Muni / SFMTA, San Francisco, Transit History

A Tale of Geary Street

To incur a bonded indebtedness by the City and County of San Francisco to the amount of $1,900,000.00 for the purpose of the acquisition and completion of a street railway over and along Geary street, from Market street to Point Lobos avenue, Point Lobos avenue, from Geary street to Cliff avenue, from Point Lobos avenue to a convenient terminal near the Ocean; Tenth avenue, from Point Lobos avenue to Golden Gate Park. Bonds issued for such purpose shall bear interest at the rate of 4 1/2 per centum per annum, payable semi-annually.

It was on December 30, 1909, that San Franciscans read those words on their ballots. Although only two-thirds of the votes were required to pass it, close to three-quarters of voters supported the $1.9 million bond issue to construct a Geary streetcar line. On that same day, an almost equal number of voters approved a second bond issue for $120,000, to construct a shorter segment of street railway along Market Street, from Geary Street to East Street (also known as The Embarcadero), where streetcars turned around at the foot of Market, in front of the Ferry Building. The two railway segments combined became the predecessor of what we now know as the 38-Geary bus line, with some differences (beyond just the technology). The western service branches were different, and the Transbay Terminal, where the 38 bus now starts and ends its runs, was not built until 1939, with the purpose of receiving rail traffic that operated on the Bay Bridge at that time. Also: absent the need to carve out multi-lane expressways and boulevards to speed up vehicular traffic, Geary remained firmly Geary Street. West of Central Avenue (that is, Presidio Avenue), the stretch we now call Geary Boulevard was then called Point Lobos Avenue.

As was true all over San Francisco, transit on Geary Street began not with the streetcar, but with the cable car. In 1880, the Geary Street, Park & Ocean Railroad commenced cable car service. The Geary route started at a turntable located at the intersection of Geary and Kearny (corner of Market Street), and ran west on Geary, terminating at Fulton and 5th Avenue. (Cable cars later traveled the full stretch of the line, but originally, a steam train picked up the segment west of Central Avenue.) Conversion of cable cars to electric streetcars across the City actually began before the earthquake and fire of 1906, and that catastrophe permanently ended the operation of a handful of other cable car lines. The Geary cable car line, however, remained in operation until well after the earthquake. In 1906, almost all of downtown and a great deal of the rest of the City was essentially leveled to the ground in a matter of days. But even then, San Franciscans knew: what better way to rebuild their city to its former glory than by saturating it with streetcar lines? Cable cars — climbing halfway to the stars, as the saying goes — had helped San Franciscans conquer the hills the first time that they built out the City. Surely, the second time around, streetcars could do the same.

New Year’s victory for streetcars.

We can only imagine what the atmosphere in San Francisco must have been like on the New Year’s Eve that immediately followed the 1909 election. The decade that witnessed the City’s destruction had finally drawn to a close. The Geary railway bond — which was previously placed on the ballot, but had failed to earn the required two-thirds vote — was finally passed on the eve of a new decade, signaling a brighter future ahead. And there was yet another dimension to this story. Like any good rail project, the Geary Street railway was not just about transit. It had a clear political subtext, the populist plot pattern of which has been told around the world thousands of times over. The Geary railway was a municipal operation, accountable only to the citizens of San Francisco — so the passage of the Geary bond represented a victory of the people over the United Railroads of San Francisco (predecessor to the Market Street Railway Company). URR was the private profiteer rail consortium that had consolidated a number of city transit lines. The people had taken matters into their own hands and achieved the desired results. The above political cartoon (printed the day after the election) provides a glimpse into the enthusiasm that San Franciscans must have felt that New Year’s Eve. And on December 28, 1912, almost three years to the day after voters approved the bond measure, publicly-operated electric streetcar service began along Geary Street. In fact, it was with the Geary streetcar that the San Francisco Municipal Railway, the People’s Railway — Muni, as we now know it — was born.

