date set for that yet; Muni still has to install protective plexiglass shields between the operator’s cab and the passenger area. Boston and Philadelphia are already doing this; we have asked Muni leadership again to make this a priority.)

PCC Car 1071 (in its original 1946 Minneapolis-St. Paul livery) at Pier 39. Robert Parks photo.

In the meantime, we can at least get a look some of the colorful cars back on the street during the past 30 days, thanks to sharp-eyed photographers who’ve posted to our Facebook group.

Philadelphia Car 1055, in its original livery, on Market at Powell. Val Lupiz photo.
PCC Car 1059, in its tribute livery honoring Boston Elevated Railway, on Market at Powell. Val Lupiz photo.
PCC Car 1051, painted in Muni’s 1960s simplified livery and dedicated to Harvey Milk, at the Ferry Building. Jeremy Whiteman photo.
1934 Blackpool, England “Boat Tram” 228 at 30th and Church Streets. Michael Strauch photo.
Original 1948 Muni double-end PCC 1006 at 20th and Church. Matt Lee photo.
Another shot of “Bumblebee” Cincinnati Car 1057. turning onto Noe from Market. Lane Bourn photo.
1928 Melbourne tram 496 at Market and Drumm. Daniel Catalan photo.
Philadelphia PCC 1060, wearing that city’s 1938 “Philly Cream Cheese” livery, on the J-line at 18th and Church Streets. Matt Lee photo.
Training new trainers on San Francisco’s oldest streetcar, 1896 “Dinky” 578, on 30th Street at Church. Jeremy Whiteman photo.
Double-end PCC 1015, in Illinois Terminal Railway tribute livery, takes the crossover at Day and Church Streets during burn-in following its return from rebuilding at Brookville Equipment Company in Pennsylvania. Jeremy Whiteman photo.

While you can’t ride these streetcars again just yet, you can have them with you every day. Our online store offers all of these cars’ images — and the others in Muni’s historic fleet as well — on magnets or enamel pins. You can see all of them together on our streetcar fleet poster and placemat. And of course, there are 13 full color 10×14″ images of historic streetcars and cable cars in our 2021 “Museums in Motion” calendar.

All purchases at our online store support our nonprofit’s efforts to get the streetcars carrying passengers again as soon as possible.

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What might have been: Geary

Editors Note: An early version of this article appeared in a past issue of Inside Track, our member magazine with exclusive stories and inside information about Muni’s historic streetcars and cable cars. Click here to become a member and receive it.

MAKING A “B-LINE” TO DOWNTOWN — Muni “Iron Monster” Car 87 crosses Van Ness Avenue eastbound on the B-Geary line in 1956, passing the famous Tommy’s Joynt Hofbrau, which is offering “stuffed boneless squab chicken” inside, according to the banner. The top floors of the rickety Victorian structure would later be decapitated for safety reasons. Next door, the 1891 brick St. Mary’s Cathedral would burn in 1962 and be resurrected as a modernist concrete cathedral two blocks west. It was replaced by the television studios of KRON4, which in turn was torn down and replaced by a housing development in 2020. MSR Archive.

Geary was Muni’s first “backbone”. It is still easily its busiest corridor, operated now with buses longer than it was with streetcars. By any transit measure, its ridership justifies rail service on Geary, including a subway through at least downtown, yet every attempt at a subway in the Geary corridor has fallen short. It’s a story of initial success for America’s first publicly owned transit system, a tale of betrayal by a mayor, tantalizing possibilities, and half-a-loaf solutions.

This is the story of Muni on Geary.

Muni’s roots were firmly planted on Geary. Its first ten streetcars headed west from the foot of Geary at 12:00 Noon, December 28, 1912, penetrating the Richmond District to reach its less-developed western section. Muni started with two lines on Geary: the A, which turned south at Tenth Avenue and ran to Golden Gate Park, and the B, which continued west to 33rd Avenue, and within a few months reached Ocean Beach by jogging south on 33rd, then running along Balboa, 45th, and Cabrillo. Muni’s tracks also reached the Ferry Building in 1913, making the B-line a true “Bay to Breakers” route.

FIRST RUN — Mayor “Sunny Jim” Rolph personally pilots the first streetcar on Geary Street, preserved Car 1, headed west crossing Jones Street, December 28, 1912. San Francisco Public Library.

But Muni didn’t stop there. Using its new tracks on Market and Geary, they created the C-line on California Street in 1915, branching off Geary at Second Avenue, running two blocks north, and then west to reach Lincoln Park at 33rd Avenue, taking over an expired United Railroads franchise. Muni had already opened its D-line a year earlier, turning north from Geary onto Van Ness Avenue, then west on Chestnut to reach the fairgrounds of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. After the fair, the D-line was rerouted to run on west from Van Ness on Union Street, with a couple of jogs to reach the Presidio.

