Conceiving of a San Francisco without cable cars is like imagining New York City without Broadway, Los Angeles without Hollywood or Chicago without the Cubs.
The 150-year-old transit vehicles don’t simply serve to line The City’s pockets with fares from tourists willing to pay steep prices for a unique experience.
Rather, these relics of a time past are integral to the very fabric of San Francisco and the popular lore it embraces about itself as a richly historic destination filled with promise and opportunity.
Suspended in March 2020 as part of systemwide Muni cuts, the historic cable cars might be some of the hardest lines on The City’s public transportation network to bring back as San Francisco emerges from the pandemic.
“I can tell you that it will be a very big lift,” Julie Kirschbaum, director of transit for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, told the SFTMA board on Tuesday.
Kirshbaum’s comments came in response to members of both the public and the board, chief among them Board member Steve Heminger, calling for the swift and prioritized return of the vintage transit vehicles.
“They are the flagship of the operation,” Heminger said of the cable cars. “Getting that service out there, maybe it’s more of a symbolic victory, but that would be a statement more than most we can make that we are back.”
Cable cars were some of the first vehicles pulled indefinitely from Muni’s fleet during the early stages of the pandemic. SFMTA officials cited the lack of a physical barrier between the operator and the public as one of the key reasons they were so quickly pulled from the system.
The last year has been the longest cable cars have been off the roads in their storied history, save for a $60 million, 18-month system rebuild that occurred in 1982 under then-mayor Dianne Feinstein to repair cars that had fallen apart after decades of deferred maintenance.
Many are eager for their return, including Rick Laubscher, president of local nonprofit Market Street Railway, who says the return of cable cars and historic street cars would “serve as symbols to the world that the specialness of San Francisco is back on our streets.”
Restoring cable car service, in particular, will be “more complicated” than bringing back any of the other Muni lines, according to Kirschbaum.
The nearly 150-year-old vehicles require specialized training required for drivers and are expensive to operate. The City has also lost former cable car gripmen and conductors either through attrition or due to reassignment for emergency response work over the last year.
“We’re essentially operating 100-year-old infrastructure where the infrastructure, operator and vehicle work together in a beautiful dance in order to make the system work,” she said.
She also noted that given the agency’s currently limited resources — it’s running about 70 percent of its pre-pandemic service — the board will have to weigh the return of cable car service against other priorities such as filling existing gaps in Muni access to hilltop neighborhoods.
Simply put, the agency can’t do it all, and Kirschbaum’s point was that the board might have to decide whether it wants to prioritize a “symbolic victory,” as Heminger described it, over adding arguably more essential service to communities in transit deserts.
But perhaps the choices don’t have to be so black and white.
Laubscher made the case that restoration of the F-line historic streetcars, also suspended last year, would be an easier, more cost-effective option to return service to parts of Fisherman’s Wharf and the Embarcadero that have been largely without public transit for nearly a year.
“The streetcars can safely accommodate as many riders as a standard Muni bus under the current protocols, and require only one operator instead of two on the cable cars,” Laubscher said, adding the protective shields used on buses could easily be installed on the streetcars.
Though the collection of vintage transit vehicles look like a mere tourist attraction — a stereotype buoyed by their $8 fare —tens of thousands of people daily before the pandemic still relied on the old- school transportation lines for their work commutes, essential trips and travel to some of The City’s hallmark destinations.
“This is an integral part of San Francisco’s transit system, and it should be treated as such. It’s not a toy,” Laubscher told the Examiner in July.
SFMTA staff plans to return to the board in late March with more detailed scenarios for how transit service recovery could look moving forward. Until then, Kirschbaum effectively dodged pressure from directors to provide a timeline for when cable cars could return.
“I’m not going to be able to speak to that because we are still creating a staffing and training plan for what it’s going to take to start the cable car, and I would be happy to follow up with that when we have more specific and accurate information,” she said.