Ouch. Another Buck For a Cable Car


Colorful. And expensive.

Yeah, I hear the cynicism now. “Who cares? Milk the tourists.” But the increase in the cable car fare from $5 to $6, effective Friday, July 1, just yanks these vehicles further out of their traditional role as part of the transit system.
If you just walked past the turntables of the Powell lines in summer, you’d reach the conclusion that no locals ride the cable cars. And relatively few do, midday in tourist season on Powell Street. But that leaves a whole lot of other times when locals do ride.
And then there’s the California line, where there’s almost always room to hop aboard. Traditionally, it has been the “locals’ line”: a ride that’s actually got a lot more interesting architecture to see than the Powell lines (though not that unforgettable sight of Alcatraz as you plunge down the Hyde Street hill, and no ” ‘kowt-fa-da-kurve” either).
When I worked on lower Market Street and lived on Russian Hill (okay, Polk Gulch), I’d hike up to Hyde early in the morning and enjoy an exhilarating ride with other commuters on a Powell-Hyde car, either changing at California for the plunge through Chinatown (if there was a car in sight — you never knew on California when the operators would decide to hold their daily conventions at the Market Street end of the line, leaving one car actually in operation at a time) — or staying on the Powell car and hiking down Post to the office.
Early evenings in the summertime were non-starters for this commuter to try to grab a Powell car, but I could ride a half-empty Cal car home over Nob Hill and hike up Polk (or, if it was raining too hard, transfer to the 19).
Since Muni separated the cable car fare from bus and streetcar fares some years ago (more than doubling cable car fares in the process), a local just can’t make that commute affordably without a Fast Pass (or its equivalent on the Clipper Card). Just having a cash balance on the Clipper gets you zip, because they don’t take Clipper on the cable cars UNLESS the Fast Pass is loaded on it. You’ve got to pay cash. And, of course, no transfer if you need a bus to get to your destination. For daily commuters, okay, load a Fast Pass on Clipper (if you can afford a $62 payment every month in one bite). But for locals who ride occasionally, tough luck.


Yeah, we’ve got a soft spot for the Cal cars. You can buy this poster or notecards or magnets of it by going to our store tab up top.

We’ve been advocating that Muni at least allow fare receipts to be used to transfer between Powell and California cars at that intersection. Such restricted transfers were once common in San Francisco transit and might do at least a little to encourage a little more ridership on the California line. For our part, we’re interested in promoting more use of the California line, but few visitors are going to be willing to change lines when there are no transfers AND no discounts for kids.
Think about it. A one-way ride to or from the Wharf for a family of four is now $24. Change cars at Powell and California to roll past Chinatown and through the Financial District, or past the Flood Mansion and Grace Cathedral, your family’s out almost 50 bucks!
Yes, there are alternatives. You can buy a one day Muni Passport, giving you unlimited access to cable cars, buses, and streetcars, for $14 (so $56 for a family of four). Oddly, Muni offers a separate “Cable Car All-Day Pass” at the same price, without access to the F-line, Metro, buses, etc. What’s the point of that? Just more printing and administration costs, seems to me.
Bottom line: we think there’s more justification than ever to cut people at least a small break and let ’em transfer between the two cable car lines at Powell and California. Or maybe they’ve just decided we’re back in the early Disneyland days: an “E-ticket” only gets you one ride.
A thought: since the cable cars are a wholly separate division from everything else at Muni (unlike the F-line, which is part of Green Division along with most of the Metro service), and since the fares are completely separate from everything else at Muni, do you think the time has come to quit the charade and contract them out to an attraction operator?
There. That oughta get the comment meter ticking.
By the way, while the basic cash fare for historic streetcars, Metro, and buses stays the same ($2 for adults, 75 cents for youth (5-17 years), seniors (65+) and disabled), a bunch of other fares and fees have gone up too. Here’s the SFMTA press release with a link at the bottom to a PDF summarizing the increases.


Comments: 15

  1. Very thoughtful and interesting blog post! California line is my favorite, too. Curious, though – what is a ”kowt-fa-da-kurve”?

  2. Cable car all day tickets are accepted as fares on buses and streetcars. Or at least at the level of operators and their direct supervisors.