Not only Muni’s first lines were on Geary; it’s nerve center was, too. Geary Car House, with Muni headquarters space later added on top, sat just about halfway between the Ferries and the Beach, at Geary and Presidio Avenue. The car house served more than just the four Geary lines. The cute “dinkies” of the E-Union line were tucked away downstairs on Presidio Avenue. A fleet of “battleships” or “boxcars” or “iron monsters”, as Muni’s original bulky streetcars were variously called over their lifespan, were housed under cover along the Geary frontage, also serving other lines as they opened, including the F-Stockton, J-Church, and N-Judah. Though a trolley coach division was added behind the car house in 1949, Muni’s top executives still worked, literally, right on top of streetcars.

NERVE CENTER – Geary car house in the early 1950s. “Iron monster” Car 53 has just pulled out for its day on the N-Judah line. MSR Archive.

The Richmond District was saturated with streetcar service. Besides Muni’s A, B, and C lines, its private competitor (known as Market Street Railway from 1921-1944) operated three lines that ran from the Ferry Building all the way to the ocean: the 5 on Fulton, and the 1 and 2 mostly on Clement. (Later in 1932, it built yet another line, the 31, on Balboa, the same year Muni killed off its little used A-line on 10th Avenue, which it had hoped to extend through Golden Gate Park to the Sunset District before being blocked by parks czar John McLaren.)

Despite all this competition, the centrality of Geary in the Richmond District, and its extra width from Geary Car House west, made the B Muni’s premier line. Geary was the Richmond’s prime shopping street, attracting customers from all over the city and beyond. East of the car house, Geary was narrow, making for a slower ride downtown.

As detailed below, two 1930s proposals to put the Geary streetcars in a subway downtown came to nothing, so the Geary lines kept operating as before with frequent and crowded service, riders boarding the big boxy streetcars at the rear, the conductor taking their five cent fare, the motorman concentrating on the safely operating the car.

ROOM TO RUN — Widening Geary in 1948 between Divisadero and Masonic. We’re looking west from Lyon Street at the new tracks and eastbound traffic lanes, while C-line Car 609 (ex-Market Street Railway 209) heads towards us on the old tracks. The big Sears store would later rise top left. SFMTA Archive.

Geary riders got a possible taste of the future in 1948, when the City widened Geary on the hill between Divisadero and Masonic, taking much of the land from the former Calvary Cemetery. Concrete boarding islands at stops were an upgrade from dodging autos to board streetcars at these stops. There was talk at the time of widening Geary farther east, but this would require tearing down or moving homes and dislocating people.

MODERN MEDIAN—Passengers wait at a new boarding island on the widened Geary median at Baker Street. This faster operation that could have easily been extended to the subsequent Geary Expressway, later built through the Western Addition. Clark Frazier photo, MSR Archive.

Financial squeeze

Meanwhile, by 1951, the City Charter requirement that all streetcars operate with crews of two was putting big financial pressure on Muni’s remaining car lines. Buses only required one operator, and Muni had already converted all the streetcar lines it inherited from our namesake, Market Street Railway Company. Four of Muni’s own streetcar lines, the D, E, F, and H, had also been newly “busified.” And by 1952, buses had even replaced streetcars nights and Sundays on all seven surviving streetcar lines (except the Market Street and Twin Peaks Tunnel section of the L). Many riders, accustomed to the streetcars, were unhappy, but Muni management, citing labor costs, felt they had no choice.

WHICH LINE IS IT ANYWAY?—Muni scheduled a few odd runs on Geary. Above, preserved Car 130 (still in Muni’s vintage fleet today!) is signed for the J-Church, and is turning around at 33rd and Geary to head inbound, one of a few J runs that followed this practice. Since they always used double-end cars, these runs could have headed straight downtown from the car barn. Judging from the sun, it’s midafternoon, and the J car’s extra trip on the B may have been as a “school tripper” for students from George Washington High, just off to the right. Below, a few N-Judah runs went all the way to Playland-at-the-Beach when they pulled out, switching back on the spur track to avoid waiting at the loop, then heading inbound all the way to East Bay Terminal before actually heading out the N, providing extra service to meet the big demand on Geary. Clark Frazier photos, MSR Archive.

