Tuesday, October 6, 2015

City Rising for the 21st Century: San Francisco Public Transit 1915, now, tomorrow

Fageol auto train at the Panama Pacific International Exposition, San Francisco, 1915. California Historical Society, CHS2014.1807.
The 288-day Panama-Pacific International Exposition was more than a celebration of technological achievement and art.  It marked the rebirth of San Francisco after the 1906 calamity and its new global position as gateway to the U.S.’s newly acquired possessions in the Pacific after the completion of the Panama Canal.  Just rebuilt, San Francisco was also the “most modern city on Earth.” 

The City’s success at achieving the Fair (neutralizing other California venues and subsequently besting New Orleans for the site) are testimony to San Francisco’s wealth and grasp of political process.  What is remarkable was that when awarded the Fair in 1911 the planners had not specified the location.  [It would be as if the Super Bowl were awarded not only without a stadium but without a site].

Several site options were touted—among them the Golden Gate Park site formerly used by the 1894 Mid-Winter Exposition, the Lake Merced area, Lincoln Park and a compromise “All City” plan.  The fact that the northern waterfront area known as “Harbor View” was ultimately chosen reflected the realities that the Expo was at once a local, national and regional event.  The northern waterfront offered a relatively protected area and access by ferry.  It was also within walking distance for 50,000 residents.

What it did not offer, however, was level land routes to the City’s downtown commercial and shopping districts or to the newly established population centers in the Mission.

This was a challenge for PPIE planners.

They enlisted the support of transit planner Bion J. Arnold who presented a Transportation Plan to the Board of Supervisors.  Planners recognized that a Fair without crowds would be a failure.  The challenge was that an inability to transport the crowds would be recipe for a disaster.

In a world where the term “car” meant “streetcar” and the automobile was just becoming an affordable and reliable alternative for some, public transit was the only real option. Busses and taxis were not expected to be significant assistance.  Jitneys just emerging as a transit option but were also an emerging impediment to public transit.  However, existing lines were totally inadequate to the expected ridership.  How to move people to the Exposition became a civic challenge that fell to the fledgling Municipal Railway, the novel concept of a municipally owned and operated street railway.

On October 7, 2015 I will join Michael Schwartz of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, Peter Albert of SFMTA, and Greg King of Parsons Corp, for a whirlwind tour of how Muni rose to meet the needs of the PPIE and in so doing set itself up for expansion over the next decade.  Join us to learn how the planning decisions for the PPIE shaped major transit corridors that we still use today, and hear about current transit projects along these corridors from planners building the San Francisco of the 21st Century.

By Grant Ute

Grant Ute is a historian and author of San Francisco Municipal Railway, Alameda by Rails, and San Francisco's Market Street Railway.

RSVP to this event here.

Further reading: Grading California's Rail Transit Station Areas, by Next 10.

1911 - 1915 | Prepping for the Panama-Pacific Expo, SFMTA photography collection.

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