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david vartanoff

A dissent about SF Cable Cars. Despite Muni's tourist gouging fares, local pass holders can and do use them as regular transit. The Cal line is rarely jammed and using it to connect w/ the Powell lines works well. Reliability OTOH is the extreme end of Muni's generally abysmal schedule adherence. Some of this is auto sabotage, some Muni staff non performance. As to the stats you cite a. the Cable Cars are notorious for sloppy fare collection/passenger counts, and b. a real transit user figure for SF would count BART intra city trips as well.


Is it fair to compare the ridership of the cable cars, which cover a relatively small portion of downtown SF, with the Muni system as a whole? Seems more useful to compare to bus lines that cover the same territory. For the amount of territory they cover, 24K passengers a day seemed surprisingly high to me.

I have fond memories of the only time I took the cable car for real transit purposes when I lived in the Bay Area -- I was going from my home in the East Bay to a friend's party at California and Van Ness, in the evening in the winter. The conductor picked up on the fact that I was a local and refused to take my money.


The point about the unreliability of fixed-rail transit in mixed traffic is often forgotten. It is very frustrating to ride a streetcar and then end up stuck behind a parked car that has to be towed. A bus could just go around it. Even the MAX, which has exclusive lanes but runs at-grade on city streets, often has problems with cars on the tracks.


Some years ago now I had an experience with the uselessness of SF cable cars.

They were definitely useless to me that day, and in a way that was somewhat harmful: by existing, they were, in some way, purporting to be useful, so I thought I'd try taking one, instead of originally planning to take something else instead. This is one way that "endearing but useless" transit" can actually have negative utility, as well as giving people a bad perception about the usefulness of transit in a city/overall.

Moaz Yusuf Ahmad

Endearing but useless...

Google search Malacca Monorail ... or just go here: http://transitmy.org/?s=Malacca+monorail

Cheers, Moaz

Jeffrey Bridgman

The 1993 accident... was it a weekday or weekend. I think this could make some difference and I'm having trouble finding the information.


I really agree with the thrust of this - that transit wins when it competes to be the rational choice. I don't think transit can win based on how committed its riders are to transit alone.

In a way though an early statement in this piece lets transit off the hook - by restating the widely-held belief that government road subsidies stack the deck against transit. There's a little truth to that, but the bigger challenges to becoming the rational choice are (1) the amount of personal investment people have made in their car, and (2) most people's willingness, even pleasure, to drive the car themselves rather than to pay someone to drive them around. Both of those factors make the marginal cost of a car trip relatively low. It's people's personal investments in their car that matters in travel choice, not the government's funding for the road infrastructure that makes the challenge of making a real dent in travel trends so hard. (And we would still need good streets for walking, bikes and trucks even if transit won that war.)

I'm expecting some arguments about that, but I think it's true. I think transit professionals and advocates need to look that in the face and stop making ideological excuses if they want to make real changes in travel behaviors. We need to look problems in the face for what they are if we hope to solve them. And I think that just strengthens your argument that our efforts need to go first to the things that change the calculation of what's rational by providing the best product, not just the cutest one with the best advertising.

Dexter Wong

One thing I get from reading Darrin Nordahl's book "My Kind Kind of Transit" is that he completely overlooks the historical context of how some forms of transit, like the cable car formed. He just sees them as unique and endearing. The cable car was invented to travel hills that horse cars could not. It also was the first successful form of mechanized urban transit, but it was made obsolete by the electric streetcar by the turn of the 20th Century. It only survived on the steepest hills until improved buses arrived in the 1940s. The surviving San Francisco lines were saved because a dedicated group of citizens banded together to alter the city charter. If San Franciscans were not so sentimental, cable cars would just be another memory.



Superficially, another example is the traditional rear-boarding London bus. Certainly, discussion of that thing revolves around its nostalgia value vs. its failure as an effective form of transit. But I think this misses some important points, thus...

The seven utility elements of the traditional London Bus:

1, 2. We'll ignore these, as they are the same as for any other bus against which it competes on the same routes.