Politicians and the public in that era were not accustomed to subsidizing mass transit. Muni was expected to “pay its way” through farebox revenues, and until that time, it had. But more and more lines were slipping into operating deficits. In the 1952-53 fiscal year, for example, Muni figures showed that the streetcar lines collectively lost almost half a million dollars, while the new trolley bus routes (all of which supplanted streetcars) made an operating profit of almost two million dollars. Of the seven streetcar lines, only the B and C made an operating profit. (The K and L, on the other hand, were the biggest losers in the entire Muni system.) And the B-bus, which operated nights and Sundays, made a significantly higher profit per operating hour than the B and C streetcars it replaced.

PCCs on the B—briefly

TORPEDO TEASE—For a brief time, Muni ran some of its double-end modern cars in regular service on the B-Geary, but only on Saturdays. Here’s “torpedo” PCC 1006 on 33rd Avenue bound for Playland-at-the-Beach around 1952. Philip Hoffman photo, MSR Archive.

Muni had only fifteen modern streetcars at this point, all double-ended: five so-called “Magic Carpet” streamliners bought in 1939, which looked like PCCs but with different technology, and ten true double-end PCCs bought in 1948, using some of the 1947 bond issue proceeds. The Geary lines required 75 streetcars for service, and the fast-accelerating modern cars didn’t mesh well with the traditional ones, though for a time, the modern cars were dispatched to the B on Saturdays, providing a tease of what might someday happen.

MAGIC CARPET RIDE—Along with “torpedos” 1006-1015, Muni sometimes dispatched its five 1939 PCC-look-alike “Magic Carpet” cars on the B-Geary on Saturdays. Here’s No. 1005 ready to depart East Bay Terminal, signed for the B, but wait… the paint scheme shows that the car has been single-ended, which happened after modern cars were pulled from Geary Saturday service. So this is probably a fantrip. Clark Frazier photo, MSR Archive.

But using the last of the 1947 bond issue funds, Muni was able to buy 25 more PCCs, single-ended and numbered 1016-1040. (These turned out to be the last PCCs ever built in North America. Thanks in part to MSR’s advocacy, Car 1040 has been fully restored and is a star of Muni’s heritage streetcar fleet. Six more “Baby Tens”, as the class was known, were purchased by Market Street Railway from museums and private owners over the last quarter-century and returned to Muni, where they are stored for future restoration as needed.)

Muni hoped to run these “Baby Tens” with a single operator, but voters said no in late 1951, so they were set up as two–operator cars. At first these cars were assigned to Geary Division, but not to the B-Geary line. Rather, they worked the K, L, and N lines.

As Muni’s first single–end streetcars, though, the “Baby Tens” had no way to turn around at Geary Car House. A track wye at Masonic and Geary that would have enabled that had been ripped out just three years earlier when Masonic Avenue was extended north from Geary to Euclid. So before going into service on one of the Market Street lines, these “Baby Tens” had to go all the way out to Ocean Beach on the B, take the terminal loop, and make a full trip inbound, signed “B-Geary/Bridge.” This gave some riders the belief that these fast, quiet cars were on their line to stay. A similar impression came from the double–ended PCCs that were occasionally assigned to Saturday runs on the B.

PEEKABOO — A “Baby Ten” PCC mixes in with the “Iron Monsters” at Geary Car House, January 1952, with holiday wreaths still in place. Fred Matthews photo, MSR Archive.

Not for long. By 1953, all 40 of Muni’s modern streetcars (35 PCCs and five “Magic Carpets”) were ensconced at Geneva Division, completely divorced from operation on Geary. Some speculate that this was part of a conscious plan to drive streetcars from Geary. But after the defeat of a bond issue in 1953 that might have resulted in more PCCs, Muni officials may have just concluded there was no near–term prospect of completely modernizing Geary streetcar service—the B and C required 75 cars between them. Besides, Muni’s existing modern cars were far more comfortable to ride through the tunnels than the drafty “Iron Monsters”, and faster too.

So Geary Car House was again home only to the old–style streetcars. Some of these cars were “only” 25 years old, and all had been kept in good shape. Muni installed doors on the formerly open ends of some of the old cars and upgraded them cosmetically as well. Muni management still hoped to win voter approval to operate its entire streetcar fleet with single–person crews, significantly cutting labor costs. But the carmen’s union was staunchly opposed to changing the status quo for the old cars. A compromise, finally approved by voters in 1954, allowed only newer–type streetcars to have single operators.

The PCCs were quickly converted to one–operator, and Muni began thinking about additional PCCs. But thinking didn’t translate into doing, as Muni did not have the capital to purchase any more modern streetcars at the time —or for that matter, new motor coaches either.

