SAN FRANCISCO — Senior cable car gripman Lee Doyle has jounced up and down Nob Hill past Chinatown and clattered to the last stop at Fisherman's Wharf with his leather glove on the brake for 27 years. He's got definite ideas about the city's jumbled traffic problem and they center on taxi drivers.
"See what I mean by cabs!" Doyle, 56, shouts as his cable car jammed with riders lurches along. "Look at that, he's on the wrong side of the street!"
Doyle's coach is laboring past Union Square as a yellow cab straddling the iron track approaches head-on, swerving at the last minute, narrowly missing the cable car and a double-parked delivery truck in front of the Fairmont Hotel.
Horn honking, the cab plunges down Powell Street. Doyle, his 1950s-style crew cut bristling, "ding, dings" the little bell atop his wooden coach and tightens the grip on the 9 1/2-m.p.h. underground cable pulling him up the hill.
"They've got the poorest cab drivers in this city that I've ever seen," Doyle said. "They don't give a damn. They just think they're the only ones in the city."
"Right on," said Douglas Arnold, 23, clinging to the side of the lurching coach. "I've seen cars try to play chicken with the cable cars," said Arnold, who works at Fisherman's Wharf and has been riding the rails up Nob Hill for three years.
"A driver's best weapon is a thick horn," Doyle said as another car, its horn blaring, roared past. "Maybe he's a taxi driver on his day off," Doyle said in disgust.
More than 1.8 million cars clog San Francisco's 868 miles of narrow roadways every day, taxing to the limit the city's 941 traffic lights, its harried policemen and the drivers of 1,013 trolleys, buses and cable cars. About 1.4 million commuter autos flood into the downtown financial district every day, spilling off the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and from across the scenic Golden Gate.
"Had many close calls today?" asks relief gripman George Moley, 38, as Doyle goes off shift at Fisherman's Wharf.
"About 50," says Doyle, collecting his lunch box and coat.
"A big problem is when cars stop on the hills in front of you," says Moley, who has been driving the cable cars since November. "If you stop on a hill you have to back down and start all over again. That happens one or two times a day."
Max Woods, 49, a bearded gripman with 20 years on the cable cars, remembers his worst day, 15 years ago, when a cab driver stopped short of the top of a hill and the cable car brakes failed.
"I had to stop in a position that was dangerous," Woods recalled. "There was a cab stopped on the hill before I could get to the flat.
"I had a backward runaway for almost two full blocks. Nothing worked," he recalled. The cable car sped at 35 m.p.h. down Powell Street, through morning rush-hour traffic and the busy Bush Street intersection (thankfully the green light was with the cable car), then on down Powell Street. The runaway finally smashed into a panel truck in the middle of the tracks on Sutter Street.
"The trouble is," Moley said, "this is a 19th-Century transportation vehicle and we're operating in the 20th Century."
And, "The cars aren't atuned to the bells," he says, giving a yank on a bell cord in hopes of budging a Lincoln off the track.
A Tourist's View
Joann Baucom, a tourist from from Fairmont, N.C., is filming Moley with a home movie camera as the cable car tops a hill and starts its descent.
"Traffic is a bit worse than back home," she allows in a classic understatement, while surveying the teeming San Francisco streets.
Moley, too, has harsh words for the drivers in this city of 415,900 car owners.
"As long as some of the people have driven in this city, they still don't realize that they should stay off the rails. They think the cable car is a big toy, but it certainly isn't."