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Muni past glories go on display in S.F. as future of transit remains in doubt

S.F. Muni past glories on display as future of transit remains in doubt
S.F. Muni past glories on display as future of transit remains in doubt 03:47

SAN FRANCISCO -- It seems every day we are reminded about transit systems facing a "fiscal cliff" over lost revenues from a lack of ridership. 

On Sunday, vintage street cars and buses rumbling along near the Embarcadero and Ferry Building were all part of the annual Muni Heritage Weekend, which highlights the city's tradition of getting from here to there in style.

"Transit built San Francisco. When Andrew Hallidie invented the cable car 150 years ago this year, then whole neighborhoods opened up," said Rick Laubscher, president of the transit preservation group called Market Street Railway.

Grainy old films from the early 1900s focused on street scenes and often showing people riding the rails. From that time into the 1940s, public transit thrived as the trolley cars rumbled and clanged throughout the city. They weren't filled with tourists but workers hurrying to the office, briefcases in hand. Laubscher says transit brought everyone together.

"That's why San Francisco thrived as a big office and retail center," he said. "Because you could get downtown quickly from great distances. And Muni Heritage Weekend reminds people of the role transit played in building the San Francisco we know today."

But in the 1950s and 1960s, people fell in love with the automobile and transit took a back seat to individualized travel.

At Heritage Weekend, there were still dedicated transit riders, like Steve Vaccaro and Alan Avery, but not nearly as many as back in the glory days.

"Because of COVID, it's changed everything," Vaccaro said. "Ridership is down and slow to come back."

"It's hard to say but I think people back then were maybe more willing to do their share," Avery said. "To me, it seems like, as citizens of a very dense community -- dense city -- we shouldn't be getting in cars."

Ron Mitchell has seen it all as a Muni driver for 34 years. On Sunday, he was in a bus built in 1999 but he has operated trolleys a lot older than that and he said it wasn't easy keeping the older vehicles rolling smoothly along the overhead power cables.

"You see up here?" he said. "Look up there, you see those fibers -- those are called fibers. It's a breaker. You had to make your breakers. If you got caught on the breaker, the bus would stop moving."

He said that, back then, you had to be real operator -- not just a driver and he's proud of the title.

"This unit, under the MTA, is called the 'Municipal Railway.' That makes you feel proud that something lasted and hopefully will still go into the future."

So, what about the future? Will a giant fleet of robotaxis take the place of buses and street cars? Laubscher reminds us that, 150 years ago, the cable car was also a leap in technology that transformed everything.

"San Francisco has always innovated technologically and I think we're doing it again," he said. "We'll have to wait and see how many people opt for mass transit in the future -- where you're sharing a train car or bus with a lot of other people -- and how many people opt for individual rides in pilotless cars. I mean, that's gonna be the big question and, I guess, we'll find out."

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