“Auto mania”

The early 1950s also saw “auto mania” reaching its peak in San Francisco. Many streets downtown were made one–way, including the pair that flanked Geary, Post and O’Farrell (dooming the inner end of the wonderful O’Farrell, Jones, and Hyde Street cable car line in the process). Big automobile garages were built for shoppers and commuters. Numerous proposed freeways slashed across planners’ maps. In this context, many thought the old–fashioned streetcars assigned to Geary looked more and more antiquated, almost like the cable cars on Powell.

“GREAT WIDE WAY” — Point Lobos Avenue was built as a wide boulevard west from Masonic Avenue and had its name changed to Geary Boulevard in 1911, as it was a direct extension of downtown’s Geary Street. Merchants on this part of Geary — we’re at 18th Avenue here — wanted the street widened further east as well in the 1950s — not to help the streetcars, which many of them undervalued, but to make a higher-capacity automobile connection with downtown. MSR Archive.

Certainly that belief was shared by many merchants on Geary Boulevard—the wide section of the thoroughfare running westward from Masonic Avenue through the Richmond. They were lobbying City Hall for a “Great Wide Way,” replacing streetcars with buses—and more parking for automobiles.

Planners who were eyeing the part of Geary between the Richmond and Downtown echoed this pro–auto sentiment. The Western Addition had been a vibrant community of Victorian homes before World War II. The section along Geary was populated mainly by Japanese–Americans. When World War II started, they were infamously hauled away to internment camps. African–American newcomers, who had come west to work in war industries, largely took their place in the neighborhood. By the mid–1950s, momentum was building to widen two-lane Geary between Gough and Divisadero, tearing down the old Victorians to gouge out a broad expressway that would get automobiles downtown more quickly.

But the streetcars were in the way. Certainly the tracks could be rebuilt—as they were in 1948 when Geary was widened between Masonic
and Divisadero. But, said the critics, it would be expensive, and why keep running those clunky old “trolley cars” anyway. (In the San Francisco of those days, “streetcar” had been the universally used term for the vehicles. Opponents began using “trolley cars” as an epithet to conjure up the slow and inefficient “Toonerville Trolley” of cartoon fame.)

HOLLOWED GROUND—The Geary Expressway included a two-block long underpass to separate automobiles from traffic on Fillmore Street. The ramp starts just to the left of this 1956 photo, looking east on the old Geary Street at Webster Street. The buildings on the left were all demolished for the Expressway, replaced in 1968 by Japan Center, as shown below in a 2019 Google StreetView shot. Clark Frazier photo, MSR Archive.

Subway dreams

One last factor in the mix: rapid transit. Rider demand was very high: except for Market Street, Geary was the busiest transit corridor in the City. While the western half of Geary was wide, the eastern half was narrow and congested. Muni’s first 43 streetcars were built narrower than usual, specifically for operation on Geary (though most were quickly switched to the original F-line on equally narrow Stockton Street when it opened).

The passenger volumes on the Geary lines were such that in 1931 City Engineer M. M. O’Shaughnessy proposed putting the streetcars in a subway under O’Farrell at least to Larkin Street. A consultant’s report in 1935 was even more ambitious, calling for a streetcar subway under Geary from Market all the way to Steiner Street. Both failed to gain approval. The second proposal, which included a Market Street subway as well, was resoundingly defeated by voters. Had the Geary subway been built—at a then–projected cost of $13 million—it might have forestalled the automobile expressway. But it was the depths of the Depression, and voters didn’t have the appetite for it.

THE BIG SQUEEZE—When Geary Street was two-way downtown, it was a squeeze for Muni’s full-width “Iron Monsters”. This problem was recognized as soon as the line opened in 1912, and repeated proposals for a subway beneath Geary followed. Here, C-line car 212 growls up the hill from Van Ness Avenue to Franklin Street in 1956. John Harder collection, MSR Archive.

By the mid–1950s, planning for what became the Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) included a heavy–rail subway under Geary carrying regional trains from the East Bay to the Golden Gate Bridge and into Marin County. This raised the possibility of real rapid transit under Geary as far west as Park-Presidio Boulevard. But that initial proposal was a long way from reality.

The future of transit on Geary became an issue in the mayoral election of 1955. The winner, George Christopher, had pledged to keep streetcars on Geary at least until rapid transit could be built. About this time, a civic committee led by hotelier Ben Swig came up with a creative financing idea for Muni—lease vehicles instead of buying them. After a struggle, they found one bus builder (Mack) willing to go that route. But streetcars were something else. Many properties around the country were converting to buses, and there were PCCs in great condition available for sale in Detroit and Minneapolis-St. Paul, among other places—though not (at that time) for lease.