  3. Thanks, Robert. That would seem to make them identical to the 1-day Muni Passport in every respect. So, why go to the extra expense of printing and marketing TWO different products that do exactly the same thing? (Rhetorical question; don’t expect you to respond… we’ll look into it.)

  4. Glad you asked (rim shot)! That’s old San Franciscan for the call Powell Street conductors made before lurching around a corner. It was an elision of “look out for the curve.” Believe it or not, there was once a San Francisco accent, from the Mission District, mostly, which had a large Irish first and second generation population, with a hint of Boston, a hint of Brooklyn. Long gone now, of course.
    As for the curves, they reengineered them in the 1982-84 rebuild. Same radius, same location, but a little banking added, and the rickety old rails replaced by new ones. For the city lawyers, it meant less liability and a little smile. For lifelong riders, it meant less lurching and a little frown.

  5. So, do you really believe that it would be a good idea to outsource the Cable Car division? Or did you just write that passage to “get the comment meter ticking”?
    If you’re for outsourcing, then make your case! Don’t just write stuff to stir the pot.
    In any case, I do agree that Cable Cars should be more integrated in the regular fare structure. They should be transit, not an amusement ride.
    Thanks for the article!

  6. This brings to mind your post from maybe a few years back about how to make the Cal line more useful to get around town.
    I’m not for contracting service out to a tourist attraction outfit, but credit to you for throwing that out there. Perhaps it will prompt a serious discussion at City Hall and the MTA about what we want the Cable Cars to be.
    They are mostly for tourists, and even at $6 are not self-sustaining. Wouldn’t it be nice to make them as appropriate for hopping on and off as the F line? To do this I think it would take a lower fare, transfers and a buy-in from Muni Operators. I see lots of idle cable cars not just on the California line, but at the Powell, Hyde and Mason turnarounds. I am positive that the frequency of service being offered on the ground is not what is reported on paper (or in the city charter).

  7. @ Daniel: “Don’t just write stuff to stir the pot.”
    It’s not about stirring the pot; it’s about enabling a dialogue rather than a monologue. There’s a case to be made for outsourcing cable car operation (but not ownership, of course). The operation of New Orleans’ streetcars has been outsourced, as have trams in Melbourne and Hong Kong and plenty of bus systems. In systems that were union operated, contracts have been honored. But there’s also a strong case to be made against it. There are thoughtful people out there; we’re interested in seeing what they think on both sides.
    And to be very clear: what we want most of all is what you want — having the cable cars serve a true transit purpose for both residents and visitors.

  8. San Francisco keeps milking the golden cow but I don’t see where we’re feeding it… What do we do FOR the tourists? We don’t really advertise much, but wherever the tourists go you can pretty much count that while it may be pretty (Fisherman’s Wharf has some of the best views anywhere) it’s not very high quality, although the price won’t come cheap. Food at some bay side view restaurants might be no better than what you’d get in a mall in Kansas, but the prices would get you into the City’s toniest eateries, and before they get to the cable cars, they have to step over the bums, dodge the panhandlers, or share the crowded “F” line with pickpockets, and the great unwashed; and everywhere they go they get charged through the nose.
    At what point do the Tourists, and the Conventioneers decide that San Francisco is no longer offering value? We’re charging them top buck, but where is their money going to provide an improved experience in San Francisco?
    I fly to L.A. and I can see the improvement, from LAX to Union Station (by bus), and to the end of the Gold Line (LRV) all in 30 minutes less than it would take me to drive. Their transit, like that in Portland, Seattle and San Diego is so clean, Muni almost looks diseased.
    Other cities may not quite have our food, but how many tourists actually find the really good restaurants when they are looking for a view? Yeah, they’ll see the “Naked Men” and maybe the Brown sisters, but are they getting their money’s worth if the prices keep going up and the panhandlers and homeless never go away?
    Stop the nonsense and return the cable car fares to the system wide standard. Stop ripping off the tourists.

