Do San Francisco’s Historic Streetcars Keep Muni Stuck in the Past?

2201589840_00fd0da8ac.jpgFlickr photo: Telstar Logistics

Don’t get me wrong, I love San Francisco’s historic streetcars. I have ridden them often and can appreciate the nostalgic bumpy rides, even more so if I don’t have to stand, and can grab a seat and peer outside the small windows.  But when I saw Rachel Gordon’s story in the Chronicle this week about how Muni plans to renovate Streetcar Number One for $1.9 million it really got me thinking: In these tight budgetary times, is that really where we want to be investing our precious transit dollars?

According to the MTA, the money for the project is a mix of capital dollars:
local funds (sales taxes) as well as state and federal grants, and it had been set aside for vehicle restoration. Fine, but how about this question:

"Why should San Franciscans only experience public transit’s past? What
if we were to also show people what public transit’s future looks like?" asked Tom Radulovich, director of Livable City and a member of the BART Board of Directors. "I don’t want this to be a transit museum. I want this to be a city where transit actually works."

Why, Radulovich asks, couldn’t the MTA invest in some modern low-floor trams, like in Milan, Italy, that would carry greater volumes of people, especially during peak hours, when the historic F-line streetcars are often jammed because of the overcrowded LRVs on Muni Metro? He said the historics also interfere with bus movement. Despite the costs of the modern trams, Radulovich said it’s an issue advocates have been talking about.

66423784_dd4cf486ca.jpgA modern low-floor tram in Milan, Italy. Flickr photo: martin97uk

"During rush hour you’d run high capacity cars that would move people along and then you’d run historics as well. And if you really want to ride the historic you could wait for the historic and go or if you were just interested in the car that was going to get you there or you were in, say a wheelchair, you’d have the modern low-floor cars that would supplement the historic service."

Under that scenario, the modern trams could run with the old streetcars on Market Street and the Embarcadero.  Another option would be to only run the historic streetcars along the waterfront, from Aquatic Park to the Giants ballpark, or initiate the much talked about G-line that would provide historic streetcar service to Golden Gate Park from the N-Judah line.

Is all this just another San Francisco transit fantasy? Quite possibly, said Rick Laubscher, president of the Market Street Railway, who fiercely defended the historic streetcars as a big attraction for Muni, a service riders consistently tell him they love. He said it’s the most successful, patronized, traditional streetcar line in the U.S.

"Over the course of many years there have been some assumptions that because these are so attractive to people, they must somehow be wrong, they must somehow be more expensive, they must somehow be something we shouldn’t have because it must be a guilty pleasure," said Laubscher.

Comparatively, Laubscher says Muni is getting more bang for its buck because the old streetcars last longer than the Breda light-rail vehicles and the buses. "They built those cars well back then." He also argues the historics have the capacity of a standard bus. Instead of limiting the service and adding modern trams, he would rather see, for example, a car-free Market Street, and ticket machines installed at stops to speed up boarding.

"Before you do anything to cannibalize one form of transit for another form of transit we should be looking to reduce automobile use. We should by start by enforcing the lanes that area already there," he said. Cars illegally using the bus and taxi lanes in San Francisco cause significant transit delays and over time cost Muni millions of dollars.

He said if we’re going to talk about modern trams for Muni he’d like to see the discussion widen: "Why don’t we really open up this dialogue and call for the complete overhaul of the subway, including the Central Subway, and do it to run with Eurotrams?"

Indeed, Radulovich would love to see modern trams replace all the Bredas, which are heavy and costly to maintain.

"If you’re going to run streetcars why not run streetcars that are accessible and can actually carry a large volume of people? Streetcars on Market Street was really a great thing, and people enjoy them, but I think people might also enjoy the nice modern low-floor cars."

  • SfResident

    1.9 million, much of which doesn’t seem to come from SF, is very small potatoes compared to the cost of any of the modernization ideas that Radulovich floated.

