What’s “our” streetcar doing in San Francisco? Riding on a transit system that works

ANALYSIS: Baltimore destroyed exactly the kind of urban-friendly infrastructure that San Francisco used to fashion its smart transit network.

inside trolley

Inside a refurbished streetcar that runs through downtown San Francisco.

Photo by: Mark Reutter

San Francisco was covered in fog when I visited it in December 1977. Walking in the drizzle through downtown, I remember Market Street looming up as a spectral checkerboard of dirty barricades marking an uncompleted subway station.

Baltimore at that time was basking in the glow of its rebuilt Inner Harbor. Mayor William Donald Schaefer had cast his manic charm far and wide. Reporting for The Sun, I regularly ascended the freshly-minted World Trade Center to hear the latest “good news” from Walter Sondheim, the patrician chairman of the management group that oversaw the renewal.

Fast forward 36 years. The fog’s still there, but San Francisco has become a textbook example of successful urban revitalization. Its boasts the highest population in history (over 800,000) as demand far outstrips the supply of Victorian “painted ladies” at Alamo Square and the more prosaic bungalows in the Sunset District.

Back on the Chesapeake, meanwhile, Baltimore has shed 165,000 residents since 1980 (on top of the 150,000 lost in the 1960s and 70s), triggered by the outflow of jobs, a rapidly deteriorating housing stock, crime and other ills.

And one of those ills, I kept thinking as I re-explored San Fran last month, was transportation.

San Fran has performed miracles with its existing transit system. I’m not referring to the cable cars that delight tourists but carry less than 1% of daily ridership. Or to BART, the excellent regional subway network that connects Fog City with Oakland, Berkeley and two international airports.

I’m thinking about the city’s reinvention of its streetcars and “trolley buses” to serve a land of famously steep hills and narrow streets.

The "Baltimore trolley" awaits passengers at Fisherman's Wharf. (Photo by Mark Reutter

The “Baltimore trolley” waits for passengers at Fisherman’s Wharf before it rolls down a rejuvenated waterfront. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Paved Over

Baltimore once had a similar network – more than 200 route-miles of streetcars and a complement of buses powered by overhead electric wires that we called “trackless trolleys.”

We also possessed something that San Francisco never had – a network of street-running freight railways that circled the harbor from Locust Point to Canton and connected downtown with north, east and southwest Baltimore. The line that ran along Key Highway in South Baltimore and up to the McCormick Spice Factory on Light Street was even owned by the city. (It was called the Municipal Harbor Belt Railway.)

We are approaching the 50th anniversary of the last streetcar operation on November 3, 1963. Sondheim and his influential friends didn’t want to see “old-fashioned” trolleys running through their rebuilt downtown, so they demanded the conversion to buses.

Those freight railways lingered on Key Highway, Light Street, Pratt, President, Aliceanna, Thames and Boston for another two decades, a readymade right-of-way for a trolley “circulator” that could, right now, be shuttling residents and tourists to the city’s waterfront attractions and neighborhoods.

But they, too, were paved over.

Working With What You Have

What we destroyed here in Baltimore is exactly the kind of urban-friendly infrastructure that San Francisco used to fashion its smart transit network.

Closeup view of the Baltimore car. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Closeup of the Baltimore car. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

This was brought home to me as I rode a streetcar cloaked in canary yellow and emblazoned with “BTCo” on its flank.

The initials stood for Baltimore Transit Company, predecessor of the MTA, and it runs in San Francisco to commemorate the once great trolley fleets of American cities.

The car and its fellow vehicles from Chicago, Kansas City, El Paso, Birmingham, Louisville, etc., are not tourist baubles.

They are quick accelerating, smooth riding jackrabbits that hopped past more bicycles than cars on The Embarcadero, a waterfront street liberated when a two-tier freeway above it was torn down in 1991.

Just past the bustling Ferry Building, the Baltimore car turned onto a scene I could scarcely recognize. In place of those barricades, a revitalized Market Street featured a parade of ritzy stores and office towers.

Pedestrians enjoy the Embarcadero that was once covered by a double-decker freeway. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Streetcars serve a sunny Embarcadero that was once covered by a double-decker freeway. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Three Levels of Transit

The streetcar shares the road with trolley buses and, this being San Francisco, hordes of bikes.

