Fifth of six installments in our history of Muni’s birth and first century
The second half-century of Muni’s history began with the prospect of creating a true rapid transit network. In the next 20 years, what didn’t happen is just as important as what did. Transit decisions made and projects built—or not—played a major role in shaping the city we know today.
When Muni celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1962, the Bay Area was in the midst of seismic change (without an actual earthquake). In that half-century, Muni had grown from its first Geary Street lines to a city-wide transit network. But the City it served was shrinking in population while its suburbs experienced unprecedented growth.
When Muni opened in 1912, the City and County of San Francisco (the only combined city-county in California) had more residents than all five of its suburban counties combined (Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo, and Marin). The City had 56% of the total population of what was then thought of as the Bay Area. (Santa Clara County at that point was almost completely agricultural, and its university – Stanford – was known as “The Farm”.)
By 1962, San Francisco’s share of the five-county Bay Area population had been cut in half – to just 28% of the total. The population of the City itself had increased 77% in that half-century, but was now declining and wouldn’t hit its 1950 peak again until the 21st century. Meantime, between the 1910 and 1960 censuses, the population of the other four Bay Area counties had exploded, growing 580%, almost sextupling.
Postwar suburban growth was a national trend, of course. A major enabler was the private automobile, allowing families to move beyond the reach of city transit systems to new homes with a little piece of land.
The laments and arguments over suburbanization are beyond the scope of this history. It’s uncontested, though, that the postwar Baby Boom required more housing to be built somewhere, and the desirability of the Bay Area as a place to live exacerbated that need.
As the suburbs boomed, suburban roads got crowded, both from drivers on daily errands and those commuting to San Francisco, still the region’s dominant jobs generator. And automobile owners were voters as well. To accommodate the automotive tsunami, the State of California built more freeways, resisted in San Francisco but welcomed in the new suburbs. In the late 1950s, the state ripped out the Key System trains on the lower deck to make more room for automobiles. (The privately owned Key System, which basically served just Oakland and Berkeley, had faced declining ridership for many years; it was clear that most East Bay folks who could afford automobiles preferred driving.) Even with extra auto lanes, though, the Bay Bridge was packed with autos again within a few years, a phenomenon that came to be called induced demand.
Something more was needed: mass transit that actually made suburban people want to use it. Some had been pushing toward this since World War II. In 1945, the corporate heads of Bechtel, Bank of America, Kaiser Industries, Standard Oil of California (later Chevron), and US Steel created “Citizens for Rapid Transit”, which envisioned funneling commuters from around the Bay to Downtown San Francisco, which they saw becoming the Manhattan of the West Coast. Elected officials including San Francisco Supervisor Marvin Lewis and others worked in support of this goal of high-capacity transit under Downtown San Francisco.
Less than a month after Muni brought back Car 1 for its 50-year encore on Market Street, Bay Area voters said ‘yes’ to that “something more”: approving and funding a new regional rail service that would be the nation’s most modern: BART. It was a vote that changed the region, Muni, and especially Market Street, for the half-century ahead – and beyond.
A decade in planning, the Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) had the biggest single impact on Muni’s direction over the coming half-century. BART was originally envisioned to cover six counties, but Santa Clara County stayed out, preferring to build a network of automobile expressways. In 1957, the state legislature approved formal creation of the BART district, comprised of Marin, San Francisco, San Mateo, Alameda, and Contra Costa Counties.
As engineering plans were developed, however, San Mateo County officials pulled themselves out of the district, citing rising costs and believing that the existing Southern Pacific commuter train service (now Caltrain) was sufficient. San Mateo’s withdrawal left a smaller tax base over which to spread systemwide costs. That in turn made it hard to justify the construction costs to serve lightly-populated Marin County, especially after doubts were raised about whether a second deck for BART trains would be feasible on the Golden Gate Bridge. When Marin dropped out as well, it deprived San Francisco of a planned BART line under Geary as far west as Park Presidio Boulevard, where it would have turned north to the bridge. (Here’s a link to BART’s comprehensive history of itself.)
