Editors Note: An early version of this article appeared in a past issue of Inside Track, our member magazine with exclusive stories and inside information about Muni’s historic streetcars and cable cars. Click here to become a member and receive it.
Geary was Muni’s first “backbone”. It is still easily its busiest corridor, operated now with buses longer than it was with streetcars. By any transit measure, its ridership justifies rail service on Geary, including a subway through at least downtown, yet every attempt at a subway in the Geary corridor has fallen short. It’s a story of initial success for America’s first publicly owned transit system, a tale of betrayal by a mayor, tantalizing possibilities, and half-a-loaf solutions.
This is the story of Muni on Geary.
Muni’s roots were firmly planted on Geary. Its first ten streetcars headed west from the foot of Geary at 12:00 Noon, December 28, 1912, penetrating the Richmond District to reach its less-developed western section. Muni started with two lines on Geary: the A, which turned south at Tenth Avenue and ran to Golden Gate Park, and the B, which continued west to 33rd Avenue, and within a few months reached Ocean Beach by jogging south on 33rd, then running along Balboa, 45th, and Cabrillo. Muni’s tracks also reached the Ferry Building in 1913, making the B-line a true “Bay to Breakers” route.
But Muni didn’t stop there. Using its new tracks on Market and Geary, they created the C-line on California Street in 1915, branching off Geary at Second Avenue, running two blocks north, and then west to reach Lincoln Park at 33rd Avenue, taking over an expired United Railroads franchise. Muni had already opened its D-line a year earlier, turning north from Geary onto Van Ness Avenue, then west on Chestnut to reach the fairgrounds of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. After the fair, the D-line was rerouted to run on west from Van Ness on Union Street, with a couple of jogs to reach the Presidio.
Not only Muni’s first lines were on Geary; it’s nerve center was, too. Geary Car House, with Muni headquarters space later added on top, sat just about halfway between the Ferries and the Beach, at Geary and Presidio Avenue. The car house served more than just the four Geary lines. The cute “dinkies” of the E-Union line were tucked away downstairs on Presidio Avenue. A fleet of “battleships” or “boxcars” or “iron monsters”, as Muni’s original bulky streetcars were variously called over their lifespan, were housed under cover along the Geary frontage, also serving other lines as they opened, including the F-Stockton, J-Church, and N-Judah. Though a trolley coach division was added behind the car house in 1949, Muni’s top executives still worked, literally, right on top of streetcars.
The Richmond District was saturated with streetcar service. Besides Muni’s A, B, and C lines, its private competitor (known as Market Street Railway from 1921-1944) operated three lines that ran from the Ferry Building all the way to the ocean: the 5 on Fulton, and the 1 and 2 mostly on Clement. (Later in 1932, it built yet another line, the 31, on Balboa, the same year Muni killed off its little used A-line on 10th Avenue, which it had hoped to extend through Golden Gate Park to the Sunset District before being blocked by parks czar John McLaren.)
Despite all this competition, the centrality of Geary in the Richmond District, and its extra width from Geary Car House west, made the B Muni’s premier line. Geary was the Richmond’s prime shopping street, attracting customers from all over the city and beyond. East of the car house, Geary was narrow, making for a slower ride downtown.
As detailed below, two 1930s proposals to put the Geary streetcars in a subway downtown came to nothing, so the Geary lines kept operating as before with frequent and crowded service, riders boarding the big boxy streetcars at the rear, the conductor taking their five cent fare, the motorman concentrating on the safely operating the car.
Geary riders got a possible taste of the future in 1948, when the City widened Geary on the hill between Divisadero and Masonic, taking much of the land from the former Calvary Cemetery. Concrete boarding islands at stops were an upgrade from dodging autos to board streetcars at these stops. There was talk at the time of widening Geary farther east, but this would require tearing down or moving homes and dislocating people.
