Experiencing “The City” through one of its most popular attractions
Matthew Eley Sep 10 · 7 min read – The Bold Italic
San Francisco offers the world a peculiar attraction: cable cars. They’re the stuff of postcards but are often cramped and inconvenient compared to a bus or ride share. Tourists flock to the system, while residents avoid using it—only 15% of the roughly eight million cable-car rides a year are taken by locals.
I’ve wanted to know more about these icons and the folks who operate them for some time, so (naturally) I rode all three cable-car lines for 12 hours on a recent Saturday. Boarding a downtown-bound car at 6:15 a.m. at the top of Lombard Street, I quickly found that there’s more to these roving historic landmarks than meets the eye.
You can see a great deal of the city while coasting around on the Powell-Hyde, Powell-Mason, and Van Ness-Market routes, the remainder of what was once a 23-line network. The others have fallen to disasters, bankruptcies, and politics. Originally designed to spare the feet and horses of hilltop elites, the miles-long cables that still hum beneath the streets have been obsolete for a century.
But for many early-morning tourists, a cable-car ride is a romantic, old-fashioned way in which to see the city. They hang off the sides and give passing tourists on other cars high fives to the annoyance of safety-minded “grips,” or brakemen. They look over the bench at the gearing until a brakeman growls, “This lever comes forward at 80 miles an hour. Want your head to be there?”
But he smiles good-naturedly afterward.
Most cable-car grips and conductors — front and back of the car, respectively — begin their days before sunrise, when California, Powell, Hyde, and Mason roar to a rattle, and cable cars trundle out of the powerhouse beneath the dark denim of fog. Grips handle the main levers, while conductors collect fares and work the rear brakes.
These are the elite men and women capable of operating six tons of wood and steel with nothing more than their body weight. Their ranks even included author Maya Angelou, who was 16 when she became San Francisco’s first African-American female streetcar conductor in 1943.
“It is physical. At the end of the day, regardless of what they say, at the end of a shift, you feel it. We go through a lot of shoulders and knees.”
“You gotta go through intense training,” conductor Jorge Simonez tells me. An eight-year cable-car veteran with a background in Muni’s light rail, he’s one of 176 cable-car operators. They’re selected across the system, from buses to rail; the selection process is based on seniority, and the 25-day orientation program has an 80% attrition rate.
“When my number was pulled up,” Simonez recalls, releasing the rear brakes of a Powell-Mason car while turning the Jackson Street corner, “I came over for training; they showed me how it’s done; and then it’s, ‘Let’s see if I’m able to do it.’”
Once they’ve been accepted, an operator has the job for as long as they’re able to hold it. That means a long wait list for hopefuls.
“Operators do retire,” says Simonez. “It is physical. At the end of the day, regardless of what they say, at the end of a shift, you feel it. We go through a lot of shoulders and knees.”
The grip lever rattles with the cable below like an eager horse, and it seems to me that more than stamina and strength, the cars require a trainer’s instinct. Simonez is modest, but he admits, “I know the hills. I know the brake by heart.”
Even operators’ casual knowledge of the city along the lines is storied and intimate. A visitor drops her pass from the standing board and panics; the grip retrieves it by first letting the car slide in reverse down Powell, as effortlessly as if he were backing up in his driveway. Operators laugh during the day about “Fantasy Island,” the concrete pad at the corner of Powell and Post where tourists hope to outwit the longer lines down the street. “Hey, Chris!” one grip shouts from Columbus Avenue into an open garage bay lit by the fading sunset. Chris, a mechanic by the side of a slightly rusted Volkswagen van, waves back.
Operators can be surprisingly shy in contrast to their outspokenness on the line. Simonez is the only one willing to go on record for this story — his coworkers jokingly provide pseudonyms (including “Jackie Chan”), or they simply decline.
While Simonez speaks to me on the perch of an idle car in line for the Market Street turntable, a colleague grows impatient off to the side: “Jorge’s doing a public service or something, but I gotta go home!”
You feel like you are going home at nine and a half miles an hour, the speed of the cable. From the wooden benches, the city is a repeated film, different each time but retaining the plot and cast, shot mostly at a Dutch angle. You grow comfortable with the soundtrack of wheels and levers moving, operators announcing the intersections and playing their particular jams on the main bells. Each downhill burst brings an out-of-place campfire smell, coming from heated two-inch Douglas fir blocks placed between each pair of wheels. Their sap and grain hug the rails better than steel.
“When you smell that, that’s good news because that means the brakes are working,” Simonez quips. “They change them every three days.”
The pine blocks do most of the work, but they’re supplemented by regular steel brakes within the wheels. The large red lever off to the grip’s left is also a brake. It lodges an 18-inch-long steel wedge into the crevice through which the car grasps the moving cable, resulting in a dead stop.
“We call that the ‘Oh, shit!’ brake,” says a 20-year veteran. “Maintenance usually has to cut the [wedge] out and yells at us after, but I won’t hesitate to use it. You don’t have a second to decide.”
Throughout the day, tourists eagerly record the experience. Selfie sticks and floating grips hold iPhones and GoPros off the side and against windows, but the novelty seems to burn out faster than the pine-block brakes. Some disembark only a few minutes into the seven-dollar ride.
At the Instagrammable summit of Lombard Street, a French woman yells from deep within the cabin, “Il faut arrêter ici, c’est sur Netflix!” (“We have to stop here. This is on Netflix!”). It’s on to the next San Francisco experience for her. The cable cars and their operators become a backdrop.
You can tell who the few locals are on each ride, as we have a Clipper card ready. But like some tourists, we, too, are guilty of getting bored of the spectacle of a handcrafted vehicle being wrangled by a 21st-century cowboy, browsing our phones instead of taking pictures with them. We have seen it all before.
The operators’ relationship with San Francisco is different. They glance around like it’s their own backyard yet watch like they’re seeing everything for the first time. The rides they take, hundreds of times each year, are almost ones of redemption. You begin, after all, in parts of town pockmarked with San Francisco sins—callous commercialism and tragic homelessness divided by foul sidewalks.
But with a rattle, you go up a tree-lined hill and find yourself somewhere that still belongs to residents.
Fisherman’s Wharf recedes beneath Russian Hill to a fleeting vista of the Golden Gate Bridge against the sunset. Then Swensen’s neon sign glows pink in the swirling fog. Nook Cafe tucks itself behind a sharp turn. On the Market-Van Ness line, office buildings are left behind for leafy Nob Hill, where Zeki’s Bar’s firesides wait on the other side of the summit.
Locals usually have two reasons for avoiding the cable cars. Most bring up the $7 one-way ticket, but any tier of Muni pass allows you to ride free. The stronger argument is convenience—unless you work off of California Street, you will likely have to walk and wait more than you’ll get to ride.
But I don’t believe the cable-car lines are about convenience. They are less about going some place and more about being there. Like Simonez, you appreciate San Francisco more fully because you know it by heart.
I step off the Powell-Market line at California Street in the evening, accompanied by more French visitors. They are wondering where “Nob Eel” is (it must have also been on Netflix). I point it out to them.
“Ah, do you live ere?” one asks me.
I chuckle and say, “Oui,” the way proud Parisians do when you ask them that on their home turf.
Behind us, the grip throws the brake lever. For one rider, his job is done.