Vintage Public Transit: San Francisco’s Streetcars and Cable Cars

Red StreetcarSan Francisco is one of my favorite places to visit.  One of the things I like most about the city is its vintage public transit, i.e. the streetcars and cable cars.  As I previously shared in Amtraking: Traveling by Train and The Story of Union Station in Los Angeles, I am a fan of trains and rail travel in general.  I use the subway (Metro) as part of my daily commute between work and home, but since it runs underground, the Red/Purple Line does not offer the wonderful views and fun experience that San Francisco’s streetcars and cable cars do.  While staying at Fisherman’s Wharf for a conference a couple of months ago, I took my young daughter on a ride on the streetcar.  It was her first time and she clearly enjoyed it.  I wish I had captured the joy and excitement on her face as she leaned against the window to see the sights along the route.  In this article, I would like to share what I have learned about San Francisco’s streetcars and cable cars as part of my recent trip and subsequent research.

Streetcar vs. Cable Car

Before going any further, let me first explain what is the difference between a streetcar and a cable car.  Train enthusiasts would certainly know, but for the general public, it might not be so obvious.  Market Street Railway offers a simple, yet clear explanation:

If it runs on steel rails with a trolley pole connected to an overhead wire above, it’s a streetcar.

If it runs on steel rails with an open slot between them, and no overhead wires, it’s a cable car.

For further explanation, please visit this site.


StreetcarStreetcars run on steel rails, but have a trolley pole on the roof that connects to a single overhead electric wire for power.  Because they were a lot faster than other forms of earlier urban transportation (like cable cars and horse-cars), the streetcar quickly became America’s choice for transit in the first half of the 20th century.  With 100,000 vehicles and 45,000 miles of track in the U.S. by 1918, the streetcar helped trigger rapid urban growth and contributed to the creation of the nation’s first true suburbs.  San Francisco’s streetcars were built between 1895 and 1952.  The F Market & Wharves line is operated as a heritage streetcar service, using exclusively historic equipment both from the city’s retired fleet as well as from cities around the world.  Please check out this page to learn more about the different streetcars that can be seen on the streets of San Francisco.  While the F line is operated by the San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni), its operation is supported by Market Street Railway, a nonprofit organization of streetcar enthusiasts which raises funds and helps to restore vintage streetcars.  While historic, the F Market & Wharves line is an integral part of Muni’s intermodal urban transportation network, operating at frequent intervals for 20 hours a day, seven days a week.  It carries local commuters and tourists alike, connecting residential, business and leisure oriented areas of the city.  Unlike the mechanical cable cars, streetcars are propelled by on-board electric motors and require a trolley pole to draw power from an overhead wire.  As a tourist and a planner, I really enjoyed riding the historic streetcars, and felt like I was traveling back in time whenever I was on it.

Cable Cars

Cable CarSan Francisco’s cable car system is the world’s last manually-operated cable car system.  This system is an icon of the city and also a part of Muni’s transportation network.  The cable cars run on steel rails with a slot between them.  Under the slot, beneath the street is a cable powered by winding machinery in a central powerhouse location.  The car grabs onto the constantly-moving cable, reaching through the slot underneath the street.  This type of street-running cable was invented in San Francisco in 1873 and was soon replicated by dozens of cities around the world, including Chicago, London, Los Angeles, New York, and Oakland.  Sadly, of the twenty-three lines established in San Francisco between 1873 and 1890, only three remain (one of which combines parts of two earlier lines: two routes from downtown near Union Square to Fisherman’s Wharf, and a third route along California Street.  The vast majority of the 7 million annual passengers on the cable cars are tourists, rather than locals.  This reflects the fact that the cable cars are among the most significant tourist attractions in San Francisco, along with Alcatraz Island, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Fisherman’s Wharf.  Also noteworthy is that the cable cars are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  During my last visit to San Francisco, we stayed at a hotel within walking distance of the cable cars terminal.  This gave me an opportunity to see the cable cars up close while they were idle.


On Track book coverIf you want to learn more about San Francisco’s streetcars and cable cars, I highly recommend a book by author Rick Laubscher: On Track: A Field Guide to San Francisco’s Historic Streetcars & Cable Cars.  This field guide tells the remarkable stories of each of San Francisco’s streetcars and cable cars.  Detailed illustrations and specifications accompany the description of each vehicle.  The book even includes a trainspotter’s checklist at the back of the guide for keeping track of the fleet.  In addition, On Track shows riders how to get the most enjoyment out of the city’s unique transportation system.  If you are a train enthusiast, I also suggest visiting the San Francisco Railway Museum, the San Francisco Cable Car Museum, and the Boudin Museum & Bakery Tour (which surprisingly offers some interesting information about streetcars in addition to a comprehensive history of the bakery!).


Photo credits:

Streetcars and cable cars by author

On Track: A Field Guide to San Francisco’s Historic Streetcars & Cable Cars book cover from

Profile photo of Clement Lau About Clement Lau

Clement Lau, AICP, has 15 years of professional experience in urban and regional planning. Currently, Dr. Lau is a Departmental Facilities Planner with the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation. He enjoys writing about a variety of planning issues and is on the author panel for UrbDeZine. He also has published articles in the California Planning & Development Report, Public Works Management & Policy, and Progressive Planning. Dr. Lau previously worked for Los Angeles County's Department of Regional Planning and the consulting firm of Cotton/Bridges/Associates in Pasadena. He has guest lectured on public policy and urban planning topics at the University of Southern California and California State University, Northridge. He holds a doctorate and master's in urban planning from USC, and bachelor's in economics from the University of Hawaii at Manoa.