Meanwhile, by 1951, the City Charter requirement that all streetcars operate with crews of two was putting big financial pressure on Muni’s remaining car lines. Buses only required one operator, and Muni had already converted all the streetcar lines it inherited from our namesake, Market Street Railway Company. Four of Muni’s own streetcar lines, the D, E, F, and H, had also been newly “busified.” And by 1952, buses had even replaced streetcars nights and Sundays on all seven surviving streetcar lines (except the Market Street and Twin Peaks Tunnel section of the L). Many riders, accustomed to the streetcars, were unhappy, but Muni management, citing labor costs, felt they had no choice.
Politicians and the public in that era were not accustomed to subsidizing mass transit. Muni was expected to “pay its way” through farebox revenues, and until that time, it had. But more and more lines were slipping into operating deficits. In the 1952-53 fiscal year, for example, Muni figures showed that the streetcar lines collectively lost almost half a million dollars, while the new trolley bus routes (all of which supplanted streetcars) made an operating profit of almost two million dollars. Of the seven streetcar lines, only the B and C made an operating profit. (The K and L, on the other hand, were the biggest losers in the entire Muni system.) And the B-bus, which operated nights and Sundays, made a significantly higher profit per operating hour than the B and C streetcars it replaced.
PCCs on the B—briefly
Muni had only fifteen modern streetcars at this point, all double-ended: five so-called “Magic Carpet” streamliners bought in 1939, which looked like PCCs but with different technology, and ten true double-end PCCs bought in 1948, using some of the 1947 bond issue proceeds. The Geary lines required 75 streetcars for service, and the fast-accelerating modern cars didn’t mesh well with the traditional ones, though for a time, the modern cars were dispatched to the B on Saturdays, providing a tease of what might someday happen.
But using the last of the 1947 bond issue funds, Muni was able to buy 25 more PCCs, single-ended and numbered 1016-1040. (These turned out to be the last PCCs ever built in North America. Thanks in part to MSR’s advocacy, Car 1040 has been fully restored and is a star of Muni’s heritage streetcar fleet. Six more “Baby Tens”, as the class was known, were purchased by Market Street Railway from museums and private owners over the last quarter-century and returned to Muni, where they are stored for future restoration as needed.)
Muni hoped to run these “Baby Tens” with a single operator, but voters said no in late 1951, so they were set up as two–operator cars. At first these cars were assigned to Geary Division, but not to the B-Geary line. Rather, they worked the K, L, and N lines.
As Muni’s first single–end streetcars, though, the “Baby Tens” had no way to turn around at Geary Car House. A track wye at Masonic and Geary that would have enabled that had been ripped out just three years earlier when Masonic Avenue was extended north from Geary to Euclid. So before going into service on one of the Market Street lines, these “Baby Tens” had to go all the way out to Ocean Beach on the B, take the terminal loop, and make a full trip inbound, signed “B-Geary/Bridge.” This gave some riders the belief that these fast, quiet cars were on their line to stay. A similar impression came from the double–ended PCCs that were occasionally assigned to Saturday runs on the B.
Not for long. By 1953, all 40 of Muni’s modern streetcars (35 PCCs and five “Magic Carpets”) were ensconced at Geneva Division, completely divorced from operation on Geary. Some speculate that this was part of a conscious plan to drive streetcars from Geary. But after the defeat of a bond issue in 1953 that might have resulted in more PCCs, Muni officials may have just concluded there was no near–term prospect of completely modernizing Geary streetcar service—the B and C required 75 cars between them. Besides, Muni’s existing modern cars were far more comfortable to ride through the tunnels than the drafty “Iron Monsters”, and faster too.
So Geary Car House was again home only to the old–style streetcars. Some of these cars were “only” 25 years old, and all had been kept in good shape. Muni installed doors on the formerly open ends of some of the old cars and upgraded them cosmetically as well. Muni management still hoped to win voter approval to operate its entire streetcar fleet with single–person crews, significantly cutting labor costs. But the carmen’s union was staunchly opposed to changing the status quo for the old cars. A compromise, finally approved by voters in 1954, allowed only newer–type streetcars to have single operators.
