The Muni Paradox

A social history of the Municipal Railway
June 1, 1999

The Gilded Age-Entrepreneurial Development, Competition and Consolidation

In its earliest years, transit systems in San Francisco were an entrepreneurial product, either of those who sought an attractive direct return from the operation of a service, or of those who owned land and wanted to enhance the accessibility, and hence value, of their holdings. There was no overall system to speak of, and under conditions of relatively free market entry, many small, privately-operated, competing transit companies, some operating but a single route, were formed.

San Francisco grew from three nuclei with roots in Spanish colonial policy: the military at the Presidio, religious establishment at the Mission, and a trading center at Yerba Buena Cove. The first local transit service in the city was a horse-drawn "omnibus" service, really a sort of local stagecoach line, which met the need for regular connections between the latter two. The Gold Rush and the development of the port which served the Gold Rush established the economic threshold, and urban population (of about 40,000) to support regular transit service. Though the exact date of this event has been variously given, Muni's own official chronology specifies the glorious birth date of this predecessor of the 14-Mission, ancestor of all Muni lines, as June 1, 1851:

"The Yellow Line -- the first omnibus line -- starts service between Kearny & Clay (at Portsmouth Square) and Mission Dolores. The line had 30-minute headway, with a fare of 50 cents Monday through Saturday and $1.00 on Sunday...Later, the company established other routes, and the Red Line began competition, causing fares to fall to 10 cents."

Transit in San Francisco Robert Callwell, Muni ComMunity Affairs Department, 1996

The success of these first services led to a considerable expansion. In his Report, discussed below, Bion Arnold noted that service was in operation to the Presidio by the mid-1850s, and that a five-minute headway, was operated between South Park and North Beach over what we now know as the 15 line. An extensive collection of horse omnibus routes was running by the time of the Civil War.

Within a decade rail transit service entered the picture, and it is interesting to contemplate that San Francisco's rail transit history is as long-or longer-than that of other major world cities. The horsecar, rail-borne version of the omnibus, developed in America, perhaps because of more primitive road conditions, or perhaps, in part, because of greater distances. Precursors in New York date from 1832 and New Orleans from 1835, but widespread adoption in Eastern cities came only in the 1850s. (see George Hilton, The Cable Car in America, 1971). In Paris, where this technology was known as "Le Chemin de Fer Américain", the first commercially operated line was established, with equipment built in New York, in 1854. (see Marc Gaillard, Histoire des Transports Parisiens, 1988). London did not have its first American-style "tramway" until the Bayswater Road line opened on March 23, 1861 (with Dickens and Thackeray present, see R.W. Kidner, The London Tramcar 1861-1952).

But by the time sophisticated Londoners embraced the horsecar, it was already old hat in San Francisco. In 1857, a franchise was granted to Thomas Hayes and associates, who owned "suburban" tracts of land in what is still known as "Hayes Valley," to connect this area with the heart of the city. Using this franchise, the San Francisco Market Street Railroad Company graded the right of way through the sand dunes, laid track, and began operation with steam and horse power on the Fourth of July 1860. The original line ran out Market Street from Third Street, then via Valencia Street to 16th. The following year, the Hayes Street branch began running out to Laguna Street, beginning what is now well over a century of public service by the 21-Hayes line, served today by efficient electric trolleybuses.

The superiority of the horsecar in speed, efficiency and ride quality was clearly demonstrated, and almost immediately existing omnibus operators began the first major modal conversion in San Francisco transit history. Roy Cameron, who worked in the city's Planning Department under the famous Directorship of T. J. Kent, Jr., chronicled this period in his excellent History of Public Transit in San Francisco 1850-1948, in many ways the seminal work in the city's transit historiography. In 1861, the Red Line re-incorporated as the Omnibus Railroad Company, and was soon running horsecar routes between South Park and North Beach, Rincon Hill and the Mission via Howard Street, and in the Jackson Square area. With 10.7 miles of single track, the company ran 24 cars with 8 spares, operated by 90 men and 140 horses. Similarly, the original Yellow Line, re-incorporated in 1861 as the North Beach and Mission Railroad Company, was soon running lines in competition with the Omnibus network. Four more companies were in operation by 1870, when the city's population was 150,000-the City Railroad, the Central Railroad, the Sutter Street Railroad, and the Front Street, Mission and Ocean Railroad Companies. Cameron quotes Langley's "City Directory" of 1875, which he characterizes as the "crest of the horsecar wave," when eight companies (including the Clay Street cable line) ran 220 cars upon 80 miles of track, employing 700 men and 1700 horses:

" If streets and avenues are the city's arteries and veins, the horse car is the most vital corpuscle that circulates through them. Indeed, without the horse car the business and social circulation in the outer portions would diminish to positive stagnation, if it did not wholly cease. But for the horse car, the population would pack itself into an unhealthful density in and about all those quarters most devoted to manufacture, trade and leading occupations, and large cities would presently suffer from a social or civic 'congestion of the heart.' It is hardly too much to say that the modern horse car is among the most indispensable conditions of modern metropolitan growth. It is to a city what steam-cars and steamship lines are to a State or Country."

