San Francisco: A veteran cable car driver's best tips

By Justine Sharrock
October 3, 2012
Courtesy the Cable Car Museum

Leonard Oats, a driver on San Francisco's cable car lines, has been riding the rails along Hyde Street for the past decade. Oats is also the multi-year champion of the cable car bell ringing contest, which draws crowds to Union Square every summer. Drivers are judged on rhythm, originality, and style—and there's even a category for amateurs. Try your hand at ringing an iconic cable car bell on Thursday, June 17, at the 48th annual contest.

Oats drives on the Powell-Hyde line, possibly the city's most famous, which traverses the steepest hills from Powell in Union Square north to Fisherman's Wharf, going by landmarks like Lombard Street. We caught up with him to ask him some tips on how to get the most out of riding the cable cars—because he would know!

What are your favorite parts of the job?

The challenge of driving the car on the hills; getting to meet people from all over the world; and everyday getting to see the Golden Gate Bridge and the ocean. It's a great view and a beautiful city. I love it.

What's the best stretch of your route?

Lombard Street is by far your best view all the way down. You can see Coit Tower, Alcatraz, Angel Island, Treasure Island, the Bay Bridge, and Berkeley.

Where's the best seat?

When you're going down to the water on Hyde Street, the right side is the best if you want to see it all. On the left side, all you see is the Golden Gate Bridge. But remember, when you sit down, there might be people in front of you, so try to get on early.

What's the best way to avoid the lines?

The secret is, unless you absolutely have to have a seat, you can walk one block up from the turnarounds (like the one at Powell and Market streets, or the one at Bay street and Fisherman's Wharf) and get on there, where it's less crowded. That's what the locals do. [Editor's note: Very few locals actually take cable cars—they offer scenic views but are not very efficient.]

Should people tip the driver?

You certain don't have to, but we can accept tips. Just make it clear that you're offering a tip and not the fare.

What mistakes or faux pas do people make?

People make a lot of mistakes. First, you should pay the conductor in the back and not the driver in the front—I'm trying to drive! A lot of people think the cable cars are like a ride at Disneyland, but it's not. You have to be safe. When you get on, take off your backpack and put it by your feet. Otherwise, if it's sticking out of the car, it can get stuck on something and pull you right off. Believe me, it's happened. I think folks see people leaning out of the cars in the movies, but it can be dangerous. Locals do ride by "hanging off", but that just means they stand on the side.

What are the best sites for visitors to see?

A lot of people really like Alcatraz. I haven't gone, but my wife has, and she said it is scary. I was a sheriff before this and worked in a jail, so I don't really need to see another prison. But I do really enjoy the ferry trip over to Tiburon, where you can see the city from the water. I also like going to Twin Peaks, one of the highest points in the city. A lot of tourists don't know about it because it's a little bit tough to get to. But there are some city bus tours that go up there now, or you if you've rented a car, it's worth a stop.

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