The PCCs were quickly converted to one–operator, and Muni began thinking about additional PCCs. But thinking didn’t translate into doing, as Muni did not have the capital to purchase any more modern streetcars at the time —or for that matter, new motor coaches either.
The early 1950s also saw “auto mania” reaching its peak in San Francisco. Many streets downtown were made one–way, including the pair that flanked Geary, Post and O’Farrell (dooming the inner end of the wonderful O’Farrell, Jones, and Hyde Street cable car line in the process). Big automobile garages were built for shoppers and commuters. Numerous proposed freeways slashed across planners’ maps. In this context, many thought the old–fashioned streetcars assigned to Geary looked more and more antiquated, almost like the cable cars on Powell.
Certainly that belief was shared by many merchants on Geary Boulevard—the wide section of the thoroughfare running westward from Masonic Avenue through the Richmond. They were lobbying City Hall for a “Great Wide Way,” replacing streetcars with buses—and more parking for automobiles.
Planners who were eyeing the part of Geary between the Richmond and Downtown echoed this pro–auto sentiment. The Western Addition had been a vibrant community of Victorian homes before World War II. The section along Geary was populated mainly by Japanese–Americans. When World War II started, they were infamously hauled away to internment camps. African–American newcomers, who had come west to work in war industries, largely took their place in the neighborhood. By the mid–1950s, momentum was building to widen two-lane Geary between Gough and Divisadero, tearing down the old Victorians to gouge out a broad expressway that would get automobiles downtown more quickly.
But the streetcars were in the way. Certainly the tracks could be rebuilt—as they were in 1948 when Geary was widened between Masonic
and Divisadero. But, said the critics, it would be expensive, and why keep running those clunky old “trolley cars” anyway. (In the San Francisco of those days, “streetcar” had been the universally used term for the vehicles. Opponents began using “trolley cars” as an epithet to conjure up the slow and inefficient “Toonerville Trolley” of cartoon fame.)
One last factor in the mix: rapid transit. Rider demand was very high: except for Market Street, Geary was the busiest transit corridor in the City. While the western half of Geary was wide, the eastern half was narrow and congested. Muni’s first 43 streetcars were built narrower than usual, specifically for operation on Geary (though most were quickly switched to the original F-line on equally narrow Stockton Street when it opened).
The passenger volumes on the Geary lines were such that in 1931 City Engineer M. M. O’Shaughnessy proposed putting the streetcars in a subway under O’Farrell at least to Larkin Street. A consultant’s report in 1935 was even more ambitious, calling for a streetcar subway under Geary from Market all the way to Steiner Street. Both failed to gain approval. The second proposal, which included a Market Street subway as well, was resoundingly defeated by voters. Had the Geary subway been built—at a then–projected cost of $13 million—it might have forestalled the automobile expressway. But it was the depths of the Depression, and voters didn’t have the appetite for it.
By the mid–1950s, planning for what became the Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) included a heavy–rail subway under Geary carrying regional trains from the East Bay to the Golden Gate Bridge and into Marin County. This raised the possibility of real rapid transit under Geary as far west as Park-Presidio Boulevard. But that initial proposal was a long way from reality.
The future of transit on Geary became an issue in the mayoral election of 1955. The winner, George Christopher, had pledged to keep streetcars on Geary at least until rapid transit could be built. About this time, a civic committee led by hotelier Ben Swig came up with a creative financing idea for Muni—lease vehicles instead of buying them. After a struggle, they found one bus builder (Mack) willing to go that route. But streetcars were something else. Many properties around the country were converting to buses, and there were PCCs in great condition available for sale in Detroit and Minneapolis-St. Paul, among other places—though not (at that time) for lease.
The combination of pressures—auto mania, the high labor cost of two–operator streetcars, the desire of planners to bulldoze the Western Addi-tion, and the promise of a subway—changed Christopher’s mind after he took office. Muni’s oldest streetcar corridor was doomed. Just before 1956 ended, so did the B and C lines. Railfans and many residents mourned to no avail. Geary was now served by the 38-line, operated by the new, leased, Mack diesel buses.
