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San Francisco cable cars: A battle is on to keep them running at a pre-pandemic normal

Patrons wait in line to ride the cable car at Union Square in San Francisco, Calif., on Friday, June 14, 2022. Juliana Yamada/The Standard

Battle lines have been drawn over how many of San Francisco’s historic cable cars—a renowned tourist attraction worldwide and one of the prides of the city—should be running.

The Muni drivers union is at odds with the city’s Municipal Transportation Agency over the full restoration of the California, Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason cable car service.

“People come from all over the planet to ride our vehicles,” Roger Marenco, president of a local chapter of the Transport Workers Union, said. “Why reduce and mess with the cable car lines that have historically been protected for over 40 years?”

At the heart of the matter is a voter-approved piece of the City Charter—essentially, San Francisco’s constitution—that requires the city to keep cable cars in service. Alongside that is the financial squeeze facing the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency once pandemic funding from the federal government ends.

“The City Charter says cable cars need to be run at a specific level in perpetuity, but they stopped running due to Covid,” union vice president Pete Wilson said. “On Oct. 16, 2021, they were supposed to start up again. The Mayor's Office backed us on that, but now they're silent, and the SFMTA is doing other runs in direct violation of the City Charter.”

However, the agency sees things differently.

“The operators like the pre-Covid schedule, because there were a lot of high-paying shifts,” SFMTA spokesman Stephen Chun said. “But it was not reliable and resulted in long lines and a poor customer experience. Since Covid, we have worked hard to increase supervision, improve reliability and concentrate service when it is needed most.”

Chun added that the MTA doesn’t have enough operators now—and that they didn’t before the pandemic—to meet the charter requirement. Moreover, he said, there isn’t sufficient demand.

Union officials counter that in fact, there are long lines of tourists who are left in queues until 10:30 p.m., when the last car of the night goes back to the barn.

The Mayor’s Office said the level of cable car service is currently sufficient and is meeting the needs of downtown businesses and tourism agencies.  

SFMTA can change the scheduling for streetcars, light rail vehicles and buses, but is not supposed to change it for cable cars since the schedules were enshrined in the 1971 City Charter by voters.

The union says the different schedule has significantly changed working conditions, requiring that operators work split shifts: on the clock for four and a half hours, then an unpaid two-hour break and then work for five hours. They said they’ve filed a complaint with the Public Employment Relations Board over the matter.

Pandemic Impact

A cable car prepares to transit up Powell Street in San Francisco Calif., on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022. | Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

The city halted its nearly 150-year-old cable car service in March 2020 in response to Covid. Four months later, the Mayor’s Office suspended the legal requirement that the city maintain its cable car service until 120 days after the state’s “stay safe at home” order ended.

Cable cars didn’t climb the city's famed hills for 16 months, the longest absence since the system was overhauled in the 1980s over an 18-month period.

California lifted the “stay safe at home” order on June 15, 2021, and normal cable car scheduling and service was supposed to return in October 2021.

But it didn’t. Cable car service resumed from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., a reduced schedule that shaved down its hours of operation in both the morning and evening. Operations are supposed to start at 5:30 a.m. and go until 1 a.m., according to the union.

A committee of stakeholders ranging from Supervisor Aaron Peskin and the Transport Workers Union to the San Francisco Travel Association and the Fisherman's Wharf Community Benefit District provided guidance for how to best restore service in light of the shifts in ridership patterns brought about by the pandemic.

Mere days after the cable cars finally began to rumble around again, MTA officials put out an estimate saying that the system would need a $625 million overhaul.

The Fine Print

In November 1971, San Francisco voters approved Proposition Q, freezing cable car routes along with the then-level of scheduling and service. But what constitutes that level of scheduling and service is unclear.

Rick Laubscher, head of the Market Street Railway, a nonprofit organization that promotes Muni’s vintage vehicles, said his group supports following the charter requirements. He’s also trying to get his hands on a copy of the cable car schedule from July 1, 1971 to see what the level of scheduling and service ought to be by law.

“This is an issue that needs to be adjudicated, and I don't know what the process for that is,” Laubscher said.

A 2007 report by the nonprofit San Francisco Beautiful detailing ways to improve cable car service states that service in 1971 operated under six-minute headways, meaning the time interval between vehicles on a given route would be six minutes. 

“It's an eight-minute headway now so it's different,” Laubscher said.

The Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason lines currently operate from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily, and the California line operates from 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Laubscher said his organization is working with SFMTA to comply with the charter while also making service improvements—such as making the California line attractive to locals—to bring in more revenue.

Darcy Brown heads San Francisco Beautiful, which was founded by Friedel Klussmann, the very organizer behind the 1971 ballot initiative to preserve the cable cars.

“Cable cars are our No. 1 tourist attraction in San Francisco,” Brown said. “They should be a huge priority. They are responsible for bringing in a tremendous amount of money at a time when the city needs it the most.”

Tourism is the city’s largest industry. Before the pandemic, it supported upward of 85,000 jobs and generated more than $750 million in tax revenue for the city.

“When the city is in this bad shape, we need to prioritize the things that work—and cable cars are one of the things that work for us to bring tourists in and get good PR for the city,” Brown said.

Alex Mullaney can be reached at