What is a Cable Car?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

The cable car is often synonymous with San Francisco. These little cars, attached to cables, running up and down Powell Street in the heart of San Francisco are a favorite tourist attraction. Many residents also hop on a cable car for a block or two to avoid walking the hilly areas above downtown.

Cable car lines are a common sight in San Francisco, including outside The Fairmont Hotel in the Nob Hill district.
Cable car lines are a common sight in San Francisco, including outside The Fairmont Hotel in the Nob Hill district.

San Francisco did not, however, have the first cable car network. The London and Blackwell Railway had the first cable railroad in 1840. The early cable ropes were not particularly strong, and the system was quickly replaced with steam engines in 1848. True cable cars were first operated in New York in 1868. San Francisco introduced a cable car in 1873, as part of the Clay Street Hill Railroad.

Other countries and cities soon copied San Francisco, and cable car networks were available in Chicago, once again in New York, in England, and in Australia. It can be said, however, that the cable car has enjoyed the longest run, and the greatest popularity in San Francisco.

A key feature of the cable car is, of course the cable that is below the car. The cable car attaches to the cable through use of a grip. The cable essentially moves the car along and is controlled from a central power station. Further, riding on tracks or rails controls the cable car's destination. If one sees a cable car with wheels, it is not a true cable car, but an imitation.

A cable car like the ones found in San Francisco, travels at a relatively low speed, less than 10 mph (16.09 kph). This is still enough to cause accidents, and some rather frightful injuries have been recorded in San Francisco cable car history. Cable car operators can apply brakes, but these tend to work slowly, and do not always slow the car down in time to avoid hitting obstacles. However, accidents are few in comparison to statistics regarding automobile, or even bus accidents in San Francisco.

The cable car is open with one able to gain several points of entry into the car. Essentially people just hop on as the cable car comes to a near stop. People can choose to sit in the center of the car, and are thus protected by the roof. However, many enjoy sitting on the outer benches, which give one a full view of one’s surroundings. The benches on either side of the cable car face the sidewalks and are easiest to exit.

San Francisco cable cars are operated manually. This means each employs a grip man, or grip woman, to grip and ungrip the cable in order to change lines, or to control speed. Each cable car also has a conductor who takes fares and makes sure passengers are behaving in a safe manner. World-renowned poet Maya Angelou once worked as a bell ringer on San Francisco’s cable car network.

Taking a ride on a cable car can be quite expensive if one is not a city resident. Most residents who use the various mass transit systems in San Francisco purchase a monthly fast pass, which allows them to ride buses, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), and streetcars, as well as cable cars. For the person who simply takes the occasional ride on a cable car, adult fee is currently 5 US dollars (USD). One can however, ride for a dollar before 7 a.m.

The price is often worth it, given one is riding truly historic transportation. One can also visit the Cable Car Museum in San Francisco. It is located at 1201 Mason Street, and also offers an online store for the purchase of cable car memorabilia.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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I have what I think is an antique cable car conductor's chair. The only marking is on the metal in the back where it says el fare. It's very heavy and has a wooden seat and back. Anyone know anything about this type of chair?

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