Goodbye, B

The combination of pressures—auto mania, the high labor cost of two–operator streetcars, the desire of planners to bulldoze the Western Addi-tion, and the promise of a subway—changed Christopher’s mind after he took office. Muni’s oldest streetcar corridor was doomed. Just before 1956 ended, so did the B and C lines. Railfans and many residents mourned to no avail. Geary was now served by the 38-line, operated by the new, leased, Mack diesel buses.

RAILS TO RUBBER — One of the sturdy Mack motor coaches that took over from streetcars on Geary in 1956, shown here westbound at Arguello Boulevard around 1968. Tom Gray photo, Cameron Beach Collection, MSR Archive.

Too little, too late

At just this juncture, Muni finally found some PCC streetcars it could afford. St. Louis Public Service, which was undergoing its own bus conversion, agreed to lease Muni 66 (ultimately 70) 1946–vintage PCCs. This gave Muni (barely) enough one–operator streetcars to retire all the remaining two–operator “boxcars” on the remaining five lines by 1958. But it wasn’t enough to save streetcars on Geary.

Soon after, “auto mania” subsided in San Francisco. Outraged by the ugly Embarcadero Freeway, which started going up just as the B was disappearing, and by proposals to cut freeways through Golden Gate Park, San Francisco’s “freeway revolt,” the first of its kind in the nation, lashed back at the “asphalt jungle”. However, with the increasingly powerful Redevelopment Agency as the spearhead, the Geary Expressway did get built in the early 1960s, at a cost of hundreds of homes and thousands of disrupted lives.

LAST FANTRIP—Above, the last PCC ever built in North America, Car 1040 carries a group of railfans onto Geary from Market for one last run on the B-line, December 30, 1956, one day after passenger service ended. Forty-four years and two days earlier, Car 1 inaugurated the very first Muni line just 100 feet west of this spot. Below, Car 1040 reaches the end of the line at Playland. If one-operator cars like Car 1040 could have been acquired in sufficient numbers and assigned to Geary in the early 1950s, the B-line might have been saved. But it wasn’t to be… Clark Frazier photos, MSR Archive.

Perhaps if the freeway revolt had occurred a few years sooner, perhaps if one–operator streetcars had been approved a few years sooner, perhaps if leased PCCs had been available a few years sooner… perhaps if these things had happened, the B might have survived as a streetcar line. But they didn’t happen. The view of the powerful interests that ruled San Francisco at the time was that streetcars were out of step with modern times. And so streetcars only survived where it was too difficult to replace them with buses: the tunnel lines (K, L, M, and N), and the J-Church, where neighbors rallied in defense of their preferred transit mode.

FAREWELL — the last regular passenger run of the B-Geary prepares to leave Playland, December 29, 1956. Jack Tillmany photo, MSR Archive.

What might yet be

Still, many hoped the 38-line bus would prove to be an interim operation. That original BART-proposed subway under Geary to reach and cross the Golden Gate Bridge died when Marin County pulled out of the district, but Muni then proposed its own heavy-rail subway under Post and Geary as far west as 40th Avenue as part of a rapid transit package put to San Francisco voters in 1966. Yet again, though, the voters said “no.”

VOTERS SAID NO — Muni’s 1966 proposal for a heavy-rail subway under Geary. MSR Archive.

Muni seriously proposed a Geary subway and light–rail line again in 1989 as part of a sales tax increase ballot measure. The measure (which also funded construction of the permanent F-line) called for detailed evaluation of two potential rail corridors — Geary and Third Street — but funding to build only one. Voters approved the measure, and the Muni planners of the day were counting on Geary being chosen to go forward, because the demand was so much greater.

But while Third Street businesses and residents lobbied hard for rail along the city’s east side, the reception by Geary businesses and residents was tepid at best, with significant opposition from the same Geary merchants who had lobbied decades earlier for the “Great Wide Way”. Third Street won out, and the Geary subway dream was deferred again.

Most recently, in 2003, possible rail service on Geary was again dangled before voters — sort of — in the form of Proposition K, a renewal of the earlier sales tax measure. It called for creation of “fast, frequent, and reliable bus rapid transit service, with exclusive transit lanes and dedicated stations, on Geary Boulevard (designed and built to rail-ready standards)”. But to planners, that didn’t mean installing tracks while the street was torn up (as Seattle did when it built a subway initially operated by trolley buses), or even installing underground conduit for future electrification. Without those things, converting to streetcar use would require ripping out all the pavement, sending the “rapid” buses back to the curb lane for the duration of the conversion process, which as we have learned on the current Van Ness BRT project, is anything but “rapid”.

