End of the B-Geary, 60 Years Ago

B-Geary last revenue run 122956 Jack Tillmany

 

On December 29, 1956, the last passenger-carrying streetcar ran on the tracks of Muni’s first street, Geary.  Muni became America’s first big city publicly owned transit system 44 years and one day earlier, on December 28, 1912, when it opened the A and B streetcar lines on Geary Street. Soon, four Muni lines were running along Geary from the Ferry Building via Market: the A, which went from the Ferries to Tenth Avenue, then south to Golden Gate Park; the B, which reached Ocean Beach and later Playland via 33rd Avenue, Balboa, 45th Avenue, and Cabrillo); the C, which turned north at Second Avenue then followed California Street west to 33rd Avenue; and the D, which turned north at Van Ness, then East on Union, jogging into the Presidio via Steiner and Greenwich.

last-b-geary-run-122956-wayne-pickering-motorman-copyThe Geary lines were Muni’s busiest by far. The B-line alone required more than 50 streetcars at peak hours. But that fact alone couldn’t save them. We reported on the factors that led to the demise of the B-Geary in 2002 in our exclusive member newsletter, Inside Track, and later posted here. (You can join Market Street Railway here to get this great quarterly newsletter, either electronically or in hard copy.)

These two photos come to us from Jack Tillmany through our friends at the Western Neighborhoods Project, showing the final passenger run of the B-Geary on December 29, 1956. Car 77, shown here, was not preserved but two other cars of the same class, both Geary veterans, 130 and 162, have been. So has the last PCC ever built in North America, Muni 1040, which carried a load of railfans out Geary the following day, December 30.

The bus line that replaced the B-Geary, the 38, has been Muni’s busiest bus line ever since, and Muni has been working for years to upgrade it to bus rapid transit, still a number of years in the future. Meantime, many San Franciscans continue to regret that streetcars ever left Geary, even 60 years after the fact.

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Better Cable Car Safety

IMG_0283With the strong support of Market Street Railway, Muni’s parent SFMTA is proposing an 18-month test that would remove everything but cable cars (and pedestrians) from lower Powell Street, specifically the two blocks between Ellis and Geary.

Here’s a good Hoodline story with details.

SFMTA recommends starting the test in November, but the Union Square Business Improvement District, led by Karin Flood, is concerned that the busiest shopping season is a bad time to implement changes, especially when seasonal shoppers will also be encountering stringent new automobile restrictions on Market Street, plus Central Subway construction.

Market Street Railway has been recommending the closure of lower Powell to automobiles to SFMTA for well over a year, after observing that gridlocked automobiles on Powell have greatly delayed cable car service.  Sometimes it takes cable cars leaving the turntable at Market Street ten minutes just to make the three blocks to Geary. We’re very sensitive to business’ concerns about timing and about maintaining access in special circumstances, and recognize that a few compromises will be needed.

But something simply must be done.  Even more troubling than the delays is the safety factor. Cable cars operate by gripping a constantly moving cable under the street like a giant pair of pliers. Each time the gripman (or gripwoman) clamps onto the cable, it causes friction and wear, both to the grip dies on the cable car and, more importantly, to the cable itself.  If one of the hundreds of strands that make up the cable breaks, it can eventually form a bulge in the cable that can catch the grip from behind. When this happens, the cable car is pulled forward on its own, at great risk of hitting pedestrians or other vehicles.

Since Ed Cobean joined SFMTA from Caltrain last year to head Cable Car operations, he has instituted rigorous measurement systems. The data has allowed SFMTA to understand the pinch points (pardon the expression) in the cable car maintenance and operating environments.  Cobean soon learned that the cable under Powell Street was being replaced far more often than in the past, and identified the inching up the first two blocks of Powell as a key contributor.

The first block of Powell, between Market and Ellis, was closed to automobiles when Hallidie Plaza was completed in 1973. (Before that, amazingly, cable car conductors and gripmen had to turn the car on the turntable while fending off passing automobiles!)

In the decades since, developments such as the Westfield Center (incorporating the historic Emporium facade) on Market Street have stretched the boundaries of Union Square, and fostered greatly increased pedestrian traffic through the area, especially on lower Powell.  Temporary “parklets,” sponsored by Audi, were built along the two blocks of Powell between Ellis and Geary to provide a little spillover space for pedestrians, but the crowds continue to grow.

Meanwhile, automobile traffic all over the city has increased, while the cable cars are tethered to technology more than a century old; technology that is truly historic and not really possible to update in a way that can cope with bumper to bumper autos on the tracks.

The same increasing automobile traffic has clearly tried the patience of some drivers, leading to stupid and dangerous moves that increase accidents and hurt people, particularly bicyclists and pedestrians.  That’s what has spurred the city’s “Vision Zero” program to greatly reduce accidents of all kinds.

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In two recent separate incidents, motorists seriously injured cable car conductors who had stepped off their cars to help passengers safely disembark. This led SFMTA to give up valuable advertising space on the back of its Powell Street fleet to post signs reminding motorists that it’s illegal to pass a cable car (a law that has been in effect for at least a half century). The cable car safety program, which includes other measures, is official part of Vision Zero now.

Market Street Railway supports and applauds any action SFMTA takes to give cable car workers a clear track ahead, especially in the most congested parts of lower Powell Street.  These cars are the very symbol of our city.  The safety of the people who operate them, and ride on them, cannot be compromised.

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