San Francisco’s Historic Streetcar Routes
This interactive map allows users to explore SF streetcar routes of the past and present.
When it comes to public transit in San Francisco, there are a lot of — dare we say it? — moving parts.
Every local can relate to the experience of having to explain to a tourist or new resident the difference between the famous cable cars that run along Powell-Hyde, Powell-Mason, and California Street and the historic streetcars that travel on Market Street and the Embarcadero (a.k.a. the F Line).
But here’s something locals might not know: the streetcar routes in San Francisco were much more robust 75 years ago than they are today.
As a new website appropriately titled “Where the Streetcars Used to Go” puts it: “San Francisco, like many American cities, used to have rail tracks lining most of its major streets.”
The site features an interactive map that “shows the routes they took, and the routes that remain today.”
The Man Behind the Map
In order to ensure the map’s historical accuracy and obtain period photographs to make the site even more engaging, Arvin did some serious research.
He credits the following sources, which readers can check out to learn more about the streetcar routes of yesteryear as well as the future (see the map for 2020 below):
- SFMTA Photo Archive
- The White Front Cars of San Francisco by Charles Smallwood
- Inside Muni by John McKane and Anthony Perles
- San Francisco’s Century of Streetcars by Fred A. Stindt
- The GS Tram Site
Historic Streetcar Routes
The site is divided into a few different sections, which allow users to explore the streetcar routes of three different time periods: the 1940s, 1960s, and 2020.
The map and photographs below show San Francisco’s historic streetcars in their heyday.
We were particularly intrigued to see the large turnaround in front of the Ferry Building (pictured in the second thumbnail image from the left).
Within two decades, the streetcar routes had been drastically reduced, as reflected in the map below.
There is perhaps some cause for public transit supporters to celebrate, as the map below showing the 2020 projection features more streetcar routes than existed in the 1960s.
As Arvin describes in greater detail in the following section, this increase in routes is attributable to the present-day Muni Metro lines (i.e. the J, K, L, M, N, and T), which “were built on top of the few streetcar routes that remained in operation” and then “upgraded to use light rail vehicles.”
Arvin explained his motivation for creating the interactive map in a recent article published by Hoodline:
Since I’ve moved to San Francisco and fallen in love with the city, I’ve caught glimpses of the history of our public transit in many places—SFMTA’s posters at transit stops, sites like Old SF (and Hoodline!) and even seeing the partial remnants of tracks in the road in Potrero. There’s something I love about seeing old photos of street corners I immediately recognize, but in such a different context. When I started digging into the history of our streetcars, it was hard to find information in one place. I wanted to share this history with others in a way that was really easy to consume, so I went to SF’s public library and found some books that described the old streetcar routes in detail. I was lucky enough to have the SFMTA allow me to visit their archives where they showed me old maps, charts, and provided me with tons of great photos.
I also wanted this project to tell a story, because I think there are some lessons to learn here. The Muni Metro lines that lots of San Franciscans enjoy today—like the J, K, L, M and N—weren’t built from scratch when the Muni Metro project began in the ’70s. They were built on top of the few streetcar routes that remained in operation. They were upgraded to use light rail vehicles that are more efficient and provide a better experience than buses in many ways. As the city continues to fight for Bus Rapid Transit down Geary, I wonder if we might have rail serving the Richmond today, had we not abandoned routes like the C Geary.
San Francisco was the first city in the US to have a publicly run transit system—it’s deep in our roots. I think it’s crucial for our future as a city that we learn from our successes and missteps and be truly transit-first.
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