The Municipal Railway operated three principal streetcar lines along Geary, all of which started at the Ferry Building and Market Street. After turning off of Market, the A-Geary/10th Avenue streetcars followed Geary Street and Point Lobos Avenue to 10th Avenue, and then south on 10th Avenue, terminating at Golden Gate Park. The B-Geary streetcars ran the full of length of Geary and Point Lobos, terminating at Ocean Beach. And the C-Geary/California streetcars also ran on Geary, jogging over to California Street via 2nd Avenue, and running as far as 33rd Avenue. (The C route was later shortened into a short-line version of the B-Geary, when bus service began on the 1-California.) A fourth line, the D-Geary/Van Ness, also operated on Geary, but only as far as Van Ness. In the meantime, the City That Knows How (or, at least, Knew How) rebounded swiftly from what remains the most devastating catastrophe in its history. In 1915, less than a decade after the earthquake, San Francisco hosted the Panama Pacific International Exposition, by which point the Municipal Railway had built and was already operating many streetcar lines throughout the City, including a few that were built especially for the Exposition. In 1918, the Twin Peaks Tunnel was completed, and the Municipal Railway stretched its domain into the once-isolated southwestern corner of San Francisco. It also operated on the full length of Market Street, where the Municipal Railway and the Market Street Railway provided competing service on separate tracks. It was not until 1944 that the Municipal Railway finally managed to acquire the Market Street Railway, thus unifying local San Francisco transit under its watch. But even to this day, there remain quirks in Muni route alignments that reflect the fact that those routes were initially run by competing streetcar operators.

Streetcars on Geary.

Streetcars ran on Geary for more than forty years, but cities all across the nation replaced their streetcar routes with buses in the 1950s. San Francisco was no exception, but it is a special case in that a few streetcar lines remained. Only five lines (the J-Church, K-Ingleside, L-Taraval, M-Oceanview, and N-Judah) survive from San Francisco’s former streetcar network, and we have the City’s famous topography to thank for that — for they would not have survived, had it not been for the tunnels and stretches of private right of way that those five lines use. The Geary streetcars, on the other hand, traveled a street route of comparably uncomplicated terrain, and they were not spared. On December 29, 1956, Geary streetcar service ground to a halt. At the same time that tracks were ripped out of streets and streetcars were replaced with buses, a new regional rail network was being planned for the Bay Area — a network that eventually, as it was originally envisioned, would link just about every city in the region with rapid transit provided by sleek, modern, comfortable trains. The contrast to the rickety, jolty streetcars of old was both purposeful and unmistakeable. That regional network was, of course, none other than BART — and included in the BART plans was one line that would have run west along Geary, curving north to the Golden Gate, and then proceeding to serve half a dozen cities in Marin County. In 1962, though, both Marin and San Mateo Counties opted out, and the five counties of the original BART District shrunk to three. The Geary line faded out of the plans, and a golden opportunity to restore rail transit to Geary was lost, and never recovered.

Proposed subway station at Geary & Park Presidio.
The station was planned to include underground
parking for North Bay commuters, who would
have paid a joint parking/train fare.

But it has not been for lack of trying. In 1966, an attempt was made to implement a long-term plan that sought to upgrade and modernize Muni, so that the slow, aging system would not look like a complete embarrassment when compared to the new, rapid BART trains that were set to serve San Francisco just a few years later. The 1966 plan included a subway tunnel under Geary going as far west as 45th Avenue. A majority of voters approved the bond measure, but the bond measure failed to collect the two-thirds of votes required for passage. This was not such a close call for Geary, though. The bond measure would not have actually funded a Geary subway; rather, it would have qualified San Francisco to eventually be the recipient of federal funds, and it is those federal funds that would have been earmarked for Geary. Even earlier, in 1936, a subway tunnel under Geary from Market Street to at least as far west as Fillmore Street was proposed as part of a citywide network of tunnels. For railfans, the failure of this 1936 vision is perhaps especially tragic. The J, K, L, M, and N streetcars survived precisely because they used tunnels and dedicated rights of way that were not available to buses. Had a tunnel also been built for Geary streetcars, as the 1936 plan recommended, we would almost certainly be riding a B-Geary Muni Metro light rail line today.

