A person born in Tampa, Florida, in 1888—the year Frank J. Sprague produced the first successful electric streetcar—would live his youth knowing only Sprague’s invention as a regular means of mechanized transport. He would marry in a church within earshot of the streetcar clang and take his own young children on trolley trips downtown.
By the man’s 40th birthday in 1928 he would almost certainly have stopped riding the streetcar, perhaps even cursing it from behind the wheel of his automobile for holding up traffic. By the time he retired most of those old machines would have been sold for scrap. Yet if he lived to be 100, near the end of his life the man would have heard the first stirrings of regret from a nostalgic nation longing for those pokey old trolleys to return.
There are currently 16 streetcar lines operating as public transit in the United States, but depending on how you count there are as many as 80 cities with streetcars in the planning or development phase. Far from the dominant form of urban transport they once were, streetcars have become prestige projects celebrated for their history, beauty, and alleged ability to promote development.
But the sad secret is that streetcars of all descriptions and vintages are at best modestly successful transportation projects, at worst expensive objets d’art that very few people use. Demand for the vehicles is driven not by the public but by the dreams of land-use planners and downtown boosters who imagine that aesthetically pleasing vehicles lumbering in slow circles through walkable areas will somehow prompt a boom in economic activity. Streetcar booster Gloria Ohland has often written that streetcars should be considered “economic development projects with transportation benefits.”
Yet the fantasy that people will travel or move to a particular location purely for the pleasure of tootling around in a trolley has consistently failed to materialize. Because the urban circulator is not tailored to the needs of modern city dwellers who use mass transit to get around, there is no natural constituency to ride them. The result: Many communities get stuck with an eternal loop of empty, expensive white elephants.
The streetcar—typically a vehicle on rails, powered by overhead wires, and comprised of a single car, although that car may be elongated with accordion-like hinges—arrived as perhaps the second greatest revolution in transport. Before the car’s electric motor, the preferred engine of urban vehicles was the horse, which needed food, water, and rest, and whose tailpipe emissions stood in piles between the tracks. Horses were expensive and brought bad publicity when they died en route.
Once Sprague broke with the horse, urban transport could carry people quickly, cleanly, and inexpensively from the crowded and polluted city center to the virgin lands of the nearby countryside. You would have to go all the way back to the invention of the wheel, when stone and timber could first be moved relatively long distances, to find a transport technology that made a more significant impact on the lives of regular folk.
By 1910 American cities had emptied into the surrounding countryside. Urban areas were segmented into warehouse and factory districts around rail yards, with a fashionable central business district for shopping and professional work, and suburbs that were homogeneous enclaves of class and ethnicity, all of them interconnected by networks of streetcar routes. For a nickel people could commute into the city for work, shopping, or entertainment on vehicles that traveled as fast as 30 miles per hour but averaged about 12. In all, the glory days of the streetcar lasted a quarter of a century.
Despite modern nostalgia for the streetcar era, the so-called “traction trusts” that owned the systems were widely considered corrupt and greedy. Riders were eager for new ways to get around. The costs of labor and materials more than doubled during World War I, while fares, written into city-granted charters in the 1890s, were locked at a nickel. Tracks and rolling stock entering the fourth decade of use in many cities needed upgrades and repairs at a time when the traction trusts were broke yet remained on the hook for their own track, rolling stock, and operating expenses. Meanwhile, the faster and more individualized automobile was beginning to take off, helped by federal and state governments that funded road building.
In 1910 GM, Firestone, Standard Oil, Philips Petroleum, and other companies pooled their resources to form National City Lines, which purchased more than 100 streetcar systems and replaced them with bus routes. The trolley lines were a bargain because they were failing, and buying them was simply good business for bus companies, despite later claims of conspiracy. By the mid-1920s developers were no longer concerned about getting rail extended to their subdivisions, and after World War II transit use fell off a cliff.
But back in Europe, a transformation of street-level rail transit was under way. While Americans were abandoning their cities for suburbs, Germans were busy reconstructing war-torn urban cores and looking for less expensive alternatives to the underground metro.
The result was called stadtbahn, or city rail, which combined the best parts of the streetcar (strassenbahn) and underground (U-bahn). Stadtbahn ran at street grade but was isolated from other traffic; had multiple cars, each with one or two double-width doors that would all open together at platforms for passengers to board and alight; and relied on fares that were paid off the vehicle, checked by roving inspectors. Stops—stations really—were spaced between a half mile and a mile apart. It was fast, efficient, relatively inexpensive, and entirely new to the transit world. “These were truly vehicles of mass transportation,” says Gregory Thompson, professor of transportation planning at Florida State University and chairman of the Transportation Research Board’s Light Rail Committee.
“Three features of light rail became apparent to North American [light rail transit] proponents after the reconstruction of Germany,” Thompson says. “The vehicle must be separated from traffic through medians or running on the other side of the sidewalk from automobiles. Stops, as with an underground, should be at intermediate distances, not as frequent as bus stops.” Rapid entry and exit of the vehicles was paramount. “You have to use all available doors and take the driver out of the [payment] loop.”
In the late 1970s North American cities began importing the German adaptation of the American streetcar, first in Edmonton (1978) and then in Calgary (1981). San Diego (1981) was the first American city to construct what was now called light rail transit.