“Bustitution” in the Castro! Historic Streetcars swapped for buses?

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I ran into a friend at Castro & 17th Streets the other day, over by Orphan Andy’s. He was doing the tour guide routine for an out of town visitor, showing her around our beautiful neighborhood. This was the historic streetcar stop where everyone becomes a little kid, if only just for a second. That’s one of the many effects of these wonderful vintage streetcars that we are all so proud to have floating through our little village. We love riding in them, having them nearby cruising around us and showing them off to our friends.vlcsnap-2016-08-23-18h51m53s563

So imagine his dismay at finding a bunch of ugly growling old Muni buses laid up like so many mangy cats. This has been happening a lot of late and we don’t know why, nor do we like it. First off, this is not the training break, that all ready happened a couple of months ago. In fact there is no special occasion for this. These buses are just being permanently phased in. And while Muni says they are to supplement F-line service we note that in the Castro they are replacing it more and more with buses, some new and some old.

Video: Streetcar cuts left to avoid the Castro upper Market stops while the bus takes the right at Noe to go into service as the F-Market line from Castro Terminal.

It was San Francisco Municipal Railway (MUNI) General Manager Michael T. Burns back in May of 2001  who famously remarked in an article for Railway Age that “people who wouldn’t ride a bus will ride a streetcar.”

Several issues are raised by this substitution of historic streetcars purchased and renovated at tremendous cost and effort with buses. It has been forgotten but the taxpayers of San Francisco spent tens of millions of dollars laying the tracks and installing the power systems for that railroad. Buses do not use any of this infrastructure. So all that effort is just being thrown out the window by SFMTA. One day you wake up, blink, and you’re back in the days of the 8-Market bus line which was replaced by the F-Market streetcar line. Let’s jump back 30 years real quick.

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From the original plan for the F-Market line published in 1985.
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And very soon, only 30 years later, those bike lanes will be painted green…

About those millions of dollars spent to construct a railroad to the Castro

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An F-line bus on Noe Street recently.
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F-line bus at Castro Terminal with more buses and a streetcar lined up in the background, engines roaring.

The effect on Business in the Castro

Let’s start with an observation. These trains are synonymous with cash. They are a money train literally ferrying tourists to our area. The beauty and convenience lures out of town visitors right on board and next thing you know they are in the Castro spending money and getting a taste for the risque and wild side of our flamboyant western metropolis. And we take great care of these folks. Our restaurants really are good and our crazies are worth traveling halfway around the world to witness in person. (Face it, when’s the last time you saw a guy wearing nothing but a gold sequin lined sock on a spectacular sunny day?)

But the historic streetcars are as important to our gig as the cheese is to the mousetrap. Our friends at Streetcar.org saw this same problem during the Superbowl bustitution as they termed it and actually they have written extensively on this topic and they are right.

“Super Bust 50” is the headline of the new Castro Merchants monthly President’s Letter by Daniel Bergerac. You can read his entire letter here, but here’s the gist.

One clear lesson from this event: buses are no substitute for the F-line streetcars on a long-term basis. It has been shown over and over, in city after city: visitors do not trust, or feel comfortable on buses (with the possible exception of iconic vehicles like London’s red double-deckers). In San Francisco, the cable cars and historic streetcars, yes. Every time buses are substituted en masse for the cable cars and streetcars, ridership plummets. For so many people, the journey on these wonderful “time machines” is as important as the destination. And so, when buses replace historic rail, businesses along the lines, and especially near the terminals, suffer. — Streetcar.org

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The cover of the San Francisco Examiner on September 8, 2016 with the excerpt below.

San Francisco Examiner, September 8, 2016 Joe Fitzgerold Rodriguez Reporting : [Excerpt]

San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency confirmed to the San Francisco Examiner there is a lack of historic streetcar operators. It’s a problem they’re aware of and are actively working to fix, said John Haley, SFMTA director of transit.

“We’ve got some catching up to do on the F-line,” Haley said.

That’s a problem for the businesses in the Castro and Fisherman’s Wharf, which depend on the 23,000 daily riders for customers and transit-dependent workers.

“Boy, when that F-Line is down, it decreases the amount of tourists who want to go from Fisherman’s Wharf to here,” said Daniel Bergerac, head of the Castro Merchants group, which represents more than 300 neighborhood merchants.

Streetcars were also down during the Super Bowl City, and buses ran on the F-line — which Bergerac said didn’t help. Merchants in the Castro saw business drop 20 to 30 percent over previous years for the same time, he said.

Troy Campbell, executive director of the Fisherman’s Wharf Community Benefits District, said he sees similar impacts to businesses at the Wharf when streetcars don’t run, especially on the transit-dependent west end.

Buses are simply less attractive to tourists than the historic streetcars, said Rick Laubscher, head of the Market Street Railway nonprofit.

“All you have to do is go down to the Ferry Building and watch a bus go by half empty,” Laubscher said.

Driver shortage explained

The streetcar shortage is due to a combination of factors, the SFMTA said, but it all starts with “general sign-ups.” — Click here to read this very good article from the SF Examiner, Sept 8, 2016.

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Beyond all of this is another thought. Muni says they need the tracks between Noe and Church on 17th Street for historic streetcar service to the Castro. But between bustitution (bus substitution) and short-cutting our stops that service is getting pretty thin which undermines Muni’s argument against ripping out those tracks. Why hurt bicyclists for nothing?

Those tracks are dangerous and if Muni has no commitment to continuing the historic streetcar program into the Castro they could at least make it a safety upgrade for 17th Street and rip out their tracks and resurface the street which they need to do anyway.

And they should apologize to Supervisor Scott Wiener for making him look really bad while he is running for higher office. God knows he’s done everything he possibly could for SFMTA even at the expense of his own district and his own constituents. But they won’t lift one single finger to make 17th Street safer for bicyclists despite Scott asking them to do something. And now they are committing bustitution in the Castro. Unbelievable.

Click here to see why the tracks are such a problem right now.

 Update September 22, 2016: We just came across this idea for a turn back loop to be installed off Market Street at Jones which would only serve one purpose: Reducing historic streetcar service to the Castro Upper Market Community while redirecting said streetcars back downtown to Fisherman’s Wharf. This is a very recent plan.

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Source: Better Market Street Project, Market Octavia CAC,  March 16, 2015.

2 comments

  1. The tracks are needed on 17th St for the (eventual) re-homing of the historic streetcars to Beach Yard. Bicyclists that can’t safely navigate around tracks shouldn’t be riding.

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