Cable cars clang-clanging their way over the hills is as much a symbol of San Francisco as enraged bulls thundering through ancient streets embody Pamplona. And, as an Associated Press article that last week conquered the Internet reminded us all, you take your chances with both.

"San Francisco Cable Car Accidents Cost Millions" — in which records obtained by AP revealed $8 million in payments over the past three years to settle some four dozen claims — blended all the ingredients necessary to produce Web gold: Nifty juxtapositions of scenic cable car imagery and the term "severed feet"; damning statistics (involving "severed feet"); and, of course, the surefire Red State schadenfreude of costly and terrible things happening in San Francisco. The argument has been advanced that wheeling overstuffed boxcars of tourists through traffic, up and down the city's iconic peaks like roller-coasters — only with wooden brakes and no restraints — can produce mixed results.

This is not exactly a revelation for the good folks on the front lines of our transit system. Decades ago, longtime Muni foreman Bob Johnson enjoyed telling visitors to the city that a cable car ticket offered better odds of a big payout than the Irish Sweepstakes. Multiple cable car operators contacted by SF Weekly independently claimed that every driver knows the emergency brake won't work properly on key stretches — such as California between Stockton and Grant — because it's been thrown so many times over the years the tracks have warped and widened. Not surprisingly, the cable cars have, for eons, been the most accident- and injury-prone form of public transit in America, when measured on a per-mile basis.

So, one can argue whether or not it's crazy to run an antiquated amusement park ride for city visitors across 77 different intersections amid the SUV-driving, text-messaging, earbud-wearing general public.

But it is crazy to stick Muni with the bill.

Cable cars are often blithely referred to as the sole transit system on the National Register of Historic Places. Grand — but, conversely, this means it's the only Historic Place in which funding for upkeep, personnel, and, perhaps, the odd severed foot competes with the dollars keeping core transit operations running. Or not running: SF Weekly has, in the past, documented Muni's across-the-board service cuts, its de facto cuts via missed runs, and shambolic maintenance practices involving high-voltage bus lines swaddled in trash bags or desperate mechanics "cannibalizing" mildly damaged vehicles for parts until all that remains are desiccated husks.

Maintaining cable cars for city tourists while struggling to provide core transit service is a bit like polishing the heirloom china for the guests while sending the kids to school with no shoes. But no amount of cold-hearted empirical analysis will sever city residents' emotional attachment to the cable cars. (It would also take a citywide election to scrap the cars.) The unmistakable whiff of roasting wooden brakes and the endless rattle of the subterranean cables evoke visceral pride and nostalgia for longtime San Franciscans; it's probably how Florentines feel when ambling past Brunelleschi's dome.

But Florence isn't dipping into transit funds to pay for its most famous landmark — or doling out hefty settlements to visitors who suddenly find themselves with a need to be made whole.

Unlike workaday buses and rail vehicles, cable cars are this city's avatar. They hold a unique and distinctive appeal to the visitors whose dollars, kroner, Euros, yen, and yuan keep San Francisco solvent — and serve as an unbeatable "brand" to market our city to ever more out-of-towners. The millions paid to riders whose cable car dreams jerk to an abrupt halt pale in comparison to the sheer volume of visitors lining up to pay six bucks a pop — each way! — before spending much more throughout town. Businesses, real-estate interests, and other city players are rolling in money derived from the rolling landmarks.

But not Muni. As always, it's the transit agency that's left holding the bag when others enjoy a free ride.

Per the most recent figures reported to the National Transit Database, in 2011 the cars did manage to generate $24.9 million in revenue. Alas, you've still got to pay for vehicle operations costs ($24.4 million), vehicle maintenance ($5.9 million), non-vehicle maintenance ($12.8 million), and general administration ($12.6 million). All told, the cable cars required $55.6 million in expenses, meaning Muni took a hit of nearly $31 million operating them in '11. (That's par for the course; cable cars bled $31.5 million in 2010, $31.1 million in 2009, and $27.1 million in 2008.)

When it comes to Muni math, these are pretty decent numbers — cable cars' "fare recovery" of 44.8 percent of operating expenses from passengers dwarfed the system's overall tally of just 30 percent in 2011. But you can justify running buses and light-rail vehicles at a loss because they're vital transportation. A daily ridership of more than 710,000 takes them to and from work or the shops — rather than clogging the city's arteries with cars or simply not leaving home. You can't make the same justifications for a boutique rail service where, for the vast majority of its 19,000-odd daily passengers, a ride serves as an end in and of itself.