The three-county proposal that remained was largely aimed at helping East Bay commuters reach San Francisco.
In November 1962, voters in the three counties narrowly approved a $792 million bond issue for BART construction. Sixty percent overall approval was needed. The vote fell short of that level in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties, but San Francisco voters more than made up for it with 68 percent support. Perhaps that was because the bond measure promised a separate subway level under Market Street for Muni’s exclusive use, connecting to the Twin Peaks Tunnel at Castro, and then continuing beneath West Portal Avenue to St. Francis Circle. This would fulfill Muni subway dreams dating back to the early 1900s and give the agency the chance to run its first rapid transit service. (Read our comprehensive “Subway Dreams” story here.)
Muni at a crossroads
Dreams and plans aside, a time traveler from decades earlier would easily recognize San Francisco’s transit system in 1962, except for the substitution of buses for streetcars on most routes. The route structure itself had changed little for at least 30 years. Service levels were quite similar as well. The entire Muni front office still worked ‘over the shop’ in cramped quarters above the Geary car house at Presidio Avenue (though the streetcars themselves had left a few years before).
This juxtaposition of old and new highlights the dilemma Muni faced at its half-century mark. Muni’s owners, the people of San Francisco, had showed the system very little love at the ballot box over the decades: repeatedly turning down bond measures to establish “the people’s road” before finally saying yes; then denying Muni the opportunity to merge with the larger, private Market Street Railway Company several times before finally saying yes; and passing up the opportunity more than once to build modern rapid transit facilities. Further, with the exception of a 1947 bond issue, voters and their elected representatives had largely starved the system of capital money for fleet renewal.
Some of those San Francisco voters who turned down money for Muni were now migrating to the suburbs (and demanding the state build bigger highways for them to use). But they regularly returned to the City, not just to work, but to shop, for appointments, and more. Buildings like the 450 Sutter medical-dental offices saw their garages packed.
The City had already converted most of its downtown streets to one-way traffic to feed garages the City itself built (sacrificing cable cars in the process). But the autos kept coming, not just across the bridges and from down the Peninsula, but from the Richmond and Sunset Districts as well. For these automobile users, Muni was not relevant. Was it going to go the way of an increasing number of big-city transit systems, only patronized by those who couldn’t afford autos? Or, as some were starting to call public transit, would Muni become “the ride of last resort”?
Enter the Feds
Even before the first politicians posed with their shovels to start its construction, BART became Topic A in national transportation circles. No new rapid transit system had been built in the US since New York’s IND subway in 1932. The promise was “space age technology” and commuter comfort never before known, with upholstered seating like a living room couch, and seats guaranteed for all riders. Within a few years, Washington DC and Atlanta had signed up for similar new systems.
The declining state of urban mass transit in America had increased attention in Washington as well, beyond DC’s own subway dreams. By 1962, the days of transit companies paying all their costs from passenger fares were long gone. Subsidies of one kind or another, usually from local taxes, were becoming the rule. Even Muni, the first publicly-owned big-city transit system in America, had stopped being a “profitable” utility by the early 1950s. Now, with private mass transit companies all but replaced nationwide, moving people on transit was now a direct government responsibility. Local officials asked their Washington representatives for help in modernizing creaky systems. That same year, 1962, President Kennedy asked Congress for a program of federal capital assistance for mass transportation, saying in part:
“To conserve and enhance values in existing urban areas is essential. But at least as important are steps to promote economic efficiency and livability in areas of future development. Our national welfare therefore requires the provision of good urban transportation, with the properly balanced use of private vehicles and modern mass transport to help shape as well as serve urban growth.”President John F. Kennedy, 1962
Two years later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Urban Mass Transportation Act into law. It created the Urban Mass Transportation Administration (UMTA), which has played a essential role in Bay Area transit ever since.