    Laubscher is spot-on about other, less expensive and more effective, solutions (let’s get cars off Market already! And I say that as somebody who neither owns no rides a bicycle). In any case, I see no need to make this into some sort of historic preservation vs. modernization fight. We can, and should, do both.

    I, for one, would love to experience San Francisco’s transportation past. Imagine a network of streetcars that traversed the city. Bring back the A Geary and the E Union!

  • I agree with the above, and with Mr. Radulovich’s last point, that we enjoy the streetcars (and implicitly feel they are worth the cost), “but I think people might also enjoy the nice modern low-floor cars.”

    Keyword: also. Let’s start talking about giving Muni the money it deserves, rather than argue about robbing Peter to pay Paul.

  • theo

    The best thing Muni could do to speed up the trains is heavy promotion of Translink. Boarding and dwell time is really that bad, and Translink is really working now.

    I’ve estimated that 50% uptake would speed up the N Judah run by 5 minutes, and probably get 2-3 minutes off an F market run.

    It’s time to end the “soft launch.” My current plan is this:

    1. Spend $1 million giving a $5 subsidy upon activation of a new account to the first 200,000 account holders.

    2. Hire those part time credit card promoters who are always around college campuses to hassle everyone using one of the downtown stations for a week. Another $100,000.

    3. Hire bar promoters to go around to bars and clubs signing people up — free drink with new account activation. Also hire those Peachy Puffs girls, if they’re still around. Another $100,000.

    4. Promote heavily at major public events for 2-3 months after launch.

    The worst thing about Muni is its total lack of sales focus. It operates like a utility, which it really isn’t. By and large, it’s in real competition with private cars and cabs.

  • Agreed with Josh, there’s no reason both can’t work. And I’ve never loved the Bredas either. The new LRVs at Valley Metro Phoenix are all Kinkisharyo and they look fantastic and the ride is *really* smooth. Locally, the VTA runs Kinkisharyo LRVs as well.

    I shudder to think how much it would cost to revamp the underground stations to accommodate low-floor trains.

  • If you do the math, saving 2-3 minutes every run equates to millions of dollars every year in savings. I agree with all the above… anything Muni can do to speed up runs: Translink, bus stop spacing, car-free streets. How about a Geary – O’Farrell that is only thru for bicyclists and transit?

    Wouldn’t the tram pictured above be too long for some Market Street blocks (2nd St – Montgomery)?

  • Banjo K

    Yes, the people who actually get to fit onto the historic streetcars do “love them” and think they’re cute.

    The problem is, this city is just too big and needs more capacity than the limited number of historics can provide. I dare anyone reading this to try and fit onto an F-Line car heading back from Fishermans’ wharf on a nice sunny afternoon. Muni just doesn’t have enough of those cute low-capacity historics to provide the service we need.

    I don’t have any problem with maintaining the current service, so long as historic rail advocates stop pretending that these cute little cars can actualy provide enough capacity for a real city’s modern transit needs. The solution is to maintain them for their cute value, for tourism, for branding, and slowly replace the Breda cars with low-floor, modern, hi-capacity vehicles.

    And if we don’t have enough money for both, sorry but we have to pick — and the real needs of real residents should take precedence over nostalgia.

  • Until you end the looting of MUNI and the destruction of stable forms of funding (sorry parking tickets are not stable and don’t count) you can have all the brilliant ideas in the world but none of it is going to happen.

    The Bredas have been an example of politicized purchasing by City agencies that produce a product that serves no one well. The SF Weekly did a great story 10 years ago detailing how we got these things under Mayor Willie, who borked it up pretty good.

    I hear Tom’s point, but really, it’s all just nice sounding talk.BART might do its part by finally building the line down Geary we were always promised (and ripped out the B Geary for) but of course never got. Since then we have been subsidizing BART stations WAYYYYY out there for a handful of folks. Gotta love it.

  • If Market Street does become car free, then the historic street cars should be put on other routes and replaced with low floor designs and proof of payment systems. These new cars should not use the subway because of the incompatibility and cost of changing the platform heights. As it stand however, it would be a wast to buy new light-rail vehicles that just get stuck in get in traffic.

    My website, Switching Modes, discusses similar topics. Please take a look at: I plan to post a plan to double the capacity of the Muni Metro system without building a new line downtown.

  • Muni should also consider getting some Tatra T3 cars from Prague. They’re high floor, but they’ve a lot of high points.

    They will fit within the historical context of San Francisco, as they’re “descendants” of the PCC cars that make up roughly half of the fleet of the F line.

    They can be coupled together in up to 3 units, although currently platforms on the F line can only take 2 … that’s the capacity of 2 PCC cars for the price of 1 driver, and you still have your historic factor… (as good as modern trams look, they are not as sexy and sleek). If they ever build the loop for the E line on the Ballpark end, you could couple them in 3-unit trains and run them along the Embarcadero during peak crowds.

    They are dirt cheap… Prague is replacing many of them with low floor cars and is virtually giving away many of them.

    They are VERY reliable… The T3 and the T4 series are some of the largest mass-produced series of streetcars in the world…almost 14000 T3 and 3500 T4 cars, while only 5000 PCCs have been built in the U.S.

    It would be great to have one or two for Muni’s centennial…

  • bikerider

    Palal: While archaic high-platform streetcars might also be useful as museum rolling stock to add to the collection, the proposal here is for modern low-floor trams that serve a real transportation purpose.

    The big challenge for implementing modern low-floor trams isn’t funding, but the counterproductive regulatory framework:

    1. The “Buy-USA” trade protection, which limits choices available (and greatly inflates prices). Breda was one of the few manufacturers willing to deal with this nonsense.

    2. Not sure how state ADA rules would fit into the concept. If state law (or local politics) dictate level platform boarding at each and every streetcorner, it could be very problematic. On-board wheelchair lifts might have to be used instead, but they really kill dwell time (ok for bus, not ok for high-volume tram).

  • Buy USA is not an issue. Most European Tram companies have assembly facilities here in the United States. Heck the Siemens plant is in Sacramento. Prices are greatly inflated when you make a special order so if you don’t buy in bulk you’re going to pay through the nose. One of the biggest issues is the CPUC making life harder for everyone than it really has to be.

  • I guess I don’t understand. I love the old street cars–they’re cute and great for tourists–but why would anyone who lives here take them when you can take the underground trains that are five times as fast? I can get from Castro to Montgomery in five minutes underground (once a train comes.) On the F-line it is endless. Why don’t we just get the throughput up underground so that a train comes every five minutes? Energy-wise, it’s far more efficient to move volumes of people that way without the constant decelerating and accelerating required by traffic. Leave Market Street to bikes and tourists (they may spend money.)

  • zig

    I think this is Jamison’s original idea but I would think these low floor vehicles could also replace the J-church which could then run on Market to alleviate congestion and an awkward and slow connection to the tunnel. And I say this as a J-rider who would need to transfer. The Bredas are loud and too large for the neighborhood IMO.

    Perhaps other lines could be created as well using modern low floor vehicles with minimal investment is new tracks.

    Not being an engineer, but always having an opinion anyway, it seems to me a high capacity alternative to the failure prone and overcrowded Market Street subway is needed now.

  • Bikerider: The point I’m trying to make is that Muni should get more Low Floor Trams for all other lines. However, replacing PCCs on Market and Embarcadero should be a big no-no, because they are tourist magnets, just like Cable Cars. All other lines should “Eurotrams” (don’t like the term…maybe low floor trams, as opposed to low-floor LRVs)

    As for ADA, all Low Floor trams have ramps that can unfold and fold back up very quickly and don’t require slow lifts. Perhaps using something like this Vienna ULF (Ultra-Low-Floor) tram ( should be considered (although I don’t know how well it will work on SF’s numerous crests). The floor is only 7 in above the road surface.

