When people who don’t live in San Francisco think about transportation, they most likely picture the iconic cable car or the Golden Gate Bridge. But the history of transportation in the City by the Bay encompassed the evolution of innovation and growth throughout its history. Within every cable, track, steam engine, and horse lays the story of how the city moved and continues to move with the times.
There was an era when San Franciscans didn’t travel much by land, as many locations were easier to access via ferry. But as time progressed, things changed. In 1850, however, the ferry was still a way to get to the East Bay. A small steamer named “Kangaroo” shuttled passengers between Oakland and San Francisco only twice a week, which by today’s standards is a very long time to wait indeed. It wasn’t until 1875 that the first official ferry service had its maiden bon voyage from the then-new ferry terminal in the Embarcadero.
Though commuters still travel via ferry today from the Embarcadero, it would be the battle for the roads in San Francisco that became significant for years to come.
Because the following year, Mission Plank Road–now Mission Street–opened for horse and rider traffic from California and Kearny Streets to the Mission Dolores District. Later in 1851, other routes and omnibus (a sort of stagecoach) companies became active. Thus leading to a competition that may have been bad for business but good for customers because fares decreased. As the city evolved and expanded, there began a move towards developing methods that did not include a horse, though things moved slower then.
Nine years later, in 1860, the SF Market Street Railroad began trials on Market and Valencia Streets to 16th Street. The line offered regular hourly service by July of that year. The project was mired in difficulty because preparing for the tracks required significant cuts to dunes that were sometimes upwards of 60-feet. Initially, railroad franchise permits only had the rights for mule or horse-service but eventually, the State allowed railroad companies to employ steam in 1961. The hard work was worth it for builder Thomas Hayes as popular events like horse racing attracted visitors and transit companies alike.
Further changes brought citizens closer together, with more affordable fares that meant any San Franciscan could ride up Clay Street Hill to access what was then somewhat of an elite enclave. With advances in transportation lines came legislative and worker issues. Yet, while the back-and-forth occurred between companies obtaining franchises to build more methods of transportation, the City still continued to ‘move’ towards its current iteration. Starting with the opening of the Powell-Mason line, which is the most recognizable San Francisco cable car, the foggy city really started to resemble the ‘face’ it currently shows.
Though not mentioned in nostalgic depictions of SF is how Muni’s history was woven into SF history more than two decades before the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Now, a well-worn friend of visitors and commuters alike Muni–for better or worse—is the unsung local hero that should also be mentioned here—if only to remind us that San Francisco also considered utility as well as beauty in its architectural and engineering executions.
On the topic of beauty, there can be no talk about the evolution of San Francisco without the Golden Gate Bridge. The majestic cable suspension bridge, with its burnt sun-colored hue is a breathtaking reminder of the power of the architectural imagination. At the time of its opening, in 1937, the bridge was the longest and tallest suspension bridge in the world. As beautiful as it is utilitarian, the bridge opened a path usually only accessible via ferry. In a sense, it is proof that the city has always attempted to connect lands separated by water.
Such could have been the case when in Alameda County, Contra Costa County, and SF county approved a nearly $800 million construction for a Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART) in the early 1960s. The project took over a decade, and BART now shuttles approximately 129 million trips a year.
Though this timeline is just a brief, concise history of the evolution of transportation in San Francisco, we can see the trajectory of its growth. With a land area of under 50-square miles, residents of the diminutive city have always had an almost bullish determination to make its mark. Now, as it enters an age when many of its methods of transportation need revising, it’s clear, based on its history, that San Francisco is up to the task.