Notwithstanding this paean to the horsecar, the mode had obvious limitations and defects, including unpleasant and unhealthful pollution of city streets in crowded areas. Not the least of the operating problems for the industry was susceptibility to equine diseases, most strikingly seen in the "Great Epizootic" of 1872, a form of equine influenza which killed many thousands of animals nationwide. Before about 1890, there was no really practical form of electric propulsion for transit use, and therefore the use of mechanically transmitted steam power remained a management objective. In places, "steam dummies," small steam locomotives, sometimes enclosed or semi-enclosed, and designed for urban transit, were used to pull transit coaches. This technique was most often used in outlying districts where grades were more permissive, and smoke and soot were less likely to prove themselves a significant public annoyance. The Ferries and Cliff House Railway, for example, operated an extension of the Powell Street cable system from Central (now Presidio) Avenue out California Street and around Land's End to the Cliff House; a branch ran from California Street down Seventh Avenue to Golden Gate Park, where its station building still stands on the south side of Fulton Street. Geary Boulevard and Lincoln Way were similarly served by steam operated lines.

But the most successful mechanical application of steam power to transit operation, and, of course, the arch-typical San Francisco transit mode, was the cable car. Although there were precursors, the first effective use of steam-powered cable traction for transit purposes was the Clay Street Hill Railroad Company. Andrew Hallidie, a London-born Scottish immigrant engaged in the manufacture of wire cables in a North Beach factory, perfected the application of mining-industry technology to street railway operation. Interesting a small group of financial backers, his system went into operation on the storied morning of August 1, 1873, with Hallidie personally and heroically at the grip of the first test car on its steep run between Jones and Kearny Streets. The success of this installation led to a spread of this technology to many other cities, in the United States and abroad. In San Francisco, some of the established horsecar companies, such as the Omnibus and Sutter Street Railroads, converted their mainlines to cable operation, and other new companies were formed to build new systems, such as the California Street and Geary Street lines, and the mighty Market Street network.

As horsecars were replaced, many found themselves recycled into housing, creating a now-vanished Ocean Beach neighborhood known as "Carville-by-the-Sea". Gellett Burgess, San Francisco's Bohemian chronicler, must have loved this place because he used it in at least two novels. Collaborating with columnist and author Will Irwin in the extraordinary and delightful romp The Picaroons (1904), former Folsom Street Car No.27 becomes both the setting for, and a participant in a tall tale of larceny, guilt and redemption (see "The Story of the Retired Car-Conductor). In his classic of pre-Fire San Francisco, The Heartline (1907), Burgess again uses Carville, this time as a setting for a romantic weekend at 48th and Judah:

There are beaches in other places, indeed, but there is no other Carville-by-the-Sea. This capricious suburb, founded upon the shifting sands of the "Great Highway," as San Francisco's ocean boulevard is named, is a little, freakish hamlet, whose dwellings-one could not seriously call them houses-are built, for the most part, of old street-cars. The architecture is of a new order, frivolously inconsequent. According to the owner's fancy, the cars are placed side by side or one atop the other, arranged every way, in fact, except actually standing on end. From single cars, more or less adapted for temporary occupancy, to whimsical residences, in which the car appears only as rudimentary fragments, a suppressed motif suggested by rows of windows or by sliding doors, the owners' taste and originality have had wanton range. Balconies jut from roofs, piazzas inclose sides and fronts, cars are welded together, dovetailed, mortised, added as ells at right angles or used terminally as kitchens to otherwise normal habitations.

Gay P. Summer was, with his room-mate, the proprietor of a car of the more modest breed. It was a weather-worn, blistered, orange-colored affair that had once done service on Mission Street. The cash-box was still affixed to the interior, the platform, shaky as it was, still held; the gong above, though cracked, still rang. There was a partition dividing what they called their living-room, where the seats did service for bunks, from the kitchen, where they were bridged for a table and perforated for cupboards. There was a shaky canvas arrangement over a plank platform; and beneath, in the sand, was buried a treasure of beer bottles, iron knives, and forks and spoons and wooden plates. Here, unchaperoned and unmolested, save by the wind and sun, Gay P. Summer and Fancy Gray proceeded to get acquainted. They made short work of it.

After 1890, electric streetcars became practical on most grades. San Francisco's first such line was yet another independent-the San Francisco and San Mateo Railroad Company-occupying a route from the Ferry Building via Steuart, Harrison, Fourteenth and Guerrero Streets and San Jose Avenue. A branch was built over Eighteenth Street and the Upper Market "switchback" (today a feature of the 33-Stanyan trolleybus line) to Golden Gate Park. It is significant that this first application of such an important technology in San Francisco occurred on such an awkward and indirect route-one which contributed to the financial instability of this company. By 1890, San Francisco already had a large system. The plethora of horse, cable and steam-powered systems occupied most of the major usable streets with their own franchises, so that the entry of new operators dictated the use of commercially less desirable streets and routings. There was a popular dislike of overhead electric lines, and the alternative underground conduit system, as used in new York and Washington, implied high capital costs. Thus, the electrification of existing modes proceeded very slowly, and at the time of the Fire, the main lines of the network were still largely cable operated.

More importantly in a way, a significant institutional change was occurring. This was the consolidation of the many independent, often competing systems, into, first, the Market Street Railway Company in 1893, leaving only a few independents. Then another consolidation of this company with all but three remaining independents occurred, becoming the United Railroads in 1902, and essentially creating a citywide monopoly.

