San Francisco’s cable cars are iconic—arguably the most famous form of public transport in the United States. In terms of instant recognizability, they are on par with New York’s ubiquitous yellow cabs. But as iconic as they are, the city’s cable cars are disappearing. While San Franciscans have a lot of love for them—January 17th is Cable Car Day in the city—the number of actual routes has dropped significantly and the cars now mostly carry tourists.
The reason for this decline in simple: the cars have fallen by the wayside in large part because the original users, San Francisco’s commuters, have more efficient options these days. This is a city at the core of America’s booming tech industry and the spiritual center of an attitude that embraces an earth-friendly green lifestyle—two reasons that go a long way towards explaining its long-running tradition as a public transport innovator.
While San Francisco might not be the most populous city in California—it’s ranked fourth with around 890,000 residents—it is at the forefront of public transport when you look at the country’s West Coast. Following in the footsteps of the original creators of the cable car system back in 1873, San Francisco’s transit leaders have created a transport system that can act as a model for many other cities across the United States and the globe.
Bay Area Rapid Transit
Unlike the cable cars, San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) is a modern and sophisticated public transport service that many regular commuters in San Francisco rely on. With over 129 million riders in 2017 and a daily average of 433,000 passengers on weekdays, it is incredibly busy. In all, BART does enough business to be the fifth-busiest heavy-rail transport service in the US, with a 112-mile service area connecting Oakland, Richmond and other Bay Area locales with San Francisco itself.
As we all know, though, a great public transport system isn’t just about the number of people it’s able to move around—it’s also about the experience it offers commuters. One of BART’s most recent improvements, a line of cars dubbed the “Fleet of the Future,” packs practical improvements like better cooling, improved noise shielding and a third door (for faster entry and exit) with innovative eco-friendly features. The fleet boasts higher energy efficiency, improved engine performance, LED lighting and a slew of other environmental features—the seats are even recyclable.
Of course, it’s incredibly difficult to create a transit system that pleases everyone—especially if the system is transporting hundreds of thousands of commuters every day—and the experience hasn’t always been perfect for riders. In fact, customer satisfaction hit a 20-year low in 2016, but improvements like those mentioned above suggest that San Francisco wants to cement its position as a transport leader by creating a system that’s as good as any in the world.
While BART forms a core part of San Francisco’s public transport infrastructure, it isn’t the only service on offer. Beyond BART, riders also rely on a collection of buses and light-rail trains under the San Francisco Metro Transit Authority (SFMTA). Collectively, these services transport hundreds of millions of commuters every year—more than 241 million.
Officially titled the San Francisco Municipal Railway and collectively called “the Muni,” the system is necessary counterpoint to BART’s longer-range commuter train offerings. Its vehicles, designed for comparatively short rides and blanket coverage, cover just over 45 miles of interior and include the iconic cable car system.
Locals often grumble about late arrivals, but the system is generally seen as a very effective one. The city’s public transit system routinely ranks among the best in the US and is undoubtedly the standout in a state where urban sprawl makes it hard for municipalities to offer viable transit options with adequate coverage.
The Muni’s pricing system also combines a number of options representing the city’s use cases (multi-day “passports” for tourists, for instance, and monthly passes for commuters) with a base system that is simple to use and affordable. In an expensive city where one can expect to pay $4,650 per month for a two-bedroom apartment, it’s a mere $2.75 for two hours of access across the Muni system, with as many transfers as needed.
Overall, San Francisco does a stellar job of providing reliable public transit in a state that has a reputation for struggling to do so. While those iconic cable cars are likely to forever be the service most closely associated with the city, San Francisco has done an admirable job of bringing its public transit into the 21st century.
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