As the photo makes plain, that was one wild first ride on Muni. Emblematic, we think, of the past 20 months, with constant adjustments made to Muni’s network during the pandemic to meet unprecedented challenges.
On this 109th anniversary of that first ride, we salute all those at SFMTA who have kept service operating. And we join them in hoping for a smoother ride in 2022 and beyond.
Meanwhile, it’s worth remembering that on this date in 1912, 50,000 San Franciscans (not a typo) came out to cheer “the People’s Road” as Mayor Rolph called it: the first publicly-owned big city transit system in America. And it’s worth celebrating the fact that Muni’s very first streetcar (at the front of the line in the photo, on Geary between Grant and Stockton) is still in Muni’s fleet, fully restored for the Railway’s 2012 centennial.
Want to learn more about Muni’s history, decade by decade? We’ll publish several articles as 2022 begins, one every week, to fill you in. So watch this space!
Happy New Year to everyone at SFMTA/Muni, and to our members, donors and friends around the world. IMPORTANT NOTE: Through December 31, donations you make to our nonprofit are matched dollar for dollar (up to $8.000 total) thanks to generous challenge grants from members of our board of directors and leadership. Donate here!
The idea of a transit subway under Market Street goes back to the first years of the 20th century, but it took more than 70 fitful years to become reality. That’s a complex and fascinating story we tell in this companion post, which explains the compromises that harmed Muni’s subway operation from the get-go.
The subway that finally got built has two levels between the Ferry Building and Van Ness Avenue, with regional BART trains running beneath Muni light rail vehicles (LRVs). Under Muni’s Van Ness station, BART trains turn south to continue under Mission Street, while the Muni subway continues west under Market to connect to the Twin Peaks Tunnel just west of Castro Street. In passing the 1962 bond issue that built BART and the Market Street subway, voters were told all five existing streetcar lines would use the subway.
In 1966, after warnings from an expert team that the subway would not function well with all five streetcar lines merging into it, San Francisco voters were asked to approve a true rapid transit subway, extended to San Francisco State College (now University), with high-platform trains like New York used. The other streetcar lines would become connector buses, feeding the subway. The $96.5 bond issue to pay for it was approved by 58% of voters, but it needed 2/3 to pass. That sealed a decision that has led to 40 years of challenges and frustrations in operating the Muni Metro Subway. That’s what this story is about.
The Latest Challenge
Muni Metro faced its biggest challenge with the Covid pandemic, starting in the spring of 2020. Completely shut down, along with all Muni rail service and most bus lines at that time, the subway reopened on a limited basis in August 2020, only to shut again three days later when the overhead failed. Muni replaced all the splices in the overhead and finally opened again in mid-2021, again on a limited basis. During the shutdown, Muni discovered numerous problems with subway infrastructure that they say will likely require further shutdowns over the next five to eight years to remedy.
Meanwhile, every other urban rail subway system in North America has either operated continuously through the Covid-19 crisis, or resumed operation after a brief shutdown. This includes the light rail subway-surface systems most akin to San Francisco’s, in Boston and Philadelphia, which opened in 1897 and 1906 respectively.
Coping with Covid is the newest chapter in the checkered history of a transit facility that opened on February 18, 1980, promising fast, reliable underground service to replace the aging, smaller “PCC” streetcars on Market Street. Of course, thanks to Mayor Dianne Feinstein and many advocates, including Market Street Railway’s current leaders, fully-renovated PCCs again because part of the San Francisco scene, gaining great popularity providing reliable service on the surface of Market Street and waterfront streets on the F-line.
Meanwhile, Muni Metro has faltered repeatedly over its four decades of service under ten different top Muni bosses. Perhaps that unfortunate track record will be improved by this latest attempt to fix it. And as we will see, it’s possible historic streetcars on the surface might help the subway beneath run better in years to come.
Trying to make it work
The shiny new Muni Metro subway beneath Market Street opened to passengers on its first line, the N-Judah, on February 18, 1980. In our companion story, we recounted the 60-year effort to build the subway. By piggybacking on the BART project (literally, since Muni Metro sits directly above the regional BART subway from Embarcadero to Civic Center stations), that vision finally became reality.
The Muni Metro subway was phased into service a line at a time, starting with the N, using shiny new Boeing-Vertol light rail vehicles (LRVs). The other streetcar lines, the J, K, L, and M, gradually transitioned into the subway under Market Street, with full seven-day, five-line subway operation not commencing until some 30 months later. West of the subway, they continued on the surface tracks previously used by the PCC streetcars. The Twin Peaks Tunnel, opened in 1918, was tied into the subway at Castro Street; temporary ramps allowed the K, L, and M PCCs to keep using the tunnel until the subway was fully opened. (The “temporary” ramps are still there ostensibly for emergency use.)
Even before the subway opened, Muni management knew it had a major problem. Every LRV leaving its home next to the Balboa Park BART station could only get to the subway by going over the K-Ingleside line, subject to traffic delays on narrow Ocean Avenue. While there were low-speed crossovers at Van Ness Station that would have allowed J and N trains to avoid going all the way to Embarcadero Station to turn around, these did not function well and delayed other trains in the subway.
As shown in the map above, Muni tried in the 1970s to win public approval of a connection between the L and N lines across the Sunset District to shorten the time (and reduce the labor costs) of getting the trains on its busiest line, the N, out to Ocean Beach to start their runs. But neighborhood opposition defeated that plan. These pull-out J and N trains in the subway added to its poor operational record for more than a decade, until Muni managed to get an extension of the J-line to Balboa Park approved, funded, and built by the early 1990s.
Both J and N LRVs entering and leaving service began using the extension in 1991, with the N cars turning west at Duboce and Church to reach Ocean Beach. Muni did not initially allow passengers to ride along the extension, as it was sandwiched between BART and Muni’s well-served Mission Street corridor, but federal officials, who held the pursestrings, demanded it, and it began carrying passengers in 1993. (When the F-line opened in 1995, its streetcars also began using the J-line to enter and leave service.) The J-line extension is today one of the least-ridden stretches of Muni light rail service, along with the outer end of the M-line, which was likewise extended along San Jose Avenue from its traditional terminal and Broad and Plymouth Streets to facilitate pull-outs and pull-ins and avoid using increasingly congested Ocean Avenue for that purpose. Though little-ridden by passengers, these extensions eased what would have been crippling subway congestion at peak periods by allowing LRVs entering service to avoid a trip all the way to Embarcadero Station just to turn around.
