Tourists ride in a cable car down Powell Street on March 16, shortly before the historic vehicles were shut down due to coronavirus. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Tourists ride in a cable car down Powell Street on March 16, shortly before the historic vehicles were shut down due to coronavirus. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

‘No timetable’ for cable car return, SFMTA says

How the temporary absence of cable cars means more than just a loss of transit routes

Some say the soul of San Francisco can be found at the intersection of Powell and Market streets where the Powell-Mason cable car has started its route since 1888, bringing travelers to Fisherman’s Wharf along the exact same route ever since.

“The cable cars are us,” said Rick Laubscher, president of the Market Street Railway, a nonprofit focused on preserving local historic transit. “It’s part of why we love this city.”

But they were the first vehicles to be pulled from the fleet during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic shutdown because there’s no physical barrier between the operator and the public, according to San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency spokesperson Erica Kato, and there’s currently no timetable for when they, or the historic F Line streetcars that run up and down Market Street, will be back.

A safe return

Cable car lines are part of the estimated 30% agency-wide service cuts being made to account for the dramatically reduced revenues projected for the next two fiscal years in the wake of the pandemic.

Kato said a recovery plan, including the return of modified rail service in August, focuses on essential trips for the most transit-dependent individuals. After rail comes back online, the agency will be in a “holding pattern,” she said.

The wooden vehicles have rarely been out of service in their 147-year-long history. The last time they were off the streets for an extended period of time was in 1982 and the cars had “completely fallen apart,” said Laubscher of the 18-month rebuild.

COVID-19 has made all public transportation, but specifically travel by cable car — which Laubscher described as built upon putting people in close proximity to one another — difficult given social distancing guidelines.

“There are many of us who care really deeply about the importance of cable cars to our city’s fabric, and we want to see them come back as soon as it’s safe for our passengers and operators alike,” Laubscher said. “But the virus doesn’t care.”

Laubscher said he’d discussed the idea of possible mitigation tactics with operators, such as plexiglass shields between drivers and passengers, as has been done on buses. But he recognized exceedingly tight quarters and the occasional need for drivers to physically restrain passengers leaning out the vehicle’s side would render a barrier largely ineffectual.

Though he supports SFMTA’s decision to hold off on reinstating the cable cars until it can be done safely, he does think it’s important the agency reaffirm its intention to bring the quintessential vehicles back.

“Of course, we want nothing more than to provide all of the services San Franciscans know and love, and have come to depend on,” Kato said when asked about such a commitment.

Not just for tourists

Cable cars have garnered a reputation among many as a tourist attraction. The three lines, together with the historic streetcars on the F Line, create a triangular pipeline between historic neighborhoods such as downtown, Russian Hill, North Beach and Fisherman’s Wharf. And at $8 for a one-way ride and no discounts for kids or seniors other than overnight, they’re more than double the price of a regular Muni bus fare.

But Laubscher says the original Clay Street car in 1873 and those that followed were meant to be “functional and local transportation,” a faster, cheaper and cleaner alternative to the horse-drawn cars that struggled up and down San Francisco’s hills.

Their value as a tourist attraction started in World War II, when soldiers and sailors would travel through San Francisco on their way to the Pacific Theater, according to Laubscher. The cars soon became a symbol of recreation but also national progress in the war’s aftermath.

After surviving a number of political efforts to get rid of them, the cable cars eventually evolved into an intractable vestige of San Francisco history and an indispensable part of its legacy. They were designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1964, and protected by the City Charter with an amendment that requires The City to maintain the three lines and operate them at the “normal levels of scheduling and service in effect on July 1, 1971.”

While cable car and streetcar folklore lends a certain cache to San Francisco streets, they’re not just a relic of a bygone era kept around to generate extra tourism dollars. They’re a cumulative multi-million dollar line item in SFMTA’s annual budget and responsible for transporting tens of thousands of people daily.

“This is an integral part of San Francisco’s transit system, and it should be treated as such. It’s not a toy,” Laubscher said.

Pandemic primping

Cable cars are entirely mechanical, which means they have no engine. They’re driven by a single powerhouse electric motor located at Washington and Mason streets. It turns massive winding wheels that then pull an endless loop of underground cables running beneath each of the cable car tracks.

Because the cars don’t rely on computer circuitry or individual motors, maintenance is quite simple. During the months-long hiatus, track crews have kept the mechanical system operational by running the cables and wheels to ensure they’re fully functional, occasionally testing cars on the road and oiling parts as needed.

The fleet has also gotten a facelift during its respite from street work.

According to Laubscher, the painters and body workers have been able to provide cosmetic touch-ups to ensure they’ll look “fabulous” upon their return, whenever that might be.

“There are many things in San Francisco we’d like to see come back. Some of them may not be able to […] but we should have the right as San Franciscans to expect them to come back when it’s safe,” Laubscher said.

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