Fast-forward to the present day, and it is easy to see why not (re)building a Geary rail line has been such a missed opportunity. With roughly 55,000 daily riders flooding a route just over six miles long, Geary is the busiest bus line in the western United States. The Geary buses carry more daily passengers than any individual light rail or streetcar line that Muni currently operates, and they carry roughly double the ridership of VTA’s entire light rail system. They also carry more daily passengers than any regional rail operator in the Bay Area, except for BART. A combination of limited service and a few branches of local service means that the Geary core, between the Transbay Terminal and 33rd Avenue, achieves average headways of just a couple minutes at peak times. And yet, even at this frequent spacing, the buses fill up. That the demand on Geary exists for rail service is clear, but rail expansion is always destined to get bogged down in politics. Given our track record, one thing is virtually certain: if we start seriously planning this tomorrow afternoon, we will not be riding any trains down Geary for at least two decades, and in all likelihood, even longer than that. Conceptual regional rail proposals have classified a second Transbay Tube and new San Francisco BART line as a fifty-year goal.


We simply do not have the luxury of waiting decades to fix Geary. An outbound 38-Geary bus begins its westward journey at the Transbay Terminal, but a mere three or four stops later, the long, articulated bus may already be standing room only. By the time the bus reaches Union Square, even standing room is in short supply, as passengers continue to crush into the bus like sardines in a tin can. And a few blocks after that, in the Tenderloin, the bus will be packed to bursting. Operators sometimes stop the bus halfway up the block, safely outside the reach of a corner bus stop — letting passengers off in the middle of the street to avoid accepting any new ones. But these would-be riders at the stop are weary of waiting, perhaps having already seen previous packed-to-bursting buses skip their stop, and they will do their best to rush over and crush in anyhow. As more passengers pack themselves in, dwell times at each successive stop lengthen, slowing the bus to near-glacial speeds as it swims through the obstacle course of clogged downtown streets. Anyone who rides on Geary regularly can tell you that these buses need help — pronto.

The problem is that in San Francisco, “pronto” can range anywhere from five to twenty years — or more. Moving as we are towards 2009, we are indeed approaching an important twenty-year anniversary. 1989, although better known as the year of the Loma Prieta earthquake, was also the year in which San Franciscans approved Proposition B. Proposition B set forth a transportation improvement plan, it created the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, and it authorized the TA to impose a half-percent tax and then allocate the funds accordingly. The tax was to expire in 2010; but in 2003, Proposition K, which renewed Proposition B for an additional thirty years, was approved by an overwhelming 75% of voters. Throughout these developments, both Geary’s importance and the extent to which Geary has been neglected to date have been dutifully acknowledged. The TA’s 1995 Four Corridors Plan included Geary — along with Van Ness, Chinatown-North Beach, and Third Street — as corridors whose need for capital investment was most pressing. The latter two corridors have been glued together into the two-phase, now half-completed Third Street Light Rail/Central Subway project. Geary, too, was even relatively recently envisioned in similar terms: surface light rail in the median of the more spacious Geary Boulevard, transitioning into a downtown subway. But we are no longer in the year 1936, nor are we in 1966. Grand visions of a citywide subway network have been replaced by … harsh realism? Vanished ambition and short sight? Or perhaps just stalwart practicality. Whatever you want to call it: Geary and Van Ness are both in the midst of study and review — not for subways this time around, but for bus rapid transit. Coupled with the amenities that typify modern light rail construction, BRT’s dedicated bus lanes would capture some of the benefits of rail at reduced cost, freeing up money that could then be applied to other transit corridors in need of improvement. The possibility of building light rail in a future phase is kept on the books; but what’s more likely is that Geary and Van Ness, two of the highest ridership corridors in the City, will become centerpieces of a citywide network of rapid buses, functioning as a complement to the Muni Metro light rail system that the B-Geary was not lucky enough to have already become part of. And that brings us, more or less, to the present day.



29 thoughts on “A Tale of Geary Street

  1. Fun history lesson. Thanks

    Posted by rzu | 20 August 2008, 11:06 am
  2. Before this becomes a bus vs. rail debate, I just want to say great job, Eric–someone should be paying you for this ;-)

    Posted by Steve Boland | 20 August 2008, 11:26 am
  3. Steve: the plan was for the next post to be the bus vs. rail debate. Hopefully we can all hold out just a bit longer. ;-)

    Posted by Eric | 20 August 2008, 11:36 am
  4. If anyone is interested, here are some maps of some other San Francisco subway proposals:

    (from 1931, 1936, and 1950, respectiveiy, as the filenames indicate.) I can provide higher quality copies if anyone needs them.