The initial operating plan was to couple LRVs from different lines at the subway portals (K,L, and M cars at West Portal, J and N cars at Church and Duboce). Muni knew that efficient coupling at the portals required the cars from the different lines to get there on schedule. To that end, they constructed a raised right-of-way for the N-line on Judah between Ninth and 19th Avenues, with the goal of extending it to the end of the line at Ocean Beach, and then following up with similar treatments on the outer ends of other lines. But neighbors on that first stretch of Judah complained bitterly of difficulty accessing their driveways, blunting extensions of the special treatment farther west. It took decades for streetcar priority measures to move forward, fitfully, along the lines.
Fighting street traffic often meant schedules weren’t kept, which meant one line’s streetcar would arrive at the subway portal and be forced to wait for the other cars so that a train could be assembled. Riders on the first car would get restless. Inspectors on the scene were instructed to dispatch the first car if its mates hadn’t arrived within two minutes. That single car was thus taking up a slot in the subway intended for two, three, or four cars. The original automatic train control system enforced distance between trains, so losing a coupling opportunity pushed everything back, lengthening waits at the portals. (In PCC days, the Twin Peaks Tunnel had used simpler block signals, which Boston still does, successfully, to this day. Block signals do, however, decrease the train capacity of a subway somewhat.)
At the other end of the subway, the two-track stub terminal at Embarcadero Station was woefully inadequate. Planners called for a train to depart every two minutes, but operators in each car had to change ends and power up. Given the limitations of some of the LRVs’ systems, that proved unworkable. If an operator needed a bathroom break, it got worse.
To speed up the turnaround, Muni tried having crews “fall back.” A relief crew would board an inbound train at Montgomery Station and be ready to activate the cabs on the other ends of the train cars as soon as they reached Embarcadero Station. The crew that brought the train inbound would stay on outbound until they got back to Montgomery, there getting off to join a “pool” of operators waiting for more inbound trains. But the trains were different lengths, and assigned to different routes. It did not work well, leading Muni to abandon the coupling plan altogether and simply feed single cars (or on the busiest lines, already-coupled two-car trains) into the subway as they arrived at the portals.
The Boeing cars proved notoriously unreliable and maintenance-intensive in both San Francisco and Boston, far more than the PCCs they replaced. Boston had gotten its Boeing LRVs first and was furious with the poor quality, cannibalizing 35 cars for parts and refusing the final 40 cars in their order. In San Francisco, the failure of the portal coupling to work as anticipated effectively lowered subway capacity, which meant Muni didn’t have enough LRVs to meet demand. With no near-term alternative available, Muni bought 30 of Boston’s unwanted Boeings and had them modified. (When they were finally retired, the extreme unreliability of the Boeings made Muni management unwilling to restore any for the heritage fleet.)
For a while, to minimize on-street Boeing breakdowns, Muni tried uncoupling the second car of two-car trains at outer terminals after the morning rush hour and sending the extra cars back to the barn, to come back for evening rush. This reduced the service hours of the fleet, but was logistically complicated and didn’t last long.
Even after coupling in service was discontinued, the subway was backed up more often than not at its eastern end, because of the stub-end bottleneck at Embarcadero Station. Regular commuters whose offices were near Embarcadero Station would ask themselves every day (like Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry), “Do I feel lucky?” as they approached Powell Street Station, often opting to walk the rest of the way unless it was raining. The slow turnaround constrained capacity in the evening peak as well. Riders at Montgomery and Powell stations heading outbound (west) would often board trains going the other direction, ride to the terminal at Embarcadero and come back the other way, so they could get a seat or even a place to stand on the jammed trains.
Muni Metro turnaround
Muni moved to address these problems by reviving the idea of an underground loop, but it was a daunting engineering task, since BART was already built and operating just six feet below, and the ground east of Embarcadero Station was below the water table and riddled with old shipwrecks. Deputy Mayor Doug Wright (later chair of Market Street Railway’s board of directors until his passing in 2014) spearheaded a move to bring some of the trains to the surface on the Embarcadero, three blocks south of Market, and turn others in pocket tracks along the way, minimizing the footprint of the work and getting it away from the BART tubes as quickly as possible. This reduced the number of trains reversing at Embarcadero Station while offering the considerable extra benefit of providing LRV service along the sleepy southern Embarcadero, spurring a frenzy of development that included thousands of residential units and a new ballpark for the Giants. The “Muni Metro Turnback Project,” which ended up costing more than $200 million, fully opened in 1998.
At this point, having won permission from the Feds to retire the troublesome Boeing cars early, Muni was in the midst of a transition to LRVs designed expressly for San Francisco by Ansaldo Breda of Italy. This was coupled with installation of a new “moving block” automatic train control system (ATCS) intended to boost subway capacity.
Both projects were fraught with problems. The ATCS system was unreliable and incompatible with the Boeing cars, which were supposed to be retired by the changeover but couldn’t be because of problems with the Breda order. (Many of the Boeings had to be expensively retrofitted to keep operating.) The Breda cars were also far heavier than the Boeings, forcing earlier-than-planned replacement of surface tracks and garnering complaints from neighbors about their noise and vibration. To top it off, they were not significantly more reliable than the Boeing cars, and needed multiple upgrades and retrofits throughout their lives.
The first day of the new ATCS system and full use of the Muni Metro turnback, in 1998, was a spectacular and total failure, dubbed the “Muni Metro Meltdown” by the press. Subway service gridlocked, leaving passengers to force open doors in mid-tunnel to escape. Serious subway problems persisted for days and have lingered on and off ever since. Periodic electrical and mechanical failures such as stuck switches and downed overhead wires have stopped the subway cold numerous times, reviving the “Muni Metro Meltdown” tag. (One recent one, in 2019, is said to have caused Mayor London Breed to eject SFMTA head Ed Reiskin, and downed subway wires aborted the subway restart early in the tenure of his successor, Jeff Tumlin.)
