You may think of riding a San Francisco's cable car as a city "sight" rather than as transportation. Most people do, and who wouldn't? Cable cars in San Francisco are cute and old-fashioned, in the best kind of way.
If you charge off to ride a cable car, your fun adventure could turn into an annoying one. If you show up at the busiest boarding area, you stand in line so long that you start wondering if you need to file a change of address form. Getting on a cable car mid-route can also be confusing - and getting them to stop isn't obvious, either.
This guide will help you enjoy your cable car ride with a minimum of fuss, disappointment, and aggravation.
How the Cable Cars Work
Before you start to ride a cable car, you need to know about the people who run them, and what their jobs are. Each cable car has a staff of two. The conductor sells tickets and looks after the passengers.
The grip person is the driver. They use levers and handles to grab or release a moving cable that runs in a continuous loop beneath the street.
To stop, the grip puts on the brake, which is nothing more than a big piece of wood that drags the ground. The grip is also the bell-ringer, signaling the car's approach.
San Francisco Cable Car Map: Where They Go, Which One to Ride
Three cable car lines run through San Francisco. The map shows their routes.
Two lines take off from the same hub near Union Square. Check the signs on the cars to be sure you get on the one you intend to.
Powell-Hyde Line (Green)
The Powell-Hyde line runs from the corner of Powell and Market Streets to the end of Hyde at the waterfront near Ghirardelli Square.
If you want to go to the top of and walk down it, this is the car to take.
For maximum fun, take the Powell-Hyde Line from Union Square to the top of Lombard Street, get off and walk down the "crooked" street. From there you can continue to the waterfront, or get off at the end of the line near Ghirardelli Square and walk two blocks along the waterfront to Fisherman's Wharf.
The Powell-Hyde boarding area at the waterfront can be super-busy with long lines. You can get on a car faster by walking a few blocks over to the intersection of Taylor and North Point streets to catch the Powell-Mason line instead.
Powell-Mason Line (Blue)
Powell-Mason starts near Union Square at Powell and Market Streets and runs to the intersection of Mason and North Point.
Use the Powell-Mason line to go to Union Square from the waterfront. Its boarding area is less busy than the one at Hyde Street.
California Line (Red)
If all you want to do is say you rode a cable car, this is the one. It's the least busy of the three. It's also full of thrills as it climbs the steep hill from California and Market to the top of Nob Hill, then runs back downhill to Van Ness.
Fares and How to Get Cable Car Tickets
Everyone who is older than four needs a ticket to ride the cable car.
Your payment is good for only one ride. If you get off for any reason — even if it's only to tie your shoe —you'll pay again.
If you find a long line when you arrive at the cable car stop, be smart. Send one person to buy tickets while the rest of your group gets in line.
Ways to Get Cable Car Tickets
You can buy single-ride tickets from the conductor on the cable car. Have small bills available if you plan to do that.
Visitor Passports allow unlimited rides on cable cars, the Market Street F-Line streetcar, and city-run buses. You can get a paper pass or use the MuniMobile app.
You can also get tickets and passes from machines or attended booths at Powell and Market (near Union Square) and Hyde at Beach (just below Ghirardelli Square).
The San Francisco CityPass gives better prices on attractions and includes a MUNI passport.
Boarding the Cable Car
The physical part of boarding is easy. Just step up, and you're on.
Figuring out how to get a cable car to pick you up instead of rattling by is harder. First, look for a sign like the one in the picture. Wait on the curb next to it.
Check the sign to make sure the car you're boarding is going to your destination. The sign above says the car that stops there is going to Bay and Taylor.
Wave as soon as you see the car approaching to signal you want to get on. For safety, stay on the curb until the car stops, then walk out to it, checking for approaching automobiles.
If the cable car is full (and it can sometimes be jam-packed for several stops after it leaves the end of a line), it won't stop no matter how much you wave or yell. If there's no room, there's just no room. If several of them pass you, all too full to stop, it may be time to re-evaluate your plans.
Where to Ride: In Or Out?
If you're riding the cable car for the fun of the experience, choose the seating that suits you best. One of the best spots is between the rows of benches at the back, just behind the grip where you can see out and also watch them work. For safety, you'll have to stay clear of their workspace.
If you ride standing up on the outside of the cable car, you can see everything and feel the wind in your hair. If you sit on the outside benches, you can still feel the wind but will have to peek around others who can block your view.
If you ride inside the car, you can see a little bit out of the windows, but only if you stand up. If you sit down in a crowded car, all you'll see are the hip pockets of your fellow passengers.
How to Get Off the Cable Car
Getting off a cable car sounds easy, doesn't it? You step down, and it's done. If you're going to the end of the line, that's all you'll have to worry about.
If you want to get off along the way, you'll have to notify the grip person and conductor.
On other transit systems, pulling an overhead cord says you want to get off, but that isn't the case on the cable car. The white cord you see in the photo isn't for you. Instead, it rings the cable car's bell.
To ask for a stop, go old school: Say "Next stop, please," speaking loud enough for the conductor or grip to hear you.
Cable cars take a little while to come to a halt. Signal at least a half-block ahead, or you might have to wait until the next stop.