Somehow, after all these years, I had never managed to make it to the Cable Car Museum until a few days ago.

It is full of gigantic loud spinny things. It is amazing. You must go.

The museum is small, but it's also the actual head-end of the cable car system. The museum part is a mezzanine overlooking the workshop floor and the giant wheels that run the four remaining cable car lines. The current plant was built in the early 80s, but earlier in the century there had been dozens of plants around town to run the various lines, each powered by steam engines. Steam engines!

It's also a great place to get your apocalyptic car-hate on, once you read about how the majority of the cable car lines were dismantled due to lobbying from the then-powerful internal-combustion bus lobby, despite the fact that cable cars were cheaper and more reliable. The busses mostly won, obviously, but there was a public outcry that saved a few of the cable car lines. San Francisco has been the only place in the world with an operating cable car system since 1957.

Previously, previously.

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26 Responses:

  1. gryazi says:

    Said lobbying also happened, and was of course more completely successful, in New York. An argument a relative of mine remembered was that the buses would be "safer," since people wouldn't have to run through traffic to the central streetcar track.

    I do wonder if the perspective was different back when US cities had Mumbai-grade traffic patterns; maybe it was possible to honestly believe that devoting roads to one type of vehicle (rubber-tired, fully steerable) would actually smooth things out. Check out the pedestrian rake on this thing.

  2. phoenixredux says:

    Of course, they did the same thing here in Minneapolis-St Paul. We had a tremendous electric Street Car system that ran from Stillwater (on the Wisconsin border) to Lake Minnetonka (far west suburb of Minneapolis). It was very comprehensive. You could get anywhere on a streetcar until sometime in the 1950s, when the bus lobby moved in. It's my understanding that they sold some of our streetcars to Mexico City, where they're still running today. And the guys who scrapped our streetcars wound up in jail. Everyone lost in that deal.

  3. enf says:

    I love the cable cars, but I think you've got the history a little mixed up here. Cable cars are one of the *most* expensive and *least* reliable transportation technologies, except in their specialized niche of hill climbing, because of all the moving parts and how widely distributed under the streets they are.

    San Francisco lost most of its cable lines in 1906, because they were physically destroyed and in most parts of the city it was easier and cheaper to rebuild for electric streetcars instead. Most other cities also abandoned their cable lines for electric traction at around the same time. The remaining cables *were* threatened in the 1950s by gasoline buses, but the the real damage by the buses was to the electric streetcar network, which was all but destroyed by them.

    • rapier1 says:

      Its also important to point out that what really killed the streetcar was the suburb. It was just too expensive to continually lay more and more track to reach suburban areas. Buses were seen a cheaper and more flexible option.

      • Buses? To the suburbs? Which planet are you checking in from?

        • rapier1 says:

          I know for a fact that in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh buses serve suburban areas. Not at the same density as in urban areas but they are served. Also, it probably worth pointing out that in the 1950s the area that were then considered suburbs are now thought of as urban.

        • leolo says:

          Earth. I know many cities that have buses to the suburbs. Not the the farthest reaches of the exurbs, true, but suburbs no less.

      • enf says:

        That doesn't really apply in San Francisco, though, where Muni only ever operated one suburban line (the 40).

        Ironically, a lot of suburbs were built *by* streetcar companies as real estate investments. Unfortunately they forgot that you only get to sell the property once but you have to keep operating the service forever.

        • rapier1 says:

          I can't speak to SF but in general the rise of the suburbs in the post WWII era were not streetcar suburbs. They were generally powered by increasingly affordable cars. Bus service expanded to serve those areas. The costs of acquiring right of ways, laying track, and electrical service for streetcars was just seen as overly prohibitive. Bus companies could just use the already existing public roads.

    • g_na says:

      Cable cars are one of the *most* expensive and *least* reliable transportation

      You've obviously never had to rely on MUNI.

      • lilmissnever says:

        You've obviously never had to rely on a cable car. I took the cable car to work for a while when J was living on Washington Street. The 30 Stockton was a blessed, blessed relief in comparison.

        • g_na says:

          I used to take the California Street cable car to work fairly regularly. Maybe it didn't come as often as the 1 Calif, but at least it stopped to pick up people and wasn't overcrowded like the buses were.