By the turn of the century, San Francisco, with a population of 350,000, had a large system-more than 500 cable cars, 400 electric streetcars, 100 horsecars and a handful of steam "dummies" still in operation, with about 275 miles of track in service. It was a dense and complex network almost on today's scale. Lucius Beebe, who later aggravated and delighted legions of Chronicle readers, never actually saw this system at its height, but still managed to evoke it a half century later when he wrote, in Cable Car Carnival:

"Horse cars, cable cars and steam trams operated over an amazement of geographic locales, crossing, meeting, receding, shuttling, connecting and converging upon one another like dancers in a pattern of bemused complexity. They wove back and forth across each other's lines in the warp and woof of a gigantic fabric; the clangor of their coming and going, ascending and descending, accelerating and retarding, rattling over cobbles, Belgian blocks, asphalt, macadam and steel switches and crossovers comprised a contrapuntal symphony of cosmopolis."

The Progressive Era and Public Development

Roots of Municipal ownership run deep in San Francisco, and the idea of public ownership of public utilities can be found from the middle of the 19th century. Only two decades after the sudden emergence of a world-famous metropolis, rising from a sudden tent city of miners, sailors and merchants, organized steps were being taken to Municipalize the water supply. However, for several decades, city government was very weak. Reacting to local political corruption and turmoil, the state had imposed the Consolidation Act in 1856, which created San Mateo County as a separate entity, consolidated city and county government in San Francisco, stripped the city of its charter, and significantly limited the powers of local government. William Issel and Robert Cherny in San Francisco 1865-1932 note that the Act granted "...few powers to the Board of Supervisors, made appropriating funds difficult, prohibited debts and liabilities, and reduced the mayor to little more than a presiding officer....(the) intent ...was to reduce city government to administration, with little potential for initiative." Control of the Port, of vital importance to the whole state, was taken away by additional legislation in 1860, not to be returned for more than a century, and even simple city functions such as street widenings could require an act of the legislature.

The new state constitution of 1879 provided that the city might enact a new charter and establish home rule. A twenty-year struggle began, culminating in final adoption of the charter of 1900. One is sometimes tempted to think of the charter of 1900 in the way that nostalgic Frenchmen, or American Francophiles, think of the Third Republic. This charter was the work of what Issell and Cherny characterize as "businessmen reformers", who, under the leadership of James Phelan, wanted to see effective government at the local level; but it would be a mistake to think this meant it was a charter intended to hobble city government. To the contrary, the Progressives clearly wanted government to do things: "Phelan's charter increased the authority of the mayor, dropped all semblance of a ward system in electing supervisors, and proposed eventual public ownership of utilities. In the reformers' view, Municipal government was to do far more than provide police and fire protection, education, and streets and sewers. Self-styled 'progressive citizens,' the reformers hoped to use city government to provide direction for the very development of the city."

In this hope, there can be little doubt that they succeeded, for under the charter of 1900, San Francisco came back vigorously from destruction by earthquake and fire. Celebrating its rebirth and the Panama Canal in the spectacular Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915, constructed the Hetch-Hetchy water and power system, municipalized the Water Department, constructed the little-appreciated but vital high-pressure water supply network for firefighting, built Civic Center and City Hall in large part from concepts in the "Report on a Plan for San Francisco" prepared by D. H. Burnham (who was also brought to San Francisco by Phelan ), and, very importantly, established and developed the Municipal Railway into one of the great transit systems of the country.

National as well as local political trends favored the establishment of a city-owned system, but three major factors also helped to discredit the United Railroads. First, the company was deeply implicated in the graft scandals which wracked the city in the first decade of the century; bribery was rampant, including significant sums exchanged for permission to electrify the Market Street cable lines after the earthquake. The level of corruption was astounding, even to modern readers. At one point, Abe Ruef, political boss of the Union Labor Party, in control of the mayor's office, was under contract to the legal staff of the United Railroads; the man who paid him, United's Chief Legal Counsel, Tirey Ford, was also simultaneously the state Attorney General. In the ensuing prosecutions, the United Railroads lost whatever public support it my have enjoyed. (The classic histories of this episode in the city's history are Walton Bean, Boss Ruef's San Francisco (1952), Lately Thomas, A Debonair Scoundrel (1962), and the biography of newspaper publisher Fremont Older by Evelyn Wells (1936), as well as Older's 1925 My Own Story ).

Second was the United Railroads' strong anti-union policy, and its associated labor unrest. Strikes, or threats of strikes, permeated the atmosphere throughout this period. Transit workers were widely viewed as highly exploited, and labor leadership considered them as having worked under conditions of "abject servility" under a "perfect system of espionage." A newly organized carmen's union won a strike in 1902, but in 1907 a major strike broke out, with the carmen's union demanding $3 for a ten-hour day. Professor Robert Knight in his important Industrial Relations in the San Francisco Bay Area 1900-1918 (1960) noted that , "It was the most violent streetcar strike ever seen in San Francisco, or probably in any other American city." The strike cost the United Railroads far more in revenue than had the devastation wrought by earthquake and fire the previous year. Strikebreakers were brought in by company President Patrick Calhoun, who was taking the fifth before the grand jury even as the strike got under way; there were riots, several deaths and numerous injuries. The company won the strike in the end, but a legacy of the strike was support for a public system. As an example of the level of passion reached in these circumstances, consider the comments of "Muni Mayor" James Rolph, who, when criticized by a company supporter for not providing the United Railroads adequate police support during yet another violent strike in late 1917 (the demand was for parity with Muni carmen) published an open letter including the following remarkable statement:

"The world is changing all around you, and you and your kind don't know it any more than the Czar knew what was happening....Doubtless you are disappointed because the police have not yet turned machine guns on crowds in our streets, and killed few dozen strikers, including the customary number of innocent bystanders."

