Inside SF - The San Francisco Scoop

How To Ride SF Cable Cars & Trams

Take the cable car to see the mansions on Nob Hill.

One of the first things that pops into most people’s minds when they hear the words “San Francisco” is an image of a cable car. It’s considered an indelible element of the city. Many visitors coming here already want to take a ride on one, to experience some of its romance. And why not? They are a great way to see the city – because remember, the network was designed to be used by San Franciscans to get around, not as a tourist attraction. Now there are three cable car lines operating, the California line, the Powell-Mason line and the Powell-Hyde line. There’s also a historic streetcar route – the F Market & Wharves line – which operates historic trams from all over the world. In this article I’ll give you the background and history of the SF cable cars and explain the best way to use them today.

A SHORT HISTORY OF SAN FRANCISCO’S CABLE CARS

Andrew Hallidie is considered the inventor of the cable car. An immigrant, he arrived in California from London in 1852 with his father, who had an interest in a gold mine in Mariposa county. The following year, when the father returned to the UK the son remained, and became a gold miner. While working there Hallidie began making wire rope, which he was skilled in because his father had a business designing and manufacturing them back in London, for use with the rail cars used to take ore out of the mines.

Several years later he moved to San Francisco and in 1873 he developed and promoted the world’s first cable car company, the Clay Street Hill Railway. According to legend he saw some horses struggling to pull a tram up a hill and realized his wire ropes, operated by a steam winch, would be ideal for pulling a car – much like in the mines where he’d worked years earlier. On August 2, only a day late, the line opened and was an immediate success, ultimately making Hallidie a rich man.

SF cable car
Clay Street Hill Railway dummy car, c1878. Andrew Hallidie stands between two women. (SFMTA Photo Archive)

The principle of Hallidie’s design is still in use today. The cables run underneath the streets, connected to machines that pull the cables at an average speed of 9.5 miles per hour. The operator operates a lever that grips the cable to a greater or lesser extent, depending on how fast they want to drive the car. To stop, the operator – known as the grip man or woman – releases the cable and then brakes, in a triumph of dexterity, strength and coordination.

Soon other companies were established, the next being the Sutter Street Railway in 1877, and then, the following year, the California Street Cable Railroad, which opened up Nob Hill for the millionaires’ mansions (Leland Stanford owned the company). Before long there were seven different companies operating cable car lines in San Francisco.

San Francisco Cable Car Map from 1890's
San Francisco Cable Car Map from 1890’s

Even by the 1920’s though the system was under a lot of pressure to justify itself, as the improved buses of the era were more and more capable of dealing with our steep hills. In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s there was a concerted effort by the city’s government to close the last remaining cable car lines, but, thankfully, a San Francisco lady called Friedel Klussmann organized a campaign to save them and they were amalgamated into the three lines we still have today.

CABLE CARS TODAY

SF Cable Car & Historic Streetcar Map
SF Cable Car & Historic Streetcar Map

The most popular line for visitors is the Powell-Hyde line, which runs between Union Square and Aquatic Park (near Ghirardelli Square). The route goes over Nob Hill and Russian Hill, past Lombard Street, and offers great views of Alcatraz as it drops down to the Bay. The Powell-Mason line starts/ends at the same place, near Union Square, and goes though Chinatown and North Beach, before reaching Bay Street, a couple of blocks from Fisherman’s Wharf. The third SF cable car route in operation is the California Street line, which runs from Market Street, near the Embarcadero, up past the big hotels on Nob Hill and down to Van Ness Avenue, near the Civic Center. It’s the most-used line for commuters.

TRAMS

What’s the difference between a cable car and a tram you ask? San Francisco runs one tram or streetcar route, which is the F Market & Wharves line that runs between Castro and Fisherman’s Wharf, via Market Street and the Embarcadero. This route uses a host of vintage cars, sourced from SF itself and from many other cities around the world, including Melbourne, Milan and Moscow. The trams on this line, which are much bigger than the cable cars, run on electricity, which they get via power lines suspended above the street.

San Francisco tram
Vintage F Market & Wharves line streetcar

HOW TO USE SF CABLE CARS AND TRAMS

The busiest cable cars lines are the Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde routes. The crowds of visitors wanting to take them near Fisherman’s Wharf and Aquatic Park can be sizable and the cars are small, often meaning long lines at peak times. Maybe try to take the line from Market Street, which tends to have fewer passengers, or take the California line, which is the least busy of the three. The F Market & Wharves line is great to take to get to Castro or Fisherman’s Wharf.

Unfortunately riding our cable cars isn’t cheap – a one-way fare is $8. The best way to do it is to get a one or three day MUNI visitor pass, which is respectively $13 or $31, and allows unlimited travel on MUNI for the duration of the pass. It’s a great deal. The F Market & Wharves line operates according to the normal MUNI fare schedule and the price of a ticket is the same as a bus.

Our SF in a Day tour begins with a journey on the California Street cable-car, up to Nob Hill, before taking the Powell-Hyde line down to Market St. We also often take the F Market & Wharves line on the same tour.

If you have any feedback on How To Ride SF Cable Cars & Trams,  please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.

– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)

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