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San Francisco Cable Cars Explained
For the visitor, San Francisco cable cars are not a means of transportation but a destination, one of the things one has to "see" if they go to the City by the Bay. They also provide transportation to many of the city’s most popular areas.
A cable car ride is one of San Francisco's top-rated sights. Find out what the rest are.
SF Cable Car Routes
The San Francisco cable cars run on three routes. Use this guide to find out where they go, what they pass and how to make the most of the ride.
Buy tickets for the San Francisco cable car at the turnarounds which are at the end of each line — or from the conductor as you board. Your ticket is good for only one ride, and I know this is aggravating: if you get off and want to ride again, you'll have to pay again.
Check the current fares, which are reduced to for seniors more than 65 years old and disabled persons during non-busy hours only. Children under five years old ride for free.
If you plan to ride three or more times in the same day, or four times in three days, an unlimited-ride passport is more economical. The passport is also good for the Market Street F-Line streetcar and all the city-run buses.
You also get a 7-day MUNI passport when you buy a San Francisco CityPASS, a good deal if you're also going to visit some of the attractions they bundle together.
Accessibility on the Cable Cars
According to a friendly grip person who took time from eating his lunch to answer my question, people in wheelchairs ride the cable cars frequently. You just need someone along to help you get on and off.
We rate San Francisco's cable cars five stars out of 5. They're an icon of the city, tourist-filled but fun. Stand outside for the best ride.
When we asked, 1,700 of our readers, 55% say the cable cars are great or awesome. On the other hand, 35% give it the lowest possible rating.Continue to 2 of 13 below.
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These cars on Hyde Street at the top of Lombard. The last couple of blocks of Hyde Street are among the steepest in the cable car system.Continue to 3 of 13 below.
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California Street, Chinatown
The cable car is one of the easiest ways to get to Chinatown and you can get off at the corner of California and Grant, where it's easy to snap a photo of two San Francisco icons at once.Continue to 4 of 13 below.
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One of the things many visitors want to do is hang onto the cable car's side. Frankly, I think it's a little terrifying – and a friend of mine got a nasty crack on the head when he leaned out too far just as another car was passing.
Nevertheless, it's OK to do it. The trick is to get on in time to get one of those few spaces where it's allowed.Continue to 5 of 13 below.
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Powell Street Car
This single-ended Powell Street cable car is one of many built in the same style. If you're trying to figure out where a cable car is going, just look for a yellow sign like the one to the left of the number "24" in this picture. It travels from Powell and Market Streets to Bay and Taylor near Fisherman's Wharf, then it goes back again. Because this kind of car can only go in one direction, there are turntables at the end of the line where the gripmen can reverse their direction.Continue to 6 of 13 below.
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The cable cars have to turn around at the end of each line. To do that, they drive onto a big turntable. Then the grip and the conductor get out and push - hard.
You may notice an interesting thing about this cable car - it's a "training car" with no passengers allowed on board.Continue to 7 of 13 below.
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Red and Green Powell Street Car
This cable car also travels between Powell/Market and Hyde, but is a different style with red and green paint.
Do you see the bell on top? It's not only a means of communication - used to get people's attention - but every grip person has their own unique style. Since the 1960s, the most innovative bell-ringers have competed in the annual Muni Cable Car Bell Ringing Contest, held at Union Square every September.Continue to 8 of 13 below.
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Hyde Street Turn Around
If you get on the cable car at Powell and Market, you can ride to Bay and Taylor near Fisherman's Wharf, as the last couple of cars do - or to Hyde Street near Ghirardelli Square and the waterfront. This turn around is always busy, with a couple of cars waiting to load up as soon as the one coming up the hill gets out of the station. The cable car ride up or down Hyde Street is the steepest in the city, especially exciting if you're standing on one of the outside running boards. The sign on this cable car says Powell and Market / Hyde & Beach Fisherman's Wharf.
The Hyde Street terminus is very scenic, but often the lines are quite long. Not everyone knows that you can walk just one block away from the waterfront on Hyde, then a few blocks along Bay Street to Taylor and get onto a cable car much quicker than you can here.Continue to 9 of 13 below.
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Inside a Cable Car - How to Get Off
It was a rare Sunday when I found the entire inside section of a cable car empty, but it gives a chance to see the beautiful woodwork. It also brings up a tip and something you may not know. Do you see the cord that runs through the middle of the car? It's on the right side of the photo, near the ceiling. In other cities, you'd use a cord like that to signal that you want to get off, but in San Francisco it has another meaning.
That cord isn't for you but the for the grip person. It connects to the bell, which they use to signal with. If you want to get off, just yell: "Next stop," but remember that cable cars only stop in specific spots and the driver needs advance notice to get ready to stop. You may be able to just read the notice near the ceiling which says: "half-block notice before stop you want." A block might be better.Continue to 10 of 13 below.
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How Does a Cable Car Work? Cable Winding Machine
At first glance, it's hard to tell what makes a cable car move. Stop anywhere along the tracks and you might get a clue. If it's quiet enough, you'll hear the cables singing as they travel through a slot below the street's surface and between the rails. The cars hook onto the cable to move and let go when they want to stop.
There's one cable for each cable car line, drawn over large pulleys called "sheaves." The two in this picture are in the Cable Car Museum. They run the California and Mason lines. Because the cable can stretch up to 100 feet during its lifetime, the equipment you see in the background adjusts for the stretch to keep the tension constant.
Once the winding machines put the cables in motion, they pass into the channels beneath the street. These three large pulley devices are also located at the Cable Car Museum. They're buried beneath the street, transferring the vertical motion into the linear motion needed to pull the cars.Continue to 11 of 13 below.
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Cable Grip and Brake
The cable cars move along their tracks by connecting to the moving cables. This piece of odd-looking machinery is called the "grip." The grip person uses it to release the cable when the car needs to stop and engages the grip to get started moving again. The second handle operates the brakes. The grip person's job is to smoothly coordinate the two actions so the car starts and stops with jerking you around.Continue to 12 of 13 below.
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Once the grip releases the cable, you've still got to get the car stopped. The braking mechanism lowers the flat piece you see between the wheels until it touches the ground and the friction makes the car stop.Continue to 13 of 13 below.
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History of San Francisco Cable Cars
On August 2, 1873, the first person to ride a San Francisco cable car down Clay Street was Andrew Hallidie, its inventor. He got the idea after watching a horse-drawn carriage having trouble going up a steep hill.
Hallidie's invention changed the way people in San Francisco lived, creating a vital link in the San Francisco transportation system. Cable cars made it possible for people to live on steep hills for the first time. The cable cars were an immediate success. By the 1890s, eight transit companies operated 600 cars on 21 routes covering more than 50 miles.
Cable cars remained the primary mode of transportation until the 1906 earthquake destroyed most of the system. A municipal railway replaced most lines afterward. The iconic cars are the only vehicles of their kind still in operation, and they are designated National Landmarks.
In 2010, the term "gripman" faded into history after being used for 137 years to describe the person who operates the cable car's brakes. When Willa Johnson became the second-ever woman cable car operator on April 12, 2010, the city officially changed the name of the job to "grip person." Johnson's predecessor Fannie Barnes retired from active cable car duty in 2002.
To learn more about this unique mode of transportation, visit the Cable Car Barn Museum, which is located at Mason and Washington. You can get there on the Powell-Mason or Powell-Hyde lines.