Too little, too late
At just this juncture, Muni finally found some PCC streetcars it could afford. St. Louis Public Service, which was undergoing its own bus conversion, agreed to lease Muni 66 (ultimately 70) 1946–vintage PCCs. This gave Muni (barely) enough one–operator streetcars to retire all the remaining two–operator “boxcars” on the remaining five lines by 1958. But it wasn’t enough to save streetcars on Geary.
Soon after, “auto mania” subsided in San Francisco. Outraged by the ugly Embarcadero Freeway, which started going up just as the B was disappearing, and by proposals to cut freeways through Golden Gate Park, San Francisco’s “freeway revolt,” the first of its kind in the nation, lashed back at the “asphalt jungle”. However, with the increasingly powerful Redevelopment Agency as the spearhead, the Geary Expressway did get built in the early 1960s, at a cost of hundreds of homes and thousands of disrupted lives.
Perhaps if the freeway revolt had occurred a few years sooner, perhaps if one–operator streetcars had been approved a few years sooner, perhaps if leased PCCs had been available a few years sooner… perhaps if these things had happened, the B might have survived as a streetcar line. But they didn’t happen. The view of the powerful interests that ruled San Francisco at the time was that streetcars were out of step with modern times. And so streetcars only survived where it was too difficult to replace them with buses: the tunnel lines (K, L, M, and N), and the J-Church, where neighbors rallied in defense of their preferred transit mode.
What might yet be
Still, many hoped the 38-line bus would prove to be an interim operation. That original BART-proposed subway under Geary to reach and cross the Golden Gate Bridge died when Marin County pulled out of the district, but Muni then proposed its own heavy-rail subway under Post and Geary as far west as 40th Avenue as part of a rapid transit package put to San Francisco voters in 1966. Yet again, though, the voters said “no.”
Muni seriously proposed a Geary subway and light–rail line again in 1989 as part of a sales tax increase ballot measure. The measure (which also funded construction of the permanent F-line) called for detailed evaluation of two potential rail corridors — Geary and Third Street — but funding to build only one. Voters approved the measure, and the Muni planners of the day were counting on Geary being chosen to go forward, because the demand was so much greater.
But while Third Street businesses and residents lobbied hard for rail along the city’s east side, the reception by Geary businesses and residents was tepid at best, with significant opposition from the same Geary merchants who had lobbied decades earlier for the “Great Wide Way”. Third Street won out, and the Geary subway dream was deferred again.
Most recently, in 2003, possible rail service on Geary was again dangled before voters — sort of — in the form of Proposition K, a renewal of the earlier sales tax measure. It called for creation of “fast, frequent, and reliable bus rapid transit service, with exclusive transit lanes and dedicated stations, on Geary Boulevard (designed and built to rail-ready standards)”. But to planners, that didn’t mean installing tracks while the street was torn up (as Seattle did when it built a subway initially operated by trolley buses), or even installing underground conduit for future electrification. Without those things, converting to streetcar use would require ripping out all the pavement, sending the “rapid” buses back to the curb lane for the duration of the conversion process, which as we have learned on the current Van Ness BRT project, is anything but “rapid”.
On top of that, increasing cost estimates have forced numerous compromises and cutbacks in the Geary BRT project, such that the separated center-lane area is less than half of what was envisioned, stretching only from Stanyan Street to 27th Avenue, a distance of 1.75 miles, or about one-third of the 38-line’s route along the “Great Wide Way” of Geary Boulevard between 48th Avenue and Gough Street. The remainder of the route will operate in curb lanes, as now, though with some operating improvements for the buses. This seems to some knowledgeable observers like “half a loaf”, far less than should be warranted by the daily ridership on Geary, which at more than 50,000 people remains far and away Muni’s busiest line.
When you add the future funding and patronage uncertainties caused by the Covid-19 pandemic to this compromised BRT project, resumed rail service on Geary might seem completely out of reach. But wait: BART is now studying a second Transbay Tube to meet what was fast-increasing demand. On the San Francisco side, support has been growing to run the BART line under — Geary!
Hope springs eternal.