3. It's a good use of my time. Better than other buses, as the conductor takes the fares whilst the driver drives.

4. It's a good use of my money. Worse. It has two staff, so its more expensive. On the other hand, conductors are (much) cheaper than drivers, because they aren't covered by the same labour arrangements, and the simpler design means its cheaper to build and maintain (given equivalent economies of scale).

5. It respects me. Broadly, its as comfortable as any other bus.

6. I can trust it. Better. Because it has some redundancy with an extra staff member, it's less likely to get held up boarding at a stop. Bunching is therefore less likely. Additionally, you can jump on board whilst the vehicle is moving, so you can catch a bus you would otherwise have missed, or if its just stopped in traffic rather than at a designated stop (without causing additional delay).

7. Better, all the usual advantages of a bus, plus the 'jump on and off' feature.

8. Bonus, it has Endearing qualities, which are useful not only for you but also in advocating for, e.g. exclusive bus lanes (i.e. they can be a wedge for improvements to 1 and 2 in this case).

It feels like there's some room for discussion here, because the 'efficiency' argument was quite strongly in favour of eliminating the old-style buses, but my analysis suggests otherwise.

Naively, I guess that a concern for disabled access (doesn't appear in the elements), safety (which I suppose falls under 'respect'), and the dominating expense of labour costs pushed the buses out of service.


Alex B.


It's people's personal investments in their car that matters in travel choice, not the government's funding for the road infrastructure that makes the challenge of making a real dent in travel trends so hard. (And we would still need good streets for walking, bikes and trucks even if transit won that war.)

Here's the thing: "Roads" and "streets" are not the same thing. The government's big investment in roads is not money into local streets that serve multiple purposes (most of which, in urban contexts, predate the car by a great deal), but in highways and other rapid auto infrastructure.

That kind of infrastructure for highways massively tilts the scales in favor of driving, in the same way that providing grade separation for a subway line will tilt the scale in favor of transit compared to, say, a streetcar in mixed traffic. Add in the disparity of investment in the US over the years, massively favoring highway projects over transit, and you can get the picture.

Furthermore, places like Washington DC illustrate an alternate path. DC's Metro is a relatively new subway system, and the funding for it primarily came from dollars allocated to planned highways that were never built for various reasons. Within the core of the DC region, the investment focus has been entirely different, and the behavior of residents, workers, and visitors responds accordingly.

The other point I'd make is about self-reinforcement. High capacity rapid transit supports dense development. There's a positive feedback loop that allows for the core to grow denser and denser. Conversely, auto-oriented systems, due to the need to provide massive amounts of space for the terminal capacity to handle all of those cars does not promote dense development. There are feedback loops with each of those broad investment tracks.

Eric O

Cities that have sentimental citizens perhaps demonstrate their advantage over less demanding ("less expensive") populations. :) But I really like the premise of using transit-endearment to diversify your user base. The implication of this (and this would not be a trivial point for me in the communities I work in) is that an agency should look to "endear" the service in corridors where the transit would be demonstrably competitive in the seven demands, that primarily serves a ridership base of transit dependent users currently, and where a parallel travel demand exists for car-owners.

James Fujita

Even in a world where public finances force us to concentrate on the practical and useful aspects of transit, there really ought to be room for the "endearing but useless" as well.

Otherwise, we might as well tear down the Eiffel Tower and burn down the art museums for lacking a practical purpose.

Jarrett at HumanTransit.org

James.  The Eiffel Tower was a broadcasting tower.  Would never have been built without that function!  And obviously, it's tourist attraction.  I have nothing against endearing features in anything; I only question tradeoffs that involve sacrificing usefulness for their sake.


What kind of broadcasting was being done in 1889 when the Eiffel Tower was built?

I am not sure how a car is a good use of money. I just had to spend $1100 to get the alternator fixed on my car. That would have purchased a transit pass for nearly the entire year.

