What Is the History of San Francisco Public Transportation?

San Francisco's public transportation system began with the cable car, which launched in 1873. Before that competing horse-car companies served the city, often coming up with strange routes to preserve individual franchise rights. Over time the street car, motor bus, trolley bus, a light rail system and Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART, trains were added. A funicular, a cross between an elevator and a railway, also ran to the top of Telegraph Hill. It was later discontinued.

The first cable car route, known as the Clay Street Hill Railroad, traveled at a top speed of six miles per hour and was more popular with folks on the uphill ride. Each new cable car route was owned by a separate company and given a distinctive name, such as the Sutter Street Railroad in 1877 and the California Street Cable Railroad in 1878. Meanwhile horse cars still operated in parts of the city and steam rail lines, like the Park and Ocean Railroad in Golden Gate Park, were still going strong.

Electric street cars debuted in 1892 after getting the city to approve of overhead electrical lines. During the next decade there was near-continuous fighting between city officials and the various transportation companies. In 1898 San Francisco approved a new law that all public transportation should be owned by the city.The 1906 earthquake destroyed much of the public transportation system. Now city-owned, the first streetcar was up and running within 10 days of the disaster.

In 1974, BART connected the city to the East Bay via a tunnel running under San Francisco Bay. BART cars travel up to 80 miles per hour in that tunnel, improving commute times for many Bay Area workers. As of 2015, BART service extends to the San Francisco International Airport in Millbrae.