As iconic images of San Francisco, California, The San Francisco Cable Cars are as associated with, and unique to the city as The Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island. The world’s lone surviving manually operated cable car system was established in 1873 and once consisted of 23 lines crisscrossing the city, and making its steep hills more easily passable than they were on horse drawn carriages. While the cable cars used to carry passengers throughout the winding streets of the city continually covered in morning fog, only three lines remain today, one along California Street with unique multi directional cable cars, and two from downtown to Fisherman’s Wharf featuring the traditional single faces carriages most commonly associated with the transit system. Prior to the Great Earthquake there were more than 600 cable cars in the city but damage to the lines and decreased ridership reduced the number to less than 100 by 1912. Today, since they are primarily used by tourists there are only 40 operational carriages.
While there are large numbers of daily commuters and locals that hop on and off the cable cars as part of their daily commute, most of the 9 million plus annual users of the old-timey transit system are visitors to the city. Operating from 6:00 in the morning till midnight seven days a week, the cable cars conveniently offer commuters an opportunity to catch a ride to work as well as a ride home from an evening on the town.
Along with being an active form of public transportation, a tourist attraction, and a symbol of San Francisco, the cable cars are also historic landmarks. The cable car system was designated a National Historic Landmark on January 29th, 1964, and added to the National Register of Historic Places on October 15th, 1966.
San Francisco Cable Car Facts
- Constructing a new cable car requires dozens of craftsmen and takes 18-24 months.
- Each piece of a new cable car is built in the exact manner that they were in the 1880’s, including hand painting and varnishing.
- Each carriage uses three different kinds of brakes to slow the car down (wheel breaks, track breaks and slot breaks).
- San Francisco cable cars are the only moving National Historic Landmark.
- The cable that pulls the cars moves at 9 1/2 MPH.
There is an annual contest held every year (almost) since 1949 in Union Square for the best cable car bell-ringer.