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.