San Francisco: Cable Cars & a Sidewalk Toilet House San Francisco title page for cable cars and sidewalk toilet houseYes, I’m not kidding, (a sidewalk toilet house!) Besides the 2 most impressive things I experienced on a recent trip to San Francisco, I also experienced a few other ‘just slightly less impressive’ things, like the famous cable cars, (not the experience I had envisioned) and though I didn’t personally ‘experience’ it, we did see a sidewalk toilet house.

I’ll get to the sidewalk toilet house in a second, but first let’s talk cable cars.

This was our first time to San Francisco, so I did a little reading ahead of time to try to get my bearings once there. I read on the cable car website how to wait at the brown sign, taking care not to wait in the street, but safely on the sidewalk, and the cable car conductor will stop and pick you up. Uh-huh… cable car

So, late afternoon, after we arrived in San Francisco and had gotten all checked in at our hotel, The Fairmont, on Nob Hill, we made dinner reservations at a restaurant at Ghirardelli Square.  We decided to get there via the cable car which stops right by our hotel, to me, that just seemed like such a romantic start to our mini vacation. After waiting for quite some time, we finally did see a cable car coming, (the picture above here was that cable car! I was so excited, but I did manage to snap a quick picture with my phone before I thought we were going to board it).  Obediently, we were waiting under the brown sign, like the literature stated, where the cable car will stop… Ha! Not so much, it just kept going. We then started yelling at it to stop… nothing. After a couple tries of waiting for a cable car from the curb, and being so frustrated with how they would totally ignore us, not even slowing down one single bit, we moved right out to the street, which is kinda risky, depending on traffic coming over that hill, but we made it and the next cable car did stop. Great! San Francisco cable car

Once on board, there were no seats left, so standing room only. Fine, but we had to hold on tight as there was a lot of swaying and bumps going on, as this ancient relic clangs and rumbles along the streets right along with the traffic.

You know that cute old Rice-a-Roni commercial, ‘The San Francisco Treat’? Where the guy is sort of hanging out of the cable car slightly holding on with one hand? Yeah, well, I hate to stick a pin in the balloon, but the traffic is zooming by so fast, in front of, and behind the cable cars, flying over the hills and so close in the lane next to the cable car, that if you actually tried to do that, you’d be smooshed in a second. Not to mention that the cable car itself is swaying, jerking and moving so much, it’d be very difficult to hold on hanging out the side.

My husband got yelled at by the conductor as soon as we boarded. “Not There!” It took my husband a second to realize that the conductor was yelling at him to move away from the only open area in the car which happened to be next to the steps, so he moved into the aisle full of crammed standing room only people.

Finally some people got off so we could sit down in their vacated spots, but see how those wooden bench seats are facing out? If you’re inside the cable car, how would you go about getting to one of those outfacing seats? I thought it would be prudent to go over the bench back as I couldn’t see any other way to access it. Well, let me just say the conductor didn’t like my prudent thinking, and quite loudly let me, and everyone else within a city block, know that was not the way and NOT allowed. Trying my hardest to not sound like a smart aleck, but I honestly just couldn’t figure out how to get to that dreamy empty bench seat without going over the back, so I stupidly looked at him, and said, “Oh, I’m sorry… Uh… how do I get to the seat?” “Get out! Walk around!” (well, duh. I actually could have figured that out, it just seemed a bit inconvenient to everyone else to hold the whole production up, just for us to get to a seat.) But that is what we did, he had to stop the whole production and wait as we disembarked the cable car, walked around it and re-boarded onto the seats.

As it turned out, this was just one of many, sort of conflicting moments we experienced on our cable car rides. cable car tracks


Unfortunately, we soon found out once on board, that this cable car we were on didn’t turn to the left to head to Ghirardelli Square, it was the wrong cable car line! We later found out that the line that goes to Ghirardelli Square fills up quickly, and when it’s full, it’s full, and will not stop. Aha… that’s why they just kept going by us, not slowing down a bit when we were waiting. Apparently, there were two different cable car lines that stopped at the same spot by our hotel, neither were clearly marked, and the conductors all seemed to have the attitude that it was the rider’s responsibility to know the ropes or they’d loudly let you know where you went wrong! No explaining necessary, just loud correction!