Remember also that cars are marketed, not so much on their virtues on points 1 to 7, but how they will make you feel good driving them and being seen in them. Cars are not sold purely as appliances (except maybe to the Consumer Reports crowd); why try to sell transit as an appliance without the endearing part?

Dan W. in Los Angeles, California, USA

An example of endearing, but useful transit might be the Angel's Flight funicular in Los Angeles. It is a quick and inexpensive way of getting to/from Bunker Hill from Grand Plaza.

Jarrett at HumanTransit.org

Dan.  Is it really worth waiting for downhill, compared to walking? 

Dan W. in Los Angeles, California, USA

Well, I do, because it is a FUN-icular :)


@Ed, sure, cars aren't advertised based on their ability to satisfy the 7 measures Jarrett has proposed, but that's in part because the design of cars and the road system provides instant and ubiquitous access, so they're free to try to find other ways to differentiate themselves. It's sort of like Maslow's hierarchy of needs - once you've satisfied the basics then you can move on to worry about self-actualization (or branding in this case).

@Alex B, I don't disagree that the social investments in roads have given cars an advantage. I'm being picky at the word "subsidy." We hear a lot about how roads are subsidized, and that's why transit is at a disadvantage - but in real life transit is subsidized to a far greater extent if by subsidy one means funding is provided by non-users to cover the part of the cost that users don't pay for directly.

I'm not arguing that cars are best - our car-centric culture has resulted in an unsustainably resource dependent, unhealthy and unsociable way of life. My suggestion is that transit proponents and planners need to take a clear-eyed look at the competition rather than make excuses about subsidies that really don't hold up. Cars have taken hold because of their utility and, in the longer run, because land patterns have developed that rely on them. For transit to make a real dent, its planners and supporters need to focus on meeting customers travel requirements, and I think Jarrett's done a good job laying out what they are.

David Oleesky

The SF cable streetcars are not quite "a technology that is now unique in the world". There are also cable tramways in Llandudno (Cymru) and Lisbon, but they differ from the SF system in that the cars are fixed to the cable. Information on the Llandudno system (which is essentially for tourists and does not operate in the winter) is available at http://www.greatorme.org.uk/tramway.html and http://www.greatormetramway.co.uk/
or (yn Gymraeg) at

On a more serious note, I do concur with your views on "endearing but useless transport". One UK example of the conflict between useful and endearing transport is the Blackpool tram system, originally opened in 1885 as one of the first electric tramlines in the world. Latterly it had become more of a tourist facility with service suspended in the winter. The pre-WWII cars were ahead of their time when originally built, but were veritable antiques by 6th November 2011, the last day of the traditional service. This essentially reserved track line is now being modernised and will re-open in Spring 2012 with 16 new Bombardier trams to provide a proper 21st century public transport facility.


This kind of reminds me of York Region Transit, in the northern suburbs of Toronto. They have spent large amounts of money basically on making their "VIVA" express bus pretty. They have fare vending machines at stops, fancy buses, and are spending a huge amount of money building dedicated bus lanes. However, the service is really not very useful because it hardly connects to anything else, the regular local York Region Transit bus service being very infrequent in most cases. It has not been a big success (not to mention the fact that it has been on strike for 2 months now). Meanwhile Brampton (northwestern suburbs) and Mississsauga (western suburbs) have launched fairly no-frills express bus services. No costly bus lanes, no fare vending machines, and in the case of Mississauga it has been rolled out very gradually with most express routes being rush hour only. Nevertheless these services are far more useful because the connecting transit service is much more frequent, and these suburban cities have far more real destinations to go to, while York Region has no real centre to speak of. Also Mississauga Transit and Brampton Transit have been able to avoid labour disruptions for a while now.


Interesting point about cable cars: although electric railways can handle very steep hills, and electric trolleybuses can handle even steeper hills, San Francisco's surviving cable cars are on extremely steep hills. That's why they lasted long enough to become nostalgia items.

The "inclines" in Pittsburgh remain useful transit, due to the very steep hills they traverse.

At some point as the route gets steeper you just go with an elevator, which is actually a vertical cable car, if you think about it.

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