As if having five lines jammed into a subway weren’t enough, Muni added a new one, the T-Third, in 2007. It was routed into the Market Street Subway at the Embarcadero Portal until the new Central Subway, running north-south under Fourth and Stockton Streets, opens. That was supposed to happen in late 2018, but it’s now more than three years late.
Initially, Muni tried terminating T-line trains at Castro Station using a crossover there. The idea was to give subway riders more trains through the most heavily used part of the subway. But Muni could not make it work operationally, delaying other trains in both directions as the T-trains switched back. In less than three months, Muni gave up on the Castro terminal idea and combined the T line with the venerable K-Ingleside, creating its longest streetcar route since the old interurban 40-line to San Mateo was abandoned in 1949, stretching more than fifteen miles from the city’s southeastern corner to the Balboa Park BART Station in a giant fishhook-shaped route. (The two terminals of the KT-line are less than three miles apart via Geneva Avenue.) This exceedingly long line led to more erratic arrival times at the tunnel portals (the T shares the portal at Folsom and the Embarcadero with the N-Judah), but at least it eliminated switching back in the subway itself, which Muni has always had trouble making work.
The persistent congestion in the subway led to many trains stopping in the tunnel between stations during rush hours in particular, since the ATCS only allowed one train to stop in a given station at a time. But the downtown stations, built to BART platform lengths, could easily accommodate two trains at once. In the mid-2010s then-Muni head John Haley promised to institute two-train simultaneous stops to mollify outraged passengers repeatedly stuck in the tunnels, but Haley could not get it to work reliably.
Will less be more?
Throughout the 40 years of Muni Metro history, some armchair transit wonks, as well as actual professional planners, have been insisting that the core problem is that even five lines trying to use the same subway is at least two too many, although several cities in Europe have arrangements like this that work effectively. The most common recommendation of these folks is to take at least the J and K lines out of the subway, and maybe the L as well, leaving the highest ridership M and N lines underground.
That approach is precisely what Muni implemented on August 22, 2020, when they tried to restart the subway. LRVs on the J-line turned back on the surface at Church and Market, with riders told to transfer to the remaining subway lines at Church Street Station below. Riders on the outer ends of the K and L were forced to do the same at West Portal, with those trains interlined as the KL all-surface operation between the Zoo and Balboa Park. To avoid trying to turn the T-line around in the subway again, it was interlined with the M-line, an even longer route than the old KT. The MT and the N lines, both running two-car trains, were joined in the slimmed down subway by a new S-Shuttle line, operating in the subway between Embarcadero Station and West Portal Station. The S was slated to eventually have three car trains, to accommodate riders transferring from the J, K, and L surface lines.
This brave new subway world fell apart after just a weekend of operation when overhead wires started to come down in the subway, and an operations center worker tested positive for Covid-19, forcing a quarantine of other key personnel. Muni scrambled to restore bus service on the lines, and the subway stayed closed until May 15, 2021, more than a full year after its initial shutdown. Meantime, riders continued to pile on buses for surface rides.
When the subway did reopen, it was with the N, the M and a reconnected KT, plus intermittent shuttles. The L remained a bus running over Twin Peaks and down Market Street, a function of a four-year rebuilding of Taraval Street, not scheduled to be finished until 2024. The J remained as a shortened surface LRV (light rail) line to Duboce and Church, causing frustration among some J-line riders who hated the forced transfer and wanted their single-seat ride to downtown back.
SFMTA leadership, including top boss Jeff Tumlin and Muni’s top official Julie Kirschbaum, are committed to keep trying to improve the subway. They are trying to fund replacement of the current, badly flawed, second-generation automatic train control system (ATCS) to increase capacity and reliability, but if the past is prologue, completion of such a system could be at least ten years down the road.
Even with that, they deeply believe that the inherent shortcomings of the subway they (and several generations of leaders before them) inherited can best be mitigated by keeping the J on the surface, and they said so to their board of directors on December 7, 2021. But an organized group of J-line riders and transit activists flooded the public comment period of the meeting with passionate calls to put the J-line back in the subway, and that — for now — is what the board decided to do. At the same time, board members showed enthusiasm for a possible future conversion of the J-line to historic streetcars, as a way to maintain that single-seat ride while keeping the subway unclogged.
Can PCCs play a role on the J?
Muni’s oldest surviving streetcar line, opened in 1917, the J used PCC streetcars exclusively from 1957 to 1982. And not just then. During the Historic Trolley Festivals of the 1980s, PCCs occasionally ran along the J to its then 30th Street terminal. Later, one month after the permanent F-line opened, in October 1995, Muni shut the Market Street Subway down at 10:00pm to facilitate installation of the second generation automatic train control system. (Despite the early start every night, the job still took three years.) Four lines got substitute buses for the last few hours of daily service, but the J-line used PCCs instead, sharing Market Street’s surface tracks with F-line cars. It was a successful substitution. And of course, PCCs operate along the surface portion of the J-line every day, on their way into and out of service on the F-line. And while they are on J-line trackage, they are in regular service to pick up and drop off passengers at any J-line stop (although most riders don’t know this and some operators — against the rules — still refuse to do it). So, PCCs are already at home on the J.
Extending the J-line downtown on the surface cannot be done with the LRVs, which use pantographs on their roofs to collect electric power from the overhead wires. These would foul the overhead on Market, which is set up for use with trolley poles, as Muni’s vintage streetcars have, as do its trolley buses. (It’s doubtful trolley poles could be installed on either the Breda or newer Siemens LRVs, given their roof configurations.)
Market Street Railway has been asking for a demonstration project using PCCs on a surface J-line for many years now, and the idea has attracted many enthusiastic adherents, including some on the SFMTA board, which directed management to study what’s needed to start up such a service. There’s no immediate plan to do so; the board made it clear that they want options in the event that putting the J back in the subway slows down service for the vast majority of subway riders who ride the other underground lines.
What’s to come?