    Posted by Eric Fischer | 20 August 2008, 12:03 pm
  5. Great stuff, Eric. Depressing, to be sure, but still incredibly interesting.

    I often wonder how many people are like me – I often go places where the 38 would make the most sense to use, but I do almost anything to avoid it if I can, especially when the 38L isn’t running. The ability to access Nextbus on my phone has made me one of the folks that almost always walks several blocks out of my way to a 1, 2, 31, or whatever other bus just to avoid the 3 mph, stopping at every stop, sardine can 38. It really makes me wonder what the potential ridership of a rail line along Geary would really be – double the 55,000? Even more?

    Posted by Chris | 20 August 2008, 1:01 pm
  6. Ah great, thanks, Eric, for uploading the O’Shaughnessy maps. My copies are pretty poor, which is why I posted that makeshift computer diagram instead. The 1950 version, interestingly, is a hybrid of sorts of BART’s 1961 plan and Muni’s 1966 plan. Some further detail on the 1936 proposal are in this post, and the 1931 plan was basically a predecessor to the 1936 proposal, mentioned a bit obliquely in this this comment. It’s always a lot of fun to look at the old maps.

    Chris, I know, it is a bit sad to think about how things might’ve turned out differently. I usually just bite the bullet and jump on the 38, though the 2 is a nice alternative for those days when you’re just exhausted and want to sit in peace and quiet. In terms of ridership, though — we already know that the Geary buses plus parallel lines carry over 110,000 every day. Actual rapid transit on Geary would for convince a lot of those riders to switch lines, at least up to Balboa and California. It would be interesting to see how many new riders it would capture — since that’s the convenient justification for BART pushing further out into the suburbs.

    Posted by Eric | 20 August 2008, 1:09 pm
  7. Well done, can’t wait until next time.

    That said, my vote is for “Vanished ambition and short sight.” … Part of the general lowering of expectations from government w/re to infrastructure and capital investment.

    Posted by Josh | 20 August 2008, 1:15 pm
  8. I must say, your research is impeccable! I have throughly enjoyed your last two postings. Where (?!) did you find that rendering of the
    BART station at Geary and Park Presidio? It’s beautiful! I have somewhere in my collection a great book given away at the BART ground-breaking. It too has some pretty interesting station renderings and some outlandish proposals for system operation that, thankfully, never came to be.

    Please(!), keep up the fantastic work you’re doing.

    Posted by Connor Hochleutner | 20 August 2008, 1:16 pm
  9. Great post!! It’s hard not to be rueful of all the squandered opportunities. An interesting question is why things that at least seemed quite possible even into the sixties seem quite impossible today, and I think this long but cool article on the current financial crisis partly offers an explanation; basically that because as a country we haven’t been saving money we haven’t had any to invest in infrastructure. China on the other hand has saved a lot of money and so has had the ability to invest it in building cool stuff. Anyway, definitely looking forward to the debate following the next post, maybe we’ll even reach a consensus!?

    Posted by Andy | 20 August 2008, 4:31 pm
  10. Why is this not in the Chronicle or other local paper!?!! This is why I read blogs. People actually care about the subject and write about it without dumbing it down. Thanks Eric. I eagerly await the BvR fight :)

    Posted by The Overhead Wire | 20 August 2008, 10:38 pm
  11. Great post — the combination of history and current info is fantastic. I’m really enjoying this series of posts!

