The city and county of San Francisco, one of America’s most visited places, is a famous tourist and business destination.  Its economic backbone is tourism, which ranks first in the city’s private-sector employment; and many would say its single most iconic visual image is that of its bell-clanging cable-cars.  This feature of the city’s tourist draw is responsible for the success of long-running television rice commercial that produced not just higher Rice-A-Roni sales, but also larger numbers of tourists.  There are several factors contributing to the success of the cable car including their proximity to tourist hotels and their high-frequency within a 20-hour day, every day of the year.  But the most obvious reason for their operational success is the admittedly hard to quantify role in the marketing of San Francisco as a major tourist destination.

San Francisco’s Market Street - Transportation Backbone

Since the 1960’s, when neighborhood activists stopped several proposed freeways from being built, the city has been actively expanding its public transit mix.  During that decade, a major subway building project was commenced under Market Street, the city’s main axis of transportation.  Two transit corridors were built under the street, one the regional light-rail BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) and the other the pre-existing city streetcar lines, which had been operated at street level.  When the Market Street subway was opened to Muni traffic, all five streetcar lines were replaced with light-rail trains and continued to operate on their pre-existing, surface routes away from Market Street.  A few years after the new subway was opened, ironically, the city began running a heritage streetcar service at street-level on Market Street using a mix of their original, 1940’s-era streetcars and other vintage models from transit systems around the world.

Rail and BRT Expansion and the 38 Geary Bus Saga

The heritage streetcars could have been a success in any city, as indeed has been the case in numerous cities across the country that have added or replaced decades-long terminated streetcar service.  In the realm of twentieth century San Francisco, several streetcar lines were eliminated that should not have been, perhaps the most noteworthy example being the Geary Street line.  Cancelled in the early 1950’s, and replaced with a perennially substandard, inadequate bus line known as the 38 Geary, the city today has plans, but no funding set aside, to develop a bus-rapid transit corridor along a majority of this street.  Eventually, a surface or underground rail alternative could happen, according to the vision accompanying the BRT plan.  The city and its behemoth transit agency, Muni – the seventh largest in the country, has been plagued with problems for decades, although many short-stay tourists do not experience problems other than some delays and overcrowding.

Density and the Demand for Public Transit

Because San Francisco is a compact city that has always been a popular place to settle, owning a car is more challenging for a greater number of its residents than in most other cities.  Parking on streets in the denser neighborhoods is hard to find because of strict availability and restrictions, such as ‘no-parking’ and ‘street-cleaning’ zones.  As a result, the city has the nation’s third highest rate of public transit usage by commuters (32% of its residents) and the U.S.A.’s second highest Walk Score.  In August 2013, the city began its bike-share program, and it continues its’ upward trajectory of bicycle commuting, with 75,000 residents presently using the mode to get to work.  In addition to streetcars, light-rail, buses, cable-cars, bicycle lanes, and pedestrian traffic, many people commute to the city by BART, Caltrain – a heavy rail service connection to peninsula cities and San Jose, and ferry lines plying the San Francisco Bay from Alameda and Marin Counties.

The Future of Public Transit in San Francisco

In the shadow of the modern skyscrapers of the city’s SOMA area is the construction of the new Transbay Terminal, set to open in 2017.  When in full operation, the transit station will be the terminal of the high-speed train link to Los Angeles, buses to the East, South, and North Bay areas, and city bus and light-rail connections.  A year later, in 2018, the long-awaited Central Subway project will open, with a connecting Muni line linking SOMA with Chinatown, unburdening the city’s beleaguered 30 Stockton bus line.  Furthermore, a project to vastly upgrade Market Street beginning in 2015 is in the planning stages and presents a critical opportunity for the city to reinvent itself.