Finally, the very wording of the charter, establishing public ownership as a matter of policy, tended to discourage further private investment and expansion of the private system. It seemed unlikely that private system expansion would or could provide adequate service to underserved parts of the city. In particular, areas such as the Sunset and Parkside, which would require expensive tunneling.

Of the three remaining independent systems, the Geary Street, Park and Ocean Railroad and the Presidio and Ferries Railroad were facing early franchise expirations. The city decided to move first for the Geary line, which had heavy ridership, reached the heart of the business district, and enjoyed direct access to the Richmond District, ripe for development. After three unsuccessful efforts at the polls, a bond issue was passed in December 1909 providing the funds to rebuild the Geary line into a modern, publicly-owned electric streetcar line. Court challenges occupied much of 1910, but the city persevered, and construction began in June 1911. On May 5, 1912, the Geary cable line ran its last mile, and major construction began in earnest. Despite some difficulties with and delays from W. L. Holman, the local car builder, requiring the attention of the Mayor's office (some things never seem to change), enough cars were delivered, and construction was sufficiently complete to permit the Geary line to open on December 30, 1912. Newly-elected Mayor James "Sunny Jim" Rolph rode the first car. His speech to the large crowd outlined his transit policy, largely followed during his 19 years in office:

"It is in reality the people's road, built by the people and with the people's money. The first cable road in the country was built in San Francisco, and now the first Municipal railway of the country is built in San Francisco. Our operation of this road will be closely watched by the whole country. It must prove a success! We must run it by proper methods. When we have built from the Ferry to the Ocean, it will be the best single route in the city, and we must extend it wherever possible, until it becomes a great Municipal system. I want everyone to feel that it is but the nucleus of a mighty system of streetcar lines which will one day encompass the entire city."

Of the ten cars placed in service that day, one car, Muni's own "Car No. 1," remains in existence, and, fully restored, operates on special occasions and charters. Few are the cities anywhere in the world which can claim to have in operating condition their own original streetcar, home-built, laden with the honor of many years of public service.

Another important individual had also taken office in 1912-City Engineer M. M. O'Shaughnessy. He became Rolph's indispensable technical factotum, and guided the city's engineering staff during the great constructive period of public works that coincided with the Rolph administration. And even in that era, there was a consultant-Bion J. Arnold of Chicago, a pre-eminent consulting engineer of this era. Arnold's Report on the Improvement and Development of the Transportation Facilities of San Francisco, published in 1913, was a detailed, in-depth analysis of transit operations and needs throughout the city. In a very real sense, Arnold's report was a detailing of the transit and subway system called for in the Burnham Plan of 1906, as was pointed out by James R. McCarthy, 1960s City Planning Director, in his introduction to the Burnham Plan reprint of 1971. The Report laid the groundwork for the "mighty system" which Rolph and O'Shaughnessy developed in the years leading up to the Great Depression. In its ambitious, comprehensive approach, and appreciation for the commercial aspects of the operation as well as its engineering and city planning features, Arnold's great work set a standard that consultants should try to emulate even today. It is also beautifully written, in actual English, of which the following passage is typical:

...the city has been greatly handicapped in its proper development by the lack of appreciation of the problems of the future, as well as lax Municipal control, and failure of the utilities to keep pace with the city's rapid growth in the past. This especially concerns transportation, which must precede settlement. While the climatic conditions are ideal, the rugged topography has resulted in isolation of local districts, which absolutely requires the construction of tunnels and the execution of a City Plan that will correct present obvious errors by means of wider streets and contour subdivision of property. Only by thus welding together these districts will it be possible to conserve the unusual liberality of its citizens, as exhibited in the high street railway earnings per capita, for the prime objects of civic expansion, with one city, one fare, universal transfers, centralized operation, minimum investment, and finally Municipal ownership if the city's present policy continues to prevail.

The Geary service was a great and immediate success. By August, 1913, the city placed before the voters another bond issue to build more of the system outlined in the Arnold Report, and detailed by City Engineer O'Shaughnessy and staff. A matter of special concern was the pressing need for transit facilities to the "Harbor View" district (today known as The Marina) where the Panama-Pacific International Exposition was to be held. Indeed, the opening day was only eighteen months away. The issue was approved by a wide margin and the city sprang into action, acquiring the next-to-last independent company, the Presidio and Ferries Railroad, whose Union Street line was one of the key potential routes to the exposition site. Despite the short time available, progress was made at a pace impossible to replicate today. By the Spring of 1915, Muni had new lines in operation on Van Ness and Potrero Avenues, Union Street, Stockton Street, and the Richmond District segment of California Street, as well as the streetcars necessary to operate them, and a second new carbarn at 17th Street to complement the original facility at Presidio and Geary. (Both are still in use today for trolleybuses).