True Rapid Transit for Muni?
UMTA hadn’t been established when the BART bond issue passed. The $792 million approved by voters was supposed to pay for everything in BART’s scope, which included building Muni a subway under Market Street, but – critically – not the vehicles and other infrastructure needed to make it work. That was Muni’s responsibility. The BART bond measure informed voters that the Muni subway would be built to accommodate rapid transit trains “in the future” but “will be utilized initially by streetcars of the San Francisco Municipal Railway.”
The road from the 1962 BART bond approval to full operation of Muni Metro twenty years later proved to be a meandering path of potholes and politics. Read our detailed subway history here.
After considering the issues involved in merging surface streetcar lines into a downtown subway, Muni put together a plan that used the BART-funded Market Street subway as a down payment on a proper rapid transit system for San Francisco. It envisioned a subway under Geary all the way from Market to 45th Avenue. It proposed extending the approved BART subway under West Portal Avenue to Stonestown and San Francisco State University. It would have served the northern Sunset along the N-Judah line’s corridor as part of a subway extension from Market Street to 19th Avenue and Irving Street (with a “likely” future extension to Sunset Blvd. and south to Taraval). Surface streetcar lines would disappear in favor of the three rapid transit lines served by rapid transit trains.
This concept was bundled up with a variety of other items on Muni’s wish list into a $96.5 million bond issue put to San Francisco voters in November 1966. This grab bag of a bond issue had wildly disparate components. It would have funded extensions of the Powell-Mason cable car line northward along Taylor to the heart of Fisherman’s Wharf and the California cable line along lower Market to reach the Ferry Building, while providing five new cable cars. It promised new “smog controlled buses” to provide service to the Marina and Bayview districts “comparable to the subway lines.”
What the bond issue didn’t cover was actual funding of the Geary and Sunset subways. Instead, voters were told approval of the bonds would “qualify Muni for federal aid” to build those projects (read: “We’re looking at YOU, UMTA-Sugar!”).
In their ballot arguments, opponents of the measure emphasized that the plan would “abandon all five existing streetcar lines (J, K, L, M & N),” forfeiting “forever…the possibilities for modern subway-street cars, offering direct no-transfer express service to wide areas of San Francisco.”
Like so many Muni improvement bond issues before it, the 2/3 requirement for passage was too high a bar to clear. The 58% of voters who said ‘yes’ was not enough. The argument of preserving existing neighborhood streetcar service no doubt played a role, as it would in battles still to come.
Subway plans change
BART broke ground for actual Market Street Subway construction on July 24, 1967, highlighting the time pressure on Muni to make key decisions regarding how it would use its level of the subway. With the true rapid transit alternative scotched by voters, Muni leaders went back to the drawing board for another way to make the subway work.
Consultant studies indicated that trying to put all five surface lines into the subway was a recipe for poor service, unless cars from different lines could somehow be coupled efficently and reliably into trains at the subway portals. Muni General Manager Jack Woods told an audience at urban think tank SPUR in late 1968 that he planned to put only the L, M, and N lines into the subway, turning the J and K into bus lines. Woods got immediate pushback from the public on this, and soon retreated.
To developers and the business community, however, the Muni subway was largely an afterthought. It was the promise of BART, now well under construction, that triggered a building boom along the eastern end of Market Street. New office towers started to sprout, as developers moved to cash in on the taxpayer-funded transit project that would whisk commuters from the East Bay to their new buildings.
Among those benefitting was Bechtel: The global engineering-construction firm, headquartered in San Francisco, formed a consortium that won the contract to design and build BART. It also bought up land just south of Market Street and built several office buildings, including its own headquarters. [Disclosure: the author worked for Bechtel from 1981-1999.] Other large companies, including Chevron and PG&E, built or expanded headquarters near the BART station sites. A new alternative weekly paper, the Bay Guardian, began sounding repeated alarms. The first such article led to the widespread use of the term “Manhattanization”. It wasn’t meant as a compliment.
