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Cities Counting on San Francisco Magic to Cast Spell on Transit Riders


Cities all over the country are buying buses that look like old-fashioned streetcars.

Local customers include Whittier, Bellflower, Bell Gardens and Lynwood. The concept behind the trend is that people find simulated streetcars more attractive than ordinary buses, so more people will ride mass transit.

The streetcar-style buses are generally based on the look of San Francisco's streetcars, which retain a turn-of-the-century appearance and technology that predate this century. Cities loosely refer to the customized buses based on this look as trolleys.

In San Francisco, however, what's called a trolley is something quite apart from a streetcar. The San Francisco trolleys resemble ordinary buses. They operate on rubber tires, on city streets, without tracks. Trolleys differ from buses only in the means of locomotion. Buses use gas or diesel engines. Trolleys are powered electrically through a pole attached to overhead wires.

In fact, the image being marketed is not that of the trolleys, but San Franciso's famed cable cars.

Cable cars were developed in 1873, largely through the efforts of Andrew Hallidie, a manufacturer of wire rope, said Peter Strauss, the director of service planning for the San Francisco Municipal Railway.

Cable cars are literally dragged along tracks up and down the bay city's hills by an ever-moving underground cable. When the driver wants the car to move, he uses a mechanical grip to latch onto this cable. When he wants to stop, he releases the moving cable and applies the brakes.

"Everyone else was running horse cars at the time" cable cars were invented, Strauss said.

The city installed cable cars partly to save the lives of horses who slipped and fell on the steep hills. "It turned out the cable car was very cost effective, even in cities that didn't have hills," Strauss said.

Nationwide, the era of cable cars lasted but 10 years, until the electric streetcar was introduced. Cable cars persist only in San Francisco, where they remain "one of the more effective ways of going up and down steep grades," Strauss said. "We wouldn't run a conventional bus on one of those hills."

In San Francisco at least, the ridership theory behind using vehicles with an old-fashioned charm holds true. In the summer, about 50,000 customers per day ride the city's three cable car lines, with their 10.7 miles of tracks. A cable car ride costs tourists $2.50, compared with other city transport vehicles, which set riders back 85 cents.

"It's called soaking the tourists," said one transit official, who asked not to be named.

"Until five or six years ago, the fares were the same as everything else," Strauss admitted. "We were looking for revenue. It's generating revenue that matches what people are willing to pay."

Of course, part of the attraction of riding cable cars is going up and down the steep hills and appreciating the city's world-class scenery. Other cities, without such ambience, hope the magic of the streetcar itself will draw people to their mass-transit systems.

Cities such as Bell Gardens, with strapped city budgets, have bought trolley buses even though they cost about $30,000 more apiece than ordinary buses and cost thousands more per year to maintain.

"The name of the game is what people will ride," Strauss said.

One custom bus company, Downey's Specialty Vehicle Manufacturing Co., has sold more than 350 streetcar-style buses in the last eight years, said Nancy Munoz, the company's sales manager.

Strauss is not convinced about the lasting appeal of such vehicles. "I don't think much of them myself," he said. "There are a lot of cities that run these phony, gussied-up minibuses. I don't like them.

"If someone tried to use them everywhere, all over the place, they'd probably wear out their welcome pretty fast."

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