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Running of the Bull: Cable Cars Are Trundling Money Away From the Transit You Actually Use 

Wednesday, Apr 24 2013

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.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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