Eyes on the Street: Bicoastal Streetcars





San Francisco



Like Clarence Eckerson, I recently returned from a visit to San Francisco. I left with a feeling that San Francisco has the best urban surface transportation in the country: emissions-free buses drawing power from overhead wires, regular buses, cable cars moving up and down steep hills, many cyclists despite those hills, partially buried lightrail and a regional subway. But the most heartwarming thing to see was the streetcars. What a joyous and democratic mode of transportation, the streetcar.

Sure, we have light rail over in Jersey City, and it’s great to have that. But there is nothing like an honest-to-God fully functioning streetcar system like the one San Franciscans have managed to preserve restored on Market Street and the Embarcadero (the F Line). Think they’re just for tourists? Maybe the cable cars, but the streetcars I saw were standing-room-only, with a mix of visitors and natives. There are probably other models visible in museums, but these old cars and the ones New Orleans still only partially restored after Hurricane Katrina are the last in the country still doing the heavy lifting. At least for now.

Now that the corpse of the ill-fated attempt to bring streetcars to Red Hook (pictured above) is cold, we can begin to think about the new efforts to bring streetcars back to Brooklyn. ‘Frisco proves that it is possible.

(Top two photos by Futurebird.)

  • TG

    As a transplant from the Bay Area, I fully agree. However, looks may be deceptive. SF didn’t “manage to preserve” streetcars in the same way it preserved its cable cars. The F Line was created by force of will by rail enthusiasts. I’m not positive, but I have heard that the maintenance of the historic streetcars is done by a volunteer group, not the transit agency.

    Some history can be found here:

  • J:Lai

    On the downside, the SF transit system barely provides any late night surface, and the electric buses have frequent problems with becoming disengaged from the overhead wires which causes delays. However, it is a pretty good system, albeit for a much smaller geographical area than NYC occupies.

    Aside from aesthetic considerations, I don’t really see why light rail would be preferable to bus rapid transit system. Light rail involves expensive investment in fixed infrastructure (the rails) which is very difficult to modify in the future if routes need to be changed.

  • ddartley

    Brooklyn is already at the forefront of some great changes, but if a working streetcar system were brought to Brooklyn or greater New York City, then decades later, history books would probably say it was part of the Renaissance.

  • ddartley

    Oops. “The Urban Renaissance,” I meant to say. Not the one with Ninja Turtles.

  • Hey. You should enter those photos in the New York Water Taxi photo contest: http://newyorkwatertaxiphotocontest.blogspot.com

  • Putting as much transportation on electric power (whether by wires or batteries) saves oil and does not create local ground level pollution withch triggers Asthma and lung diseases.

    I agree BRT is a low cost easy way to establish the surface mass transportation Right of Way that could serve multiple different modes of transport – diesel bus, hybrids bus, electric bus or light rail.

    But what I like most about these photos is the reminder that you can put this mass Transit right of way in the middle of the street and create a separate loading space for passengers next to it, leaving only one lane for automobiles on the sides.

  • blah

    those buses are not emissions free – they are only “emissions free” on the bus route. their power doesn’t come from magic, it has to come from somewhere – the powerplant that is powering the lines from which buses gets it’s power has its own emssions.

  • I think it’s great that many of the San Francisco streetcars have been salvaged from abandoned rail systems in other cities. Some of these cars are so beautiful, its really a shame they’re no longer in production.

    As a post-Katrina transplant to the Bay Area, I was thrilled when I got to ride down market street in original New Orleans Streetcar. During the 7 years I was living in New Orleans, I was witness to a burgeoning Streetcar Renaissance. New lines opened up on canal street, taking people from the downtown to the serene (and tourst-free) mid-city area. Before the hurricane, the city was planning on resurrecting new lines, including the famous “Desire” line, with the hopes of revitalizing some of the oldest and most beautiful neighborhoods in the city.

  • AD

    TG: Thanks for the correction. I’ve amended the piece.

    7: Your point is well taken. You’re probably right unless the powerplant is hydroelectric or wind, which it just might be. But more importantly, I think there is an important qualitative difference between pollution that is remote to population centers and pollution that is in your face. Either one is bad but the latter is even worse.

