San Franciscans Kat Siegal and Chris Arvin built the Streetcar Guide live web app as a labor of love. (Courtesy photo)

New transit map tells the romantic history of SF streetcars

Kat Siegal and Chris Arvin are in love — with historic streetcars.

Well, they also have amorous feelings for each other too, but the San Franciscan romantic partners just completed a passion project that’ll delight anyone who enjoys seeing Muni’s popular, candy-colored conveyances click-and-clack down Market Street.

On Friday, the Market Street Railway nonprofit will launch its Streetcar Guide, a web application featuring a NextMuni-like live map that teaches streetcar history while searching for your ride.

The app will be available at streetcar.live, and is similar to NextMuni prediction software, which also features maps showing where the F-line and E-line historic streetcars roam, with a twist: With just a click or a finger tap to any of the moving streetcars, transit riders can explore their historical entries written by Market Street Railway, like a streetcar Wikipedia in motion.

“We want people to fall in love with streetcars,” Arvin said.

Siegal agreed, adding that the charming streetcars are “the perfect gateway” to embracing transit over driving, a moral imperative as climate change emerges as a global threat.

Much like the streetcars themselves, even the app is charming, featuring cartoon-like icons of each Muni-operated streetcar.

And each nearly century-old metal conveyance has a story and a city of origin, from the red and cream-colored streetcar honoring Dallas, Texas, to a unique orange streetcar with wooden benches that traces its roots to Milan, Italy. The app can also display streetcars closest to someone on their cellphones, helping tourists and locals alike find the toy-like transit mode wherever they may be roaming, from the start of the F-line’s route in the Castro to its terminus in Fisherman’s Wharf, for instance.

Arvin is a streetcar history aficionado, having previously gained some local fame for building a map called “Where the Streetcars Used to Go,” that showed San Francisco’s historic streetcar routes. Arvin said the San Francisco Examiner’s coverage of that map in 2016 helped spark a tremendous response, which led him down the path to create this new map with his partner.

It made the couple feel like “there were other people out there” who also love transit, not just as a tool, but as a passion, they both said.

So Siegal, 27, and Arvin, 28, built the web-app as a labor of love, volunteering their time and their talents to build the tool for the Market Street Railway nonprofit.

Rick Laubscher, president of Market Street Railway, which also helps obtain the streetcars for Muni, was astonished that they cherished streetcars so strongly. The 69-year-old Laubscher said his own fondness for streetcars is easy to explain, as it is partially motivated by nostalgia.

“The first time I got on a streetcar that I remember was probably 1955,” he told the San Francisco Examiner. He was 6, and his mother picked him up at West Portal Elementary School to see the circus at Civic Auditorium, which is now called the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium.

“We walked down to get the streetcar and there was one of the iron monsters, in their last years of service. I didn’t know what to think, there’s this huge machine,” he said. “We’re rumbling along. I didn’t know what the smell was, it was really pungent, turned out to be the creosote on the railroad tracks.”

He remembers that streetcar ride, but not the circus. Laubscher is representative of a whole generation of streetcar lovers who grew up with the so-called iron monsters, but for Siegal and Arvin, the love of streetcars was one motivated by a chance to live car-free.

Hailing from Washington D.C., Siegal said public transit gave her freedom to roam. “It opened up a new world for me,” she said. Robust transportation and a car-free lifestyle swayed her to move to San Francisco four years ago. Arvin lived the opposite life in New Hampshire, but when he moved to San Francisco in 2012 he had a near-religious realization when he realized transit could take him everywhere he needed to go. “I had an awakening experience,” he said.

Both met while working at Expedia, the travel technology company. Siegal now works at Facebook as a software engineer, and Arvin is a lead product designer at Remix, a tech platform for transit planners. The couple employed the same talents they use at work every day in their off hours, mostly weekends, to build the web app together.

For Laubscher, whose life for decades has been spent building a museum and nonprofit dedicated to streetcars, Siegal and Arvin a breath of fresh air. A new generation that values Muni, that values community and can help carry on that mission. Arvin even joined the Market Street Railway board in January.

“It makes me feel like a little kid again,” Laubscher said. “I’m rediscovering these things through the eyes of another generation.”

joe@sfexaminer.com

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Screenshots show the Market Street Railway’s new Streetcar Guide live web app, which offers fun information about San Francisco’s historic streetcar fleet. (Courtesy Market Street Railway, streetcar.org)

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