San Francisco’s famous streetcars almost died, as electric public railways did all over the United States.
“They were near death” from the ’50s to ’80s, says self-described “transit geek” John Hogan.
Streetcar rails were yanked out all over the continent, and cars junked or, in a few cases, revived for awhile as byway diners.
“Streetcars were an endangered species in North America after World War II,” when private cars and urban sprawl threatened public transit, says Hogan, manager of the San Francisco Railway Museum. By the 1970s, only seven cities still had electric public transit.
San Francisco, known as the first large American city with streetcars, let its fleet languish too. It took a partnership of government and private fans to bring back the romantic age of rail. It wasn’t until 2000 that streetcars were running full-time here, as part of “the renaissance in light rail,” Hogan recalls.
The Market Street Railway raised millions of dollars to rescue and repair old trolleys and streetcars from all over the globe. But “the city did the heavy lifting,” he says. “It’s a real civic success story.”
Electric trams, trolleys and streetcars are so popular, people line up night and day to board them, whether they’re visitors or commuters.
“It’s the fastest, easiest, cheapest way” to get around this hilly city, Hogan explains. ”They’re green, they’re eco-friendly” and they’re popular partly because of nostalgia, he adds.
“Everybody has a streetcar in their past. You can ride a Kansas car here, but you can’t ride one in Kansas.”
Among the 50 vintage cars in the city’s collection are those painted to honor electric transit cities from all over the U.S., as well as Italy, Canada, and Mexico.
The San Francisco Railway Museum has history books, rare film, videos, toys, games and more honoring the more than century-old system. It’s particularly proud of the famous “F” line, which takes 20,000 riders a day along the waterfront, downtown and to neighborhoods like the busy Castro.
We like the romance of bumping along San Francisco in streetcars and electric trams and trolleys, partly because there are so many visitors it makes for a lively ride.
“It never costs more than the bus,” Hogan advises.
That’s 75 cents for riders aged 5 to 17 or 65 and over; $2 for adults, one-way. Transfers allow for a 90-minute ride, including returns for those prices. There are passes for multiple trips, if you’re staying longer than a few days.
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