  • Great blog, by the way!

  • AD

    Glenn: It actually isn’t as great as all that. At least in San Fran, the streetcars don’t have a dedicated right-of-way. They share those middle lanes with cars and buses. Maybe one of our New Orleans readers can comment on what they do in the Big Easy.

  • techcities

    San Francisco is a great town, and it has a great diversity of transit options. The problem is that the average on-time rate for the entire system hovers around 65%. Using the system on a daily basis can be a very frustrating affair. The F line is a treat to ride, if you’ve got time to spare. I can now happily weather any NYC transit delay after having spent much time waiting in the rain for a streetcar that never came or crammed in a bus that runs slower than a pedestrian walks. A smart and interesting system only makes sense if it’s run well.

    @TG: Yes, the maintenance is handled by volunteers of the Market Street Railway group.

  • Re: New Orleans, the few streetcar lines that are left are installed on “Neutral Grounds” – grassy medians that divide the street (with their own interesting history). However, at a few points in the city, the streetcars share road space as they do in San Francisco.

    I’ll try and post some pics and information on my site later this evening. When I was in school, I studied the history of the New Orleans Streetcar and I’m sure I can find some of that info somewhere on one of my harddrives….

  • Ben

    RE: BRT as a gateway to streetlevel transit…

    From what I understand, that is exactly what Zurich, Switzerland has done. First they created dedicated bus lanes, and then the routes became so popular they started replacing bus service with electrified streetcar lines on the same rights-of-way. perhaps that’s the best case scenario for BRT in New York?

    On a sidenote, it bothers me that SF streetcars seem to all have an old-timey look. Even if they’re not just used by tourists, the image it conveys is “tourist attraction.” I would like to see sleeker models that say streetlevel transit is modern and useful on a mass scale.

  • Blah – I was only addressing the ground level pollution which has serious health issues associated with it. But aside from that, electricity can be created in many different ways, such as hydro power or other renewables that have zero or near zero emissions.

    AD – I thought they could only use that lane for turning, not to continuously ride in front of the streetcars (or maybe I’m just thinking of the cable cars?)

  • AD

    Jimmy, post the link when you get find it.
    Glenn, oh, O.K. – you may know more about this than I do. Hopefully you are correct.

  • Clarence


    Have to say when I first saw the first few photos of this post, I was like, “very nice photos from Red Hook but where is this piece headed?”. But within seconds I was taken aback by the wonderful juxtaposition with SF you made. Funny, I have been to SF so many times, and have seen the Red Hook cars probably a hundred times and never quite made the connection.

    Oh and I learned the hard way that most of my friends in ‘Frisco, don’t like to hear the words “Frisco” spoken aloud.


  • Matthew

    San Francisco’s public transportation system may look great on the surface, but there are countless parts of the city that are barely serviced at all, and the majority of the areas that are serviced by several lines are just as hopeless if you are trying to catch a ride off peak transport hours.

    I grew up and lived most of my life in San Francisco and have always found its public transportation system to be rather disgraceful, especially for a city of its size. There is no reason why it should have to take anyone more than an hour to get from one end of the city to another, if not less, but the fact of the matter is, unless you live right in the center of the city or need to go to any outer neighborhood, you’d better plan on having a car or a bike.

    San Francisco also continues to flounder plans to bring light-rail and rapid transit service to outter neighborhoods that were once serviced by streetcar systems prior to urban renewal plans. San Francisco’s public transportation system is a shining example of wasted potential.

  • Thanks for putting my red-hook photos to good use!

    With your SF photos it shows people just how much more alive this area could be with the light rail.

  • crzwdjk

    For one thing, light rail can handle much higher loads than bus rapid transit. Light rail trains can be up to 180 feet long, while the longest street-legal buses in the US are only 50 feet. And light rail generally can maintain somewhat closer headways than bus lines, down to maybe 4 minutes with good reliability. Light rail is also faster since electric vehicles have higher acceleration than buses. Plus, it doesn’t smell, and is quiet, which are benefits shared with trolleybuses, however, trolleybuses cannot (in general) be coupled into trains, and they lack the amazing energy efficiency of steel wheel on steel rail.