… the little understood Bay Area Rapid Transit system is expressly designed to transform San Francisco into another Manhattan Island. The result: San Francisco will duplicate the crushing problems … that have made Manhattan Island virtually unlivable.”“Manhattan Madness”, San Francisco Bay Guardian, June 18, 1968
This BART-triggered land rush along lower Market Street caused an immediate problem for BART itself – and for Muni too. The BART bond issue called for the first stop after the Transbay Tube to be Montgomery Street, but it became clear that huge planned developments such as Embarcadero Center (funded by the Rockefeller family) would require an additional station on Market near Pine and California. The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, which had ripped down blocks of buildings, including the old Produce Market just north of the foot of Market, was pushing for that additional station too.
Five miles towards the ocean, West Portal Avenue merchants were vehemently opposing construction of the BART-funded subway extension under their street. Turning that opposition into an opportunity, BART and the City agreed to scrap the West Portal subway and use the money to help pay for the added Embarcadero Station. Part of the fallout from that was the underground turning loop for Muni streetcars east of Montgomery Street, which BART had initially promised to fund and build. With the Embarcadero Station, this loop now looked infeasible.
In the same time frame, BART engineers were pressing Muni to specify what kind of streetcars would run in its new subway level. Given the lack of voter appetite to pass bond issues, Muni seriously considered running its existing, aging fleet of PCC streetcars in the subway, but without that loop, the mostly single-end fleet had no way to turn around under lower Market. (Additionally, the doors on all but a few Muni PCCs were on the wrong side to use the center platforms required for the downtown stations.)
Searching for streetcars
While Muni weighed its options for operating the Market Street Subway, BART was setting construction-driven deadlines for Muni to make up its mind. And as the project’s costs escalated, BART pushed on Muni to give up on a loop terminal for the subway, which it did in early 1968. This decision would haunt subway operations for decades.
But the die was cast. Muni needed new, double-end streetcars. But where to find them? No American builder had turned out a streetcar since 1952, when Muni’s last PCC, preserved Car 1040, rolled off the assembly line at St. Louis Car Company. Though there was talk of using certain ‘off-the-shelf’ European cars, in reality there was nothing available that could handle both the high-level subway platforms and low-level surface platforms as well as make the very tight turns on the city’s neighborhood streets. More importantly, to receive UMTA matching funds, the streetcars had to be built in America.
Muni attempted to design its own new streetcar that could be built in the US, but it resulted in an unaffordable product. UMTA then prodded Muni to join with Boston in creating a design both cities could use. The successful bidder on these cars was Boeing-Vertol, which was making military helicopters at the time. The compromise design, which had to accommodate the tight turns of Boston’s late 19th century subway, required a tapered nose where the end doors were located. This made the end doors unusable at Muni’s high-platform subway stops, significantly increasing loading times at stations. (By contrast, at the same time San Diego turned down federal funding for the new light rail line it was building and bought proven German vehicles, which provided 40 years of reliable service, with many then going on to a second life in Argentina.)
Keeping it moving
While BART and Muni Metro were being built, transit service had to continue, of course. This was complicated by the imperative to keep streetcars on their five existing lines, where tunnels or private rights-of-way made bus substitution impractical.
The streetcar tracks (and overhead trolley bus wires as well) were moved back and forth around station construction downtown on Market. Farther west, the tracks were moved off Market altogether between Duboce and Castro, with K and L streetcars making a detour via N and J tracks on Duboce and Church, then along three blocks of new track on 17th Street to reach the Twin Peaks Tunnel, which had temporary roller coaster-like entrances built so the tunnel itself could be connected to the new subway. The M-line was turned into a connecting bus shuttle and eleven third-hand (and worn out) PCCs were acquired from Toronto to compensate for the longer running time along the detour (though their performance was so poor, only a couple ran with any regularity).