Our 1st ride on the cable car ended quite abruptly.

The San Francisco cable cars are powered by a cable that continuously runs under the street on some huge pulley system or something. My understanding is that it is powered by some sort of a single main power, so if and when that main power source goes out, all the cable cars lose power and stop… right there… in the middle of the street… Which is what happened to us. The car suddenly stopped in the middle of some random block and the conductor simply stated that the ride was done.

My husband and I looked at each other, not quite sure what to do… we were feeling a little disjointed, first from being tired from our flight earlier in the day, then due to the verbal accosting we had both just received from this ‘not so happy conductor’,  along with the confusion of the long wait and then boarding the wrong cable car, and now being dumped in a strange city unsure of exactly where we even were, and then to top it off, it was now getting dark out. For a second or two, I really felt a bit overwhelmed with the day and my placement on the earth. Well, I’m glad to say that after being married to each other for over 35 years and learning how to embrace our partnership of supporting each other, (sometimes with ‘loud talking’ between us) we quickly recovered. (I am so blessed to be able to go through life with my beloved husband!) Plus with a map app on my phone and the fact that the hills were mostly behind us, we could briskly walk through the streets the several blocks to Ghirardelli Square. Once there and seated at the restaurant that we had been frantically trying to get to on time for dinner reservations,  (I was at this point so overheated and sweating like crazy! I couldn’t get my scarf off fast enough. The scarf that I had so carefully selected to add that fun splash of color and look great with my outfit now felt like it was strangling me. As well as remove any layer of said outfit I could get off without looking indecent… hatethosehotflashes!) the waiter just sort of snorted at our experience with the cable car, and had a funny explanation: “The San Francisco cable car system is the only ‘moving historical national landmark’, and the conductors are ‘union’.” So I guess, take from that what you will.

We did learn the ropes a little bit better regarding the cable cars, and rode them a few more times, but for the most part depended on taxis to transport us around the San Francisco Bay area. trolley

Though we didn’t have opportunity to ride one, there are also these trolley buses not to be confused with the cable cars.  They are hooked up to a wire above them for their power source.

Now onto the ‘sidewalk toilet house’…

I don’t know, maybe these are popular in all big cities? I’ve never seen one before and thought it was quite unique, so I wanted to share it with you, but I am so curious to know if they are ‘around’ so please let me know if you’ve ever seen one of these ‘sidewalk toilet houses’ any other place. sidewalk toilet house

Here it is, a freestanding toilet house right on the sidewalk! toilet in park cleaning

The door automatically closed while we were just standing there, staring at it, and a sign lit up stating it was ‘auto cleaning’. (I’m not sure what took place inside it during the auto clean cycle…) toilet in park open

But after a few minutes the door opened up, and this was the ‘cleaned’ toilet house ready to use.

And I guess you can take from that what you will, too…

This was a fun post to write, a little out of the ordinary and more detailed than normal, but I wanted to share both experiences with you. I don’t have much to say about the sidewalk toilet house, except if you’ve ever seen one of these, really, let me know they’re not such an anomaly that I think this one is. And if you are planning a trip to San Francisco and would like to use the cable cars, don’t make the mistake as I did thinking a bit too romantically about them, keep in mind that the conductor and most of the riders are not tourists and quite apparently don’t feel too darn romantic about their riding or driving of the ‘only moving historical national landmark’. San Francisco Cable Car

They are pretty to look at though… I got a good picture of this one that suddenly, and with a lot of fuss, broke down right in the middle of the very busy intersection by our hotel. It was our turn to snicker… because we knew, obviously before the poor souls aboard realized, they would need to get a walking.