Geary BRT –Approved design for Geary Bus Rapid Transit, looking west at 16th Avenue. San Francisco County Transportation Authority graphic.

On top of that, increasing cost estimates have forced numerous compromises and cutbacks in the Geary BRT project, such that the separated center-lane area is less than half of what was envisioned, stretching only from Stanyan Street to 27th Avenue, a distance of 1.75 miles, or about one-third of the 38-line’s route along the “Great Wide Way” of Geary Boulevard between 48th Avenue and Gough Street. The remainder of the route will operate in curb lanes, as now, though with some operating improvements for the buses. This seems to some knowledgeable observers like “half a loaf”, far less than should be warranted by the daily ridership on Geary, which at more than 50,000 people remains far and away Muni’s busiest line.

When you add the future funding and patronage uncertainties caused by the Covid-19 pandemic to this compromised BRT project, resumed rail service on Geary might seem completely out of reach. But wait: BART is now studying a second Transbay Tube to meet what was fast-increasing demand. On the San Francisco side, support has been growing to run the BART line under — Geary!

Hope springs eternal.

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What might have been

Editor’s note: A version of this story, by the late Cameron Beach and MSR President Rick Laubscher, appeared in a 2003 issue of Inside Track, our member magazine with exclusive stories and inside information about Muni’s historic streetcars and cable cars. Click here to become a member and receive it.

Van Ness Avenue hosted Muni streetcars until 1950. Bob McVay photo, Walter Rice Collection, MSR Archive.

Many streetcar fans believe it was all a plot by fiendish bus builders, tire makers, and fuel providers, forming an illegal conspiracy to rob America of its beloved streetcars after World War II. That conspiracy is why we have so few lines left in San Francisco, they say.

In that time period, so–called “rubber tire interests” did indeed form a company called National City Lines that went around the country buying up private streetcar companies and converting them to bus operation. The buses, tires, and fuel usually came from the companies that owned National City. One such property, in fact, was the East Bay’s Key System. But, even at the national level, this conspiracy theory leaves out lots of realities. Private transit operators failing financially, with no capital to replace worn–out streetcars and track. The baby boom, spurring the development of suburbs well beyond the reach of existing streetcar lines. The flat–out preference of most who could afford it for the automobile, especially after the sacrifices made during the war.

Some of these national factors did impact Bay Area transit. Other factors that shaped San Francisco’s streetcar story were unique.

The Stockton Tunnel was built in 1914 as part of Muni’s original F-line, which ran until 1951. Here’s Car , identical to preserved Car 1, headed for Chinatown shortly before the 30-Stockton trolley bus took over this route. Fred Matthews photo, MSR Archive.

San Francisco’s two major transit systems merged in 1944, when, after numerous failed attempts, voters finally approved a bond issue to allow publicly owned Muni to buy out the larger, private Market Street Railway Company (referred to here as “MSRy” to distinguish it from our organization, “MSR”). The strains of heavy wartime demand were apparent on the cars and tracks of both systems, especially MSRy, which had endured hard financial times well before the war and was not making any significant capital investments in its infrastructure.

As the war neared its end, the City’s transit system was falling apart. Muni owned only five modern streetcars, bought in 1939, out of a combined fleet of almost 500. Most of those cars were completely worn out, as was much of the track and overhead wire they ran on.

The Newton plan

The heavy lines show the streetcar lines that would have been retained under an ambitious 1945 plan by consultant Leonard Newton. Not shown is the 40- interurban line to San Mateo, which Newton also recommended keeping. Click to enlarge.

Muni management knew it needed to modernize once the war ended, so in early 1945, it commissioned a plan for postwar operation from consulting engineer Leonard Newton, a former vice president of MSRy. He understood the poor condition of the cars and track and recommended converting more than half the existing streetcar lines to trolley coach or motor coach operation, including the J-Church and M-Ocean View. However, he did advocate retaining thirteen streetcar routes and reequipping them with modern “PCC” type streamline streetcars (as now run on the F-line). These included eight Muni lines: the B, C, and D, which used Geary, the K, L, and N, which all used tunnels too small for buses, the F-Stockton and the H-Van Ness. Also included were six ex–Market Street Railway lines: 3-Jackson, 4-Sutter, 7-Haight (rerouted via the Sunset Tunnel), 14-Mission, the inner section of the 17-Haight/Parkside line, and the 40 interurban line to San Mateo. All in all, Newton recommended buying 313 new PCC streetcars, which would have been a huge order.

