Cable Cars

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There is no image that screams “San Francisco” louder than the cable car system. Developed over a century ago as the premier transportation system in and around the city, today the cable cars represent the last of their kind and draw far more tourists than they do commuters. A moving “destination,” visiting the City by the Bay without taking a cable car ride is almost not worth it.

History

The steep hills of San Francisco are almost as famous as the cable cars that climb them, but what modern visitors and residents of San Francisco may fail to realize is that these quintessential areas of the city were not really accessible for most of its history. However, in the middle of the 19th century, entrepreneur Andrew Hallaidie witnessed a horrendous horse and buggy crash on these hills and got an idea for a system of transportation that would allow people to access the hills in a safer way, opening them up to private residences for the first time in history.

The first cable cars were built in 1873 and ran from the Clay Street Hill Railroad. Though the system was thought up and promoted by Hallidie, the intricate hand-operated nature of the cars was designed by engineer William Eppelsheimer. The use of pulleys and manual braking, by a “gripman” (a term changed to “grip person” in 2010) is still used today. Within just a few years, the cable care system in San Francisco had spread out to eight different companies, operating 600 cars on 21 different routes that covered over 50 miles of the city. This ushered in a new era for San Francisco transportation that changed the face of the city forever.

Throughout the end of the 19th century and into the beginnings of the 20th, cable cars remained San Francisco’s main mode of transportation. However, when the 1906 earthquake struck the city, most of the lines were destroyed and never resurrected as the use of electric streetcars seemed a far safer alternative to the pulley system. By 1912, a mere eight lines still operated in the city, largely relegated to the steepest of hills that were impossible for the electric cars to climb.

Though the prominence of San Francisco Cable Cars never returned to its pre-1906 days, the presence of the cars has been consistent throughout the city’s history. The cars themselves were named National Historic Landmarks in 1964, paving the way for their preservation through the San Francisco Municipal Transport Agency (“Muni”).

Now, with the advancements in modern transportation technology, the need for the highly skilled and mechanized cable car is low. However, the protection granted to the cars and the lines by their entry in the National Register of Historic Places ensures that their presence in San Francisco will continue. Indeed, riding on the cable cars is included in many Muni commuter passes and used by a fair few residents of the city on a daily basis.

Today, Muni operates only three cable car lines, each of which is designated by a street name rather than a number like other transportation media Muni runs. These are the Powel-Hyde, Powel-Mason, and California Street lines. All of these lines take passengers to different areas in the northwest corner of the city and each goes up and over Nob Hill, one of San Francisco’s most famous peaks, and one of the original “seven hills” upon which the city was built.

Main Attraction

The main draw of the cable cars is obviously tourists who are attracted to their history and novelty. However, it serves to note that the cable cars represent a legitimate method of transportation in and around certain parts of San Francisco and can and should be used to that effect.

Single rides on a cable car start at upwards of $6 each, though children under 5 are free. But, cable car access is included in 1-, 3-, and 7-day Muni passes as well as with the San Francisco CITYPass allowing even visitors the option to use them as transportation and attractions. Riders can catch the two Powell lines at their turntable stations at Powell and Market Streets and ride through to different parts of Fisherman’s Wharf. The California Line operates east to west through the financial district, Chinatown, and Van Ness Avenue.

Cable cars run 365 days a year from approximately 6:00 am to 1:00 am.

Why It’s a Must-See

If you ask 100 people about emblems of San Francisco a few things will come up: the Golden Gate Bridge, sour dough bread, and cable cars. Whether it is for the legitimate purpose of getting from one place to another in the city, or just to say that you did it, going for a ride on a San Francisco cable car is a unique way to engage with the history of this fascinating city.

Where to Buy It

There are a number of ways you can enjoy admission to this attraction.
1. Purchase a ticket at sales locations in San Francisco.
2. Purchase a Tourist pass. The Cable Car Rides available on the SF CityPass