    Posted by Alexandra V. | 20 August 2008, 11:06 pm
  12. Andy-I will read the article you’ve linked and agree that part of the issue is investment but I am convinced another issue is the process we have created with extreme levels of participation and democracy and how heterogeneous our population and interests as groups have become within cities, states and nationally (and of course it should be noted that China is autocratic)

    I read an op ed piece (and I can’t recall who the author unfortunately) were the author was comparing American of old where the Empire State building was planned and built in something like 13 months during the Depression and similarly how fast things like the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate bridge were built and compared to the fiasco like the Bay Bridge new span or and the Freedom Tower which is still being squabbled over 7 years after 9/11

    Its totally depressing and if the people who make decision get there way more money will be poured down the hole of BART to San Jose and Livermore while we crush onto buses

    Posted by Zig | 23 August 2008, 5:05 pm
  13. Much as I wish we had built Geary already, one piece of history is missing here. Geary residents/merchants watched Market Street tturned to s#&* by the BART construction. Few who saw the destruction of the small businesses were willing to have that in the Richmond. And frankly, much of Third Street was similarly hammered–Muni’s early propaganda promised short concentrated construction blitzes, the reaity was a project several YEARS longer than promised and much of Third impassable for months at a time. Ask the Bayview residents.

    The only sane way to do Geary will be tunnel boring machine/very quick station boxes. Given Muni r BART’s track records, I am dubious.even if we had the money.

    Posted by david vartanoff | 24 August 2008, 4:47 pm
  14. I agree with David. Everyone in the city screams about how a line is needed on Geary, but has anyone considered the disruption and backlash of Geary merchants?

    The Geary Merchants and NIMBY types would throw a fit if we even attempted to build something sensible down that corridor, if it were shallow. Like the Central Subway or not, Chinatown is far more receptive to subway service (and whatever disruption accompanies it) than the Geary merchants.

    The truth of the matter is: you have to sacrifice aesthetic, time, and convenience for a sensible mass transit route. I very much doubt that the Geary crowd has the patience or the sense to permit that sort of disruption.
    A deep subway using tunnel-boring machines would be the only way to pacify the Geary crowd and get something sensible to the Richmond.

    Posted by kramanujam | 25 August 2008, 5:55 pm
  15. Somewhere in the past 40 years it seems that Americans have lost the “can-do” spirit that won World War II, built the Calif. Aqueduct and the Interstate Highway system. Are we heading into a situation analogous to “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”? Have we gone into a state where “paralysis by analysis” is the norm, and we get “can’t step on anybody’s toes”, “keep your backside covered”, “vote no on everything” and similar points of view that remind me of the term from about 40 years ago: “nattering nabobs of negativism”. Back in 2001, I visited the Golden Spike Historical Site in Utah, and thought that if we tried to build a transcontinental railway today, CP and UP would still be doing environmental reports, the various native tribes would be taking their cases all the way to the Supreme Court, and the Friends of the American Bison would be conducting protest marches.
    I’ll throw in something from “up the river”: Back in the 80’s, when the original segments of the Sacramento RT Metro light rail line were under construction, a local newspaper would go into great detail when a downtown store went out of business, blaming the failure entirely on the rail project. I don’t know why their editorial policy was so dead set against light rail, but it seemed to be a crusade by their staff. Well, the tracks got built, the trains started running, and the newspaper is no longer published.

    Posted by Bob Davis | 26 August 2008, 1:10 am
  16. It’s a shame that people like Bob Davis are always first to blame environmentalists — exactly what infrastructure projects have they blocked lately? Bay Bridge? T-Third? Airport BART? High Speed Rail? The Cal stadium expansion? Slow them down, sometimes. Block, never.

    The complete absence of American “can-do” spirit within my lifetime is exclusively the fault of the right-wing activists who took over the Republican party with Reagan and took over California’s state finances with Prop 13. They’d rather have a few nickels in their pocket than spend anything to promote the public good (if they believe in it at all).

    Just look at the High Speed Rail proposition. Who’s opposed?
    Taxpayer groups… and the California Chamber of Commerce.

    In any year from 1850 until 1980, the Chamber of Commerce would have been the biggest backer of high speed rail, since infrastructure investment is critical to state competitiveness. Now, they’re opposed. Ideology, pure and simple.

    And I don’t need to explain where “taxpayer groups” — the rump end of Howard Jarvis’s Orange County revolt, the most prominent of them named after him — are coming from.

    It’s a damn shame. There’s no chance of national greatness in this country until we have a generational change and age these people out of politics for good.

    Posted by theo | 11 September 2008, 6:30 pm


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