Below ground, eight-car BART trains link the city with the East Bay suburbs and the main airport in San Bruno. And below BART is the Municipal Railway (Muni) Metro that carries one-and-two-car “light rail” trains.

BART and Muni share the four stations along Market Street, making it easy to transfer from long-haul to short-haul trains, and from either system to surface transit fanning out from downtown.

Altogether the city has 17 trolley bus lines, seven light-rail lines, the downtown streetcar and three cable-car routes.

A trolley bus, with its double-pole overhead wire, slows to pick up a passenger on Sutter Street. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

A “zero-emission” trolley bus slows to pick up a passenger on Sutter Street. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

The trolley buses are perhaps the most ingenious adaptation to the city’s geography.

Boasting all-electric power, they scamper up the hills like nobody’s business. (The No. 24 Divisadero trolley bus actually climbs a steeper grade – 22.8% – than any of the cable cars.)

They are so popular in this environmentally conscious city that plans are afoot to electrify some of the standard (diesel) bus routes.

The trolley buses mostly operate in the downtown and Western Addition. In the middle-class neighborhoods south of Twin Peaks, former streetcar lines have been converted into light-rail service that operate with trains equipped with retractable steps that serve both high-level platforms and streetside curb stops.

These lines serve some of the city’s big institutions (University of California Medical Center, San Francisco State University). They are also slated for expansion, along with a new “crosstown” subway linking Chinatown with South Beach and the Transbay Transit Center, terminus of the planned high-speed rail line to Los Angeles.

The "L" line to the San Francisco Zoo leaves the West Portal Station. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

The “L” line to the San Francisco Zoo leaves the West Portal Station. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Smart Transportation

Over the years, San Fran’s transit systems have survived clueless politicians and were wounded by countless assaults, but endured to become the bedrock of a city remarkably free of parking garages, expressway ramps, gas fumes – or vacant buildings, abandoned houses and empty lots.

What five days as a tourist taught me: smart transportation matters.

Smart transportation builds on the foundations of “old” systems of proven value.

Smart transportation avoids overblown schemes, rich in consultant contracts and government handouts, that flounder for decades.

Smart transportation creates a civic mindset that compounds its own success to the extent that when a record-breaking 1.2 million people came to march in the Gay Pride Parade this summer on Market Street, the majority came by train and trolley.

The Powell-Hyde cable car at Ghirardelli Square, with fog-shrouded Golden Gate Bridge in background. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

The Powell-Hyde cable car at Ghirardelli Square, with the fog-shrouded Golden Gate Bridge in the background. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

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  • Luke

    I ride my bike past the Baltimore Streetcar Museum and think how cool it would be to see those running along the lines downtown and on Howard street. How cool would it be to have Howard St be the shopping district again? I love riding my bike through the city and really appreciate the lightrail system, just wish it could get expanded.

  • David Eastman

    My family members were daily riders of the 14, and then the 23 on Edmondson Ave and the 8 on Frederick Ave when I went to St. Joe. I personally believe that they were done away with because the powers that be were paid off by GM and a large tire company. In 1963, I was a senior at St. Joe and rode the last 8 streetcar before they went to buses. Peter Witt is smiling down on San Fran from heaven.

    • bob

      gerry’s let’s have transfers was the gist behind splitting the 8 into two routes the 8 on the North and the 2 on the West, just like the 19 and 91.
      3 etc.

      the MTA stopped this nonsense before any more routes were mangled.

      the #8 and #15 along with the 13 line should be the first to be restored to streetcars. they were the heaviest lines then and they still are in the top couple today.

