Sponsored Streetcars?

Should Muni’s vintage streetcars and iconic cable cars be open for sponsorship by corporations or other groups willing to pay for the privilege? One of the agency’s Board members has asked Executive Director Nat Ford to look into it, and he’s in the process of doing that now. Initial press coverage seemed skeptical, but Director Malcolm Heinicke says he’s just talking about discreet identification of a sponsor’s name on the vehicles.

Market Street Railway is all for Muni trying to raise more revenue, consistent with our mission to “preserve historic transit in San Francisco.” Part of that mission is making the vintage equipment seem truly special, which is why the streetcars don’t carry exterior advertising. (The cable cars have had exterior ads since the 1960s.) Discreet plaques on the cars might work, and tasteful but highly visible interior recognition on the cars, perhaps in the form of a sponsorship “car card” in the advertising racks, could be another option.

The bigger question is how much money could Muni reasonably expect to raise from such an effort? Based on our own experience, the answer is not very much, if any, after expenses are taken into account.

Most of the cable cars currently have sponsorship plaques on them. This dates back to the early 1980s when the system was rebuilt and then-Mayor Feinstein decided to raise some of the local share of the cost from businesses. Back then, the Mayor made personal and heartfelt pitches directly to CEOs, saying their support was essential to preserve this national historic landmark. She did well in that campaign, several million dollars worth, but the companies were responding to strong appeals directly from a strong mayor at a time when the cable car system was in a state of physical collapse. Also, there were a lot more large companies headquartered in San Francisco 25 years ago, and the economy was much better then than now.

Fundraising is time-consuming in any environment, especially this one. In evaluating this opportunity, it will be important for Muni to properly estimate the amount of staff time and other resources it would require to solicit and service these sponsorships. They shouldn’t underestimate those costs, because they can be considerable, especially if it’s not a Mayor’s pet project. And they should evaluate the market for such sponsorships before plunging in. One way to do that at no cost is simply to see if any companies come forward and express interest in a sponsorship over the next few weeks in response to the publicity already generated by the idea. Marketers are always looking for positive exposure, and if they think this would provide it, at least some should call to try to get in on the ground floor.



Comments: 8

  1. As our post mentions, most of the cable cars are already sponsored, along with Zürich Tram no. 737 and Melbourne Tram no. 496. That knocks out somewhere around 1/4 of the potential sponsorship opportunities before we even begin.
    Actively looking for sponsorships is not just going to be labor intensive, I am doubtful it will find the same quality of partners as we found (to pick my new favorite example) in the State of Victoria, Australia who first contacted us at Market Street Railway to see what they could do to help fix up the Melbourne Tram. With their support,
    the Melbourne tram has been restored and repainted in exchange for placing their logo on the side, a win-win since it promotes Melbourne and answers the question of “where’s this one from?” at the same time. My hope is over time, we’ll hear from more of out streetcars’ hometowns as well.

  2. If you are talking about putting ads on the outside of the F line PCC or maybe even “wraping” them with ads, my answer to that would be “Not NO but heck NO!! Maybe a few ads on the inside, like I remember from the 50s and 60s but, leave the outside of the cars alone!!

  3. Muni already runs ads inside the trolleys, except for the Harvey Milk one which Market Street Railway has made some kind of deal with Muni about so that only have it it is ads and the rest of it is pictures and information about Harvey Milk. Any chance you’ll buy more of the ad space up for stuff like that in the rest of them?
    Muni seems to be going the other direction and has started wrapping the trains (the big gray modern ones, not the classic trolleys) and I’m sure it’s just matter of time until they’ve covered every square inch inside and out with ads.
    Have we really given up on being “The City That Knows How” and changed out motto to “Your Ad Here”?

  4. To be clear — Market Street Railway is strongly opposed to external advertising on the streetcars. We have fought — successfully to date — to keep the beautiful paint schemes of the streetcars unmarked. We will continue to do so (and to do so, we need more support in the form of memberships from folks who share our passion).
    The inside of streetcars have traditionally carried advertising, and we support its continuance. Muni’s advertising contract reserves 1/3 of the space for informational materials, and that’s the space we use for our car history cards and “Museums in Motion” displays. Sometimes, with their permission, larger displays are allowed, as on the Harvey Milk car.
    Again, we need your support to pay for creation and maintenance of these special displays and information cards that explain the role streetcars have played in San Francisco and celebrate those who have championed transit, like Harvey Milk.

  5. Who do we talk to about proteccting the streetcars from MUNI? Last time I checked, it was still called PUBLIC transit. The city has already sold too much PUBLIC property and PUBLIC space to the highest bidder that ENOUGH IS ENOUGH already. I’ll vote for higher taxes to pay for it because MUNI isn’t working well enough for all the cash they’ve made selling us out so we can be marketed to.
    I heard the reason they put HDTVs in the subway is so they can show commercials. Maybe this is why they haven’t bothered to fix the daily break downs that have been going on since the meltdown: so they have us trapped in the tunnel to be marketed at.

  6. Thanks Rick, and the MSR, for opposing external ads on the F line PCCs. I agree with you, and the MSR, keep the beautiful F line outside paint jobs as they are, beautiful without ads!!

  7. Well, I would support ads on streetcars that wear the San Francisco Scheme. They just fit right for some reason. And on the historic streetcars too. Or at least vintage ads.

  8. I work for the Metro in St Louis, and we’ve encountered the same question regarding our MetroBus stations. We’ve noticed other transit agencies around the country allowing corporate sponsorship, and we’re in a very tight funding situation. Our blog has a discussion on the issue in a post today – http://www.nextstopstl.org .

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