However, while Newton’s report laid out the costs of buying the new vehicles and reconstructing the track, it did not include operating costs, a critical omission. As he predicted in his plan, the end of gasoline rationing sent many Muni riders back to their automobiles again. Even with a fare increase, Muni’s finances were rapidly deteriorating at a time when transit systems were still expected to make a profit.

Two–person crews

San Francisco required crews of two on streetcars and cable cars, though only one on buses. With the merger, Muni now had two powerful operator’s unions to deal with: its own and the one that still represented ex–MSRy motormen and conductors. Both unions were staunchly opposed to reducing crew size, which would have required a City Charter amendment approved by the voters in any event. So Newton repeatedly stated in his report that the new PCCs would be modified for operation by two–person crews, even though a major reason the transit industry designed the PCC in the first place, some ten years earlier, was to cut labor costs in half by only requiring a single operator per car.

Muni’s “torpedoes” never were assigned to regular service on lines where modern equipment might have helped preserve streetcar service, but they did run some routes as charters, giving a taste of “what might have been.” MSR Director Emeritus Walt Vielbaum went along on some of these special charters, and took these great shots. Here, Car 1006 leaves the Stockton Tunnel on the last day of streetcar operation on the F in January 1951. Note the outbound White model 798 gasoline bus with the F designation in the rear window. Courtesy Walt Vielbaum.

Two years after Newton’s plan came out, the City worked up another plan in conjunction with a $20 million bond issue to modernize Muni. By this time, the proposed vehicle mix had tilted sharply toward buses. The labor cost differential clearly played a major part. The bond issue passed, but the money was almost all spent on hundreds of new trolley coaches and motor coaches used to convert former streetcar lines. Had there been enough money right after the war to buy a full fleet of PCC cars, at least for the core streetcar lines, the public might have embraced their comfort and speed and insisted on retention of more streetcar lines. However, with two–man PCC streetcars costing double the operating cost of a one–driver bus of similar capacity, there was no management incentive to buy large numbers of new streetcars.

What the public saw instead at the end of the 1940s was a fleet of new trolley coaches and motor coaches with upholstered seats and effective heaters running on smoothly repaved streets, replacing noisy, drafty, old streetcars with hard seats often bouncing along on bad track.

A few new streetcars

Muni did manage to find enough money from another source to buy ten modern streetcars, its first true PCCs, in 1948. These cars, numbered 1006-1015, were double–ended and set up for two–person crews. (Thanks in large part to persistent advocacy by MSR, seven of these cars, which later came to be known as “torpedoes” for their shape, were preserved, then fully restored, and are in Muni’s vintage streetcar fleet today.)

Here’s No. 1006 on the H-line, inbound on Van Ness Avenue at Jackson, on a 1951 fan trip. Washington-Jackson cable car No. 509, bedecked with a Red Cross blood bank promotion, is headed toward Pacific Heights. This wonderful cable line was destroyed a few years later when the cable car system was severely cut back. Courtesy Walt Vielbaum.

Added to the five 1939 “Magic Carpet” cars, which were almost identical in appearance, Muni now had fifteen modern cars. Had they been deployed strategically on a line where it was not final whether streetcars would stay or go, they might have made a difference. Instead, however, in that critical period from 1948-1951, the modern cars were concentrated on two tunnel lines, the L and N, neither of which was in danger of conversion. In fact, the original destination signs of the 1948 double-enders indicate that decisions had already effectively been made. Though the D-Van Ness, F-Stockton, and H-Potrero all were recommended for continued streetcar service in the Newton Plan, and lasted into 1950 or 1951, none of those routes appears on the original 1948 roll signs of the “torpedoes”.

Some elements of the Newton plan had, by this time, been put into effect. The F-Stockton line (today’s 30-line trolley bus), which ran from the Marina through North Beach and Chinatown, reaching downtown through the Stockton tunnel, was connected to old MSRy tracks at Fourth and Market
to reach the Southern Pacific train depot, then at Third and Townsend Streets, but still using the original narrow 1912 Muni A-type” streetcars (including at times, preserved Car 1). The H-Van Ness line, which ran from Fort Mason south on Van Ness, 11th Street and Potrero Avenue to Army Street, was tied in there to the old Market Street Railway 25-line on San Bruno Avenue to reach all the way to Visitacion Valley.