      • Gerald Neily

        Bob, the history of splitting up long bus routes is pretty far off-topic, but thanks for joining in. This started with the contention in my article that transfers between the Red Line and Metro would be better within the Lexington Market Metro station than via a two-block long pedestrian tunnel. Then it went on from there to here. But at least I’m glad we both see some future role for streetcars,

        • bob

          the transfer issue got started with the idea of changing from red west to metro to red east. rather than a single ride accross town,

          my idea of using the current tunnel for the new light rail. run into the tunnel at lexington market, then come back out on the east side by just continuing out the North side of Johns Hopkins station,

          Cleveland runs both heavy and light rail on the same tracks, Boston Blue line switches from third rail to overhead as it exits the tunnel.

          so both are possible. LA light rail (along with Buffalo, St Louis and others) run high platform cars. so why is it not practical. to do the same.

          the MTA does not even want to discuss this, I proposed it many years ago again and again and it was brushed off.

          the spliting of bus lines shows the results of transfers on ridership, and we need to avoid unecessary transfers when ever possible.

          you have good ideas, but you are dealing with the MTA and it is a very conservative organization. one of the things that could be changed at this late date without affecting the timeline is to make the light rail cars compatible with the current light rail line (Loading guage)so that the cars could at some time interline.

          take care

  • Richard Chambers

    San Francisco does indeed have a fine transit system. Problem is that the streetcars are little more than “add-ons” that fulfill the needs of tourists trying to get to and from Fisherman’s Wharf and sights along the Embarcadero. The real heavy hitters in that system are the BART subway and the MUNI light rail cars. The MUNI trains are largely underground (much like the Red Line will be in downtown Baltimore) and the BART subway functions as a fast “trunk line” that handles the bulk of the area’s transit traffic. So, old fashioned heavy rail and underground light rail do all of the heavy lifting in SF. Sounds like how Baltimore will be once the Red Line is completed.

    • baltimorebrew

      BART subway consists of 104 route miles; MUNI light rail 79 miles, trolley buses about 85 miles (couldn’t get exact figures on some routes). This compares to a grand total of 14 miles for the projected Red Line. –mr

      • Richard Chambers

        Fair enough. So, we should build more heavy rail (like BART) and underground light rail (like MUNI). I’m all for that. Let’s extend the Baltimore Metro out to Morgan State after we’re done with the Red Line. But the tone of the article is that heritage streetcars are transforming San Francisco. That is not true. Look at the quarterly ridership numbers on the American Public Transportation Association website. BART subway has 410,000 daily riders. Metro bus and trolley bus carry some 483,000 daily riders (the regular bus and the trolley bus are basically the same. The only difference is the trolley bus’s use of overhead wires for power. In essence, its a bus. And no faster than a standard bus and subject to the same cars and pedestrian obstructions). MUNI light rail handles 158,000 passengers a day. Now here’s the rub – the F Line Heritage Streetcars (which seem to be what you are pushing in this piece) make up just one line of the seven line light rail system. So, let’s be generous and say that the heritage streetcars pick up an amount of daily passengers equal to that of the other six Light Rail lines. That’s 22,000 passengers a day. In a system that is carrying some 700,000 people on a daily basis, that’s a drop in the bucket. A more appropriate piece would have focused on how SF makes a combination of heavy rail, underground light rail and buses work. But you guys are “all in” for streetcars, so we got what we got.

        • Gerald Neily

          Nobody is “all in” for streetcars. Every vehicle mode has its place. But the MTA is “all in” for their $2.6 Billion Red Line (with unspecified money) to the extent that building it would totally preclude ever building any other regional transit. The MTA already studied and rejected a north Metro extension to Morgan State or beyond. Their Red Line would preclude an east Metro extension to MARC and Bayview, or ever extending the Red Line to White Marsh, Middle River or Dundalk. After that, no one will even contemplate the multi-billions to get to Towson. Their Red Line would be the end of the line.

          • Barnadine_the_Pirate

            How does building one transit line preclude building any others? Is there only 14 miles of track left on the planet?

          • Gerald Neily

            Both lines would go to Bayview. That’s OK for local transit, but if we’re going to spend billions on “regional” transit it should cover the region.

    • Gabriel Goodenough

      You are incorrect, you about the Muni light rail, much if not more than half of it is above ground.

  • Arabella_Woodhope

    My girls and I just visited San Francisco in June. We went everywhere on the trolley bus, even the beach! I was amazed that they were always on time and a fast-moving, smooth ride. As a regular rider of the MTA, I can’t say the same thing about Baltimore’s transit system. If a driver calls in sick or a bus breaks down, another one is not sent in its place, which can mean an hour or more of waiting in evening or Sunday hours. For a state which makes sustainability one of its goals, the MTA is an institution designed to make more people want to drive. As a result, mostly poor people take the bus–and I honestly believe those who run the MTA believe the poor deserve no better. claims Baltimore’s public transit system is “good,” but there’s no comparison between MTA and MUNI.