No one knows how long it will take for ridership in the Muni Metro subway (or anywhere else on Bay Area transit) to return to pre-pandemic levels. In November 2021, the Muni system was carrying only half the daily passengers it carried in 2019. Many large downtown employers have told their workers they can work from home indefinitely, and some are giving up large chunks of their office space. Retail vacancy rates downtown are at historically high levels, driven by a combination of Covid and the accelerating gravitation toward online shopping. And as long as Covid infections and hospitalizations continue, some percentage of past transit riders will opt for the perceived security of their automobiles.
Yet the Market Street subway is a multi-billion dollar public asset. It would in all likelihood not be affordable to build today. The access it provides, the connections it enables, will foster new businesses and help fill up office and retail vacancies along the corridor it serves. In that way, it will be a key to San Francisco’s future vitality.
The current depressed ridership level actually gives Muni the opportunity to test different arrangements of its rail service and see what works best to meet the long-term needs of all San Franciscans – if some activists can get away from the mindset that routes and frequencies must be returned to exactly the way they were before the pandemic. Ridership patters definitely are different now, and in some areas at least they won’t snap back to the old days, just as parts of the City changed forever after the cataclysm of 1906.
The decision of the SFMTA board of directors to return the J-line to full subway service with LRVs may work well, at least until the L-Taraval comes back as a rail line after the rebuilding of Taraval Street is finished. At that point, if the subway is back to its pre-pandemic pattern of delays and snarls, trying PCCs on the J makes a lot of sense. The other lines in the Muni Metro subway operate underground, free from traffic, for much greater distances than the J (the N through the Sunset Tunnel, the K, L, and M through the Twin Peaks Tunnel). Thus, replacing them with surface vehicles would greatly increase travel times for their riders.
By contrast, operating the J-line on the surface might actually be quicker for riders to many destinations along Market Street. What actually counts for people is total travel time, not just time spent on Muni vehicles. J-line surface streetcars would share the F-line stops, which are more frequent than subway stops. This allows riders to leave the streetcar closer to their actual destination in most cases, and avoids the need to climb up from the subway platform to a street entrance. With automobiles banned from Market Street east of Van Ness, Muni buses and F-line streetcars using Market have speeded up their trips considerably. All this means that J-line surface streetcars should be time-competitive at least as far east as Civic Center or Powell Street, and when the subway is jammed up, competitive in total travel time even to lower Market.
Competitive travel times along Market, and the popularity of the PCC streetcars, with their upholstered, forward-facing seats and timeless style, might help rebuild J-line ridership by providing an attractive public transit experience along the J-line.
As the Market Street Subway moves into the next phase of its existence, it’s definitely worth fully exploring this idea. After 40 years of failure trying to jam so many lines into a single subway, it may well be that less is more.
We at Market Street Railway not only work to preserve and support historic transit in San Francisco, we also research and write about how transit has shaped our city in the past – for better or worse –so that these lessons might be applied to make informed decisions for the future. We would appreciate it if you could join or donate to our nonprofit.
Hard for some of us San Franciscans of a certain age to think of the Muni subway under Market Street as a part of history. Because that means that we ourselves…well, you know.
But it’s true. The shiny new Muni Metro subway opened to carry passengers on its first line, the N-Judah, on February 18, 1980, bringing a long-held dream to reality, and, to cynics, starting an operational nightmare that has recurred repeatedly since.
The subway, and all Muni rail service, was shut down in Spring 2020 as part of the response to the Covid-19 crisis, with buses using surface routes replacing the subway lines. The subway gradually reopened through 2021, but it is still not operating at nearly the volume, either in passengers or trains, as it did before the pandemic. The shutdown, though, provided an opportunity to rethink how best to use this multi-billion-dollar asset to effectively move the most San Franciscans along the City’s most travelled corridor. One option might provide opportunities to get more value from the City’s historic streetcars as well.
New York City famously opened the first full subway in America, the IRT, in 1904. (Boston had dug a short streetcar subway in 1897.) On Christmas Day 1904, the San Francisco Chronicle gave big play to the vision of an engineer who’d been to New York, suggesting that Market Street needed one of those things too, along with an array of other rapid transit (including a steel train tube under the Bay to Oakland, presaging BART).
But like many transit “plans” over the decades, this was just a concept, with no official backing. The aftermath of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire soon refocused San Francisco’s attention, but as recovery from the cataclysm brought growing transit ridership, dreams grew again as well.
In 1913, with the new San Francisco Municipal Railway less than a year old, City Engineer M.M. O’Shaughnessy decided to design the East Portal (at Castro Street) of the yet-to-be-built streetcar tunnel under Twin Peaks “to permit the continuation of the tunnel as a subway under Market Street with but slight alterations.” The tunnel, which opened in 1918, succeeded in its goal of opening up the southwestern quadrant of the city to residential development, though it took several decades for the build-out.
When the tunnel opened, city-owned Muni and its private competitor, soon to be known as Market Street Railway (MSRy), began jousting for passengers all along Market Street on adjacent pairs of tracks (which came to be known as “The Roar of the Four”). The City’s official position called for public ownership of all utilities, including transit. As the expiration date of MSRy’s most important operating franchises neared, voters were asked to buy out the private company in 1925, but overwhelmingly refused. Those franchises expired in 1929 but were extended short-term.
Two 1930s plans
O’Shaughnessy began preparing a “subway report” in 1930 that showed an ambitious two- and four-track subway under Market, costing an estimated $21 million. The first phase ramped two tracks down from the surface just east of Valencia Street (with the notation that “in the future” the subway could be extended to connect directly to the Twin Peaks and Sunset Tunnel). Two other tracks stayed on the surface all the way to the Ferry. These two subway tracks were joined by two more down a ramp from McAllister Street. From the drawings, we infer that this portal would serve both MSRy’s busy 5-McAllister line and its 21-Hayes line.
The four-track subway stretch marched east, joined at O’Farrell Street by tracks that descended into their own subway at Larkin Street. These were for Muni’s Geary lines. At Sutter, two of the subway tracks ramped up to the surface, finishing the trip to the Ferry Loop next to the MSRy’s Sutter line tracks, the only stretch of four tracks retained on Market’s surface. The other two subway tracks terminated underground in a loop where Bush, Battery, and First Streets met Market. This anticipated the construction of the Transbay Transit Terminal a block south. O’Shaughnessy said trying to dig a subway east of that point would be ruinously expensive because of poor landfill, old ships, and a high water table. (He was proved right.)
Subway stations were spaced very close together, at Third, Fourth, Sixth, Ninth, and Van Ness.
Unfortunately, his work was for naught, since by the time the plan was released in 1931, voters had already approved extending Market Street Railway’s franchises another 25 years. The private company thus held a veto over the big capital project, as they didn’t have to invest a dime in it, and it wasn’t feasible without incorporating MSRy lines. (Remember, at this time, MSRy carried 75% of the city’s transit passengers, more than three times Muni’s share.)
But the subway dream lingered. A consultant’s report in 1935 recommended a more extensive system, with a two-track Market Street subway running from Fremont to Church, surfacing to let the J and N lines out, and then continuing on the surface to the Twin Peaks Tunnel. The report also called for a subway line through the Mission District, surfacing at the Bernal Cut (later BART’s alignment) and one under Geary Street from Divisadero to Market, then turning under Montgomery to Columbus, linking the B and a relocated F-Stockton line. It retained surface operation of the outer ends of the existing streetcar lines, like Muni Metro, but pledged it would be designed to allow an eventual upgrade to true grade-separated subway operation.
Unlike O’Shaughnessy’s 1931 study, this plan made it to the ballot in 1937, with a price tag just under $50 million. The City’s Public Utilities Commission, which oversaw Muni, promoted it with the promise of construction jobs as the Depression lingered, and the fear of losing out to the suburbs. “With [the new San Francisco-Oakland and Golden Gate] bridges increasing traffic and providing easy outlets to suburban areas, the adoption of this rapid transit plan is vital. It is needed to build industry, stimulate growth, and prevent the loss of population and industry. It is needed to protect realty values and safeguard tax revenues.”
The bridges were indeed flooding city streets, including Market, with commuters’ cars, causing growing traffic jams. Yet voters still turned down the bond issue that would have funded the three subways. With the bridges’ openings, ferry service withered, and lower Market Street businesses with it. Most streetcars were diverted to the Transbay Transit Terminal at First and Mission Streets, which opened in 1939. Though the automobile was already cutting into rail ridership around the nation, the new Bridge Terminal started with three privately owned interurban passenger rail companies serving it, including the Sacramento Northern, much of whose right-of-way through Contra Costa County would later be used by BART. But within two years, economics forced two of the three companies off the bridge, with the last one, the Key System, hanging on until 1958, when its tracks on the bridge were replaced by more automobile lanes.
More plans without results
As Muni prepared to merge with MSRy in 1944, the Board of Supervisors asked City PUC boss E.G. Cahill what his plans were for improving the combined systems. Having been beaten at the polls on his 1937 subway plan and facing strong labor opposition on reducing rail crew size, he knew how to respond, saying there would be no proposals “for subways, elevated railways or other types of grade separation…until, by the employment of modem equipment, the most efficient use is made of the City’s street surfaces.” Instead, Muni won voter funding in 1947 to buy hundreds of trolley buses to convert streetcar lines.
That goal accomplished, subway dreams resumed. A 1949 subway study by De Leuw, Cather & Co. for the city planning department included an underground loop to serve Transbay Terminal. Modernized PCCs would be used to start. There would be stations every block on Market between Second and Fifth. A second subway started from its own tight loop close to Transbay Terminal under Second Street and Post Street, to replace the Geary streetcars.
This plan likewise went nowhere, but just three years later, at the request of Mayor Elmer Robinson, the City’s Public Utilities Commission, which then oversaw Muni, commissioned yet another study, this one entitled, “Rapid Transit for San Francisco: Monorail, Elevated, Subway? A Report of Possibilities”. It was authored by consultant Marmion D. Mills, infamous among Muni history buffs for savaging the streetcar system in the late 1940s and recommending a plan, which succeeded, to cut the cable car system in half in 1954. Mills’ plan, too, called for terminating the system at Transbay Terminal, and considered alternatives to a subway. It apparently wasn’t taken seriously (we couldn’t find anything in a newspaper search of that period), but how about those cool drawings?
And then, BART
Probably the main reason the Mills study went nowhere was the blossoming of a bigger dream: an integrated Bay Area-wide rapid transit system. After World War II, the counties around San Francisco boomed in population. The city itself didn’t, at least in terms of people who slept there every night. But the number of workers and shoppers—and the cars they drove—jammed the downtown area, leading to one-way streets feeding new parking garages in the city (and helping doom the O’Farrell cable car and Geary streetcar).
Regional planners and business leaders in the 1950s assumed that downtown San Francisco would remain the epicenter of the Bay Area white-collar employment and retail business. They revived yet again the dream of a Market Street Subway, but on a far grander scale, as part of a high-speed passenger rail network ringing the Bay Area.
After politics, costs, and squabbles caused Santa Clara, San Mateo, and Marin Counties to drop out, Bay Area voters passed a $792 million bond issue in November 1962 to build the 75-mile, three-county Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system, using what was billed as space-age train technology. (The initial system ended up costing twice that).
To lure San Franciscans’ votes, the subway under Market Street would have two levels, BART on the lower, Muni on the upper; an underground echo of the old “Roar of the Four” surface tracks. In February 1962, BART officials and San Francisco Mayor John F. Shelley’s “Transportation Council” agreed that the subway level constructed for Muni would allow all five existing streetcar lines to use it. So, San Francisco voters who approved BART believed single-seat streetcar rides downtown would continue, with faster service in the new subway.
“What do we do now?”
In the 1972 film The Candidate, a California Senate candidate played by Robert Redford, who had vacillated between various positions during the campaign, comes from behind at the last minute to win. With a dumbstruck look on his face, he turns to his campaign manager and utters the film’s final line: “What do we do now?”
In the real world, Muni leaders and city politicians found themselves asking that same question, over and over, after the voters approved BART at the end of 1962.
