Successful Historic Streetcar Service: Learning from the San Francisco, California, Experience

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date


Subject Area

planning - service quality, mode - rail, mode - tram/light rail, mode - car


Streetcars, Service quality, San Francisco Municipal Railway, San Francisco (California), Ridership, Quality of service, Public support, Patronage (Transit ridership), Passenger service quality, Lessons learned


San Francisco, California, is closely associated with the operation of historic streetcars. Typically, this association is tied to the cable car; however, during the past two decades, the San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni) has also become the nation’s largest operator of historic streetcars through its F-Market and Wharves line. To assist the many cities interested in creating their own historic streetcar services, this research presents the history of the creation of this unique service, the first quantitative analysis of its operating and ridership characteristics, and a qualitative consideration of the contextual factors supportive of developing a historic streetcar service. The quantitative analysis is based on data collected as part of Muni’s Transit Effectiveness Project and argues that the F line has been successful at attracting ridership, particularly in comparison with the rest of Muni’s rail services, but does so at a high cost per user and with relatively low utilization of transit capacity. This finding suggests that efforts should be made to improve the efficiency of this service. The qualitative analysis is based on nonprofit publications, newspaper articles, and personal interviews. This analysis identifies a transit-friendly natural and built environment, broad existing transit agency capacity, and active public support for rail transit as key factors conducive to the development of historic streetcar service.