After a period of extended legal skirmishes with the United Railroads, Muni's own streetcars had managed to reach the Ferry Building, an important source of business, and a major regional destination for San Franciscans and suburbanites alike. Two additional "outer" streetcar tracks were added to the United Railroads' existing pair, so that Market Street joined the exclusive ranks of four-tracked streets. More lines followed: the J-Church, with its scenic alignment through Dolores Park and nearby backyards, opened in 1917, bringing Municipal competition to Noe Valley. The Twin Peaks Tunnel, America's longest streetcar tunnel, and an important engineering achievement, also opened in 1917. Three Twin Peaks lines familiar to us today, serving Ocean Avenue (the K-Ingleside), Taraval Street (the L), and 19th Avenue (the M-Ocean View) date from this period, as did the beginnings of bus operation. The height of transit development under this system was reached just before the onset of the Depression. In 1928, Muni opened its last entirely new streetcar line, the N-Judah, which required its own Sunset Tunnel. In old photos of these many, happy opening days, there is no happier face than that of Mayor Rolph, who personally presided over many of these events. Rolph supplied the political leadership to develop the system, and Muni's popularity, so at odds with today's perceptions, helped his political fortunes. In 1930 Rolph was elected Governor.

The "Roar of the Four" typifies this era. Take any sample of San Francisco picture postcards from the 1915-1945 era, and among them will probably be a shot of Market Street with four tracks full of streetcars, and sidewalks full of people. This, like Broadway in Manhattan, or State Street in Chicago, was classic urban America at its "Jazz Age" height. San Francisco was as busy and noisy an urban attraction as any on earth, and transit-lots of transit-was its very essence. As our own "Sackamenna Kid" later wrote, describing an evening arrival in the city by ferry after a trip down from the capital on his favored Sacramento Northern Railway:

"To a raw kid from the Sacramento Valley this was part of the magic of coming to San Francisco across a dark Bay whose waters suddenly began to glow in reflected glory. Adventures marvelous to relate lay just beyond those gleaming lights, just beyond the loop where the endless streetcars rattled, squeaked and clanged their metropolitan music...Maybe it's true that you have to be born elsewhere to appreciate San Francisco to the full (or overflowing). Not that I'm going to put the knock on Sacramento, which has a couple of modest skyscrapers of its own and a Lower End (the Sacramento term for Skid Road) every bit as seamy and bottlescarred as San Francisco's...But Sacramento is a river town, a valley town, and its pace is inevitably slower. Even as a kid I noticed that its streetcars were smaller and less noisy than San Francisco's, and they meandered along in a dream (and there was hardly anything to clang the bell at, except maybe a stray dog)...Parks, trees and lawns are all very fine, but it was the din of the big city that fascinated me, and Market St., roaring out from the Ferry Building on four streetcar tracks, was definitely the noisiest main street in the world. And, "We're going to San Francisco" was the most exciting cry a Sacramento boy could hear."

Herb Caen, A Backward Glance February 26, 1961

Financial Problems-The Depression, War and Merger

Meanwhile, other underlying issues were stirring. World War I and its aftermath changed the economic complexion of public transit operation. Nationwide, the inflation which accompanied the war, as well as growth in automobile usage and postwar recession caused tremendous financial problems for the industry. Many transit systems went into bankruptcy in this period, and the United Railroads itself was forced into reorganization in 1921, emerging as the Market Street Railway Company. In San Francisco, a densely populated city with very high ridership levels, some of the effects of the new economic circumstances of the industry took longer to be felt. Overall ridership leveled off in the mid-1920s at about 275 million revenue rides annually for Muni, the Market Street Railway, and still-independent California Street Cable Railroad Company combined. Including transfer passengers, this equated to roughly 330 million total annual boardings for a city whose population in 1920 was 506,000, or about 50% more annual passenger boardings than today's Muni, with a population of over 700,000.

All of this was done on a nickel fare. The five-cent fare, which had been universal in the industry since its beginnings in the mid-nineteenth century, was becoming a rarity in U.S. cities by the late 1920s because of the economic squeeze on the industry. Throughout this period, though, Muni retained the five-cent fare, forcing the Market street Railway to do the same, and therefore placing the Company in difficult circumstances. Muni also paid essentially the highest wages of any transit system in the country, thus creating constant demands for increases at the other operators. Financial analysis conducted at the time noted that the Market Street Railway was still earning an operating profit, though not paying any dividends on its common stock. However, if it were to pay wages at the higher level of the Muni system, it would have been operating unprofitably.

Another crisis loomed in the form of mass franchise expirations. Many of the Market Street Railway's franchises, giving the company a right to operate on various city streets, had been obtained by the individual predecessor companies in 1879, just in advance of the new state constitution which, it was feared, would permit the city to enact a new charter that would prove very restrictive in the matter of franchises. Since the franchises were all of a 50-year term, many were due to expire in 1929, at which point the right of the company to operate might evaporate. This created an obvious problem, since more than two-thirds of the city's ridership was still on the private system. There were numerous studies of what to do, and several attempts to issue bonds to permit the city to purchase the company; however, it proved impossible to satisfy all parties as to fair price and need, so that consolidation of the systems remained unattainable. Finally, a charter amendment was passed in 1930 which granted the company a 25-year operating permit, subject to the city's right to purchase the system at any time.