The BART district had complete control over the design and construction of its system, including the Muni subway level, which, as approved by voters, allowed all five existing streetcar lines to access it. The bond issue extended the subway on the west beneath West Portal Avenue to surface at St. Francis Circle. BART would own the subway and designed Muni’s level to be convertible to BART trains in the future if needed.
In the voter-approved plan, the easternmost San Francisco station, for both BART and Muni, was Montgomery Street. Like every subway plan made since the Bay Bridge opened, BART designers scorned lower Market Street and the Ferry Building area (by then cut off by the double-deck Embarcadero Freeway and economically deteriorating). They did include an underground track loop east of Montgomery to allow single-end Muni vehicles to turn around.
But while BART would design the Muni subway and stations, it had nothing to do with what kinds of vehicles Muni would run, nor would it pay for them. And BART had no say in how Muni would operate it. Frankly, Muni didn’t know either.
The Simpson-Curtin Report
Transit leaders on both sides of the Bay recognized that the building of BART would greatly impact all existing transit operations. They commissioned a detailed study of all aspects of transit affected by the advent of BART, which was undertaken by the Philadelphia firm of Simpson & Curtin. Early on, the project team recognized that the plan to operate all five Muni streetcar lines in the new subway was problematic.
Citing existing surface-subway streetcar operations in Boston and Philadelphia as examples, the Simpson-Curtin Report stated:
Where street cars are operated both on surface and below grade, headways between vehicles are not dependable inasmuch as they are a function of peak hour traffic congestion for the surface portion of the service. This characteristic is particularly significant during rush hours where the combination of street traffic and the need for close headways cause a progressive deterioration in the transition from sur- face to private right-of-way—scheduled speed is reduced accordingly.
– “Coordinated Transit for the Bay Area, Now to 1975”, Simpson and Curtin, p. 120
The report clearly stated that to keep the subway from backing up with congestion, streetcars on the individual lines had to run at least 7 1/2 minutes apart, “a considerably lower quality service than presently is being operated on the streetcar lines at grade.”
In its initial assessment of how to operate the new subway level, Muni planners looked at using its existing single-end PCC streetcars in the subway, running left-side so their right-hand doors could use the center platforms. The turning loop BART promised at the east end of the line made this option feasible, so long as the platforms were built at a low level (which, however, would have made the streetcars inaccessible to wheelchair users. This option also would have required a dangerous crossover for the streetcars somewhere to get them to the opposite track of the subway.
Though the Simpson-Curtin report was still in preparation, Muni and City officials knew that its recommended approach would be to scrap the existing streetcar system in favor of a completely grade-separated subway system, like New York’s. This, the experts on the team said, was the way to truly transform Muni’s rail transit. It should include replacing the M-Ocean View with true subway trains running underground all the way to San Francisco State College, replacing the N-Judah with a subway extension to 19th Avenue and Irving Street, and replacing the rest of the streetcar network with feeder buses connecting to the subway. The report would also propose a new subway under Post Street to Cathedral Hill, continuing under Geary Boulevard to 45th Avenue, to serve Muni’s highest-ridership corridor. (This last measure provided partial atonement for ripping out the B-Geary line in 1956.)
Believing the Simpson-Curtin team’s recommendation to be the best solution, the Board of Supervisors unanimously put on the November 1966 ballot a $96.5 million bond issue to fund the subway extension to San Francisco State, plus the construction of a new maintenance and storage facility nearby, and purchase of new high-level subway-style trains. The bond issue also dangled the prospect the N-line and Post/Geary subways as part of an overall vision, but did not fund them. Almost 58% of voters said ‘yes’, but it needed 2/3 approval, and so failed. Thus, when the Simpson-Curtin report was finally issued publicly in 1967, its key recommendation to make the Muni subway work well had already been rejected by San Francisco voters.
Back to the Drawing Board
As Muni planners regrouped after the 1966 bond issue defeat, a powerful member of the Board of Supervisors, John Barbagelata, led the fight to scrap the already-funded subway extension under West Portal Avenue, to avoid construction disruption on the street where his real estate office was located. He won, and that money was shifted to build an additional BART-Muni station under Market near the waterfront. (Embarcadero Station proved transformational for lower Market, and it is hard to see how Montgomery Station could possibly have handled rider volumes on its own.)
The bond issue defeat meant no money for new equipment, sending Muni back to the PCC plan until a new mayor, Joseph Alioto, decreed early in 1967 that Muni would buy European-style trams that could be operated in trains and load from either side in the subway. This led to Muni’s acceptance of a proposal by BART, under extreme financial pressure by now, to build a simple “stub-end” terminal for Muni railcars at Embarcadero Station rather than the turnaround loop promised and funded in the initial BART bond issue. That was the end of any talk of putting PCCs into the subway, since double-end vehicles would now be required.
Analysis of the failed 1966 bond issue indicated that many users of the existing streetcar lines didn’t want to give up their single-seat ride to get downtown. This was no surprise to Muni leaders. In the late 1940s, an attempt to replace J-line streetcars with trolley buses on Church Street flopped when Noe Valley residents made it clear they wanted the streetcars to stay. And budget-cutting moves to replace K, L, and M streetcars with feeder buses west of the Twin Peaks Tunnel nights and weekends in 1951-52 aroused rider ire.
Muni management still explored multiple options, but by early 1969, finally committed to putting all five lines in the subway.
Reinventing the streetcar
To fit all five lines into the subway, Muni’s consultants, Louis T. Klauder and Associates (LTK), recommended having single cars run on the outer ends of the lines, and then couple together into trains at the subway portals to go downtown: the K, L, and M lines at West Portal Station, the N and J lines at Duboce and Church. LTK also repeatedly advocated for an underground loop to be built near Embarcadero Station, believing (correctly) the stub terminal would prove inadequate.
To carry this off, Muni needed new streetcars that could be coupled into trains, were double-ended, and could load from either high or low platforms, an unprecedented combination for an American-built streetcar. When Muni put LTK’s initial design out to bid in 1971 (a design that relied on PCC-type motors and some other components), bids came in at twice Muni’s estimate, unaffordable.