  • Richard Chambers

    Ok, Gerry. I hear you. We all hear you. So why aren’t you using your obvious talents to be an advocate for an extended Metro system? The construction of the Red Line does not preclude a host of other major transit improvements that could come down the pike in the next 20 to 30 years. I would love to see the Metro extended to the Northeast or see the old MTA Citizens Advisory Committee plan to run the Metro north to Charles Village become a reality. Why not work with transit advocates like CPHA or CMTA to be a voice for something doable, instead of trying to kill the Red Line. For example, why don’t we start to argue in favor of extending the Metro up to East North Avenue and discuss a possible heritage streetcar line as a way to connect the rail stations in the North Avenue corridor? I think that would be very possible within the next 10 years or so. But to keep trying to knock out the Red Line is just a waste of time. You can have the Red Line AND an improved Metro system. They can work together. They are not mutually exclusive.

    • Bill Ferguson

      Richard – I’m generally interested in your answer to this question: with what money? If the full 14.1 mile Red Line is built as planned today, a minimum of $1.7 billion will have to be paid out of Maryland’s Transportation Trust Fund. In what reality do you think the non-Baltimore citizens of Maryland will accept several more billion Trust Fund dollars going towards mass transit projects exclusive to Baltimore region after giving $1.7 billion for the full Red Line? We just increased revenues for the Trust Fund for the first time in 20 years this year, and it was an unbelievably heavy lift. Where does the money come from for the transit system you want after the Red Line? We need a comprehensive system now, not in 50 years. As John Maynard Keynes noted, “In the long-run, we’re all dead.”

      • Barnadine_the_Pirate

        Senator: Where did we find the money for the inter-county connector? The fact is that the state should not be building any new roads anywhere for any reason. We can barely afford to maintain what we have. Building new roads only increases sprawl, pollution, and congestion. We should have a pro-transit, pro-density transportation policy, wherein rail-based transit in pre-existing urban and dense suburbs is given top priority.

        • Gerald Neily

          The ICC is allegedly supposed to be paid by tolls, although that includes every toll road, tunnel and bridge in the entire state.

        • Bill Ferguson

          I completely agree with your assessment but it’s just not a reality when City only has 5 and 1/3rd legislative districts.

          • Greg F

            It’s not just a city issue. A total of 8 districts directly border the city. This means that at least 13 districts are directly impacted by transit in the Baltimore area. Add the DC area districts and you have a powerful pro-transit coalition. It’s also worth noting that funding need not only come from the state. Most areas also contribute to transit through local taxes, we can do that too.

          • Bill Ferguson

            Just to be clear, you believe that republican, Anne Arundel state Senator Bryan Simonaire (someone with whom I work very well) will want to join a coalition to increase funds for Baltimore transit? That’s one of the City’s bordering districts. You also believe that Montgomery County legislators will be quick to jump on board for an increased tax for Baltimore transit? Let’s assume you’re 100% correct. You’re now 22. You need 24 to pass a bill out of the Senate and 29 to vote for cloture to kill a filibuster (which would be absolutely certain, as several Eastern Shore elected officials are quite skeptical of anything going to Baltimore City). A coalition of 22 is a losing coalition. I’m not saying it’s impossible, I just want to make sure that we’re dealing in reality and not an imagined political landscape. I’ve been working on a plan for the last 6 months to use the 2014 election cycle to find some non-City legislators who may be interested in some non-traditional alliances for the future. Thus, I also think it’s possible, but I also know that it’s a long road ahead.

            Lastly, which would you prefer for local transit taxes, an increased property tax or sales tax? The only one that could come remotely close to raising the needed funds for a significant transit system investment in the next decade would likely have to come from property taxes. As you’ve very likely noticed, that’s not a very popular thing to discuss in Baltimore.

            My only point here is to say that lots of folks agree (myself included) about the importance of robust transit systems for the Baltimore region. That’s not the issue. The issue is counting votes and raising the money. If it were easier to raise money for transit, we wouldn’t have waited over 20 years to do it.

  • Andrew

    I just wince when I read this article as well as remember what a great streetcar system I witnessed in SF. I know that whatever Baltimore constructs on the streets here, would be so ugly that it would hurt the eyes. A historic city who’s tourist industry hinges on beautiful old places ought to have beautiful “retro” or even historic streetcars. What are the chances the powers-that-be in Baltimore would have a vision that was that far reaching?

    • Gerald Neily

      We have the ideal place for historic streetcars too, on a line which includes the historic First Mile B&O Railroad on the north edge of Carroll Park across from the Carroll Mansion toward Baltimore’s largest office building, Montgomery Park. It’s shown on the system plan map which accompanies my article. This could become one of Baltimore’s best places, instead of one of the worst.

      • Andrew

        See, that could actually add value to Baltimore as a place to live and visit. It sounds stupid but the trolley os a big deal to tourists in SF. Of course, ours would need utility first. I guess my angst is derived from the Disneyfication of the Inner Harbor project and the far that the city allows big construction without considering aesthetics. Don’t get me started on the huge metal monster in front of Penn Station.

  • Grant Corley

    The historic SF Market Street streetcars (including the ‘Baltimore’ car, which I’ve taken in the past) are very charming. However, it should be made clear that they are not the underpinning of the entire transit system in San Francisco. The foundation of the system is the Muni light rail and its underground tunnel, a system which is very similar to the proposed Red Line.

    Again — the Market Street streetcars are charming and historic, but they are quite slow compared to the city’s other transit. If you need to cover a large distance relatively quickly, you take BART or a Muni light rail vehicle.

    DC is doing it right — they’ve built out their Metro, and now the soon-to-be streetcars are the icing on the cake.

    Baltimore still needs to get a cake.

    • Gerald Neily

      Baltimore’s Metro should and would be the cake, if it had the short eastward extension to a transit hub. The Red Line might have a few small similarities to MUNI but the lack of a Metro connection totally destroys any comparison. Still, it’s nice that you’re actually discussing issues, not imagined motivations, political or otherwise, so I thank you.

      • Grant Corley

        The Red Line will connect directly to the Metro downtown at Charles Center, through an underground tunnel. Similar connections exist in New York and other cities. Most people walk further from their car in the parking lot to their office in the morning.

        The common complaint with the Metro is that it “doesn’t go anywhere”. Now, I don’t exactly agree with that sentiment… I find the Metro somewhat useful, and I ride it regularly. (Although I wish the stops were better integrated into their neighborhoods — I think this is part of the reason that many people don’t even know there is a Metro.)

        I would like to see the Metro extended one day, and I don’t disagree with the need for a new transit center. However, as long as the Metro misses many of the city’s population centers with its one line, and as long as it’s complimented by a slow fleet of buses (or slow streetcars), it is only going to be marginally useful.

        As someone who rides transit in Baltimore on a regular basis (I’m heading out on it right now), I see the full Red Line as being immensely useful. I would be heading to it right now, if it existed. I guarantee, I would not be the only one.

        • bmorepanic

          Two things – the first is go USE one of those tunnels in NYC before recommending them. Then use another and talk to the other people using them. People loath those tunnels and avoid them as much as possible.

          You are assuming that because the Red Line appears to be useful to you that the same will be true of all citizens in the metro area. I used transit exclusively in Baltimore for a bunch of years – until I moved to Northeast Baltimore – but I never needed to get on the Metro. It didn’t go anyplace I needed to go. I don’t go downtown much. I don’t go to Owings Mills. The same thing is true for Security Blvd. The Red line will not have any utility for me and a bunch of other people who live in Baltimore City, but have no interest in traveling where the Red Line goes.

          I went every place on the subway when I lived in NYC. I am such a transit geek, that I went to the ends of most of the lines just to see what was there. I also went on the LIRR and their Metro North local railroads. Part of what makes NYC’s system work is hubs scattered across all of the lines.

          What’s really odd about Baltimore’s system is typified by Baltimore Street. Baltimore transit planning suffers from this strange notion that every person still wants to go downtown – completing ignoring the horde of reverse commuters, the diverse locations of Hopkins compared to where their employees live, and the locations of restaurant/retail/arts.

          All of the transit lines do not need to end up in the same place. It would be very cool if fast lines went true east/west and north/south in a loose grid instead of following crazy, contorted routes because of an 1800′s notion that Baltimore/Charles is the Center of the Universe and everyone wants to go there.

          • Grant Corley

            Yes, I end up in one of those tunnels every time I go to New York. The fact of the matter is, thousands of people use them to get between trains every day — and the Red Line/Metro tunnel will be much simpler and easier to use. (Not to mention a lot newer.) Walking underground is just a part of life when you have a subway. The trip on foot from the platform at the Dupont DC Metro station to the street is a long one, but I do it because it’s still convenient compared to other options.

            In terms of how useful any single transit line is — yes, you’re exactly right. The one-off Metro line we have in Bmore is not nearly as useful as it could be precisely because it doesn’t connect to any other rail lines. That’s half the point of the Red Line. Boom — suddenly, you’ve dramatically multiplied the number of rail destinations available to you in the Baltimore area. All you have to do is walk between the trains.

            It’s appropriate that the Red Line passes through downtown, because downtown is still the economic and cultural hub of the Baltimore region. But the Red Line also recognizes the job centers on the more suburban periphery by going to the massive goverment offices in the Woodlawn area, as well as to Hopkins Bayview. And it serves tens of thousands of people in many congested neighborhoods along the way.

            I was on the Metro last night… it was kind of cool to see the train packed with folks heading to the Ravens game.

          • bmorepanic

            I do respect the thought you’ve given these issues, but I don’t agree with you.

            The Red line could go a number of ways through town other than through Inner Harbor and Canton and it would have much more utility. Heading across Orleans springs immediately to mind as does E. Chase or Monument. It could directly connect with the light rail and with the metro at hopkins hospital. People could get off at Charles and walk to penn station. It could hit work populations at hopkins hospital, hopkins bayview, the new marc train station when built, and all the workplaces/shopping off the light rail and the metro. It just doesn’t go to baltimore street.

          • bob

            there is a very old law as far as I know that is still on the books that prohibits streetcars on Orleans street, technically it is also illegal to have a bus route on Orleans street. this from back when the viaduct was built and it was feared that rairl would want to run on what was designed as an “urban expressway”

          • carthell

            I checked the city charter, There isn’t a public transportation restriction.

  • wskrayen

    “We also possessed something that San Francisco never had – a waterfront
    network of street-running freight railways that circled the harbor” is not correct. San Francisco had a freight railroad that ran along the waterfront, from where ATT Park is to Fort Mason, called the State Belt Line. It lasted into the 1980′s. Muni on the Embarcadero is actually built along that route. If you look at the historic maps, Muni and it’s predecessors did not run along the waterfront to any great extent.

    • baltimorebrew

      Yes, San Fran did have a freight railroad along the waterfront, but not nearly as extensive as Baltimore’s street lines that fanned from the Inner Harbor to Mt. Clare, Jones Falls Valley, Canton, Fells Point and Port Covington. But to extend the comparison, San Fran now uses the Embarcadero for streetcars, while Baltimore has buried its old railway system under Key Highway, Light, Pratt, President, Central, Aliceanna, Fleet, Thames, Bond, Caroline, Wolfe, Boston, etc.

  • Paul J. Lucas

    The “Baltimore” streetcar isn’t from Baltimore. It’s from the SEPTA system in PA. Most of the PCC streetcars in SF are painted in “tribute” liveries to cities that had streetcar systems.

    • Grant Corley

      Ha ha. Yes, that’s a great point. I noticed that, too. The ones I rode in SF were SEPTA streetcars repainted to look like they’re from Bmore.

      I do remember the old rail lines on Key Highway. A fond memory. I assume they’re gone now? Haven’t stared at the pavement there recently…

  • Aaron Bialick

    As the editor of Streetsblog SF, I would really like to know more about these “plans afoot to electrify some of the standard (diesel) bus routes” which you speak of. Never heard of such things, and it’s very unlikely considering the cost — the agency can barely scrape together money to maintain service and has a mammoth maintenance backlog. The electric trolleys are the oldest transit fleet in the nation and are hanging on by a string.

    • baltimorebrew

      A Muni supervisor I talked to mentioned that there were such plans. Perhaps he was mistaken. Advocacy for more electric trolley routes has come from groups like SPUR. From their 2002 Muni Vision Report: “Electric trolley coaches are rubber-tired
      coaches that are powered electrically from fixed overhead wires. . .
      Currently, 34% of Muni’s revenue hours are operated by trolley coach.
      Conversion of more lines to trolley coach operation is desirable because
      they are quiet, clean vehicles that enhance the quality of life in an
      urban setting.”

      • Common Sense

        I live in the Bay Area, (Berkeley and San Francisco) and yes its a good point that BART is very efficient. Especially for when it came out. Getting to SF from Berkeley in like 17 minutes a very useful. And in the East Bay cities, they have AC Transit which I feel is very useful and works great.
        Praising MUNI however….well. Ideally the systems work great. But in practice, its a different matter. The Muni Metros often find themselves stuck on the lines somewhere, and then all the trains pile up and then they all come at once, and once finished they don’t come for like 45 minutes. I’ve witnessed this at least once or twice every two weeks.
        The MUNI buses are awful in quality and old. Again, AC Transit is much better, but thats on the other side of the bridge. Electric lines are fine but those buses need to be replaced quick. Oakland and Berkeley did it right, I don’t see why SF can’t.
        So yes, SF has good transportation ‘on paper’, but its not as glamorous.
        I guess you can say “You never have to walk” in SF, but then again, thats only if you don’t mind every now and then, waiting for extremely late buses and light rails.

    • ryrycalguy

      Maybe he’s referring to the Van Ness and Geary BRTs.

    • bob

      new electric trolleybuses are on order for San Francisco, and the new ones will be able to travel off wire at limited speed for a couple miles to get around traffic issues, think the order is close to 200 vehicles

  • Guest
  • artc12

    Aside from the notable irony of Baltimore’s discard becoming SF’s treasure, the last five paragraphs of Mark’s article throw down the gauntlet of a terrific challenge to
    Baltimore and its transportation planning. I hope we decide to pick it up.

  • roderick_llewellyn

    I totally agree with the author’s sentiments.

    There are a couple minor corrections I’d like to make to this article.

    1. The Muni subway under Market St. does not run under BART’s subway; rather, the reverse.

    2. San Francisco and the SF Bay Area in general have not been free of poor transportation planning. I believe LA has actually, ironically enough, surged ahead. This region continues to spend most of its transportation dollars serving motorists, although various accounting tricks are used to make it seem otherwise (for example, transit fares count towards the transit total, but drivers’ gas taxes don’t count towards the auto total). Also, many projects which really serve only those who have cars are counted as transit projects (e.g., parking lots at BART – what good are they if you don’t have a car?)

    In addition, transit projects are highly influenced by narrow political pressure groups. The Central Subway (referred to in this article as a “crosstown subway”) is a case in point. Almost all transit activists believe the money could be better spent on bus rapid transit, rather than over $1 billion for a 1 mile subway. But the latter was promised to a major wealthy king-maker here in SF as a payoff to compensate for the loss of the Embarcadero Freeway and so here we go. An unfortunate reality is that we continue to build roads where motorists actually want to go, but transit is not planned that way. For the most part, those planning and making funding decisions don’t themselves EVER ride transit and so it becomes more of a political football. Cost effectiveness is very secondary when considered at all; only political juice matters. Particularly since the region’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) was established about 30 years ago, almost every transportation decision has been just about as poor as could possibly be chosen.

    All that being said, it is still true that SF made a wise decision back in 1968 when it stopped California’s out-of-control freeway program that would have completely destroyed the city, and the region’s investing in BART helped maintain the vibrant urban core SF has so that it did not become an abandoned slum as so many American cities have devolved into. That’s why I live here!

    Thanks for a great article.

    • baltimorebrew

      Thanks for correcting the Muni-over-and-BART-under subways on Market Street. Your comments remind me of another essential ingredient of “smart transportation” – citizen watchfulness over the pols and powerbrokers.

More of the Daily Drip »

Below the Fold

  • March 24, 2014

    • Last Thursday, I sent an email to the Mayor’s Office of Communications asking for some basic responsiveness: Please return our emailed queries and phone calls about stories. Please send us the same routine emails you send to other members of the media. Lately, more so than usual, they haven’t been. It’s a shame because, even [...]