  • zig: Market Street Subway is, at present, over capacity. There are a number of easy solutions that can be implemented before requiring little major capital improvement. However, Muni seems to want to study all options a dozen times before trying anything.

    Remember, Bredas can’t run on the surface unless wires are (re)moved and added… the F line runs under trolley bus wire. New Low Floor trams would also face the same problem. This should not cost a bundle.

  • I know the F-Line is cute and popular with tourists, but that doesn’t mean it’s just a novelty that serves no real purpose in our transit network. What taomom said is absolutely true about it being faster (most of the time) to get from Castro to Montgomery on Muni Metro, but while the subway offers faster service, it doesn’t stop at many of the places in between. There’s quite a gap between Church and Van Ness which the F-Line does serve and for some short hops the F-Line can be quicker than having to walk up to a couple blocks to get to a subway station.

    Last december, when my foot was in a cast, I depended on the F-Line because it stopped right at my corner and the extra distance to Castro Station was a slow, painful trip on crutches. The F-Line fits in the gaps laps left by Muni Metro, just like BART doesn’t eliminate the need for bus service on Mission Street.

    While it is popular with tourists, I don’t like seeing it dismissed as just for tourists when the segment west of Union Square to Castro is so heavily used by residents. I don’t think historics needs be the only streetcars on Market, Zig referred to a comment I made on another post about continuing F-Line service while also converting the J-Church to modern, low-floor car that would share the track. I worry that if the F-Line is not taken seriously, then rather a surface J-line being seen as complimentary it would be seen as a solution to some non-existent problem of the F-Line.

    My vision, when the Duboce and Church intersection is retracked a few years from now, that an outbound switch be added to allow streetcars outbound on Market to turn south and continue outbound on Church. Right now there’s only an inbound turn used by F-Line cars as they come onto the line and if the outbound switch was put in, then it would allow Muni to purchase low-floor cars like the ones shown in Milan and start running the J on the surface, using the loop around the Hotel Vitale near the Ferry Building to turn around. The F-Line would still be continue to the Castro and passed the Ferry Building, but there would now be additional surface capacity on most of Market Street and offer an alternative choice for wheel-chair users and anyone who has trouble climbing stairs.

    What this also does is open up more room in the tunnel for the other lines and allows Muni to start bringing in low-floor cars without having to start converting the subway. This also means we wouldn’t need to purchase anymore Breda cars for increased demand and the Central Subway and takes away a bottleneck at Duboce and Church where the J and N-Judah are both trying to merge with 3/4 other lines already in the tunnel.

  • Papal, rewiring is not the only option. The Bredas or any new low-floor trams could be outfitted with trolley poles instead of pantographs and use the existing wiring.

    This is another reason why I’m pushing to consider moving the J-Church onto the surface, aside from that outbound turn at Market & Church all of the infrastructure is should be in place already, assuming we’d be able to find a vehicle that can make all the clearances.

    Surface operations would be slower, even if Market Street were improved to speed service (something we need to do for bus and F-Line service anyway) but the J has the lowest ridership of the rail lines (lower than the F-Line) so fewer riders would be effected than on any other line.

  • The issue of fixing car #1 is orthogonal to myriad issues of LR transit in SF.

    My car #1 story begins at Dennis Peron’s cannabis club on Market east of Van Ness. After medicating with a happy, friendly crowd which was one of the few truly multicultural gathering places in SF other than the Muni, as I was leaving the club on a sunny beautiful day, what came by but the #1 car.

    Well toasted, I sat up front in the windowless car and enjoyed the day and the wind flowing through what is left of my hair. #1 was returning to the Geneva car barn, so the route was through Market to Noe to Church and through the park, down San Jose and onto Geneva.

    This is the kind of unique San Francisco experience that tourists and locals alike can enjoy, and enjoy better, more colorfully under Prop 215. I was kinda hungry on the BART ride home, tho, for some reason.

    The Bredas are just under 1/2 way through their useful life. We need to plan now for a replacement fleet, and my estimates is that the cost of that fleet will be several hundred times the cost to fix #1.

