California and Powell

Post by Steven Dale

Last night I went for a ride in San Francisco.

I was on the west coast learning about various cable systems and I was at the end of a long week of traveling and research. I needed room to clear my head, get out of the hotel. I found myself jumping on a cable car at 10 o’clock at night. No where to go, no destination in mind. Just hop on and go.

It made no sense. I’d just spent the last two days riding these rickety old things and had no reason to want to ride one again. See, San Francisco cable cars are iconic, but they aren’t comfortable. You ride them because they’re the quickest way to get you where you’re going or you’re a tourist and you just kinda’ have to. The tourist’s obligation. But they’re not pleasant.

Firstly, they’re expensive. If you don’t have a pass, they cost five bucks a trip (each way!). The drivers (‘gripmen’) are large, surly ogres barking orders at pedestrians, riders and each other.  Wind whips through the open cabin, chilling your hands. Wooden benches provide meagre, spartan seating. The cars shake and jostle.

Even still, I was compelled.

The cable cars are deeply romantic things. Not romantic in the sexual sense, but in the original meaning of the word. They’re pastoral and poetic, inviting contemplation and meditation. They are so connected to the street, so plugged-in to the city-block, so unmediated that to ride the cars out in the open air is to experience the city first hand.

At the intersection of California and Powell, the car stopped prematurely. For technical reasons we had dropped the rope and couldn’t ‘pick it up’.  In other words, we were stranded. We were blocking five lanes of traffic in three different directions.

Waiting for a red light on the street corner, a fat man in a hoodie spotted the problem as though he’d seen it happen hundreds of times before. Maybe he was an off-duty gripman, or maybe he’d just seen it so many times he knew exactly what had occurred. Indeed, the curious design of California and Powell almost ensures this problem should occur repeatedly.

The fat man jostled over to our beached whale of a vehicle and began to push our car a dozen feet or so to a place where we could pick up the rope again. A few of us in the car jumped out to help. The fat man didn’t need our help, but we wanted the selfish right to tell the story later and that right could only be bequeathed to us if we participated in the event. The problem was resolved in a matter of seconds. We proceeded on our way and the fat man went back to waiting for his red light, which had already changed twice while he’d been helping us.

By every conceivable statistical measure the San Francisco cable cars are worthless, antiquated pieces of junk. But cities aren’t made on a spreadsheet. On paper, a system that needs a fat man in a hoodie to give it a push is laughable. In practice, it exposes the collective will of a city working together to maintain a piece of their heritage. Even in their dilapidated, ramshackle condition the San Francisco cable cars say more and accomplish more than almost any transit system I know of.

They’re a unifier, an advertisement to the world, a transporter of people and an invitation to reflection. That’s not something you’re going to find in textbooks, planning reports or wikipedia. Our systems just don’t allow us to consider such irrelevant pleasantries.

Think about it. When our modern transit systems fail (and they all fail at one point or another), what do we do? Complain, place blame, write an op-ed, call for someone’s resignation, demand a refund. I pay for this system with my tax dollars, dammit! But we never help.

We never just get out and push.

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.

Cable Cars / San Francisco Cable Cars / Thoughts / Urban Planning & Design
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