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Is it time to get rid of San Francisco’s historic streetcars?

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One transit publication dares to ask the question

Streetcar on Market Street, yellow with green stripes. Photo by ali sinan köksal

They’re pretty to look at. Their clang-clack is a delight to the ear. And their accordion door openings make a beautiful first impression. But San Francisco’s historic streetcars, along the F-Market and Wharves lines, aren’t the most nimble forms of public transportation.

In addition to little legroom (an issue for those of us with impossibly long legs), historic streetcars tend to move at a sluggish, herky-jerky pace and aren’t able to carry many passengers. Especially when compared to modern low-floor trams, as seen in cities like Portland, San Jose, or Milan, which can hold more people.

Then again, our historic streetcars do look pretty sweet. Plus they cost lot of coin to restore. And San Francisco is a city that, for better or for worse, errs on the side of preserving antique designs. But do we still need the old clangers?

This question was posed by Streetblog SF, shortly after the city announced tentative plans to extend the F-Market and Wharves lines to Fort Mason, and effort that would require the reopening of the old Fort Mason Tunnel between Van Ness and the Marina, dug in 1914 but defunct for several decades.

Photo by Jim Maurer

In part, Streetblog SF asks:

[...] If the tunnel is opened and the F-Market and Wharves/E-Embarcadero streetcar line gets that far, isn’t it time to start thinking about it in a different way? Yes, it will always be a line popular with tourists. But, from Streetsblog’s perspective, it is also a line that isn’t living up to its full potential.

We first asked this question back in 2009–is it time to think about converting the F-Market and Wharves into a modern streetcar line? It’s not as if it would take much effort: the acquisition of some light weight, low-floor streetcars is really all it would take (admittedly, these projects do have a way of getting more complicated). Back then, Streetsblog was commenting on the nearly $2 million it cost to renovate one of the historic trolley cars and whether that really made sense.

What’s more, Streetsblog goes on to note, more modern streetcars could allow for low-floor boarding, adding, “Of course, if SFMTA does buy low-floor streetcars, it should apply San Francisco’s “transit first” policy and give the new streetcars signal preemption on Market Street, something that isn’t currently done on any of SFMTA’s surface lines.”


Is it time to get rid of the historic streetcars?

This poll is closed

  • 15%
    Yes, I’ve had enough of their beauty
    (42 votes)
  • 84%
    No, no, and no
    (226 votes)
268 votes total Vote Now

However, Rick Laubscher, president of Market Street Railway, the nonprofit group that supports SFMTA in its operation of the historic streetcars and cable cars, tells us that the heritage streetcars are great and only getting better.

He responds: “25,000 riders a day. The most successful traditional streetcar operation in America. Active plans underway to speed trips along Market Street through stop consolidation and cashless boarding. Doesn’t seem busted to me.”

What do you think? Should the old streetcars be mixed in with newer cars? Kept as-is? Or—sob—put out to pasture?