Want to read more?

Click here to see more my two most impressive things about San Francisco.

Click here to see more of my other experiences traveling around other neighborhoods.


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Reader Interactions


  1. Jan says

    Leave it to a non-union waiter to blame your poor experience on the cable car on unionized cable car operators. There are crappy (ha!) people in all jobs. Sounds like the waiter needed to drink some happy juice, and so did that cable car driver. I have not seen public toilets right out on the street like that, guess they’re not a thing in the midwest where I live, but I understand they have them in Japan. I spent a week in Amsterdam in 2001 and don’t remember seeing a public OPEN AIR urinal like the “cape on the corner mentioned” — good thing, for that would have freaked me out, walking past dudes wizzing in public. Guess I’m a true American puritan at heart, LOL! Of course, I may have walked right past several while I was in Amsterdam and just not realized what they actually were or what those loitering dudes were doing. In Milwaukee we have public rest room/toilet buildings in parks – separately marked “men’s” and “women’s” (the women’s rooms all have enclosed stalls) but no public toilet buildings on a busy sidewalk. Lesson learned is to always carry Lysol wipes in one’s tote, purse or backpack when travelling – anywhere 🙂 What great photos — I really appreciate seeing places I haven’t been through others’ eyes, non-professional photographers who maybe don’t get the perfect shot every time but the photos are totally filled with spontaneity, heart and soul!

  2. the cape on the corner says

    we leave tomorrow for san francisco-i will try and be more realistic about the cable cars. i have seen that toilet, mostly throughout europe. the weirdest thing i saw was in amsterdam,, which was public urinals. it was a circular structure that had little…indentations…and the men just sauntered on up and did their business. in public. with other men doing the same thing. it held about 5 people around. i think?? so odd.

  3. Carpet cleaning Ashford says

    You killed me with this post, excuse me but I laughted so hard on your cable car experience, I’m sure that this will become a great story to tell your friends.
    The idea of sidewalk toilets is really great, I’ve never seen one but it would be great to have some here and there 🙂

    • LIz says

      Looking back, it really was funny! I was laughing when I was writing it and I kept thinking… I wonder if anyone else is going to see the humor in all this. I’m so glad you did! Thanks for reading over here. Liz

  4. Donnamae says

    I haven’t been to San Francisco in quite awhile…but like Pondside stated…you would think that something that is of landmark status would have employees with a little more courtesy. I’ve been on the cable cars before…and it is a fun ride…I remember when we got to the end of the line, we all got off and turned the car around. Wonder if they still do that? When I think of SF, I instantly think of the hills, cable cars, and Lombard St. I think I just talked myself into going back! How was dinner by the way?

    I have seen sidewalk toilets in Glasgow before, and a few other cities in Scotland. But never used one! As a matter of fact, there was some talk of installing one or two in Madison up around the square at one time. 😉

    • LIz says

      Yes, the employees that we ran into on the cable cars didn’t seem too happy… but actually our experience with it became a fond memory and great story that we’ve retold a few times now. Dinner was fun, with a lovely view of the bay. We really enjoyed our time in SF and look forward to the next time we can go and see more of it.

  5. Pondside says

    That cable car experience would have been enough to put me off too! In a town where tourism is a major player one would think that there would be a better attitude from people on the front lines – after all, the cable cars are a huge tourist draw!
    The toilets – yes, we have them here in Victoria too. The one in San Francisco looks a lot like the kind you’d find in any European big city. Ours is all chrome and steel and very space age.

    • LIz says

      I wonder if the sidewalk toilets are more popular in other countries than America. I haven’t had the opportunity to travel much outside of the US and probably tend to stick more to small town America than exploring much in large metro areas.

      Yes, the 1st cable car incident did sort of rattle us for a second or two, but we quickly found the humor in it. We had a fun time in San Francisco.

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