The San Francisco Cable Car is for Tourists and That’s Okay

The San Francisco Cable Car is for Tourists and That’s Okay

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When my friends and I were in San Francisco for a few days we did some touristy things. We went to Alcatraz. We wandered around Fisherman’s Wharf. We saw the sea lions at Pier 39. We walked through Chinatown. We went on a double-decker bus tour. We went across The Golden Gate Bridge and then took photos on the other side. We even had lunch at a Hard Rock Cafe and at Boudin Bakery (which was where sourdough bread was first popularized).

The one other tourist thing we really wanted to do in San Francisco was to ride the cable car. You know the one. It’s featured in pretty much every movie or TV show set in San Francisco. The first two days we were there we had a hop-on/off bus pass and used that to get around the city. The next two days my friends and I got a Clipper Card, which is a transit pass. We used it on the bus, the tram, the BART (subway), and on the cable cars.

One of the famous cable cars in San Francisco. The city is the last one in the world to have manually operated cable cars.

Powell-Hyde Cable Car Turnaround

For our first attempt to take the cable car we went to the Powell-Hyde turnaround. There are three different cable car lines in San Francisco. On the Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason lines the cable cars only operate from one end. So when they get to the end of the line the operators get out and turn the cable car (that’s not a metaphor; they physically turn the cable car).

The Powell-Hyde turn around is right by Ghirardelli Square and the Hyde Street Pier. These are pretty busy and touristy areas of the city, and so there will likely always be a queue of people here. The first time we were here we only waited about 10 minutes. When we got to the car, we were hoping we’d get the seats on the side (the ones facing out to the street). Since it was busy we had to sit inside, in the middle of the car. Still, we got to ride the cable car.

During our time in San Francisco, they were doing work on the Powell-Hyde line. This meant that we could only ride the cable car partway on this particular line. After that we had to take a free shuttle bus for the rest of the line. Turns out this work was going to finish a couple days after we left, but it did kind of suck for our trip. It also meant that the cable car turnaround at the other end of the line (the one closest to our hostel) wasn’t in operation. Oh well, c’est la vie, right?

San Francisco Cable Car Museum

One thing we did do was wander inside the free San Francisco Cable Car Museum. It shows the history of the cable car, and has lots of information about how cable cars work. The cable cars themselves don’t have any kind of motor or engine in them. Instead, they are moved by a cable that runs underneath a track on the road. On the cable cars is a lever that operates as a braking system. At the museum, you can watch the now electrical powered motors drive the large wheels that pull the cables under the ground to move these cable cars. If you’re outside by a cable car track you can hear the cable moving underneath. It was interesting to see this, and to learn about the history of the cable car. This is a neat museum to visit if you’re in the area.

This explains the difference between a cable car and a streetcar.

Final Day

On the last day, we went back to the turn-around for the Powell-Hyde line and the queue was insane. We waited for about 90 minutes to get on the cable car. Depending on your circumstance you might just give up and walk. Looking up at the massive hill we decided to wait it out, rather than to walk it. While I was in line I couldn’t help but think to myself, “yep the cable car in San Francisco is 100% for tourists. There’s no way a local is waiting in this giant line to go to work or to the grocery store.” Perhaps back in the day when the cable car was one of the only forms of public transit locals would take it, but I doubt they would now. Not with all the other forms of public transit in San Francisco that are quicker and go to more places.

We finally got on the cable car (again had to sit inside), and went up toward Lombard Street. We decided it’d be easier to walk down Lombard than up. It’s worth knowing the cable cars don’t have a way to indicate a stop inside the car (there are no buttons to push or strings to pull). Instead, you just need to tell the driver where you want to get off. Outside there are cable car stops along the routes, so if you’re waiting at a stop the cable car will stop there. After walking down Lombard (on the sidewalks; you can’t walk down the crooked road) we caught the shuttle to the end of the line. Then we walked over to where the California Line cable cars operate.

We decided to walk down from Lombard Street to California Street to take another cable car. Going down is much easier than going up. It’s important to know if you’re walking down Lombard Street you need to stay on the sidewalk. There are city employees (I believe they work for the city) there to make sure no one is walking onto the road. Be safe people.

The California Line

The California line runs along California Street (hence the name) from Polk Gulch to the Financial District. Unlike the cable cars on the other two lines (Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason) the cable cars on the California line can be operated from either end of the car. That means there isn’t a turnaround spot for people (tourists mostly) to take photos and videos. Instead, the cars on this line have a lever on both ends of the car. So when it’s time to move from one direction to another, the operator just moves to the other side of the car, and operates the cable car from there. Then the car moves in the other direction.

One thing about San Francisco being on several hills is that at some point you’ll be at the top of one and you’ll get a pretty nice view. Of course, it’s hard to stand on the side of a cable car and snap a photo while the car is stopped at a red light, but you do what you can.

The real reason we went to the California line is that we figured it wouldn’t be as busy as the other two, and it wasn’t. We ended up getting seats on the side of the car like we wanted to originally. Then I decided, since I was here, I should stand up on the platform outside. Those photos of people standing on the side cable car and riding it up/down the steep hills of San Francisco? Yep, that was me. Also, I was singing (in my head) “The Trolley Song” from the musical Meet Me in St. Louis, despite the fact we were on a cable car, and not in St. Louis.

We had some friendly locals wave to all of us tourists on the cable car. Pretty sure that’s not happening if you’re a local just taking the bus. Note: I cannot make any guarantees friendly locals will wave to you if you ride the cable car in San Francisco, but it’s still fun.

Standing on the cable car is a lot of fun, and one of my friends remarked, “I didn’t realize this was a childhood dream until now.” The cable cars only go about 9 miles an hour, so this isn’t a roller-coaster type of experience. Then again, I don’t know any other time I’ve been able to stand on the outside of a moving vehicle (in a safe and legal way). Riding the cable car like this was a lot of fun. I took a short video of riding the cable car below.

View from the California Line San Francisco Cable Car.

Sometimes you go to a place and there’s a touristy thing to do. Some people might be all like, “oh no it’s too touristy.” If that’s you, then cool. I definitely understand some tourist attractions can be overrated (at least to some). I also understand that some things are tourist attractions because there’s something unique about them. When it comes to travel, you do you (provided you’re not doing anything unsafe, illegal, or culturally inappropriate). If you want to skip out on taking the cable car in San Francisco then go ahead. For myself, I’m happy I did this thing that is 100% for tourists. And next time I’m in San Francisco I won’t hesitate to hop on a cable car again.

Things To Know
While in San Francisco my friends and I stayed at the Orange Village Hostel in a 4-bed dorm that had a small private bathroom. The hostel is close to the Powell Street Station, where you can take the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) to the airport.
If you’re not on a budget there are plenty of other accommodation options you can book here.

Would you stand on the outside of the San Francisco Cable Car?

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