By this time, the economic pressures were more acute. Muni's ridership grew steadily from opening day until 1930, and Muni generated an operating surplus until 1929. With bond financing of capital improvements, Muni was able to provide an excellent service (informed observers are unanimous about this) on a superior physical plant. However, the combined impact of costs, stagnant ridership levels (which declined as the Depression took hold), the nickel fare and increased automobile usage (the per capita automobile registration rate in the city more than doubled in the 1920s), finally caught up with the system. Revenue flattened without a corresponding drop in operating expenses to produce the first operating deficits in 1929, 1930 and 1931. Concerned, the city contracted with the state Railroad Commission, predecessor of the California Public Utilities Commission, to conduct a study, and carried out several service changes, but in general did not undertake very significant system modifications, staying the course until, after 1935, business conditions improved slightly, permitting Muni to avoid tax support for operations.

Meanwhile, the charter of 1900 was replaced in 1932 with one which introduced some aspects of the city manager form of government. A system of appointed commissions, in which a Mayor could only appoint members when vacancies occured, replaced the more direct political control of the 1900 charter. A new Public Utilities Commission was established to oversee the Municipal Railway, and the office of City Engineer was diminished. Issel and Cherny note: "O'Shaughnessy had become de facto head of both Hetch Hetchy and the Municipal Railway. O'Shaughnessy's supporters claimed that some of the charter provisions had as their purpose deposing the city engineer, and that occurred immediately upon implementation of the new charter. O'Shaughnessy became only a consulting engineer, consulted by no one but his old friends."

The private Market Street Railway, at the same time, was heading into more and more desperate circumstances. One gets the distinct impression that the management, under the control of the Byllesby utilities management firm, was just trying to keep the system running until the city would buy the company out; but repeated attempts to do so failed at the polls. Streetcar and cable car lines were abandoned and replaced by motor buses, and patronage sagged. Finally, the company was forced to raise its fare to seven cents in 1938. The result was a significant diversion of ridership, about 20 percent, from the private system to Muni, and Municipal ridership soon rebounded, at Market Street's expense, past the re-depression highs of 1929. Whereas it had been carrying about thirty percent of the revenue ridership in the mid-1930s, by 1939 Muni's market share was about 45 percent, and by 1944 Muni was carrying as many passengers as the once significantly larger private system.

The coming of World War II changed the situation dramatically. Transit ridership nationwide soared during the war because of gas and tire rationing, the absence of automobile production, and the accompanying dramatic economic stimulus of war spending. Ridership rose on both systems, though proportionately more on Muni. Wartime conditions on transit meant crowding and discomfort, and deferred maintenance was apparently a significant problem on the Market Street Railway. After repeated failed attempts to effect Municipalization of the private system, in May 1944 a plan was submitted to the voters in which the large operating surpluses generated by Muni during the busy war years would be used to purchase the Market Street Railway. This approach was finally approved, and in September the Market Street Railway company, corporate and operational successor to a long list of predecessor companies stretching back to the Yellow Line omnibus of 1851, finally was part of a new Muni. The five-cent Muni fare immediately went to seven cents, with universal transfer privileges now in effect between former Muni and Market street lines for the first time. The only remaining private operator, the California Street Cable Railroad Company, lost a civil judgement which caused cancellation of its insurance, and ceased operation in 1951. The company was then purchased by the city, and reopened as part of Muni in 1952, completing the final consolidation of transit under city ownership.

The Market Street Railway Company was clearly in bad condition when the 1944 merger occurred. There are many anecdotal references to this that still circulate, but those responsible for the combined property were quite direct. Manager of Utilities E. G. Cahill announced:

"The entire former Market Street Railway of San Francisco will have to be scrapped immediately after the war...In fact, if the war lasts too long it will scrap itself....It is obvious that equipment, every piece of which must be dragged off to the barns for repairs 15 times in five months is in the last stages of decrepitude. It will be a miracle if this rambling wreck of a railway can be held together for the duration."

Muni General manager Bill Scott added:

The physical condition of the cars and coaches and of the trackage acquired was such that every effort had to be made to maintain these facilities in a condition to render service. It developed that the inventory of materials and supplies, including car and coach parts on hand for the Market street Railway facilities were far below requirements, and in many cases were depleted entirely.

(See Charles Smallwood , The White Front Cars of San Francisco, 1970).

Yet the private company was a very large concern; monthly passenger revenue collected by the city almost tripled immediately, and management and operation of the combined system, largely in a state of decrepitude, was a major headache. This was in marked contrast to the smaller "old Muni" of the pre-war period. When the author was employed by Muni some years ago, an older operating employee, who had been with Muni before the war, reflected wistfully on how different conditions were in the pre-war period. As an example of how tight an operation "old Muni" had been, he described, from the point of view of a young motorman, how Muni streetcars from the Twin Peaks Tunnel, and N and J lines, were scheduled to come inbound on Market Street in a certain scheduled progression. Muni had a full-time inspector (supervisor) at Eleventh Street, he said, where the crosstown H-Van Ness/Potrero line crossed the Market lines. If an inbound car came along out of sequence, the inspector would pull the car off Market and hold it briefly so that the following cars could be restored to their proper sequence in the rotation, and then the errant car would be put back into the line on Market Street in its proper spot in the lineup. It was vital, according to him, that the scheduled rotation be retained in order to prevent chaos at the inner terminal-the ferry loop. The day after the unified system went into operation, the San Francisco News editorialized favorably, saying:

From now forward we shall expect steady progress to be made toward modernizing and developing the service to the full extent commensurate with San Francisco's requirements. If present predictions regarding San Francisco's future are accurate we will have within few years a metropolis vastly greater in every respect than the city of today. The transportation facilities as indeed all other public utilities, must keep, pace with, nay, must anticipate that development....The Public Utilities Commission becomes the most important commission of city government...not only the equipment and service must be modernized, but the organization and administration behind it must likewise be maintained at the highest level of modern efficiency...San Francisco cannot afford to let anything stand in the way of the fulfillment of its destiny.

