A desire named streetcar


Streetcars are on the prowl in U.S. cities. (Photo by flickr user trainman74)

Once upon a time, in an alternate history that the auto industry today would prefer we all forget, the American city streets were paved with gold. Maybe they weren’t paved with the gold found at Sutter’s Mill, but they were filled with the comforting rails and power lines of streetcars. Back and forth these cars would go until one day, they all just stopped running.

But, hark, what is that I hear? Is that the nostalgic clanging of a streetcar bell? Perhaps, it is. Last week, the Gray Lady herself told us that streetcars are making a comeback in cities across the nation. From Cincinnati to Seattle, from Charlotte to Salt Lake City, city planners are looking to revive the vast network of streetcars that used to transport America’s urban dwellers from one point to the next while using existing surface routes and right-of-ways.

Bob Driehaus writes:

At least 40 other cities are exploring streetcar plans to spur economic development, ease traffic congestion and draw young professionals and empty-nest baby boomers back from the suburbs, according to the Community Streetcar Coalition, which includes city officials, transit authorities and engineers who advocate streetcar construction.

More than a dozen have existing lines, including New Orleans, which is restoring a system devastated by Hurricane Katrina. And Denver, Houston, Salt Lake City and Charlotte, N.C., have introduced or are planning to introduce streetcars.

“They serve to coalesce a neighborhood,” said Jim Graebner, chairman of the American Public Transportation Association’s streetcar and vintage trolley committee. “That’s very evident in places like San Francisco, which never got rid of its streetcar system.”

It’s a veritable utopia of light rail proposals. Of course, streetcars are not without their detractors. “It looks like it’s going to take you somewhere, but it’s only designed to support downtown residents,” Randall O’Toole, an expert on (anti-)public transit policy, said. “If officials fall for the hype and don’t ask the hard questions, voters should vote them out.” But we’ll ignore him and let his Cato Institute donors speak for themselves.

O’Toole aside, it’s hard to argue against streetcars, as The Overhead Wire noted this weekend. They’re relatively cheap, environmentally friendly and encourage reducing one’s carbon expenditures. In an age in which we’re all focused on shrinking driving mileage and making cities more pedestrian-friendly, streetcars are a grand ally in that scheme.

It is also not without irony that cities are starting to reclaim their streetcar past. While Americans today either don’t know about or willfully choose to ignore it, had American cities stood up for themselves fifty or sixty years ago, streetcars would still be a vibrant part of the urban landscape. While I mentioned that one day, streetcars just disappeared, it wasn’t as simple as that. Did you really think it would be?

Starting in the 1930s and continuing on through the 1950s, when American car manufacturers starting coming into their Golden Age and owning a car became not a sign of wealth but a trademark of the middle class, these companies starting snatching up streetcar properties. Now, while some of them bought the streetcar lines to create an internal monopoly in which these public transit systems would run only, say, GM buses and cars, others ripped up the streetcars and shut them down when they weren’t quote-unquote profitable enough.

While, as the Wikipedia entry for the Great American streetcar scandal notes, a whole bunch of other factors contributed to the demise of streetcars, the demise of American cities in the 1960s and 1970s was a direct result of the fall and decline of streetcars. Today, America is more urban than ever before, and city officials across the nation are finally realizing the benefits of streetcars. Better late than never again.

10 Responses to “A desire named streetcar”

  1. Josh says:

    Clever headline.

    “In an age in which we’re all focused on shrinking driving mileage and making cities more pedestrian-friendly, streetcars are a grand ally in that scheme.”

    Part of the problem, of course, is that not EVERYONE is focused on the same goals. If that were the case, things might be able to change a lot more smoothly, but there are plenty of people who don’t really care about those two goals.

  2. Skip Skipson says:

    This article makes me think of the street car system in Red Hook, Brooklyn. They managed to lay some track a few years ago and then construction was stopped. It would be nice to see that comeback to life…so that I can become a Brooklyn (Trolley) Dodger.

    • Alfred Beech says:

      I was going to write the same thing. Here’s a section of Brooklyn that’s close to Manhattan, but cut off from the rest of the borough not only by Robert Moses’ Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, but also by a lack of accessibility. Urban areas close to population centers that are economically depressed are the exact targets that places like Portland are targeting for new streetcar lines.