The cable cars are Muni's most visible vehicles — but they're also a visible reminder that the transit agency is routinely forced to be The Giving Tree for the entire city. Cable cars are just one more non-transit expenditure borne by the city's transit agency. This year, Muni will send more than $64 million to other departments for supposed Muni-related expenses; the transit agency is the city's slush fund and a source of easy money for departments unable to otherwise balance their budgets. Attempts to give Muni the independence to crawl out from under the mayor's thumb have profoundly backfired — cash surrendered to other departments has skyrocketed and even voter-approved funds earmarked for transit-related projects are instead shunted to gardeners, janitors, and plumbers, the Examiner recently revealed. The Pagoda Palace extraction SF Weekly reported on last week will be funded via "operational savings" — Muni-speak for money yanked from transit-related functions.

As a symbol of San Francisco, cable cars serve all too well. Like this city, they provide whimsy and beauty in such concentrated doses that one could nearly overlook the impracticality, high cost, inept administration, and pandering to moneyed newcomers — at the expense of everyone else.

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11 comments
megamanjoe415
megamanjoe415

My name is Joseph,

I have lived in San Francisco all of my life and always enjoyed the cable car rides. Cable cars are currently owned by the SFMTA or so called MUNI in the past. If these cable cars were not running right now, San Francisco would be filled with busses and metro systems like another metropolitan type city. These have been here since 1873 and many times were almost removed completely. This is San Francisco you are talking about. This has always been a tourist type city and lots of history to back it up. If the cable cars are not in this day of age, you would have rude passengers going up and down the streets and it wouldn't be a pleasant ride. I know a lot about cable cars and how they run, by experience. Accidents happen, the majority of accident are not the cable car drivers fault at least 80% of the time.


If you look at the statistics, cable cars make the most of the SFMTA budget due to the fact its the most popular way transporting people up and down these San Francisco hills. Before, the fare used to be 2 dollars when I was young, till 2003, then 3 dollars, 5 dollars and now 6 dollars. 

I can talk about cable cars a lot, but I just want people to hear my side of the story before they start criticizing the cable cars.

Thank you,

Joseph.

rodstevens
rodstevens

Something seems off in these numbers, especially the allocation of overhead  More than $12 million for what amounts to two lines that snake through the hills?  That buys an awful lot of executive salary, IT and other overhead costs.  Really?  Makes me question the rest of the numbers as well.  If these costs had been around 100 years ago, none of the lines would have been built, and they certainly weren't running at the load factors they get today.

SouthendRon
SouthendRon

You can't put a price on your identity. Trust me on that, my town got rid of their cable cars many years before I was born - and we've never gotten over it.

jimbolo
jimbolo

What a non-problem if there ever was one. Raise the cash fare to $10 tomorrow. Monthly passes always welcome. Continue to raise the cash fare until you find the balance between declining ridership and increasing revenue. There's no reason the cable cars shouldn't break even or (gasp) make money for the rest of the system while still being useful transit to SF residents. 


GuestintheMachine
GuestintheMachine

Before 1906 there were cable  cars across the whole city and they worked fine.  Imagine if we had a city of cable cars and pedestrians!  How many accidents, how many lives would that save from dangerous car or bicycle crashes, or those lumbering behemoth Muni buses? A slower city would be a saner city, travelling across town would never be boring again.  

Ellie Clark
Ellie Clark

hahahahahaha hey tourists welcome to sf

blue22
blue22

What is new about inept, inefficient and expensive civic amenities? If MUNI doesn't cover it, some agency will, and the taxpayers will continue to foot the bill. Do you propose to move it somewhere else, and do expect that to be more efficient?

Jeffrey Thompson
Jeffrey Thompson

They also don't give the right of way to pedestrians. I complained about it and was told they're not required to yield to anyone, even children. Very dangerous situation there...

sweetbeignet
sweetbeignet

Why are San Francisco Cable Cars so expensive to ride?  While every one can ride New Orleans gleaming little Trolley Cars for FREE.  Both Cities are absolutely beautiful but one of them has serious problems, guess which one?

joe.eskenazi
joe.eskenazi

@rodstevens Thanks for reading. There are actually three lines, but your point is well-taken. I've asked Muni to explain and itemize the "general administration" numbers. The rest of those numbers are pretty explanatory, however. Operators and staff need to be paid. Cars need to be maintained -- brakes and grips are replaced just about daily. Cables need to be maintained. Evidently, tracks should be maintained too!

Public transit used to be a money-maker a century ago -- hence the numerous private companies eventually purchased and amalgamated into SFMTA. It no longer is. There are many reasons for this; that's a whole article in and of itself. But the bottom line is that even running cable cars, a pleasure trip for tourists willing to pay a $10 round-trip, is far from profitable. 

Best, 

JE

 
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