Capdiamont\’s Weblog


SF Gate: S.F. streetcars too popular for their own good
Wednesday 13 Aug 2008, 10:53
Filed under: Railroad, Streetcar, transit | Tags: ,

C.W. Nevius

Tuesday, August 5, 2008


Twenty-five years ago, San Francisco put a fleet of quaint vintage streetcars on the train tracks along Market Street.
Today those cars are still running on the F-line, which rolls down Market, past the Ferry Building, and up the Embarcadero to Fisherman’s Wharf. They are beautifully restored, eye-catching tourist attractions, and a lot of fun.

Unless you are actually trying to get somewhere.

“In the afternoon when I am trying to go home, they get so packed they don’t even stop,” said Tamela Lamboglia, who has been working at Pier 39 for more than 24 years. “I’ve started to walk all the way to the Ferry Building.”

The streetcars, sometimes called “museums in motion,” have committed the cardinal sin of public transportation: They have become too popular.

For example, Monday afternoon at Fisherman’s Wharf, around 2:30, I climbed on car No. 1053, a green and silver model that ran in Philadelphia in the 1940s. It was pretty full when I got on, but at the next stop – right at Pier 39 – hordes of tourists clambered aboard. After several calls to get people to move to the back of the bus, the driver announced that we were now aboard “an express to the Ferry Building.” Sure enough, we shot past passengers waiting at subsequent stops as if they were invisible.

“I see them pass by people every day,” said Pete Ingargiola, who works at an information booth at Pier 39. “It’s too bad, because the price is right and the cars go where everybody wants to go. They need more cars or bigger ones, or something.”

Armed with this kind of first-hand information, I decided to demand some answers. I got in touch with Rick Laubscher, president of the nonprofit Market Street Railroad, which promotes and helps renovate cars, and confronted him with the list of complaints: The cars were overcrowded, they were leaving passengers on the street, and regular local commuters couldn’t depend on them.

“Absolutely right!” Laubscher replied promptly. “Everybody has consistently underestimated how many people want to ride these cars.”

In fact, Laubscher’s organization has been lobbying long and hard to do exactly what Ingargiola suggested – add more cars.

“You could double the number of cars on the route,” Laubscher said. “We could be running cars twice as often.”

There are obvious problems. It isn’t easy to find vintage streetcars, or operators to run them. But the core issue is still something Laubscher says he ran into the first day they put the cars on the street. He overheard a high-ranking MUNI official – no longer with the agency – essentially saying that the old-time cars were cute, but of course they wouldn’t be actually running regular routes.

Today, to the surprise of nearly everyone, the F-line is a bit of a transit sensation. Municipal Transportation Authority spokesman Judson True says the vintage cars carry some 21,000 riders a day, more than all three of the more-famous cable car lines put together.

“Did I ever think it was going to get to this point? No,” said Laubscher. “I thought we’d demonstrate the concept and then move on. But I remember when we opened the line on Market in 1995. Right away we had 50 percent more ridership than the trolley bus it replaced. That’s when I said to Muni, ‘You may have a tiger by the tail here.’ ”

The reasons are logical once you get past the old-timey look of the cars. For starters, by a quirk of the layout of the tracks, the line – which begins in the Castro, runs down Market and then travels to the wharf – hits many of the top destinations in the city.

“It covers an “L” that essentially covers the key corridors of San Francisco,” True said.

But there is also an undeniable aura to the cars themselves. Laubscher insists that, “sad to say,” some of the riders on the vintage cars won’t ride buses. He suggests they like the offbeat experience, but also the loving care that went into the restoration. There is polished hardwood, beveled glass lamp shades, and a hoarse toot of a train whistle from a bygone era.

Could nostalgia help solve reluctance to use public transit? Other municipalities are wondering if San Francisco is on to something. True says MTA has been contacted by several cities, most recently Houston, to discuss a similar idea in their transit programs.

So, to review, the cars are classy, unique and popular. There is just one problem: There aren’t enough of them.

Frankly, that isn’t going to be solved anytime soon. About 10 to 16 cars have been put in the pipeline for renovation, but no one expects them as soon as next summer, and 2010 looks like a better guess.

So for now, San Franciscans will have to be content with what they have: the quirkiest vintage transit system in the world. And it is just about to get quirkier. With the warm fall weather coming up, it is almost time for the famous “boat car,” an open-top streetcar that looks like a parade float with a prow and mast, to make its annual arrival on the streets.

Down at Fisherman’s Wharf, they always enjoy waiting expectantly for the boat car to roll up. Unfortunately, until the city can get more streetcars, it is likely to keep right on rolling, leaving them standing at the curb.

C.W. Nevius’ column appears on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail him at cwnevius@sfchronicle.com.

This article appeared on page B – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Advertisements

1 Comment

[…] Downtowns Across the US See Streetcars in Their Future Saved by Rolamoto on Sun 21-12-2008 SF Gate: SF streetcars too popular for their own good Saved by femtoid on Tue 16-12-2008 Downtown Streetcars Saved by AndrewRB on Sun 14-12-2008 […]

Pingback by Recent Links Tagged With "streetcars" - JabberTags




Comments are closed.



%d bloggers like this: