San Francisco Cable Cars



What Can The San Francisco Cable Cars Teach London?


Image via Wikipedia.

If nothing else, the London Cable Car raises an interesting question:

When should a transit line be fully fare-integrated into a transit network and when should it not. For those unfamiliar, an additional fare is required for people to ride the London Cable Car despite it, ostensibly, being a part of the overall Transport for London network.

But should that be the case?

We have no shortage of examples of transit systems who operate on a similar model:

In Toronto, to access the islands, a ride on the ferries cost an additional fee above and beyond a standard transit ticket.

In Portland, a ride on the Aerial Tram costs an additional fare – with the exception of students and staff of OHSU. OHSU is the primary beneficiary of the Aerial Tram and riders affiliated with the operation ride for free.

In Medellin, Linea L services a nature preserve and requires an additional fee beyond a standard transit ticket.

Users of Vancouver’s Skytrain must pay an additional fare if they wish to use it to travel into the city from Vancouver International Airport.

Seattle’s extensive network of ferries all require separate fees despite being an integral component of transport in the region.

So what’s the difference? Why do people not have issues with the examples above but do with the London Cable Car?

The difference, I suspect, is mostly about the target market. The above examples largely service: a) a small subsection of a local population or b) a large local population who is likely to use the service very irregularly.

The system the London Cable Car represents most closely, coincidentally enough, is the San Francisco Cable Car. Both systems operate in central, rather than peripheral areas. They both feel as though they should be intertwined into their respective networks. Furthermore, the San Francisco Cable Cars are priced outside the normal San Francisco transit fare. Prices are five bucks for a one-way trip or thirteen bucks for a day pass.

Like the London Cable Car, those prices are well outside the budget of any standard commuter.

Interestingly though, the San Francisco Cable Car is used by regular commuters – they just don’t pay for it.

In 2007 auditors found that 40% of riders on the system were not paying fares. Now there’s no way to confirm whether it’s locals or tourists who are breaking the law, but assuming it’s locals is not an unreasonable assumption as those are the people who are most likely to understand how to catch free ride successfully.

People such as Jarrett Walker have argued in the past that the San Francisco Cable Cars add little to no value to San Francisco’s transit network, but stats like this suggest otherwise. From my understanding, it’s very common practice for locals to hop-on and hop-off the cars for quick trips around town without paying fares – and for the fare collectors to turn a blind eye to it.

Which in turn implies that the high fares paid by tourists help to subsidize the system for local commuters. It may be illegal, but it’s an interesting reality.

Now in no way, shape, form or description am I suggesting that fare evasion is right and justified. But I don’t think you’re going to find many San Franciscans who have a problem with it. In reality, it’s little different than the Swiss practice of selling ID cards to locals that grant them 50% off all transit in the country. The only difference is the degree of formality.

Londoners won’t be hopping on and off the Thames Cable Car any time soon, but San Francisco does provide an interesting lesson. If Londoners were allowed “free ride” on the backs of tourist fares, I suspect few people – if anyone – would’ve objected to the system.

In fact, were that the case, locals might even come to love it.

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Happy Cable Car Day

San Francisco Cable Car. Image by Flickr User hdzimmermann.

Just wanted to wish everyone a Happy Cable Car Day!

On this very date in 1871 (that’s 141 years ago), the first cable car railway patent was bestowed upon Andrew Smith Hallidie. Legend has it that Hallidie invented the cable car after he saw a horse-drawn streetcar slip and fall on San Francisco’s steep roadways (unfortunately resulting in the death of 5 horses).

Andrew Smith Hallidie, Cable Car Extraordinaire. Image by The Cable Car Museum.

After receiving financial assistance, construction began and the world saw its first cable car  — the Clay Street Hill Railway. This transit technology quickly become an icon in San Francisco and was soon implemented in many cities across the US.

A little known fact is that Andrew Smith Hallidie initially named his system the, “endless wire ropeway“. In my opinion, he should’ve kept that name and we would’ve avoided the whole nomenclature disaster that is now associated with CPT.  But at least this gives us a reason to start a Gondola Day!

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All Movements Begin With A Small Step

The Clay Street Hill Railroad

Two arguments against the current state of cable transit are the rather short line lengths of existing systems and the relatively few systems that actually exist. Both arguments suggest that urban gondola transit is not yet ready for ‘prime time.’

Fair enough.

It is, however, important to remember that all technologies start out modestly. No matter the rate of eventual uptake, all technology begins – in effect – in someone’s basement.

For example:

In 1873 Andrew Smith Hallidie opened America’s first commercially viable cable-hauled railway; San Francisco’s Clay Street Hill Railroad – the precursor to the beloved Cable Car.

It was less than 1 km in length.

By the end of the century there would be over 800 kms worth of cable lines in cities throughout the United States and dozens of other cities outside North America had their own systems, too.

Yes, the Cable Car became a relic of a bygone era – replaced by self-propelled streetcar – but the point still remains: What was a legitimate revolution in transportation started with one modest system of less than 1 km in the far away land (at least at that time) of San Francisco.

The parallels to what is going on with Cable Propelled Transit in Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil and South America in general should be obvious to anyone.

We should remember that when we scoff at the modest gains of all technologies. Even the beleaguered London Heathrow Ultra PRT, may be a precursor of things to come.

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Market Street Film Mystery Unravelled

Back in January I posted an historical archive film of the San Francisco Cable Cars.

The film is historically important for numerous reasons, not the least of which being its date. Filmed mere days before the Great Earthquake of 1906, this video stands as one of the most vivid documentations of San Francisco before the quake that would utterly transform the city.

Interestingly, most historians had assumed the video to be from 1905. Film historian David Keihn, however, thought otherwise. He theorized the film to be from a later date and went about to prove it.

