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San Francisco Cable Cars

Making riding cable cars easier for San Francisco tourists

Peter Albert  Apr 18, 2010

In 1873, Andrew Hallidie watched horses struggle to pull a rail car up Nob Hill lose their battle with gravity and get dragged downhill. Out of pity and compassion, he invented the cable car.

In 2010, I watched tourists at Powell and Market struggle with their own battle with boredom and despair in an interminable line to ride one of Hallidie's inventions while, upstream, two cable cars were snagged in a traffic accident. Out of pity and compassion, I ask:

Can't we San Franciscans help our tourists, who have sacrificed much to travel here and replenish our coffers?

We all want their experience to be less of an ordeal and more of a pleasure worth revisiting. In this splendid city of myriad choices, our native knowledge of the most rewarding ways to get around is not a secret to guard but a gift to impart.

Take the cable car: Because the cost to ride is nearly as steep as the hill it climbs, we owe it to tourists to ask: "Are you waiting in this line just to ride a cable car, or are you just trying to get to the wharf?"

If the wait is for the cable car, we send them to California and Market with information posted near the line, printed on the tourist pass or by word of mouth. Even with the detour from the Powell Street Station, the ride to the Embarcadero Station and the wait for the cable car on California, tourists will be halfway to the stars far sooner than if they had stayed at Powell. Once aboard, there will be elbow room, running board space, Chinatown on the right, downtown on the left, Nob Hill straight ahead. The city gets its $5, and we get the Return Tourist, a much happier, more lucrative counterpart to the Never-again Tourist.

If the wait is to get to the wharf, we point them one block to the vintage F streetcars on Market. These are nearly as colorfully and quaintly a means to reach the wharf, and certainly not any slower, and they cost half as much to ride. A bonus: You can usually board the next one that arrives. The ride itself is a joy even locals relish: through downtown, across Ferry Plaza, behind Telegraph Hill, under squawking parrots. Another happy tourist, another return trip to San Francisco.

If the wait is for both the cable car and the wharf, tourists can ride the F over and the cable car back or stay at Powell and enjoy the shorter line made possible by other tourists who followed Plans B and C. Giving tourists these options burnishes them with the glow of inside information. It is our duty to share it.

Sadly, queues of tortured tourists still wrap around the Powell, while the F trundles past on Market and empty cable cars scale California. We care about return business, certainly, but more heart-breaking is watching a tourist trade flowers in her hair for a chip on her shoulder.

Making riding cable cars easier for San Francisco tourists
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