More Nitty-Gritty on San Francisco’s Cable Cars

My last post explored the pleasure of riding San Francisco’s famed cable cars and the fun neighborhoods that surround the cable car routes. Here, you will find more information about how to ride the cars and deeper ways to explore cable car history and mechanics.


Created in the 1870s by the son of a Gold Rush ore car inventor, San Francisco’s cable car system once sported 20 lines. Today, three remain: the Powell-Mason Line, the Powell-Hyde Line, and the California Street Line.

More information about each route and many fun things to do in Chinatown, Russian Hill, and Fisherman’s Wharf can be found here.


A cute map with animation to illustrate the various routes is here.

Another source for route descriptions, as well as schedule information, is here.

Cable Car Barn and Museum

Those who wish to delve deeper into cable car history, mechanics and lore will want to visit the Cable Car Barn and Powerhouse, which houses the Cable Car Museum. It’s located at Washington and Mason, which is on the Powell/Mason line. The big building is also home to the Muni buses, and is a working office for Muni and cable car workers, so you’ll see a lot of people coming and going. Inside the barn, you can go up in a gallery to view the actual cable-winding machinery. There are a lot of mechanical devices – grips, tracks, brake mechanisms — to better help you understand how the cable cars work. The very first cable car, from inventor Andrew Hallidie’s day, is also on display in the museum, as are more antique cable cars, photos, and other historic items. A shop sells books, clothing, and cable car bells.

The Cable Car Barn is located at 1201 Mason Street (and Washington.) It’s open every day except Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day, April-September, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., October-March, 10a.m-5p.m. Admission is free.

cable car detail

Cable Car Fares

Cable car tickets are sold right on the cable cars, as well as at the cable car termini and ticket booths. Tickets cost $6.00 each way for adult and youth aged 5-17. (Children 4 and under ride free.) There is also a one-day pass, which is highly recommended if you’re going to ride around a bit, or want to transfer from one cable car to another more than once. (Cable cars don’t issue or accept transfers from other cable cars, or from Muni buses.) The one-day pass is $11 for adults and children. If you buy one you will receive a fun “passport” onto which you scratch off the date. (Be careful to scratch the right one!) You then show the passport on each car, and don’t need to further fumble with money. The passports make great souvenirs. They are also sold in 3-day and 7-day increments. Note that conductors can make change for $20 or under.

Many other places around the city sell one-day and other passes, including the San Francisco Airport and the Ferry Building. A list of places that sell the passes can be found here:

Passes are also available at the Bay/Taylor cable car ticket booth (Daily, 8 a.m.–7:30.p.m.) and the Beach/Hyde cable car ticket booth (Daily, 8 a.m.–7:30.p.m.)

How to Ride the Cable Cars

Cable cars run every day. Riders can board at any cable car terminus (located at either end of the route) or anywhere the brown and white cable car stop sign is posted. Each sign contains the name of the route, the car’s destination, the hours of operation, and a phone number to call with any questions. At the terminus, you may find yourself waiting in a line to board.

In the middle of a route, you should wait on the sidewalk and wave to the cable car conductor, who alerts the gripman to stop the car for you. Wait until the cable car comes to a complete stop. You can board from either side. As cable cars are often in the middle of the street, be aware of traffic when entering and exiting. The conductor may help you find a seat or a place to stand, or may instruct you to wait for the next cable car. (They come fairly frequently.) People stand on the running boards while holding onto the car’s poles. (This is not recommended for young children.) Ride this way with caution – the conductor will alert people when the route becomes tight and those riders have to squeeze in.

When you wish to get off, let the conductor know verbally, either ahead of time or once the car is stopped. If you decide you want to get off once the cable car is stopped, use judgment in proceeding, both in terms of traffic and if you think the cable car is starting up again. If in doubt, tell the conductor you’re getting off to ensure that the car remains fully stopped. Cable car personnel are concerned for the safety of riders. They know that most people are new to riding and will help you.

Cable Car Bell Ringing Contest

Not only do the cable car crew members have great upper arm strength – many of them display prowess at ringing the famed cable car bell. The annual bell ringing contest is held in Union Square in June. It’s a wonderful opportunity to hear the talents of the crew members and enjoy one more aspect of what makes the cable car so unique. There is more information about the Cable Car Bell Ringing Contest here.

cable car bell

Here is a movie I took of the contest one year.

Cable Car Bell Ringing Contest


A day spent riding, and then exploring, these colorful historic landmarks will certainly make you appreciate them, whether a tourist or a local, as well as provide a fun, inexpensive family outing.

Note: Post updated 8/15/13

Photos by Susan Sachs Lipman

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