San Francisco Cable Cars, Old and New

San Francisco is, intentionally no doubt, one of the most eccentric and mixed metropoli on the planet. The town is heavily populated with residents strongly opposed to anything commercial.

Yet, it is also home to corporate headquarters of one of the world’s largest banks (Bank of America) and several other mega-companies. Nowhere is this split personality more evident than, in of all places, the city’s popular Cable Car rides.

Designated official landmarks by the National Park Service in 1964, the cable cars go back to San Francisco’s heyday in the 1870’s. Though long recognized as an inefficient means of transportation, the cable cars have survived several attempts at decommissioning. And, fortunate it is too. They’re huge fun.

Expensive, they can also be. Prices range from $25-$50 for a one to two hour guided ride. Short trips for a few dollars are also available. And they’re crowded, too. All the cars carry from 90 to 100 passengers and they pack them in. Lines are long waiting to get on – anywhere from an hour to two hours or more.

But despite the price, the cramped space and the wait, riding them is an experience that more than makes up for the drawbacks. Passing within a foot of one another as they make their way around the city, the car’s tours encompass Ghiradelli Square and Pier 39, views of the bay at the Wharf and trips up and down the famed steep hills.

It’s those hills that, in part, gave birth to the unusual device, legend has it. London-born engineer Andrew Hallidie is said to have been watching horses haul a carriage up one when the lead slipped. The unfortunate animal took several others with him on a slide down the hill. Hallidie vowed to replace them and four years later, in 1873, succeeded.

Visitors can get an idea of how the cars work by looking down through the center of the street. They have no diesel engines and no electrical motors. Just underneath the street is a cable that runs at a steady 9.5 miles per hour (5.4kph). When the operator pulls a lever that grabs the cable, off you go.

Those seeking a ride can hop on or off at Pier 41, Ghiradelli Square and Union Square. During the trip, best experienced close to the edge and standing on the platform, riders travel over a large part of the city.

Rides move through Chinatown and North Beach, the waterfront, downtown, the Palace of Fine Arts and near the Golden Gate Bridge and many more spots. Seventeen miles of track still remain along which the cars designated as ‘moving historical landmarks’ move.

From their maiden run from the top of Clay Street in 1873 to today when it shares space with 300-horsepower SUVs, San Francisco’s cable cars have added their own iconoclastic flavor to this most colorful and diverse city.

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