Big Boost for Mid-Market F-line Loop

The US Department of Transportation has granted San Francisco $15 million to help pay for the first phase of the city’s vision to remake Market Street. Here’s the news story, and here’s the city’s official website for the project.  

Included in that first phase is a critical improvement to the F-line historic streetcar service, shown above: a bi-directional loop track at Civic Center, using the short first block of McAllister Street and the northerly extension of Seventh Street (called Charles Brenham Place) to allow F-line streetcars to reverse in either direction. The streetcar tracks are a little hard to see in the drawing above, but you can click the drawing to enlarge it. (The green markings show bicycle paths/crossings.)

The loop turns right off outbound Market Street, just where the old 5-McAllister streetcar did, then turns left onto Charles Brenham’s southbound curb lane, where there is a ADA ramp and layover space. The tracks diverge there to allow either a left turn to return toward the Ferry Building, or a right turn toward Castro. Another switch allows inbound streetcars on Market to turn onto McAllister and then return outbound. 

Market Street Railway is delighted that Muni staff embraced our recommendation for its exact location. There is no other place on Market Street where a turning movement like this can be carried out in such a short length of new track. And the location is convenient, dropping passengers off within a short walk of City Hall, the Main Library, and the Asian Arts Museum, and right next to newly restored landmarks such as the hot Proper Hotel (which the loop literally loops around) and the venerable Hibernia Bank Building at Jones and Market (the location, coincidentally, of the terminal of the old Jones Street cable car shuttle, which closed in 1954).  

This loop will add immense flexibility to the F-line. First and foremost, it is the most efficient and effective way to increase F-line service along the highest ridership stretch of the route, from Fisherman’s Wharf to the Union Square/Powell Street area downtown. Today’s F-line service levels are constrained by terminal capacity at both ends. There’s not enough room for additional streetcars laying over at the ends of the line without blocking street space. This has been a sore subject at the Castro end of the line in particular, where 17th Street is narrow and residential almost right up to the terminal. Layovers are kept shorter there than at Fisherman’s Wharf to minimize the problem, but adding more service to Castro (that usually isn’t needed west of Powell) would inevitably clog the terminal there.

There is a turnaround spot at 11th Street and Market, near Van Ness; not a loop but a “wye”, where streetcars have to turn onto a stub track on 11th, and then back out onto Market, a much more difficult move than in past decades because of changed traffic patterns and the routing of the 9-line articulated buses onto 11th. The wye is actually the last remnant of Muni’s original H-Potrero streetcar line, and was never optimally designed for reversing streetcars.

Muni’s initial plan when the loop is completed is to add extra F-line service from the Wharf area to the loop to alleviate some of the current crowding. This would likely happen from late morning through late afternoon. Of course, the loop is important for other reasons as well: it will give Muni the ability to balance service and reduce bunching on a regular basis to fill gaps; allow the majority of the F-line to keep operating when part of Market Street is temporarily blocked, and provide a place to load a chartered streetcar or divert a streetcar with an operational problem from the main line.

The Better Market Street program is a comprehensive revamping of San Francisco’s Main Street, to give more priority to transit, provide bicyclists with separated bike paths, and improve pedestrian safety, while preserving the street’s historic elements, including the landmark “Path of Gold” streetlights (which also hold up the Muni wires).

The project, which stretches from Steuart Street at the foot of Market up to Octavia Street, is currently under environmental review, scheduled for completion in 2019, with the first phase of work, between Fifth and Eighth Streets, and including the streetcar loop, to start construction in 2020.  Market Street Railway was a strong advocate for making the stretch with the loop into the first phase of work. We’re delighted to hear this news.

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Van Ness and McAllister, Nov. 1, 1917

This photo from the SFMTA Archive was taken exactly 100 years before the date of this post, on November 1, 1917. No streetcars in the picture, but we do see important infrastructure: the poles that hold up the wires that bring power to the streetcars.

We’re at the corner of Van Ness Avenue and McAllister Street, looking northeast across Van Ness. City Hall, then new, sits on the southeast corner of this intersection. Across Van Ness, we see an apartment building with ground floor retail that’s still there. If you click the photo, at left center at the corner of Redwood Street, you can see a shop offering vulcanizing services (presumably for tires). Van Ness is so wide, and so devoid of traffic, that automobile drivers felt free to park perpendicular to the curb — or parallel, whatever they wanted.

On the left, we see a metal pole with a metal cap belonging to the privately owned United Railroads, used for the 5-McAllister line that ran essentially the same route as today’s 5-Fulton bus.

On the right, a concrete pole belonging to the Municipal Railway, then less than five years old. Van Ness, one of the city’s widest streets, hosted the H-Potrero streetcar line on this stretch of the street (replaced in 1949 by the 47-Potrero trolley bus).

Muni generally preferred concrete poles for their streetcar lines. They used streetcar rail for reinforcement. The poles on Van Ness were installed in 1914 without streetlights. Those were bolted on in the late 1930s, as Van Ness was readied for an increased flow of automobile traffic from the new Golden Gate Bridge.

Bringing the light pole story up to date, the metal poles came to Muni with the rest of the private company’s infrastructure in 1944, when the city took over. The metal poles on lines that were converted to trolley coach, many are still in use.

As for the concrete poles, they have badly deteriorated, as would be expected after a century. In planning the new Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project, SFMTA (Muni’s parent) proposed replacing the old concrete poles with modernistic metal ones. They felt this was necessary not only because many of the old poles were structurally unsound, but also because the poles needed to be taller because the trolley bus wires were being moved from the curb lanes to the center right-of-way.

But at the last minute, after repeated public outreach and hearings, a group of influential people in Pacific Heights demanded that the old poles and lights be retained or replicated. After negotiations, they settled for getting rid of the modern lights and substituting some old-timey looking lights that have no history in San Francisco.

But hey, those concrete poles lasted a century. The one is this picture is still there (although the metal pole on McAllister has been replaced, probably when the State of California was built a quarter-century ago on the spot occupied by the bar in the photo offering Golden State Beer for a nickel).

And oh, by the way, traffic on much of Van Ness was diverted today to clear two lanes for sewer replacement, one component of the BRT project.

Thanks as always to SFMTA for preserving the photographic history of transit in San Francisco.

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