san francisco: cable cars and green lights

A traumatic memory from my old neighborhood, still exactly as I remember it:


The California Street cable car still doesn't influence traffic signals, even in the era of GPS.  Here at California & Hyde, the car stops in the median of the street, requiring passengers to cross a traffic lane to board or alight.  Note the green traffic signal to the right, which tells motorists it's ok to speed past the cable car as people get on and off.  The man in the black coat and cap, waiting to board, must stand in a traffic lane that has the green signal.  To the motorist, he appears to be crossing illegally, yet it's the only way to get to the cable car.

This is not a high-traffic intersection.  Surely all lights should turn red when the cable car is present.

I lived a block from this point for seven years (1987-94) yet almost never used the California St. cable car.  This was why.

20 Responses to san francisco: cable cars and green lights

  1. pedestrianist November 30, 2011 at 11:49 pm #

    From observation I think it does control the lights, but only the same way as the few buses and LRVs in SF do: by keeping it green. If the Cal Cable car is within a block, pedestrians will get a ‘stop’ hand in all directions while traffic on California stays green until the cable car passes.
    I’m sure that’s no less frustrating; the expensive technology is there, but it’s not doing any good for anyone except speeding cars.

  2. Daniel December 1, 2011 at 1:30 am #

    No law requiring motorists to stop for passengers, then? (As it is in Melbourne – )

  3. Michael Doyle December 1, 2011 at 4:01 am #

    It’s illegal in San Francisco to pass a stopped, in-service cable car or Muni Metro vehicle. People who do so are breaking the law.

  4. Will December 1, 2011 at 7:20 am #

    You must find Toronto’s streetcar system pretty terrifying, then!

  5. John December 1, 2011 at 7:49 am #

    Drivers don’t always yield to pedestrians in crosswalks either, but being right doesn’t make up for being injured or dead.

  6. BBnet3000 December 1, 2011 at 8:59 am #

    I have to ask: are you riding Muni in San Francisco? Whats it like for a professional transit planner, especially someone involved with BRT?

  7. Art Busman December 1, 2011 at 9:02 am #

    The reason I never rode the cable car in SF is that I simply couldn’t. The line at each terminal is too long, and you CANNOT board along the route as the cars are always full (at least in the summer). Why? Supply and demand. Remember those long lines in Russia? The transit agency simply set the fare too low, creating surplus demand and insufficient supply, hence, lines. Government does that. They create lines. It’s one thing to create lines for welfare where you are giving out something for free, but for a tourist transit experience, fares should be aligned with the free market and allowed to rise to the point where you say, no, it’s not worth it and lines diminish. Then I’d gladly pay a premium to ride that iconic silly thing around SF.

  8. fmstack December 1, 2011 at 9:49 am #

    I’m not sure when you last lived in SF, Art, but right now it costs six dollars to ride the cable car, three times as much as the cost of riding a regular Muni vehicle. Are you arguing that the fares should go even higher? Yes, there are still lines, but I have to imagine that raising the fares above a certain point will end up producing ill-will among tourists.
    (also: government creates lines? are you kidding? Providing services, either through market methods or government methods, creates lines. You stand in line in the bank, in the grocery store, at the post office, at the DMV, when getting on a bus, and at your food bank. You just notice the lines more when you’re waiting for a government service rather than a commercial one, because for various reasons people hold government services to a higher standard than commercial ones.)

  9. Anon256 December 1, 2011 at 10:16 am #

    Well, long queues tend to be evidence that a service is underpriced. Of course this is most common in cases of government subsidy, but can happen with unsubsidised goods too if for example the provider find it’s not worth the overhead to respond to short-term changes in demand (e.g. peak time at the grocery store).
    The queues for the California line tend to be shorter than for the Powell lines, the queues on weekdays much shorter than on weekends, and the queues in winter much shorter than in summer. Muni could introduce some sort of peak pricing system to adjust for these variations, but maybe the simplicity of a set fare for all cable cars is worth the revenue lost at peak times.
    There’s also the issue that by some estimates as many as 40% of cable car riders are fare-dodging, and the nature of the vehicles makes enforcement very difficult. Raising the fare would likely make this problem even worse.
    Are the cable cars profitable for muni at their current fares?

  10. Jarrett at December 1, 2011 at 10:43 am #

    BB. The technologies have been improved, but much is as I remember.
    Some obvious driver competence problems. Poor headway reliability
    requiring me to use taxis for trips like Haight/Ashbury to 3rd/Mission
    at 10 am, which ought to be easy for transit to serve. It's improved
    but quality is a constant struggle, especially if some are telling
    themselves that the passengers can be taken for granted or that
    transit's daily functioning isn't relevant to the sustainability and
    livability goals that almost all in SF claim to care about.

  11. Eric Fischer December 1, 2011 at 12:02 pm #

    Pedestrianist: It’s an unintended consequence of state law that pedestrians get a “don’t walk” while vehicular traffic continues to get a green.
    California MUTCD Section 4D.117 says that “Any pedestrian interval in effect when priority is initiated shall not have its timing affected.” The intent was to keep a walk phase from being cut short by preemption, but the effect is to disallow extending the walk phase while the green is extended.

