Heritage Streetcar Win: San Francisco’s F-Market & Wharves Line

A heritage streetcar on San Francisco's F-line makes its way to the Castro District. Photo by Rachael Young, used with permission.

Today’s post celebrates a particular planning win, San Francisco’s heritage F-Market and Wharves streetcar line, as well as a broader, equally winning trend of urban streetcar revival.

These days, San Francisco’s six mile F-line line is one of the worlds’ longest publicly-operated vintage streetcar routes, boasting a fleet of restored antique cars from around the world. This fall will mark fifteen years since the local public transit system, the San Francisco Municipal Railway, began running vintage cars in regular service between the Castro and Financial Districts. A decade ago, the route was further extended to Fisherman’s Wharf.

Much-loved by residents and tourists, the F-line serves around 20,000 riders daily, including large numbers of local commuters. To get a sense of its contribution to the visual interest and historic resonance of San Francisco, check out the over two thousand gorgeous photos in the Market Street Railway pool on Flickr.

While restoring a curated collection of antique streetcars like those serving San Francisco’s F-Line can be costly, heritage streetcars can also serve as an affordable intermediate option for transit agencies that want to try offering streetcar service but lack the budget to buy new rolling stock. Because, at least in North America, most cities discontinued streetcar service in the mid-20th century, plenty of heritage streetcars exist, and they sell for considerably less per car than their modern-day counterparts. Examples of regularly operational heritage streetcar lines can found in Little Rock, AR, Memphis, TN and Dallas, TX, while seasonal lines are operated by non-profit groups in Vancouver, BC, and Edmonton, AB, among other cities.

Car #1856 on San Francisco's F-Line was built in 1928 and originally served in Milan, Italy. Thanks to Wallyg for the great Creative Commons photo.

In the US, no less than forty cities currently have streetcar lines under development. That number is bound to rise with the recent announcement by US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood of $130 million in funding available to urban circulator systems such as streetcars. According to the December 2009 press release, “priority will be given to projects that… foster the redevelopment of commnunities into walkable, mixed use, high-density environments.”

The reappearance of streetcars on the streets of North American cities is a planning win for several reasons. With or without heritage cars, streetcars have cultural implications that draw on local history and help to define a place’s identity. As suggested in the Department of Transportation announcement, they are recognized to help shape urban development. Perhaps most importantly of all, they increase transit quality and choice: an article in this week’s AARP bulletin points out the particular value of streetcar service to seniors.

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