Boston needed to buy new streetcars, too, and wanted a Düwag model designed for Hanover, Germany’s subway-surface Stadtbahn. But the Nixon Administration wouldn’t fund any of it, instead pushing a “Buy American” program that would help repurpose factories producing materiel for the Vietnam War. The Urban Mass Transit Adminstration took the LTK Muni design, worked with Muni and Boston to adjust it, and dubbed it the “US Standard Light Rail Vehicle”, wanting to leave the term “streetcar” behind.
The design was skinnier than Muni wanted and had a slanted front end, both required to navigate the 1897 Boston trolley subway. This made the front doors unusable in Muni’s subway and limited boarding to two doors per car, on both sides. The bid was won by Boeing-Vertol, the helicopter division of the aircraft maker.
It must be noted, San Diego, building its own light rail system from scratch, passed up the lure of federal funding and purchased proven German vehicles from Düwag (later acquired by Siemens). Those Model U2 vehicles remained in service for 40 years with a mean-distance-between-failure rate fifteen times lower than Muni experienced with the Boeing cars. (Many of San Diego’s U2s have gone on to a second life in Argentina.)
But given the parsimony of San Francisco voters in supporting Muni capital programs, federal money (strings and all) seemed the only way Muni could get new vehicles for its new subway.
Delays in vehicle procurement, along with other factors, pushed back the projected opening date for the Market Street Subway again and again. The subway itself was physically finished by early 1975, but it took five more years to begin service. The aging PCC fleet soldiered on, the venerable streamliners kept operating beyond all expectations by a dedicated maintenance crew, using the Twin Peaks Tunnel and “temporary” ramps (still there) to surface at Market and Castro, and a detour via 17th, Church, and Duboce to avoid the cut-and-cover subway construction on upper Market. And one of the PCCs, Work Car 1008 (today fully restored to its original 1948 passenger condition), pinch hit for the late-to-be-delivered LRVs in testing out the subway clearances and wiring, using a newly-installed pantograph.
The need to keep the PCCs running precluded redeveloping the PCCs’ Geneva Division for the new LRVs; a good thing, since it was too small anyway. Instead, Muni converted its ramshackle Elkton streetcar shops and Ocean Division bus yard across the street, next to BART’s new Balboa Park Station, into a new light rail maintenance and storage facility, later named for Muni general manager Curtis Green.
The way Muni navigated through the process of preparing for the Market Street Railway was, in the words of Anthony Perles, author of the definitive Muni history, The People’s Railway, “convoluted”.
Indeed it was. What would happen when they actually tried to operate it? Here’s that story.
Lest you think the 1950s Muni-monorail-above-Market was wacky, it should be remembered that it was seen in many places as the sexy new technology that would lure people out of their automobiles. Walt Disney thought so, and partnered with Alweg of Germany to design a system for Disneyland. Monorail was briefly considered early on as the technology for the regional system too. As with the Muni study, consideration of monorail technology for what became BART was encouraged by San Francisco business leader Marvin Lewis, a driving force on mid-century Bay Area transportation issues (and grandfather of Salesforce Founder and CEO Mark Benioff, whose company’s name is on the sleek replacement for the old Transbay Transit Terminal). At the end of the day, only one monorail transit line was built in North America: in Seattle, for its 1962 World’s Fair. It’s still operating.
We at Market Street Railway not only work to preserve and support historic transit in San Francisco, we also research and write about how transit has shaped our city in the past – for better or worse –so that these lessons might be applied to make informed decisions for the future. We would appreciate it if you could join or donate to our nonprofit.
The revered poet and novelist Maya Angelou (1928-2014) has attracted growing attention for a job she briefly held as a teenager: streetcar conductor in San Francisco during World War II. Much of what gets tossed about in social media is untrue or only partly true. Here, we turn to her own words from her books and interviews to provide the fullest story possible and correct common misperceptions.
She was San Francisco’s first Black cable car operator, right?
Wrong. Maya Angelou was a conductor who worked on the back platform of electric streetcars, collecting fares and ensuring passenger safety. She worked for our nonprofit’s namesake, Market Street Railway Company, in its final year before being taken over by the city-owned Municipal Railway (Muni). Here’s how streetcars and cable cars are different.
Streetcars and cable cars both had two-person operating crews then. Conductors at the back, and motormen (on streetcars) and gripmen (on cable cars) piloting the car at the front. The jobs had different requirements. The first female streetcar motormen, dubbed “motorettes”, were hired by both Muni and Market Street Railway during World War II, as men holding those jobs were called to war. (The first Black female cable car “gripman” Fannie Mae Barnes, started gripping in 1998.)
Okay, but she was the first Black streetcar operator in San Francisco then?
She described herself as “the first Negro on the San Francisco streetcars” in her 1970 autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, but that distinction actually belongs to Audley Cole, who joined Muni in 1941 and endured severe harassment, but persevered.
She later said she had learned she wasn’t the first, but that she was the first Black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco. There’s no way to be sure because all employment records for both Muni and Market Street Railway were discarded long ago, but there’s no doubt that she was one of the first, and the story she tells about getting hired is so compelling in its courage and persistence.
Why did she want to work on the streetcars?
In Caged Bird, she writes of deciding to take a semester off from George Washington High School in the fall of 1943, where she was a year ahead, and get work experience. War plants were out, she wrote, because they “demanded birth certificates, and mine would reveal me to be fifteen, and ineligible for work.” But she knew the streetcar companies were hiring women, “and the thought of sailing up and down the hills of San Francisco in a dark-blue uniform, with a money changer at my belt, caught my fancy.”
How did she get hired? She was only 15 years old at that time.
She writes of seeing an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle placed by Market Street Railway for “motorettes and conductorettes” and went to the company’s main office at 58 Sutter Street to apply. She accurately describes the office of the almost-bankrupt company as “dingy and the decor drab” and asked herself whether she wanted to work for “such a poor-mouth-looking concern”.
But when they snubbed her the first day, she grew determined. Encouraged by her mother, she said, she went back every day for two weeks until they finally let her fill out an application. She started with her correct legal name at the time, Marguerite Johnson, but then “the standard questions reminded me of the necessity for dexterous lying,” starting with her age, which she put down as 19. For experience, she invented what she called the “fable” of having been “companion and driver for Mrs. Annie Henderson (a White Lady) in Stamps, Arkansas.”