It wasn’t just streetcars that were worn out. The trolley coach fleet was nearing a quarter-century of service, with many buses beat up by operating over the plank surfaces on Market during BART construction. The aging Mack motor coaches were overdue for replacement as well, but Mack, which had promised to replace the buses every six years on a lease deal, had exited the bus business.
As usual, Muni had inadequate capital funding to replace its bus fleets. So they turned to a creative financing mechanism that involved a non-profit corporation, named the San Francisco Municipal Railway Improvement Corporation (SFMRIC), to issue bonds that would help acquire the needed vehicles. SMFRIC helped facilitate a complete fleet replacement, starting with a new fleet of 390 General Motors ‘New Look’ diesel buses that arrived starting in 1969 along with ten similar diesel coaches from Flxible. Next came a new fleet of 343 Flyer trolley buses along with 100 smaller diesels from AM General in 1975-6, followed by the 100 Boeing-Vertol light rail vehicles, and then in 1980 a fleet of 25 advanced technology Grumman-Flxible coaches.
It was hoped the Grummans, dubbed “Darth Vader” buses for their darkened glass, might be suitable to replace the GM “New Look” fleet, which was at the end of its useful life. But the Grummans proved wholly unreliable right out of the box, not just at Muni, but at other agencies, with cracked frames a particular headache. They were no help in meeting the worst bus reliability crisis in Muni history.
Even though SFMRIC helped build new diesel coach and rail maintenance facilities in the 1970s, regular maintenance funding remained inadequate. Parts were often in short supply and periodic maintenance cuts left vehicles on the street when they should have been in the shops for repair or preventive care.
On the diesel bus front, this resulted in a collapse of bus service in 1981, stranding or delaying thousands of riders daily. and deeply embarrassing Mayor Diane Feinstein. Her hand-picked head of Public Utilities, Dick Sklar, issued a public apology, while throwing his Muni staff ‘under the bus’ at the same time. Then, in a “Hail Mary” move, Sklar ordered the emergency acquisition of retired GM “Old Look” buses from Los Angeles, which were in such bad shape as to only make the problem worse.
In 1982, to patch up the bus problem, Muni sent out 151 of the “Jimmies” for rebuilding (more like resurrection, really) in 1982, giving them another decade of life. But it was only a Band-Aid.
This period also saw major changes in the routes Muni’s bus fleet would serve.
In 1975, Muni conducted the most comprehensive survey ever of its riders ever, and found that its existing route system—largely unchanged for the better part of a century—no longer matched riders’ needs. The Planning, Operations, and Marketing (POM) study, completed in 1977, showed for example that two-thirds of riders’ trips neither started nor ended downtown. Yet more than 70 percent of Muni service went to or through downtown.
This led to significant revisions to Muni’s bus network, carried out in phases between 1979 and 1983. The most prominent feature was the creation of strong crosstown routes linking the western and southern parts of the city, such as the 23-Monterey, 43-Masonic, 44-O’Shaughnessy, and the 48-Quintara-24th Street. Zoned rush-hour express service was inaugurated on several lines to bring people downtown more efficiently from the periphery of the city. Several additional bus lines were significantly realigned or extended to better match riders’ travel patterns, including the 28-19th Avenue, the 24-Divisadero (which was electrified), the 1-California, the 33-Stanyan, and service along the Van Ness-Mission corridor.
Muni’s first ‘five year plan’ was a more grid-like system. It provided more efficient overall service between the origins and destinations of most trips Muni riders actually took, based on the survey. However, some riders who would now be forced to transfer because of the realignment protested, leading to delays in implementations of many of the proposed changes, and scrapping of a few.
The major route changes implemented in the first five-year plan have by and large endured.
