Once upon a foggy time, San Francisco was crawling with streetcars.
Foxtrot back to the late 1930s, and their rhythmic click-clacking echoed down Balboa Street to Ocean Beach and across Union Street to the Presidio.
And perhaps unthinkable on a stretch of street that’s now also linked to Route 280, streetcars even rolled up and back down 19th Avenue.
More than 40 streetcar lines criss-crossed The City in the early half of the 20th century. But by the 1960s, San Francisco was down to four.
The incredible changeover of transit is seldom seen in our modern history. For the first time, that evolution has been captured and explored in a new interactive map released in late July.
The map —“Where The Streetcars Used to Go” at sfstreetcars.co —was coded and crafted by Chris Arvin, a San Francisco hobbyist. It relies on historic streetcar photos from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, OpenSFHistory and a bevy of books about streetcars.
Arvin, a self-described “transit nerd,” moved to San Francisco from New Hampshire four years ago to work as an app developer for Expedia, the airline booking company. He said he was blown away by the ability to live here without a car and he loves the feeling of togetherness on Muni.
“I think it’s amazing how you have people from the lower to middle to upper class” riding together on transit, he said. “You’re a community.”
Tapping into the history of that community by using his development skills, Arvin said he wanted to “tell a story.”
By clicking on the map, users can see each individual streetcar line from 1940 and access historic photos in a novel way: by clicking along the streetcar route itself.
Some images depict streetcars emerging from now-defunct tunnels near Sutro Baths, or beside what used to be Playland at the Beach — even at the yet-to-be developed foot of Mount St. Joseph in the south.
All told, the story is that of San Francisco’s streetcar boom and how they nearly vanished from The City entirely.
STREETCAR BOOM THAT NEVER WAS
In 1912, Muni was a novel concept: a publicly run transportation agency at a time when the California frontier was dominated by private train companies, according to Rick Laubscher, president of the nonprofit Market Street Railway.
Muni’s first streetcar, Car No. 1, was purchased that year and, to this day, still runs on special occasions. For Muni’s first few decades, streetcars were the backbone of the fleet.
Some of The City’s historic trolleys remained due to their hill-climbing ability. But for flatter routes, streetcars were the workhorses of San Francisco. That is, until 1942.
“World War II changed everything,” Laubscher said.
San Francisco’s transit infrastructure was frozen in place, and new investments and replacement parts were hard to come by. The rail system was run into the ground.
To conquer this challenge, Muni bought its private competitor, the Market Street Railway Company, in 1944, according to Inside Track, a newsletter for the current Market Street Railway nonprofit.
Though private transit these days is mainly associated with gleaming tech buses and hip ride-hail vehicles, the privately owned Market Street Railways’ infrastructure was on “the brink of collapse” in the 1940s, according to Inside Track.
Muni acquired 440 streetcars to add to its fleet of 238. But the postwar scene changed San Francisco’s transit needs, too. Following the war, The City’s population boomed.
“Businesses wanted more streets for automobiles,” Laubscher said. “The problem with that was there were streetcars there.”
The fix was in for the little trains of San Francisco.
RAIL OUT, RUBBER IN
After the war, the former vice president of Market Street Railway, Leonard Newton, recommended that Muni preserve 13 streetcar routes in The City.
His plan faced opposition, however. The streetcars required two operators, while the new-fangled trolley buses needed just one. Political opposition to the streetcars in San Francisco subsequently grew, as did the push for buses.
The late Muni maintenance leader Warren DeMerritt, who was there for that transition in the 1940s, told Inside Track in an interview, “They wanted to replace [streetcars] with [motor] coaches. Myself, as part of IBEW [the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers], we fought tooth and nail. We got the public to back us to buy and maintain trolley coaches as the main sources of transit in San Francisco.”
He called it “our proudest moment.”
Those electric trolley coaches are similar to the buses with electric “trolley” poles seen roaming in San Francisco today.
By the Summer of Love in 1967, most of the former streetcar lines were converted to bus lines.
Though most of The City’s streetcars hit the end of the road, some remained because the tunnels they used were too narrow for buses, Laubscher said.
The J, K, L, M and N all survive today because of those narrow tunnels.
“It’s really a modeshift,” Laubscher said. “It’s dramatic to show the decline of streetcars in San Francisco, absolutely, but not to show the decline of transit.”
The 30-Stockton bus on Chestnut Street, the 41-Union which runs to the Presidio, the 31-Balboa line to Ocean Beach are among the myriad bus lines that still run along original streetcar routes.
Every ride on those bus routes, then, is a ride through San Francisco history.