Best Public Transportation System, Retired

The Key System

Electric trolleys once defined public transportation for the greater East Bay. Railroad tracks and overhead wires crisscrossed the landscape from San Leandro to Richmond, with lines reaching into Berkeley, Oakland, and Piedmont. Ferryboats transported passengers from the Oakland Mole (a railroad wharf and ferry pier extending into the bay from the foot of 7th Street) to the San Francisco ferry building, until completion of the Bay Bridge allowed special Key System cars to travel across the bottom deck. Local service was discontinued in 1948, and transbay service in 1958, outlasting Southern Pacific’s rival East Bay Electric Lines service by seventeen years. Reminders of the Key System can still be found: The system’s historic administrative headquarters stands at 1100 Broadway in Oakland; the Claremont Hotel, built by the Key System’s corporate parent, served as the terminus of the E line; J’s Coffee Shop and the plaza at Piedmont Avenue and 41st Street are remnants of a C-line stop, now highlighted by a commemorative plaque and mural; Albany’s Key Route Boulevard features a widened median for a never-built line extension; Berkeley’s Northbrae tunnel, connecting Sutter Street and Solano Avenue, was inherited from the SP; and portions of the Oakland Mole’s switchman’s tower can be found at Middle Harbor Shoreline Park. If recent AC Transit fare hikes and service cuts get you down, head to the Western Railway Museum at Rio Vista Junction, climb aboard their original Key System rolling stock, and imagine a time when public transit ruled the land.


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