  9. I used to take the California line once in a while for meetings out at the Van Ness end of the line, and loved how it wasn’t a tourist trap. It’s a nice ride, and I think the ride down California to Market is as pretty as the trip down Hyde with it’s view of the Bay.
    We moved away a few years ago but still get to go “home” about once a year. But the fare now for the Cable Cars makes it way too expensive for my wife and I to take the kids for more than one ride. We usually ride the cable cars out from Powell and take the F-line back. If we were to need more bus rides (we usually walk or drive) then the day pass might work, but even that’s pricey.
    I like the idea about transferring between lines, and would also include something for a stop at the cable car barn & museum. But even with that, you can’t get back on because the cars are too full.
    I don’t think you can get The City to pawn off the cable cars, too much pride attached to them. If they tried it, the California line would probably stop operating – what’s the profit motive there? And I don’t think anyone could charge the fares necessary to cover the operating costs, The City would still have to subsidize it somehow.

  10. @ Nathan, thanks for the real-world example. No transit system in America makes a profit. The model for outsourcing works like this: the government entity involved usually retains control of the assets (vehicles, infrastructure, etc.). It opens its books to bidders so they can determine exactly how much money the system is losing and where they can effect economies AND (important) increase revenues by attracting additional riders). Fares are usually mandated by the government entity. The labor force, along with their contracts, move over to the contractor, pension obligations, etc. accounted for. Then, using those metrics, bidders offer to run the service, at a stated level, for a fixed price over a fixed term. The government entity evaluates the bids and selects a company to provide the service and keeps a staff to enforce the contract .
    This is an increasing practice in municipalities around the world. Some major transit systems have been run this way for more than a decade. To my knowledge, it has never been mentioned out loud in San Francisco because it’s a third-rail issue here (pardon the mixed transit metaphor). And no, I don’t think it’s going to happen. The point of asking the question – rhetorically – is to remind people that we have let the cable car system drift away from its true transit role, and that’s worth talking about, as you just did. Thanks for the comment.

  11. Possibly some wacky suggestions, but to increase ridership on the Cal line (which I agree is a fantastic ride, and this from a non-SF Bay Area resident), why not expand it?
    With just a two block extension east (admittedly, the first block along Market would be tricky), it would terminate at the Ferry Building (which, historically, it did, as I recall).
    On the west end, why not extend the line along California to Divisadero, the south on Divisadero to Fell and Oak, the west again to The Panhandle, where the line would terminate. That would bring it within walking distance of Lafayette Park, Alta Plaza, Kaiser-San Francisco on Geary, the Hamilton Rec Center, Alamo Square, Buena Vista Park, St. Mary’s Medical Center and the eastern end of Golden Gate Park. It would better tap the Western Addition (I have friends there and they constantly bemoan the bad transit connections out that way.
    I seems that could be a way to make the line more local friendly, and attract more tourists by linking the Ferry Building with Golden Gate Park, two of the biggest attractions in the city.
    Plus, adding cable car transit? Looking forward by reaching to the past. What a great story!

  12. @ Eugene, we wrote a long post on this on September 1, 2008. Check our blog archives for it. Lots of comments, thorough discussion. Feel free to add to it.

  13. If the cable cars were transfered and it became a tourist type of operation and no longer part of the transit agency, then any labor agreements would not have to comply with Section 13 requirements. So any contractor could start from scratch when it comes to negotiating a contract.
    I do not recall if the TEP study came up with any recommendations on how to better intergrate the cable cars with the rest of the transit system. Other than providing a commute option for people who live along the line to the financial district, I am not sure what kind of benefit it could serve. These lines are slow and the major trip origins/destinations are well beyond the area that these lines could serve.
    It would also be nice if the revenue generated by the cable cars would stay with the cable cars. Wonder if anyone knows how much revenue is generated by the cable cars?

  14. Extending the California Cable to Fillmore would be useful. As to privatization, not likely. OTOH getting service to run at the Charter specified headways on the two Powell routes would be a major step.

  15. How about having the Cal line cost less than the Powell? It would shift some tourist ridership over, allow better “throughput” of tourists lined up at Market & Powell and possibly that way slightly increase revenue… more riders after all, not turning away those who see the lines and decide not to wait.
    And in off hours, the Cal line would still be less traffic so more viable for locals, plus with the lower fare, etc…

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