    The feds are not loathe to fund capital acquisition, so I don’t see the dollars going to fix #1 sucking down dollars from Muni placing orders for a replacement LRV fleet in 10 years time.

    Radulovich had the elegant solution to the high/low floor transition problem, which was to lower part of the existing extra long subway platforms to low floor heights, and to have a ramp that allows enough room for 2 or even 3 cars at each end of the platform.

    Back in the day, when they were fixing the upper Market tunnel, I seem to recall that the Boeing LRV disasters were able to run on the surface on Church along with the 22 using pentographs and not ground themselves out.


  • “Back in the day, when they were fixing the upper Market tunnel, I seem to recall that the Boeing LRV disasters were able to run on the surface on Church along with the 22 using pentographs and not ground themselves out.”

    Just like the J Church now. Duh.


  • We will not be eligible for federal funding of fleet replacement until 2025, the end of the 30 years which the Bredas were designed to operate, though there are two procurements of additional cars planned between now and then. One is for additional vehicles (I think this was up to 20) just to keep up with ridership growth and another for the Central Subway (which I’ve seen range between 4-8 vehicles) and the process of figuring out what those additional vehicles will look like is just now starting.

    Right now it’s a catch-22, while we will be able to purchase some more vehicles before 2025, there are 33 high-platform surface and subway stations they will have to serve until then. And that’s if we can get additional funding when we replace the fleet (151 vehicles x $4-5 million in today’s dollars) to fund the conversion of all those high-platform stations to low floor.

    For the time being, those new cars will have to be able to use the high-platform stations, which means they will have to be high-platform cars. I don’t want to see us to buy any more high-platform streetcars (except for the historic lines) if we can avoid it, especially not more Breda cars because of the problems they have, which gets us back to my low-floor surface J-Church line.

    There’s a flaw with my low-floor J-Church plan though, it doesn’t account for all the new cars we’re going to order. The J only uses, I think 9-10 cars, max and there is a 20% cap on how many more cars you can has as a reserve fleet, which only brings us up to 12 low-floor cars out of the 20-28 more we’re considering.

  • Stations will need to be retrofit to accomodate low floor cars at some point. Radulovich indicated that there was already a low floor platform substructure under the existing high floor platforms in the Metro stations.

    One would think that the MTA would plan this out over time, to create hybrid stations before they are needed as money comes through, rather than waiting for the last minute and trying to convert all stations to accomodate both typologies.

    The other issue, of course, is how to go hybrid on the outlying stations where there are raised platforms such as 3d.


  • You’ve already decided your hybrid plan is the best way to go based solely on something Tom Radulovich suggests may be the case for up to 4 shared BART stations?

    When the MTA starts looking at fleet replacement, they’ll consider the options, and it could work out to be faster and cheeper to just shut down stations for reconstruction instead of this hybrid idea. That’s if they decide to go low-floor, which they might not have the funding to do if they already have to replace 151 vehicles and everything needed to support them. We don’t know what options will be available in 2025, but the MTA stay high-floor and leave it as is.

    Now, back to the present, MTA is starting to look at ordering additional vehicles for the Central Subway and handle ridership growth. With rebuilding station platforms out of scope, they’re likely going to order more Breda style high-floor cars unless there’s a way to start running low-floor cars without rebuilding stations.

  • Concerned Public Transportation User

    …Maybe your idea would make sense once whoever designs streetcars nowadays builds some modern ones that don’t look like absolute hideous crap.

    The reasons the old ones are so popular is they look a lot nicer and are a lot more fun to ride. Someone should build some modern ones that look nice too and are fun to ride while also solving the capacity and operational problems which you are concerned with, all of which are valid issues.

  • Concerned Public Transportation User

    Also, why not build some good quality, nice looking streetcars that can also couple? Seriously,people, just because change comes over time doesn’t mean that good quality, durability, and attractiveness should be forfeited.


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