This past weekend, 60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer went behind the scenes of this film to meet David Keihn and uncover the history, mystery, stories and personalities behind it. The story has an almost whodunnit quality to it that will keep you interested to the end.

The Market Street Film is hauntingly surreal. It stands as a silent eulogy to a place all but destroyed which  – quite literally – no longer exists. As Mr. Safer so eloquently puts it, the film documents “San Francisco closing in on its rendezvous with catastrophe. The odds are, some of the people you see had just days to live.

It’s wonderful, charming and beautiful. It will make you stop and contemplate. I don’t know why and I don’t know how, but it will. Take the 12-and-a-half minutes required to watch it. You’ll be glad you did.

As an added bonus, a whole new, never-before-seen HD remastering of the film is presented.

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California and Powell

Last night I went for a ride in San Francisco.

I was on the west coast learning about various cable systems and I was at the end of a long week of traveling and research. I needed room to clear my head, get out of the hotel. I found myself jumping on a cable car at 10 o’clock at night. No where to go, no destination in mind. Just hop on and go.

It made no sense. I’d just spent the last two days riding these rickety old things and had no reason to want to ride one again. See, San Francisco cable cars are iconic, but they aren’t comfortable. You ride them because they’re the quickest way to get you where you’re going or you’re a tourist and you just kinda’ have to. The tourist’s obligation. But they’re not pleasant.

Firstly, they’re expensive. If you don’t have a pass, they cost five bucks a trip (each way!). The drivers (‘gripmen’) are large, surly ogres barking orders at pedestrians, riders and each other.  Wind whips through the open cabin, chilling your hands. Wooden benches provide meagre, spartan seating. The cars shake and jostle.

Even still, I was compelled.

The cable cars are deeply romantic things. Not romantic in the sexual sense, but in the original meaning of the word. They’re pastoral and poetic, inviting contemplation and meditation. They are so connected to the street, so plugged-in to the city-block, so unmediated that to ride the cars out in the open air is to experience the city first hand.

At the intersection of California and Powell, the car stopped prematurely. For technical reasons we had dropped the rope and couldn’t ‘pick it up’.  In other words, we were stranded. We were blocking five lanes of traffic in three different directions.

Waiting for a red light on the street corner, a fat man in a hoodie spotted the problem as though he’d seen it happen hundreds of times before. Maybe he was an off-duty gripman, or maybe he’d just seen it so many times he knew exactly what had occurred. Indeed, the curious design of California and Powell almost ensures this problem should occur repeatedly.

The fat man jostled over to our beached whale of a vehicle and began to push our car a dozen feet or so to a place where we could pick up the rope again. A few of us in the car jumped out to help. The fat man didn’t need our help, but we wanted the selfish right to tell the story later and that right could only be bequeathed to us if we participated in the event. The problem was resolved in a matter of seconds. We proceeded on our way and the fat man went back to waiting for his red light, which had already changed twice while he’d been helping us.

By every conceivable statistical measure the San Francisco cable cars are worthless, antiquated pieces of junk. But cities aren’t made on a spreadsheet. On paper, a system that needs a fat man in a hoodie to give it a push is laughable. In practice, it exposes the collective will of a city working together to maintain a piece of their heritage. Even in their dilapidated, ramshackle condition the San Francisco cable cars say more and accomplish more than almost any transit system I know of.

They’re a unifier, an advertisement to the world, a transporter of people and an invitation to reflection. That’s not something you’re going to find in textbooks, planning reports or wikipedia. Our systems just don’t allow us to consider such irrelevant pleasantries.

Think about it. When our modern transit systems fail (and they all fail at one point or another), what do we do? Complain, place blame, write an op-ed, call for someone’s resignation, demand a refund. I pay for this system with my tax dollars, dammit! But we never help.

We never just get out and push.

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Grip Module, Lesson 3: Attachable Grips

San Francisco Cable Car

The exception to Detachable Grips are what I like to think of as Attachable Grips. This concept is best exemplified by the familiar San Francisco Cable Cars. I will not go into a long description about the technology. Instead, I’d like to point you to Joe Thompson’s Cable Car Guy website which does an excellent job of explaining the technology.

In summary, the vehicles attach themselves to a below-grade cable by “picking up” or “gripping” the moving cable. This is unlike virtually every other cable technology in the world. In typical detachable systems, vehicles are attached, detachached, slowed and accelerated automatically by off-board mechanisms located within terminals and stations.

Not so in San Francisco.


San Francisco cable cars have virtually no automation. Attaching, releasing, braking and accelerating are all done manually by an operator known as a Gripman.

Beyond the desire to maintain a heritage technique, the Gripman is an essential feature of a San Francisco Cable Car given the system’s configuration and relationship to the city’s traffic.

Unlike all other cable transit systems, San Francisco’s cable cars operate within mixed traffic. This co-mingling of transportation technologies, makes automation a virtual impossibility.

The vehicles must be capable of “picking up” or “dropping” the cable at the near-instantaneous discretion of the Gripman.

As such, it’s best to classify the San Francisco cable cars as utilizing Attachable rather than Detachable Grips.

The difference is subtle, but has a significant impact on the systems’ strengths and weaknesses, a matter which I will get to in a later post. For the time being, an easy way to remember the distinction is this:

In Attachable Grip systems, attaching, detaching, acceleration and deceleration are executed on-board the vehicle in a non-automated manner.

In Detachable Grip systems, attaching, detaching, acceleration and deceleration are automated actions executed in stations or terminals off-board the vehicle.

Proceed to Grip Module, 4: Corners.

Return to Grip Module, Lesson 2: Detachable Grips

Creative Commons images David Hudson Floyd and johntrainor.

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