      The Brooklyn City Streetcar Company ( had permission to set up tracks, but permission was later rescinded by the Department of transportation (http://gowanuslounge.blogspot......m-and.html)

  3. John says:

    I don’t really get why people like streetcars. They are busses on metal wheels. Go to East Berlin or Toronto and ride their streetcars and tell me it was any different than a bus.

    The biggest difference I can see is that since streetcars cannot change their direction they are far more subject to delay by obstruction of their tracks.

    Given their own right-of-way this problem is solved and they can of course be much better than in-street buses, as would buses.

    Nevertheless I must admit that since white people irrationally like streetcars, they are probably a good way of interesting white people in transit in cities where most of them would usually rather drive.

    • Alfred Beech says:

      Streetcars offer a number of advantages over busses:
      -They attract more passengers. Shouldn’t we build transit systems that are more likely to be used? Do you have a source for the claim that only whites like streetcars?
      -They encourage development along their routes. I’ve never heard that claimed about busses.
      -They can run routes faster, both because of faster loading (multiple doors), and faster acceleration
      -They can carry more passengers. Expanding capacity of a line is as easy as attaching a second car to a streetcar.
      -They’re more cost effective. Lower operations and maintenance costs offset higher initial capital expenditures for cars and tracks. The life expectancy of a streetcar is about 40 years, much longer than a bus. And a single operator can transport more people.
      -They’re cleaner. Ever ride your bike behind a bus? Not such a great experience. Electric power for streetcars comes from a centralized source, making it easier to control pollutants.

  4. shishi says:

    Without Streetcars NYC would not look the way it does today. They use to go everywhere, but of course in our wisdom we torn them up and out. It is time to serisouly start thinking about them again and sometimes just getting one line done is the thing to do. While that article talks more about LRT lines than actually streetcars, Brooklyn and the rest of NYC should start thinking about alternative surface transit (streetcars, LRT, BRT).

  5. Ed says:

    The big advantage of fixed transit lines over bus lines is something that bus advocates claim is an advantage for busses, that the authorities can reroute the busses easily. The problem is that they usually do, so that only people who use that line all the time know the bus route. Transit authorities tend to only invest in things like sheltered stops with legible maps for systems using permanent routes.

    Also rail is somewhat more efficient and environmentally friendly, though it obviously has higher start up costs than busses.

    Ideally you would design one integrated transit system, without worrying about the mode or costs or rights of way. Then put in rail where you can afford it and its technically feasible, and cover the rest with busses. We should be putting in express busses to mimic much of the 2nd Avenue subway route, as well as to the airports, since its looking less likely that we will get the subways going to these places anytime soon.

  6. Rob says:

    Boston was able to keep a small part of its original street car system (the surface routes of the modern-day Green Line). Four branches of the green line enter a central subway once approaching the denser areas of the cities. This makes it extremely easy for residents of the outlying neighborhoods to get downtown to work or connect with the heavy rail system and commuter rail. A 20 minute car commute involving an extra 10 minutes to search for parking, and $15 for said parking is turned into a smooth $1.70 15 minute ride.

    There are large debates in a few communities which have had streetcar service taken away and replaced by bus over the past 20 years. These closures were originally deemed “temporary,” but it wasn’t until a month ago when the city finally paved over the old Arborway tracks which were sitting unused since 1987. “Large” articulated buses have replaced the old line, but overcrowding is a constant issue as light rail vehicles would accommodate many more passengers. Localized effects on the environment are also a concern. The lifespan of LRVs is 25 years and they are a lot less expensive to maintain and power.

    I personally prefer light rail because it offers a MUCH smoother ride without the need to step over people to enter and exit. Modern day LRVs allow for easy on-boarding of handicap people with plenty of room for people to move around (in MBTA buses, only small wheelchairs can fit through the rear door, and anyone in the back wishing to get off will have problems). Traffic prioritization systems give the LRV priority at stop lights. Overall, the benefits of light rail greatly outnumber those of buses.

  7. Not important says:

    You can still run streetcars without overhead wires: APS. APS is is technology used in Bordeaux (and dubai in the future) where power is supplied by a third rail divided into sections. The sections are only electrified when a streetcar passes over them. The streetcars would have to be made by Alstom. Like the idea?


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