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Politics & Policy

Amid SF’s ongoing cable car battle, we dug up the documents dictating service

A cable car stops at Friedel Klussman Memorial Turnaround in San Francisco, Calif., in September 2021. | Photo by Anibal Martel/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The fight over restoring cable car service to pre-pandemic levels is missing a crucial element: the facts.

As the Muni drivers’ union urges the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency to resume its regular schedule, citing city law, the lack of detail on what level of service is actually required by that law remains a giant question. 

A unique City Charter amendment from 1971 forces the SFMTA to maintain and operate the 59 Powell-Mason, 60 Powell-Hyde and 61 California—SF’s three cable car lines—at “normal levels of scheduling and service” in perpetuity. 

But what “normal” means in that historical context has yet to be defined. The Office of City Attorney David Chiu, who would have to handle any legal dispute, declined to comment on the matter.

In search of answers, The Standard queried historians, archivists, labor groups and the SFMTA: What was the cable car schedule over half a century ago, back in 1971?

People ride a cable car.
An employee checks riders tickets on a cable car transiting Powell Street in San Francisco Calif., on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022. | Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard | Source: Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

The San Francisco Cable Car Museum, the Market Street Railway and the Western Railway Museum were all unable to provide insight. 

As it turns out, Muni did not print a schedule or timetable in 1970 or 1971, when the City Charter amendment went into effect. In fact, in 1972, a renegade driver got so fed up with telling passengers what the Muni schedule was that he started printing them out at his own expense. In 1973, Muni finally started offering schedules again in part because of negative press attention.

While other entities failed to provide answers, The Standard discovered that the San Francisco History Center at the main branch of the public library has two boxes of Muni brochures. One of those was a schedule with an effective date of Oct. 1, 1973. That schedule showed cable cars operating from 6 a.m. to midnight everyday with frequencies ranging from 6 to 20 minutes depending on the time of day.

A timetable for all Muni lines from 1973. | Courtesy San Francisco Public Library

From then until the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the city operated the cable cars at those levels, according to Transport Workers Union Local 250A, which represents Muni drivers. “March 2020 and July 1971 were the same,” union Vice President Pete Wilson said.

Wilson provided dozens and dozens of pages of operator schedules (which were only used internally) from the early '70s that backed up the same information The Standard tracked down at the San Francisco History Center. When pressed, the SFMTA eventually provided the same documents.

Closer Look

The Standard shared the operator schedules with Muni experts to determine what cable car service levels are most likely required by the City Charter.  

The Mason and Hyde lines must operate from 5:46 a.m. to 12:37 a.m. on weekdays; 6 a.m. to 1:17 a.m. on Saturdays; and 6:30 a.m. to 1:17 a.m. on Sundays in order to match the schedule enshrined in the City Charter. Today, the Mason and Hyde lines operate from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. 

The California line must operate from 6 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. on weekdays and 7 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. on weekends. Currently, the California line operates from 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.

In total, it appears about four hours of service—and several trips per day—would be needed to comply with the City Charter.

For their parts, both the SFMTA and Mayor’s Office told The Standard that they want to follow the law. “We are continuing to work towards the City Charter expectations by training operators and making incremental improvements over time,” SFMTA spokesperson Stephen Chun said.

However, Wilson said the agency had never told the union that they plan to restore service to the charter-mandated level.

Retired Muni driver David Hooper, who spent 12 of his 33 years with the agency as a cable car conductor, said it would serve the city well to preserve cable car service as specified in the City Charter.

“If it's supposed to be a transit-first city, they need to recruit operators and provide them with the wages and the benefits that are competitive in this metropolitan area,” he said.

Correction: A previous version of this story erroneously included the word "trolley" in the headline.