Streetcars slip away on the F and H

In the various plans coming forth right after the war, the F and H lines were generally marked for retention; thus the investment in the extensions. But most of the original H-line route, on Van Ness and Potrero, was also US 101, and the State Division of Highways had a big say in what happened on those streets. With plans being made for heavy residential development in Marin County across the Golden Gate Bridge, it seemed certain that automobile demands on Van Ness would increase rapidly. Some grumbled that streetcars stopping frequently in the “fast” lane of the broad street would hold up automobiles. Running the modern streetcars on Van Ness might have counteracted this pressure somewhat, but there was resistance in Muni to using its newest cars on the beat up track on the outer end of the ex–MSRy route along San Bruno Avenue.

This shot, from a 1948 charter, shows Car 1015 headed downtown on the former MSRy 1-line on California Street at Presidio Avenue, about to jog over to Sutter. It’s passing a California Street Cable Railway car changing ends opposite the Jewish Community Center. There had been talk early of saving two Sutter lines (the 3 and 4) as streetcars, but the 1-line was always slated for bus conversion. Courtesy Walt Vielbaum.

The F-Stockton posed a different problem. Muni’s new streetcars were wide, but the F-line used Muni’s oldest “A-type” cars because they were also its narrowest, and could more easily squeeze past the delivery trucks on the commercial streets that made up most of the route. Trolley coaches, not stuck on rails, could at least swing around traffic that got in their way, and on Stockton Street, especially in Chinatown, that came to be seen as an appealing alternative, especially when F-line riders were still using 1912–vintage streetcars.

Streetcars saved on the J and M

The Muni had enough trolley coaches to convert the F-Stockton because it had been foiled in its plans to create the 46-Church trolley coach line. The J-line streetcar ran (and still runs) on a scenic private right–of–way to negotiate steep Dolores Heights, but it didn’t have any tunnels such as were protecting other lines’ streetcars. J-line ridership was lower than either the F or H and trolley coaches could easily handle the grades involved. But J-line riders in Noe Valley—and politicians who lived nearby—raised a fuss, and the streetcars were saved, making the replacement trolley coaches available for other conversions. Surprisingly to many riders today, the M-Ocean View was slated for bus conversion as well. Built in 1925, it ran through wide–open spaces on 19th Avenue that proved slower than expected to develop. But right after the war, the development of the Parkmerced apartment complex next to the M-line made planners think twice about dumping it. So did a 1948 plan by engineering firm DeLeuw Cather that recommended the M-line right of way as a rapid transit line (a proposal made again in conjunction with BART in the 1960s). The stunning aspect of that plan, however, was a grid of freeways beyond even what the State later proposed (and which caused the historic “freeway revolt” of the late 1950s and 1960s). The car was queen in this plan; surface transit the ugly stepchild.

Brand new Muni double-end PCC 1015 at the rustic terminal of the D and E lines inside the Presidio on a 1948 fantrip. Early postwar plans called for Union Street to be dual-mode. The E-line streetcars had been slated for conversion to trolley bus even before the war, but Muni couldn’t get the vehicles. But the D-line, which shared Union with the E, then followed Van Ness and Geary downtown, was recommended in the Newton plan to stay a streetcar operation. Trolley buses and streetcars shared Union for a short time until the D became the 45-line bus. Courtesy Walt Vielbaum.

Looking back, there were many factors combining to truncate San Francisco’s streetcar system after World War II. But the requirement for two crew members, even on modern streetcars, clearly played a dominant role. In a 1949 report on the Muni to the Board of Supervisors, consulting engineer Arthur Jenkins noted,“Almost every city in the country that still continues to operate streetcar service uses one–man cars with the notable exception of San Francisco.” He went on to state “it has been generally true throughout the industry that use of one–man cars has not been adopted primarily as a means of increasing profits to owners, but as a means of remaining in business at all.”

But rail restoration dreams have never died, and there have been successes, most notably with the T-line from Visitacion Valley to downtown, which opened in 2007, running mostly along the old 16-line MSRy route along Third Street. Its original downtown alignment was to continue under Third and Kearny Streets to reach downtown and Chinatown (as the 16-line did on the surface). Instead, it was shifted westward to run under Fourth and Stockton Streets, like the final alignment of Muni’s old F-Stockton line. (The T-line is still running on a temporary alignment through the Market Street Subway pending the completion of that Central Subway, now predicted by the end of 2021.)

Other rail dreams have not been realized, though. Restoring rail service to Van Ness Avenue, for example, either in a subway or on the surface, gave way to a drawn-out bus rapid transit project, still under construction in late 2020. The biggest rail restoration dream of all, along Geary, also seems dead, as that corridor moves fitfully toward bus rapid transit as well. Our next post will look at the 1950s fight to the death over the Geary streetcar lines, and examine the attempts to bring rail back there.

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