          Anyhow, my original point was that MUNI overall is not a particularly reliable or inexpensive system.

  4. pdx6 says:

    See also:
    San Francisco Railway Museum & Gift Shop

    Cable cars have 3 brakes, the wheel brake, the track brake, and the slot brake. Pull the wheel brake too hard and the car will skid on an oily track. To drop the track brake, let loose some sand, but don't drop it too much or you'll lift the car up and derail!

    Pull the slot brake, the 1800's equivalent of a true emergency brake, and the car stops -- and the coach becomes fused to the track!

    • travisd says:

      In my last trip to SFO, I somehow ended up staying at a hotel on Nob Hill. I made a point to take the streetcar home at the end of the day usually. Quite entertaining to watch the motorman practically dance with the controls.

      And after making the walk UP California St. from Market (dragging luggage) I really didn't care how much they charged from that point!

  5. ninjarat says:

    It is amazing. I took the time to wander through the museum when I was sent out to SF on a work trip a while back. Wonderful.

    • mackys says:

      I haven't been to SF for ages, but the last time I was there (late 90's) I went for an all-day walk all over Knob Hill, SoMa, etc. (Side note: It's good to live at a mile elevation and only come down to sea level once in a while. Hills? What hills?) My favorite place I visited that day, the one I remember the best, is the Cable Car Museum. Great fucking memories flooding back from these pictures. God damn that was good times...

  6. drbrain says:

    Seattle has a steam powerplant you can tour, the Georgetown Steam Plant

  7. fgmr says:

    Operating costs for buses were cheaper. San Francisco required -- in its charter! -- that streetcars and cable cars have two-person crews, while only one is needed to drive a bus. The city tried to revise its charter, but the unions refused to go along.

  8. ommadawn says:

    Add Detroit to the list of places that had trolleys once, but they were squashed by the interests that sold cars. Detroit public transportation (when I lived there) was pretty useless unless you either were only using it to commute downtown from a few burbs or intra-city.

    Denver has pretty decent bus service (nothing like NYC or SFO) but you can use it amongst suburbs a bit. It's still optimized for 9-5 commuting, however.

  9. rapier1 says:

    I guess they know I'm not no company man...

  10. lohphat says:

    LA has a dedicated bus right of way which serves the San Fernando and Simi valleys. There's no track to lay down, no overhead catenary, no crossing gates (signals are all that's needed), no tram stopping distance issues for morons who ignore crossing gates, lower maintenance.

    I believe the buses are hybrid so they're pretty energy efficient.

    It's hard to find places where light-rail would be a more cost effective option other than capacity with longer vehicles but that requires a high rider volume.

    Unrelatedly, the famed LA Pacific Electric which was finally dismantled in 1961 was built by the Huntington company to settle the suburban farmland of the LA basin. With 2300 miles of track it was the world's largest metropolitan rail system.

    It was not a publicly owned asset but privately owned and when the suburbs started filling up, the number of grade crossings increased, the number of accidents increased, the trains were slowed, and finally buses and the car killed it as being more cost effective.

    What's sad is that LA really could use a larger network of suburban rail for long distance trips but the cost to recoup the right of ways is prohibitive. In today's world mass transit mut be buried or elevated to avod interaction with surface traffic if it's to be reliable.

  11. grahams says:

    It is surprising how many "experts" this post brought out of the woodwork, all with different "histories".

  12. ch says:

    oh, the museum/shop is great fun. a couple of years agao, i wound up walking past the shop late on a weeknight with some out-of-town friends. there was a roll up open and we stopped. i was pointing and explaining various things to my friends. one of the workers noticed us invited us in and allowed to wander around for a short bit. we were even given a set of brake shoes. i still have them somewhere -- beautiful pieces of fir.

  13. nathanrsfba says:

    And it's free!

    I've been there a couple of times. Seeing the machinery actually in motion is neat, but the noise is bothersome. Earplugs recommended for those with sensitive ears.

    • cranaic says:

      I'm going to SF in March, and was wondering if there's a web page somewhere listing this sort of industrial, unusual stuff that I could check out. And could someone call Mark Pauline and have SRL put on a show while I'm there too? Thanks.

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