Unfortunately, we can see today how sadly short of that goal the city has fallen.

Postwar Decline, and Promised Rebirth

On the more recent history of Muni the author does not intend to dwell at great length. In large measure it is not a happy story, in marked contrast to the early decades of the century, where the public system so readily demonstrated its viability and popularity. For much of the period, those in charge of the Railway seemed largely determined to thwart obvious public desires, as the lengthy battle over the cable car system demonstrated. Only by freezing cable operation into the city charter was it finally possible for citizens to be certain that PUC management could not abandon it. Then, to prevent the management from reducing service on the cable lines they were forced to operate against their will, the service levels themselves were frozen into the charter. Successive battles over issues of importance to the public led to successive restrictions on management to prevent it from doing bad things. For example, the Geary streetcar service was replaced by buses without triggering the abandonment provisions of the charter by asserting that substitution of one mode for another did not constitute abandonment of the first mode, a sophistry later overturned after the fact by the courts when it was too late to do anything about it. It is important for those of us who advocate more authority and responsibility in the interest of improved management and service, to recognize that many people who care deeply about Muni and its potential have had bad experiences with the city's administration of transit affairs. While we work to free Muni from a structure that encourages inaction, we must also build in the safeguards to avoid these abuses.

The postwar period was an unmitigated disaster for public transportation in the United States, as ridership evaporated, service of all kinds was slashed, and rail systems were abandoned coast to coast. In truth, San Francisco fared much better than other cities in this regard, its strengths as a naturally transit-oriented city prevented the worst excesses of other cities, such as complete replacement of rail lines by motor buses. Thus, even though most of the streetcar system was replaced by motor or trolley buses in the postwar period, at least the five lines we know today were retained. For a long time they were the only electrified urban rail transit service in North America west of Chicago.

The advent of Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART), and of federal programs for transit support, helped Muni stabilize its system and begin a process of renewal in the 1960s and 1970s. The idea of a major program of system plans and development took hold, which was, in theory admirable; but unfortunately there was much initial confusion about how to proceed, and those plans which were developed were ill-conceived. Their implementation would have made things worse. For example, when BART provided the Market Street subway for regional transit service, it was assumed that the upper level would be available for Muni rail service, fulfilling the promise of Bion Arnold's plans of 1913, as well as other unrealized proposals over the years. Early architects' renderings showed Muni PCC cars in the subway. But at first, Muni was uncertain about how to proceed. Then a plan was developed to abandon the five streetcar lines, and replace them with two rapid transit lines-one operating through the Twin Peaks Tunnel, and one running out to the Sunset. Together with other proposals developed by consultants, including replacement of half the city's electrified trolleybus system by diesel buses, this disastrous idea was wrapped into a bond issue which was sent to the voters in November 1966. Transit planning thought was very primitive throughout the city technocracy at this time. For example, the author clearly recalls a late-60s conversation with transportation staff of the City Planning Department in which he was told that there was no need for streetcar service on Church Street since BART was going to provide rail service under Mission Street! Muni and PUC management pushed for the bond issue plan, but despite the obvious need to do something about the system, the voters had the wisdom to reject it soundly. Eventually, better plans were developed based on retention of the five car lines, and the concept of their upgrading into a modern "light rail" system to be known as "Muni Metro," but the Embarcadero terminus was still built as if for a two-line rapid transit subway, leading to all sorts of operating problems that still have not been entirely resolved at this writing (1999).

Another very bad idea then developed as part of the Market Street Beautification bond issue. Support for conversion of Market Street into a sort of Champs Elysées-by-the-Bay at the conclusion of BART construction was strong for all sorts of good urban design reasons, and a bond issue to pay for this was approved in 1968. Unfortunately, the "pretty city" people who prepared the design criteria for the bond issue, adopted by the Board of Supervisors, had inserted a policy statement that required elimination of electrified transit service on the surface of the street. It was already assumed that the streetcar service wold go into the subway, but this provision would also mean elimination of trolleybus service on the surface of Market Street. Something would have to be done about lines 5, 6, 7, 8 and 21, carrying tens of thousands of passengers per day, but the urban designers did not specify what to do...that was Muni's problem. Muni toyed with several alternatives-dieselization, in defiance of the city's own pro-electrification policy; turning back the lines at Market Street and forcing a transfer to the subway; Buck Rogers technology involving kinetic energy wheels; re-routing the five lines onto already traffic-saturated Mission Street. In July 1972, urban beautification contracts were proceeding without the Muni issue having been resolved, and Muni was simply informed that it wold have to remove trolley service by August 31, with no alternative plan in place. The Chronicle editorialized:

The Market Street Task Force, an official interagency set-p to co-ordinate the various construction, transportation and beautification projects of BART, the Municipal Railway, and the merchants' Market Street Development Project, has brought off a costly masterpiece of confusion by neglecting to co-ordinate.

