San Francisco’s Cable Cars

Nothing says San Francisco more than the cable cars; I think you can probably hear the clanging of the bell in your head right now!  The system is the last of its kind in the world (per Wikipedia, the “world’s last permanently operational manually operated cable car system”), and since the 1960s has been both a National Historic Landmark and the only transportation system listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Let me first caution you to refer to them as trolleys or streetcars at your own peril; those too are important in both the past and present of San Francisco, but are distinct from the cable cars.  As quick as I am to correct “Grand Central Station” to “Grand Central Terminal,” I will also remind you to say cable car when you mean cable car!

Nothing beats an open-air ride sitting on the outside in the bright sun or the cool evening breeze!

How does it work?  Well, the system is incredibly simple, so hopefully I can explain it that way.  We learned about it at the free Cable Car Museum, which is located in the lower portion of residential Nob Hill, at the center of the cable car network in the building that is also the power house and the car depot/shop.  Under the tracks in the street is a heavy-duty continuous cable that runs at a constant speed of 9.5mph, run by the electric motors in the power house (see the picture below).

The cables are just 1.25 inches thick, and exhibits explained how much of a pain it is to change the cable when it wears out!

While the cable always moves, the cars contain grips, which are naturally operated by the gripman (according to Wikipedia, there has only ever been one grip woman, hired in 1998).  Using the grip to speed up, slow down, coast, brake, etc. is the job of the gripman, which apparently requires quite a lot of upper-body strength (being simple 1873 technology, there’s a certain reliance on manual and mechanical processes!).  As the driver, the gripman also has to be fully aware of traffic, pedestrians, etc.  Every car also has a conductor, who mostly handles passengers (stop requests, fare payment) but also operates the real wheel brakes for going downhill.  Otherwise, the system is pretty standard steel wheels on rails, although the tracks are narrow gauge (3’6″ instead of standard 4’8.5″).


The simple controls used by the gripman (image from Wikipedia)

San Francisco is the birthplace of the “modern” cable car – the system was invented by Andrew Hallidie, and the first line opened in 1873.  Keep in mind, this is before the electric trolley or streetcar was invented, so this was an alternative to horse-drawn vehicles – one that was significantly cleaner, faster, more reliable, etc.  Also important in San Francisco was the fact that the hills didn’t matter – the cable kept moving up or down hill, so the car did as well.

The cable car was an innovation, though, with a very short life span.  Not even 20 years later, in 1892, the first electric streetcars started operating in SF, and (according to Wikipedia) they cost 1/2 as much to build and 1/6 as much to operate.  So, the height of the cable car era was really around 1890!  Cable cars had spread at that point to many cities, including a very large and successful system in Chicago, but for the same reasons those were quickly replaced with electric streetcars as well.  Even though there were arguments that the overhead electric wires were ugly or visually disruptive, (still made vehemently today!), the economics were quite clear.

One of the most striking of the trademark hills scaled by cable cars with ease - this is the Powell-Hyde Line coming from Fisherman's Wharf, with Alcatraz in the background (image from Wikipedia, but we saw it too!)

So what happened in San Francisco?  Electric streetcars began to predominate, and were helped by the destruction of cable cars in the 1906 earthquake and resulting fire.  But the steep hills differentiated SF from other cities, and the cable cars survived but withered – 8 lines remained in 1912, reduced to 5 by 1944, and only the 3 that still exist today by the mid-1950s.  During the 20th century, the introduction of new trolley buses made the hill argument  virtually moot, but by that time the people began to realize their value.  Specifically, Mrs. Friedel Klussmann led the charge, organizing a joint meeting of 27 women’s civic groups that ultimately got a voter referendum passed to force the city to preserve the remaining lines.

One view of the famous California Street hill, looking from Nob Hill down to the Financial District and the bay. This line was unfortunately closed for refurbishment when we were there.

Of the three remaining lines, the Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason are the most popular.  The southern terminal for both Powell lines is at Hallidie Plaza, located near Union Square and adjacent to the Powell Street BART/Muni Station, which is really the heart of the city for tourists and shoppers.  Each line operates every 10 minutes during the morning rush hour (when there are few tourists but therefore actually some room for locals) and then every 8 minutes all the way through to about 12:30am.  Eager visitors queue around the cable car turnaround waiting to board and watching the old-fashioned manual turning of the cars.  Unfortunately, this also makes the area a magnet for pandhandlers and the homeless.

The manual turntable at Powell and Market Streets

The other line, the California Line, follows (take a guess!) California Street from its beginning at Market Street right near Embarcadero Center and the Embarcadero BART/Muni Station up the imposing Nob Hill and on to Van Ness Avenue, where it just sort of stops right at the city’s major north-south thoroughfare (which carries US 101 on its way to the Golden Gate Bridge).  Because it doesn’t serve the shopping/hotel meccas of Union Square and Fisherman’s Wharf like the other lines, this line is quieter and more geared to commuters – it operates every 6 minutes during the morning rush hour, every 8 minutes middays, and every 10-12 minutes in the evenings.  Since it isn’t as clogged with tourists, the California Line is often a good one to ride without waiting.

For better or worse, much of the time the cars are loaded with tourists, even those having a thrill hanging off the back and sides!

The cable cars are a must-do experience for any San Francisco visitor.  You might balk at the hefty $5 price for each trip, but they do also accept Muni passes (including the 1-day $13, 3-day $20, or 7-day $26 “visitor passports”), and the costs of keeping the system running (with 2-person operation and a max capacity of about 60 per car) must be quite high.  The only real issue, I suppose, is where the line is between authentic and caricature.  A big part of what makes it great is that it is real and functional – not “Main Street USA” at the Magic Kingdom…but if it is packed full of tourists all of the time and avoided by locals for that reason, then how authentic is it?  A bit existential perhaps, but a valid question – so what do you think?


Posted on 13/02/2011, in Transit, travel, Travel to the States and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Super post and great photos. I would disagree, however, with the best way to experience a trip by cable car. It is not by sitting on the outside but rather by nabbing the “lead” position i.e. the pole at the front of the car and standing with your face pointed straight up /down hill. Still, great post.

    Read about the lady who saved the cable cars, Friedel Klussmann, on my blog at

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