  12. TransitPlannerMunich December 1, 2011 at 12:37 pm #

    The problem of the Soviet Union in the late 80ies and early 90ies were not too low prices for goods or too low fares. There was simply not enough to buy or enough transportation for the demand.
    In East Germany at that time a car was pretty expensive compared to the income. But you had to wait 20 years for it after you ordered one until delivery. That was the problem, the price was high enough.
    And the basic reason for the problems of the Soviet Union was that too much money went into military/defense and also into a stupid war in Afghanistan. That was the coffin for the economy of the Soviet Union. At one point the Soviet Union spent around 16% of its GDP for military. And even in absolute value more than the US, just to be able to compete with the West and win a far in Afghanstan that was finally lost. All that money was lost and meant the downfall for Russia.
    So not too low prices or fares created lines but spending the financial resources wrongly and ignoring demand.

  13. JJJJ December 1, 2011 at 3:04 pm #

    Art Busman, that is incorrect. Yes, there are long lines of tourists at each end….but it is policy to NOT fill the train. Locals know that by waiting a block or two away, they can get on immediately with no wait. Tourists do not know of this policy, so they wait in line.
    And $6 is already pretty damn expensive for a 15 minute ride. Could it be raised to $10? Yes. But the problem with free-market prices is that it kicks out huge portions of the population when supply is limited.
    Im sure you could charge $20 a car to get near the Hoover Dam. Or $10 a pop for a pedestrian to walk on Golden Gate.
    Some people will gladly pay. Some cannot.
    Part of government is balancing social policy with market policy. Sometimes, prices need to be kept artificially low so the greater public can enjoy a public asset.
    And Jarret, it is illegal to pass a streetcar when it is boarding passengers. The area around it is called the safety zone, and everyone with a california license is tested on it. Youll note in the picture, above the green light, there is a sign reminding people of this long-standing law.
    So why have it be green? Turns are legal.

  14. JJJJ December 1, 2011 at 3:06 pm #

    Also, you make it sound like this long-standing policy is a death trap.
    No. The reason the policy is what it is, is because it is not dangerous.
    How many injuries and deaths have happened in the past 50 years around cable cars?

  15. TransitDB December 1, 2011 at 4:58 pm #

    I too live one block from the cable car lines. The operators are not shy about stepping in front of cars and yelling at drivers if they try to pass. That said, I will admit that I never cross in front of that green light when the cable car is stopped. I believe drivers watch for people exiting the cable car, but I don’t think they watch for people boarding (or crossing the street).

  16. Matthew Danish December 1, 2011 at 6:06 pm #

    Heh. I didn’t know about that policy. I just saw the line and walked up a few blocks, where I got on. I held out my $5 bill but they didn’t even came around to take it.
    I didn’t bother to ride a cable car again while I was living near SF. But here in Boston they have a state law that says all vehicles must stop and allow passengers to board and exit a streetcar. Like most traffic rules here, though, it is almost never followed.

  17. Dexter Wong December 2, 2011 at 2:07 am #

    I lived four blocks from that intersection for 34 years and occasionally rode the California cable car past that intersection. When leaving the car you always need to check the traffic just before stepping down. If there was traffic you waited in the painted street island next to the car until it passed, In those days before cell phones practically every driver knew to avoid that area. (After all, no one intentionally runs a pedestrian down.) But, another thing, there wasn’t that much traffic on California Street at that time. I can’t say anything about the present because I haven’t been in the City in 15 years.

  18. jon December 2, 2011 at 10:37 am #

    this is how every pre-war streetcar functioned because it was based on a different role of the street, that is, a “shared space” street where people had every right to the street as any other mode.

  19. Charles Haletky December 2, 2011 at 3:58 pm #

    I was a gripman on all three cable lines from early 2006 until October of this year. I’ll address several posts:
    Re: profitability, about four or five years ago I saw a study estimating operating costs for Muni. The cable lines cost (at that time) about $9.50 per passenger to operate. It’s probably higher now.
    Every year, some passengers get hit by cars passing cable cars illegally. The cable cars do trip the traffic lights at some intersections (including California and Hyde), but generally the pre-empts turn and hold the light green for the cable cars. This is very important for downgrades (cable cars are famously difficult to stop), but is even more important for upgrades. A cable car ascending a hill cannot stop on the grade, wait for a green or a blocking vehicle, and restart. If the cable must stop ascending a grade, it must back down to the nearest flat spot and restart from there. But there are a few intersections where the pre-empts are set to protect boarding and alighting passengers. At Powell and Clay (inbound) and California and Grant (both directions) the light turns green as the cable car approaches, then turns red in all directions as the car pulls into the intersection. Then passengers can board and alight protected by the four-way red. The light resets as the car leaves the stop. This does create problems for two-way cable traffic; at California and Grant, cable car signals prevent a cable car from approaching Grant Avenue while another cable car is stopped there.
    Another option that doesn’t require much capital money (pre-empts require poking around in the conduit and ripping up pavement to run communication wires) is strict enforcement. I’ve long wished for the SFPD to run stings – have a police officer riding the cable car radio descriptions of cars violating the passenger’s right of way ahead to motorcycle officers parked on the upcoming side streets. A few months of intense enforcement followed by a consistent but random enforcement would save lives.

  20. Nicholas Barnard December 2, 2011 at 10:43 pm #

    @Anon256 Several years ago I rode the street car as a tourist, I had my fare ready, but as I understood it to work the operator would ask me for the fare.. He never did, and I never paid..