She got the job.
In Caged Bird, she wrote, “Mother gave me the money to have my blue serge suit tailored, and I learned to fill out work cards, operate the money changer and punch transfers. The time crowded together and at an End of Days I was swinging on the back of the rackety trolley, smiling sweetly and persuading my charges to “step forward in the car, please”.”
Which streetcar line did she work?
Almost certainly more than one during her five-month tenure, likely including the 7-Haight and 5-McAllister lines at a minimum.
In Caged Bird, she writes, “I clanged and cleared my way down Market Street, with its honky-tonk homes for homeless sailors, past the quiet retreat of Golden Gate Park and along closed undwelled-in-looking dwellings of the Sunset District.” That description fits the then-route of the 7-Haight streetcar, which ran out Market Street to Haight Street through what was later called the Haight-Ashbury District, then jogged south on Stanyan Street and then west all the way out Lincoln Way along the southern edge of Golden Gate Park. It finished the route by running north through the westernmost edge of the park to terminate at LaPlaya and Balboa at Playland-at-the-Beach.
Forty-three years after publication of Caged Bird, in a 2013 interview with Mark DeAnda of Muni’s parent agency, SFMTA, Angelou said she didn’t remember the specific line she worked, but “I do remember that I took the streetcar from out by the beach. I know that we came down McAllister, then down Market Street to the Ferry Building.” Except for the Ferry Building terminal, that describes the 5-line, which ran (and as a trolley bus, still runs) along the northern edge of Golden Gate Park on Fulton Street, through the Richmond District, to share a terminal at Playland with the 7-line. But the 5’s eastern terminal in 1943 was, like the 7-line’s, East Bay Terminal at First and Mission, not the Ferry Building as she remembered in the 2013 SFMTA interview.
The 7-line shared a carbarn with the 17-line, which duplicated the 7’s route until 20th Avenue, where it turned south, traversing the Sunset District to Stern Grove. But unlike the 7, which terminated at East Bay Terminal, the 17 went all the way to the Ferry Building. Similarly, though the 5-line terminated at East Bay Terminal, the 21-Hayes, with which it shared McAllister Division carbarn, ran all the way to the Ferry. So, when Angelou writes about going all the way to the Ferry Building, she may be referring to trips worked on lines like the 17 and 21.
Another line that ran from the Ferry Building to the Beach (45th Avenue and Geary Blvd.) was the 1-Sutter-California line. Angelou notes in several remembrances that her mother drove her out to “the streetcar barn … out near the beach” to start her pre-dawn split shift, then followed her in the family automobile while she conducted her first trip downtown, to provide a measure of safety and reassurance for her daughter. The 1-line was housed at Sutro Division at 32nd Avenue and Clement Street and was the closest carbarn to the beach.
The next-closest carbarn to the beach was the “Boneyard”, an open-air city block of retired and derelict streetcars at Lincoln Way and 14th Avenue, where some runs originated for the 7 and 17 lines, as well as the 6-Masonic line, which went all the way to the Ferry Building.
Thus, in all likelihood she worked both the 5 and 7 lines, and probably others that reached the Ferry Building in 1943. This mixture of assignments would have been normal for a new-hire.
Retired Muni streetcar operator and Market Street Railway member Larry Bernard says when he joined Muni in 1979, work rules were little changed from decades before. New hires who finished training were assigned to the “extra board” until the next signup, picking up whatever run (streetcar trip) the dispatcher needed filled.
“Since her tenure was only five months, it is unlikely she ever was able to stay on one line for very long,” Bernard writes. “Also, she could have transferred between barns, or been assigned ‘as needed, for the duration,’ as it were. An experience that featured a variety of lines would result in a variety of memories, especially so many years after the fact.”
What types of streetcars did she work on?
The 6, 7, and 17 lines were all served at that time by streetcars numbered from 101-180, bought new in 1911 from the Jewett Car Company of Ohio. None of these 80 cars survives, but dedicated volunteers from our nonprofit have created an exact replica of an end platform of this car type, including the conductor station where Angelou would have stood. It’s a central display in our free museum across from the Ferry Building.
The 5 and 21 lines used somewhat newer streetcars built largely in the 1920s by workers at the main shops of Market Street Railway. Only one of the 250 streetcars of this type survives. Our nonprofit rescued the body from the Mother Lode town of Columbia in 1984, where it had been serving as part of a jewelry store. Muni invested more than $300,000 in rebuilding the body, but the project then stalled. We are working to get the restoration completed soon, naming the car in honor of Maya Angelou, both for her own achievement and those of other women and people of color who broke diversity barriers in San Francisco transit.
What must it have been like to be in her pioneering role?
Larry Bernard writes, “What I find truly remarkable is her determination, at the age of fifteen (!) to take on a job held almost exclusively by white males, at a time when her appearance on the rear platform of a streetcar, in uniform, requesting fares, could perhaps cause very unpleasant reactions.”
Bernard recalls that years ago, he lived next door to the son of a former Muni streetcar motorman. Bernard’s neighbor told him of the father coming home from work one day during the War, “enraged because they had put a “[N-word] wench on his car as a conductor”. Bernard notes that racists and sexists like that motorman surely existed on the Market Street Railway then too, “and that some of Ms. Angelou’s experience must have been trying, to say the least. Of course, she was an exceptional woman, and, with her indomitable spirit, found much to love about the job. She is truly an inspiration to us all!”
Indeed, in her writings, Angelou focuses on the positives of her five-months on the streetcars. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, she said after she went back to high school, her mother asked her what she had learned about herself from her experience with the streetcar job. Angelou says she told her mother she didn’t know, and her mother replied, “You learned that you are very strong. with determination and dedication. You can go anywhere in the world.”
And she did.
Our nonprofit depends on donations and memberships to be able to bring stories like this to light, and to celebrate the contributions to historic transit of people like Maya Angelou with meaningful public recognition. Please consider joining us our donating. Thanks.
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