It has proceeded with a $4 million contract for installing traffic signals and paving sidewalks and planting trees, which will require the removal of trolley lines by August 31-and has done so without informing the Muni management.

...the Task Force...has created a situation that could deprive Market Street of trolley-bus service, or cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars, or both. Here is a foul up that ought not be dismissed by City Hall with a shrug.

Muni was spared the immediate requirement to remove service, but three years later, when the author joined Muni's new Planning Department, the issue was still unresolved. It became his first assignment as a Muni employee. Eventually, through three years of effort, and action by the City Planning Commission and the PUC, and with the strong support of SPUR and other groups who had their eyes open, the unthinking design policy was reversed by unanimous vote of the Board of Supervisors. As a result, trolley bus service on Market Street, and the popular F-line streetcar service, can now be with us.

These situations portray only a few of the unfortunate circumstances into which Muni had fallen by the early seventies. But the difficulties were not limited to strategic or planning matters. Muni, whose operating support requirements had grown over the years as service levels were wisely retained and fares were kept low to encourage use, was highly dependent on ad valorem property tax support from the city's general fund. Insufficient funds were budgeted for maintenance and operations, leading to significant problems with operations and reliability. At one point, the Alioto administration deliberately underfunded Muni, so that a mid-year supplemental budget request was required just to keep existing service on the streets. The administration proposed significant service cuts to help close the gap, and there were loud protests, which were eventually heeded.

Out of this turmoil, SPUR produced its important report Building a New Muni in 1973, which emphasized the need for adequate funding and establishing of a sense of direction and a vigorous management philosophy. This document had an important impact. Full funding was restored for a time, a planning department was established, and an enlightened and positive General Manager, Curtis E. Green, was appointed. Among other things, a long-dormant need for re-evaluation of the system's service pattern in light of modern needs was undertaken. In a sense, this responded to recommendation of Delos Wilcox, consultant to the city in 1927 when it was considering the possible impacts of the looming franchise expirations; Wilcox, in advocating a merged system, urged the city not simply to take the Market Street Railway route structure as it stood, "the rights of the old rails" as he put it, but rather that the city look at its needs in a fresh and comprehensive way, and develop a service plan that met contemporary requirements. Finally, fifty years later, the "Planning, Operations and Marketing Study" took a clean-slate approach to service design. Based on its progressive recommendations, Muni's planning staff undertook an extensive, in-house based outreach program, and carried an ambitious package of service proposals through the public review and policy adoption process, without a negative vote on either the Pubic Utilities Commission or the Board of Supervisors. Once gain, and not surprisingly, SPUR was in the forefront of assistance and advocacy in this effort. Implemented in stages, the re-routing plan established strong new crosstown bus services such as the 43, 44, and revised 28 lines, provided for electrification of the Sacramento Street service, and led to better integration of BART and Muni service in the Mission Corridor through application of the FASTPass to intra-San Francisco BART service.

Many new physical elements were added to the Muni system in the ensuing years, and many reorganizations have taken place, all ostensibly to "solve the Muni problem." Yet Muni has not prospered. Today, public dissatisfaction is high, employee morale is practically non-existent, performance is erratic, and Muni is standard fodder for the city's journalistic humorists. The humor hits the mark time and again because it strikes a certain chord of truth, and also, because in San Francisco, unlike so many other American cities, transit is still a shared daily experience for such a large part of the population. In a sense, everyone can complain about Muni because everyone rides Muni. In his magnificent book about Los Angeles, City of Quartz, Mike Davis describes L.A. as a city "designed to eliminate social mixing." San Francisco is still very different in that respect. It is a city that is designed to stimulate social mixing and the fact that it's practically impossible to avoid it in San Francisco is one of the city's most glorious features. Muni is one of San Francisco's most important agents of social mixing, and its maintenance and operation have important consequences not only for the city's economic health, but for its character and soul as well.

The expectations expressed in the News editorial on the day after the 1944 merger have gone woefully unmet-now for more than fifty years. Despite several infusions of new rolling stock-in the fifties, seventies, eighties and nineties-always supposedly the thing that will "fix the problem," reliability is, at times, appallingly poor. The very bad practice of scheduling one level of service and then funding another has recurred again and again, with disastrous results. It is therefore the conclusion, perhaps belabored, of this author that thorough and systemic change in the institutional structure of the Municipal Railway is essential. The diffused system of governance which was first inflicted by the charter of 1932, and which has generally continued with modifications to the present, has proved itself to be an impediment to effective management. Transit is an essentially simple idea, but it requires constant attention to detail, and consistent decision making, many times a day, in accordance with an overall management philosophy. When key decision-making processes affecting service delivery and management strategy are spread among too many players, working for different bosses and having dissimilar interests, often with no interest in Muni at all, the result is disaster. The snafus, the preposterous situations, the incredible errors, the daily ridicule of one of the city's greatest assets, must end. And they can end, if the citizens who have so often come to their city's aid will seize the opportunity, and act.SPUR logo

About the Authors: 

Tom Matoff is a principal of LTK Engineering Services.