Saving surface streetcars
The city’s grand plan for Market Street originally called for removing not only streetcars, but also trolley buses from the surface street, leaving only diesel bus shuttles to serve local riders. The claim was that riders could get to destinations faster by transferring to the fast, reliable Muni Metro subway when their bus reached Market. As a bonus, it would “beautify” the street by getting rid of overhead wires. This plan was approved by voters as part of a Market Street reconstruction bond issue in 1968.
But like other attempts to force riders to transfer when they weren’t currently doing so, public resistance was stiff. So was institutional resistance in some quarters of Muni and among many environmentalists, who wanted to keep at least the zero-emission trolley coaches on Market, powered by the city’s own hydroelectricity from Hetch Hetchy, then part of the same city agency as Muni.
It took ten full years after the 1962 BART bond issue’s passage for the Board of Supervisors to settle the matter in favor of trolley buses, and even then, surface streetcar service on Market was still slated to end when the Muni Metro subway opened.
Advocates for continued streetcar service on the surface of Market did not give up, however. They had allies in Muni’s then-new planning department (planning had previously been done by the scheduling department), who picked up on proposals from activists for vintage streetcar service on both the Embarcadero and on Market Street. In 1979, Muni Planning first proposed an ‘E-Embarcadero’ line from the Caltrain Station to Fort Mason, followed the next year by a proposed ‘F-Market’ line from perhaps the Civic Center area to the Ferry Building.
Subway finally opens
In February 1980, more than six years after the first BART service in San Francisco, Muni finally began opening its Muni Metro Subway – slowly. Weekday service on the N-Judah went underground first. It then took 31 more months until all five streetcar lines were in the subway seven days a week, served exclusively by the new Boeing-Vertol light rail vehicles.
By late September 1982, there was no surface rail transit at all on Market Street for the first time since 1860 (other than the month following the 1906 Earthquake), Muni had operated Car 1 and one of its other early streetcars borrowed from a museum that summer as a “farewell to streetcars”. But even as Muni’s fleet of PCC streetcars was mothballed, a core of streetcar supporters refused to give up.
What was giving up, however, was the cable car system.
Cable car collapse
It’s safe to say Muni management was lukewarm at best about the cable cars they inherited with the acquisition of Market Street Railway Company in 1944 and the California Street Cable Railroad in 1951. Top Muni bosses were supportive of Mayor Roger Lapham’s 1947 plan to kill off the Powell lines (foiled by activist Friedel Klussmann and her allies), and they improperly conspired, a judge later ruled, to cut the remaining cable system in half by misleading the public in 1954.
In 1973, Klussmann and civic leaders celebrated the centennial of the World’s first cable car line, Andrew Hallidie’s operation on Clay Street. But there was no denying that the current cable car operation had become sclerotic, just plain worn out, posing a real hazard to riders and workers. The system was shut down altogether in late 1979 for six months of emergency fixes, but it became clear that the machinery and track was literally beyond repair.
Scrambling to find funding to fix the cables, Muni proposed to uncouple cable car fares from other Muni fares for the first time. All Muni vehicles had always charged the same fares, as stipulated (thanks to Friedel Klussman and her allies) in the City Charter. But voters agreed to undo that protection that in November 1981, and the following year the cable car fare doubled to $1 at the same time the regular Muni fare was raised just a dime, to 60 cents.
Ever since, cable car fares have been double to triple regular Muni fares—actually an even higher multiple, since no transfers are issued, making a cable car round trip impossible on a single fare. This move was a turning point for the cable cars, transitioning this once-integral part of the city’s transit system into something primarily aimed at tourists, with implications that have lasted until today.
Turning a corner?
September 1982 saw three seminal events in Muni history: full operation of the Muni Metro Subway, fulfilling a 75-yearlong dream; the ostensible end of rail transit on the surface of Market Street after 122 years; and the shutdown of a century-old cable car system to fully rebuild it. The preceding 20 years had seen a significant modernization of Muni. What would the final two decades of Muni’s first century bring?
- By Rick Laubscher
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Installments in this series: