Buses & Streetcars: New Exhibit at SF Railway Museum

View Northeast on Market Street From 2nd Street | March 29, 1951. SFMTA Archives

This coming October marks 100 years since Muni ran its first buses. We chronicle a century of coexistence — and competition — between buses and streetcars in San Francisco in a new exhibit now open at our San Francisco Railway Museum.

Originally obtained to extend the reach of Muni’s streetcar lines, buses got bigger and more capable but still were relatively unimportant until World War II. Then, after the war, they sidetracked streetcars to become the dominant form of transit in the city.

Come see this free exhibit at the museum, 77 Steuart Street between Market and Mission, across from the Ferry Building, Tuesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. (Oh, and come in soon: we’ve just put our great 2017 calendar on sale at the museum only, for just $5 (down from $12.95).)

Later this year, our members will be able to peruse an enhanced version of the exhibit in our quarterly newsletter, Inside Track.  Join now!

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Skipping Stops, Then and Now


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Even in the 1930s, transit stop spacing was an issue in San Francisco. Click to enlarge.

This pair of notices from our namesake (Muni’s privately owned competitor from 1921 to 1944) recently came to our attention. They would have been posted inside Market Street Railway streetcars, probably in the 1930s, as part of a campaign to win rider acceptance of wider spacing of streetcar stops.
No question that the main reason the company president, Samuel Kahn, initiated the change was to cut costs by shortening trip time. For the private company, every nickel (then the standard fare) counted, and the more trips a crew could make in a shift, the more nickels the company counted.
The same arguments in the posters apply today, and are being made today by Muni in its efforts to speed up service as part of its Transit Effectiveness Project (TEP). Our non-profit supports Muni in these goals.
We also support them in the proposals to reduce the number of F-line stops on the downtown portion of our main street, something neither the old Market Street Railway nor Muni ever attempted way back when. It’s all part of the Better Market Street project, which we’re involved with (along with myriad other groups). We’ll explain our views in detail in the next issue of our member newsletter, Inside Track, due out in September. To get our newsletter and to support our efforts to improve and extend historic streetcar service, please join us!

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Happy 120th Birthday, SF Streetcars

On April 17, 1892, the first electric streetcar service opened in San Francisco. The line started at Market and Steuart Streets, a block from the Ferry terminal and just a few feet from our San Francisco Railway Museum. The line of the San Francisco & San Mateo Railway ran out to Holy Cross Cemetery south of the county line, in what is Colma today. The line zigged and zagged through downtown, partly to avoid infringing on other companies’ street franchise rights, but generally followed Steuart, Harrison, 14th St. and Guerrero to reach San Jose Avenue.

DSC_1025 copy.JPGMuni’s historic streetcar collection includes one of the city’s earliest, single truck No. 578, built in 1895, shown here near the terminal of the city’s first streetcar line on Steuart Street, at our San Francisco Railway Museum.

Made practical by Frank Sprague in Richmond, Virginia, just five years earlier, the electric streetcar was already decimating its predecessor technology, the cable car, in big cities all over America, and why not? Streetcars were twice as fast and easier to maintain, although they couldn’t climb steep hills like cable cars could. They also (at least initially) required overhead electric wires, which many found unsightly. Opponents of such wires successfully kept electric streetcars off Market Street for the next 14 years, although streetcar lines did spring up on many other streets, including Mission and Fillmore.

The 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed the cable car systems throughout the city; the main transit company of the time, United Railroads, took the opportunity (with some help from bribes) to string “temporary” wires on Market and bring streetcars to the city’s main street, where they have remained essentially ever since.
All of these early streetcar lines were privately owned, built to make a profit (which they amazingly did with a standard fare of five cents). But 20 years after the city got its first streetcar line, it got its (and America’s) first publicly owned streetcar line, the Municipal Railway (Muni), whose centennial we celebrate this year.

On April 27, 1992, while the permanent F-line was under construction, Muni and Market Street Railway mounted a grand streetcar parade down Market to celebrate the centennial of San Francisco streetcars. Today’s 120th will be marked simply by the same steady service streetcars provide every day in San Francisco. Cheers!

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More F-line Service. But More Streetcars?

The good news: Muni has added more sorely needed F-line service on weekends. The bad news: the additional service is mostly provided by buses, at least for now.
The additional service was long planned, and depended on additional streetcars being available – specifically, some of the 16 streamliner PCCs being renovated by Brookville Equipment Company of Pennsylvania. But that contract does not appear to be going well. The first PCC of the batch has been back in San Francisco more than a year and is still unreliable. (Our members will get a full report on the nature of the problems in the new Inside Track newsletter being mailed next week.)


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Pilot PCC No. 1071 on a test run at the L-Taraval Zoo terminal, September 29

Trying to push things forward, Muni put the pilot streetcar, No. 1071, into passenger service this summer, but had to withdraw it almost immediately because of unreliability. It went back into service last Tuesday after more testing without passengers, but it failed on the line two out of its first three days in service, having to be towed back to Beach Yard (formerly Geneva), where the vintage streetcars are maintained.
Nonetheless, Muni plans to start putting six additional streetcars from the Brookville order into service as early as this week, after modifying some components that were found unreliable in the pilot car.
Meantime, buses are filling those new weekend runs on the F-line, but there are a couple of problems.
First, it appears that most bus operators are not turning on the GPS transmitter that makes their vehicle visible on the “NextMuni” displays at F-line stops or on our live F-line map. (If you see a four digit number beginning in 8 on the live map, without an image of a streetcar next to it, that’s a bus with GPS turned on.)
Second, as SFMTA Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin volunteered to us the other day, lots of riders just plain don’t want to ride the buses, letting them pass them by at F-line stops. So they’re not helping reduce overcrowding as much as more streetcars would.
To their credit, SFMTA project, maintenance, and operations leaders have been open in discussing the challenges of the renovated streetcars with it, and they express a resolve to end up with reliable vehicles from this contract.
We’ll see how those new streetcars do in service when they appear, and we’ll keep you updated on this important issue here and in our newsletter.

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