A Tale of Two Cities’ StreetcarsMay 16, 2012 by: Samuel Scheib
Philadelphia and San Francisco are rarely compared to one another. One is America’s founding city, the other America’s European city. One is east, the other west. The city by the bay is known for its mild winters and cold summers and the City of Brotherly Love isn’t. But there are some interesting similarities, and unfortunate differences, in the streetcar lines both cities operate the F-Market in San Fran and route 15 on Girard Avenue in Philly. Their origin stories both happen to begin underground.
In the 1920s the city of Philadelphia was grappling with traffic congestion from the ever increasing number of automobiles on the road and the view of some was that the problem was the streetcars, which then numbered in the thousands. Like a body in the trunk, the solution was to bury it so they realigned five streetcar routes to go down into the existing subway in order to get the trolleys off Market Street (where SEPTA’s headquarters is located in addition to the fabulous Reading Terminal Market). These subway-surface lines continue running to this day although now they use cars called LRVs, light rail vehicles, but are basically streetcars (single length cars powered by catenaries. They look like modernized PCC cars).
Philly was moving steadily and inexorably away from street-level streetcars and by the 1990s there were only three routes remaining: 15, 23, 56. Then, in 1992, SEPTA took those three “temporarily” out of service during a budget crisis. Steady lobbying by Mayor Ed Rendell and interested citizens—SEPTA staff took to calling them trolley jollies—got one of those routes reinstated in 2005, the route 15 on Girard using restored cream, silver, and green PCC cars. The original plan in the 1990s was to purchase light rail transit (LRT) vehicles (multiple-car trains) for the subway lines and move the Kawasaki single-car LRVs from the subway-surface lines to Girard Ave. But restored PCC cars proved the less expensive alternative and one more popular with the non-riding public, and so came to pass.
San Francisco was, like Philadelphia, once a great streetcar city and has the unusual distinction of having had publicly owned streetcar systems back when they were mostly private enterprises, beginning in 1912 and as a result of the rebuilding after the 1906 earthquake and fire. Far from the narrow confines we now think of for streetcars, four routes once operated side-by-side from the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero to Castro Street, known to old timers as the “roar of the four.” But automobiles became popular here too and SFMTA, Muni for short, decided to shift five routes underground as well, interestingly also from Market Street. The heavy rail BART system was approved in 1962 and as part of the plan put the streetcars, modern Boeing LRVs, in a second tunnel above the heavy rail line.
Construction was completed in the fall of 1982 and as a way to say “so long” to the street-level service, Muni plucked the No. 1, SFMTA’s first streetcar, from 1912, out of mothballs and put it and another heritage streetcar borrowed from a museum in service for a couple of weekends. People liked seeing those old streetcars and in less than a year they would be rolling again.
As luck would have it the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, worried about losing tourists during an 18-month overhaul of the famous cable car system, was interested in an historic rail alternative and someone remembered those old cars running just a few months back. In June 1983 Muni started the San Francisco Historic Trolley Festival and rolled out a fleet of antique streetcars cobbled together from around the U.S. and world: PCCs from Philadelphia, a single truck from Portugal, an open-topped boat tram from Blackpool England, complete with a Jolly Roger flying. It was impossible not to smile at this odd creation, and the whole festival was a hit. Tourists rode, but locals swooned. Due to popular demand the festival continued for four more summers and spurred plans to put a regular route back on Market Street and the city and Muni began planning.
Fate again intervened when the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake irreparably damaged the hated Embarcadero Freeway (great Streetfilms video here). The double-decked, elevated highway had separated the city from its own waterfront on the San Francisco Bay; once damaged it was removed, which opened the space for a streetcar alignment on brand new tracks. F-Market opened with 7,800 riders per day in 1995 and that number has only grown to about 20,000 per day today and is popular with tourists and locals alike. With around 5 million annual trips, the F-Market has the 2nd highest ridership of any streetcar in the United States (St. Charles in New Orleans has more than 8 million annual boardings, pre-Katrina).
If the F-Market is for fun, with brightly colored cars and views of the bay, shared by locals and tourists alike, Girard is for work. It connects an elevated rail line and a subway and operates along a mostly low-income part of Philly, but also near Temple University. That means it hits the trifecta for high ridership, more than 3 million trips per year: fundamentally connected to the transit system, serves transit dependent populations, and serves college students. The greatest divergence between these two routes is how they came about. In San Francisco the Chamber of Commerce, always a seat of power in cities, proposed and promoted streetcars and Muni, operating in its interests, happily went along.
In Philly, Mayor Rendell threatened a veto of SEPTA’s capital budget and SEPTA, for operational reasons making route 15 the least bad of the three, restored service along the decayed Girard Avenue when the real target of the trolley jollies was route 23 to Chestnut Hill (Residents of Chestnut Hill, a cute turn-of-the-century streetcar suburb at the end of route 23 with wine shops and other boutique storefronts, had gone so far as to charter a 1947 PCC car to take them to a September 1997 Philadelphia City Council special hearing on the status of the three lines.) A section from a 1997 Philadelphia Inquirer article is worth reproducing in its entirety:
The broadest support came for trolley service on Route 23, which connects Chestnut Hill to South Philadelphia, along Germantown Avenue as well as 11th and 12th Streets, but the two other routes also found backing. “They form the spine of a trolley system that SEPTA should regard as a treasure to be restored and invigorated . . .” said Janet Potter, representing the Chestnut Hill Community Association. “A character-rich, smooth-flowing streetcar system can unite and improve urban neighborhoods in the way a fleet of lurching, fume-spewing buses, jouncing over our Belgian-block avenue, can never do.”
As much as Chestnut Hill residents wanted to see a trolley (not ride) the Girard line passengers, arguably did not; ridership the first year route 15 switched from bus to streetcar actually dropped 13% as the streetcars got stuck behind left turning automobiles (the only place cars and streetcars share right-of-way, not a great place), cars parked on the tracks, trolleys came off the power lines, many non-ADA compliant stops were removed, etc. Streetcars were more expensive for SEPTA to operate than a bus and the streetcars had less capacity. There was no upside to the Girard Avenue Streetcar for the agency that operated it. Passengers want to get to work on time, not ride in a cute vehicle, and since it does not go downtown route 15 does not even have a tourism cache.
There are remarkable similarities to these two routes—historic origins, Market Streets, 5 routes put underground, use of PCC cars, high ridership—Girard is the photographic negative of F-Market and a remarkable example of the impact of politics and community passions on transit.