  • wesolows

    Actually, the electric buses and streetcars *are* emission-free: they use hydroelectric power from three powerhouses on the Upper Tuolumne . Emission-free doesn’t mean completely free, though – the ecological damage associated with these dams and powerhouses was considerable. Nevertheless, it seems safe to say that this source of motive power is the best option we have unless and until we figure out how to build Mr. Fusions.

    There is and has for some time been a push to “restore” the Hetch Hetchy Valley, which would significantly alter San Francisco’s water and hydropower sources; advocates of this strategy suggest “that replacement energy supplies could be largely made up through
    renewable resources, such as wind and solar, or by investments in energy efficiency” (http://www.environmentaldefense.org/documents/5489_HHMythsandFacts091506.pdf), which seems to this reader to be something of a tautology: “If people would just stop using electricity, we wouldn’t need these dams to generate electricity!” There’s a lot to be said for conservation, which is usually cheaper and easier than finding new sources of energy, but since the SFPUC provides 20% of the city’s electricity – that part which is used by public facilities including Muni, it’s unlikely that conservation can ever completely eliminate the need for these powerhouses. As for the “wind and solar” bleatings, we’ve been hearing that for years and little has come of it. Now the people calling for more wind power in the 70s tell us that turbines kill birds and alter climate and shouldn’t be used either. At some point you have to make a value judgment: get rid of Muni or accept some form and amount of ecological degradation. SF has done a pretty good job doing the things that need doing with minimal damage.

  • Alain Vaillancourt

    Those aren’t just any old streetcars you’re showing, those are PCC models (Presidents’ Conferecne Commottee) from the 1930s. It’s one of the best streetcar designs to have come out of the USA. The design was even exported to Europe.


  • Andrew

    Anyone interested in the recent history of streetcar development in North America should check out a great document from the city of Toronto – The Streetcar Renaissance. Find it here


    It’s a pdf, unfortunately, but it’s worth the trouble.

  • vhamer

    I’m on board with “SF has a lot of transit options,” but the entire system itself leaves a *lot* to be desired. MUNI Trains and cable cars frequently break down, and in many areas the frequency of trains is too low to be a convenient alternative. The result? SF is still a car city, and every extra car on the road means one more delay for the trains that share the surface space. MUNI Buses are in the same boat. As a result, the people who are most likely to use the system are the people who can’t afford another option (read: car). The result? A ride on a MUNI bus or train is often ridiculously long, impossible to schedule, and altogether inconvenient. SF seems to have completely forgotten about these folks – the people who actually keep the city running.

    BART is great, but it is a great commuter rail, not a great “get around town” rail. SF really lacks a good way to get around town. So those coming in from the ‘burbs can do so efficiently, but those who live/travel in the city might spend 90 min or more to get from the east to west coast of the peninsula.

  • capt subway

    I’m not sure why everyone is so in love with BRT. Sure it’s cheaper. But you get what you pay for. Here in NYC where there are BRT lanes there is absolutely no enforcement. Anybody can drive in them – or park in them. The NYPD doesn’t give a sh-t! In fact the NYPD are some of the worst offenders! So here in NYC, right now, BRT is a joke, an oxymoron.

    Light rail is far superior in that the vehicles are much bigger – a six car articulated is larger than three articulated buses, but needs only one operator. This is important since the cost of labor is a major factor in transit. Light rail vehicles are smoother riding and far safer in that they are on rails, and do not cause air pollution at street level.

    As to flexibility: well look at the history of the NYC bus system. Most of the bus lines that were formerly streetcar still follow almost the exact same routes as their streetcar predecessors. And why worry about flexibility if you’re putting rails on 1st/2nd Ave, Utica Ave, Flatbush Ave, whatever? Where is it you’re thinking you might need to move the rails to?

  • Anonymous

    When I was 5 years old I resided at the corner of 48th and Judah (1954). When my Mom and I rode the streetcar the driver used to let me sit in the driver’s seat at the back of the car and pretend I was driving the streetcar. It was one of my the hi-lites of my childhood in SF. That would never happen today.


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