Transportation Policy

The Streetcar Swindle

It's time to rethink America's retrograde love affair with trolley technology.


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.

Streetcar Heyday

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.

Around this time American construction of heavy rail, which began in New York and Boston in the late 19th century, effectively wound to a close with subways in San Francisco, Washington D.C., and Atlanta. (The main exception was a late-breaking underground system in Los Angeles, first brought online in 1993.) Other U.S. cities, such as Denver, Houston, Minneapolis, St. Louis, and Charlotte, addressed their transit needs with the German model.

Then, like a toilet-trained toddler who begins wetting his pants again when a new baby sibling arrives, America forgot everything it had learned from German light rail. Newer streetcars were built to operate in mixed traffic, with frequent stops, using only the front door for boarding while the driver collected fares. "The [contemporary] streetcar is like a bus on rails, but it has no advantages over a bus," says Thompson. "An effective light rail or streetcar has to be operated like a subway," but most modern streetcars are not.

Bay City Blues

Tampa, Florida, has followed the streetcar's parabola almost perfectly. At its peak in 1926, the port city (which then had a population of 100,000) had a network of 190 vehicles that delivered a whopping 24 million trips that year across 53 miles of track and 11 routes. The streetcar eventually disappeared for several decades, only to return in much different form in 2003.

In 2006 Tampa's 578,000 residents took just 520,000 trips on the new, $63 million TECO trolley, or less than one each. Ridership was down 45,000 from the previous year. With an operating speed slower than eight miles per hour, the TECO trolley is in every way a transit mode worse than a bus. But unlike in previous generations, transit is not the streetcar's purpose.

A 2007 Wall Street Journal article titled "A Streetcar Named Aspire: Lines Aim to Revive Cities" described TECO as a "dud" but noted that the project's proponents attributed $450 million of development to the route, which at that point ran for 2.4 miles. One skeptical Hillsborough County commissioner quoted in the story said the streetcar "goes from no place to nowhere." He was not exactly right: The route runs from historic Ybor City to the Florida Aquarium, then Channelside Drive (where cruise ships arrive), then on to the Tampa Convention Center, terminating at the edge of downtown. So it goes places, just not where any resident needs to go.

On weekdays, TECO does not make its first trip until noon. Is that any way to run a transit system? If you believe the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), the answer is "Why not?" Here is how the FTA describes its "urban circulator" program: "Systems such as streetcars and rubber-tire trolley lines provide a transportation option that connects urban destinations and fosters the redevelopment of urban spaces into walkable mixed use, high density environments." Note that the agency carefully omits what you might otherwise expect to be both the purpose and the most basic metric of any transit project: ridership. How can it be that the number of trips generated by a project that cost tens or even hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars is not the central consideration?

Powering the Streetcar Craze

Nostalgia is the main power source of the streetcar craze. How else do we explain the use of historical reproductions and expensive old Birney and PCC streetcars in so many systems? Still, these projects roll on a pair of rails called "downtown development" and "tourism."

The first contemporary streetcars were laser-focused on economic development. When San Francisco began renovating its famous cable cars in 1982, the local Chamber of Commerce, worried about losing visitors, pushed for an alternative historic transit service for tourists. Muni, the municipal transit system, was happy to oblige. Using brightly colored, Art Deco PCC cars, the summer Trolley Festivals began in 1983, setting a national template. Historic streetcars popped up in tiny Galveston, Texas, in 1988 and then Dallas in 1989. The Memphis Trolley, featured in the Tom Cruise movie The Firm, joined the mix in 1993. Tampa and Little Rock opened vintage trolleys in 2003 and 2004, respectively.

While the earlier contemporary streetcars were primarily focused on tourism, the Portland, Oregon, streetcar gained fame as the first "modern" streetcar in the United States, becoming the model for downtown circulators in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Cincinnati. But Portland is a hard act to follow. To urbanists, Portland is Valhalla and Mecca combined. Freeway revolts, regional planning organizations, bike sharing, greenways, urban growth boundaries, and wildlife corridors are all urban planning concepts that were either born or incubated in Portland. The city's Eastside MAX light rail opened in 1986. For Portland, the streetcar, which has been credited with between $2.3 billion and $4 billion of development along its route, was a victory lap by the champion of 20th-century American urbanism. But that isn't necessarily the best model for the rest of the country.

The urban street cred of Portland notwithstanding, even there the streetcar is not really mass transit. The City of Portland owns the 3.9-mile-loop streetcar, not TriMet, the transit agency that otherwise runs buses and light rail for the Portland area. The Portland Streetcar's raison d'être is, like the Tampa TECO line's, downtown development and tourism, not transportation.

It has been more than 40 years since Petula Clark bayed about the joys of downtown in her 1965 hit of that name, by which time central business districts (CBDs) were already well on their way to irrelevance. Transportation was the main reason for the decline. Federally funded road projects such as the Interstate Highway System were supposed to save downtowns by providing a ready means to get people to the CBD for work, shopping, and recreation. Instead, freeways became a means to get from the CBD as shopping and recreation followed middle-class rooftops out to the suburbs. Professional jobs largely remained downtown, but central cities hollowed out at night.

In response, downtown boosters and city planners started looking for something that would bring people back to the central business districts. The streetcar is only the most recent incarnation of this effort. Beginning in the early 1970s, a number of cities closed downtown streets to automobile traffic in an attempt to create vibrant pedestrian malls where people could enjoy the urban space, easily crossing the street to destinations on the other side without fear of being run over by a car. Sheboygan, Wisconsin (Harbor Center, 1972), New London, Connecticut (Captain's Walk, 1973), Tacoma, Washington (Broadway Plaza, 1974), and Scranton, Pennsylvania (Wyoming Avenue Plaza, 1979) were a few of the many cities that unsuccessfully pioneered this method of luring people downtown.

The pedestrian mall generally did not work out well. The exceptions include Aspen, Boulder, and Denver, Colorado; Boston, Massachusetts; Madison, Wisconsin; Charlottesville, Virginia; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Burlington, Vermont; and San Antonio, Texas. All of these cities had an already strong downtown, a university presence, or both, except for San Antonio, which turned a storm water retention canal into a spectacular, singularly attractive urban water feature (having the Alamo nearby probably didn't hurt).

Tampa, Florida, may be the poster child for get-'em-downtown policies. I saw the comedian Gallagher, the watermelon guy, in 1991 at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. The only line I remember from this performance was, "Tampa has the world's largest collection of empty buildings." It drew a laugh from audience members who well knew the many attempts to reinvigorate a downtown that remained largely underused, particularly, as locals have derisively joked for decades, after the sidewalks were rolled up at 5 p.m. And yes, Tampa also had a pedestrian mall. The brick-paved, tree-lined Franklin Street was closed to cars in 1973 and limped along with boarded storefronts for decades before reopening to automobiles in 2002.

The pedestrian mall was quickly followed by the second wave in downtown circulation. Walt Disney had pioneered the "people mover" at Disneyland in 1967. The name stuck, and soon Boeing, LTV, and Rohr were developing similar driverless systems. Tampa International Airport was the first American airport to install a people mover, and it still runs from ticketing and baggage to airside. Airports and large hospitals remain the main users of these horizontal elevators, but there were five federally funded public transportation projects built with the technology, beginning with a project to connect the campuses of the University of West Virginia in Morgantown in 1975 and concluding with the Jacksonville Skyway in 1989. Tampa, in addition to its airport people mover, got the Harbour Island People Mover in 1985.

An already strong downtown or large university presence are just as relevant to the success of a people mover as to that of a pedestrian mall. Built over valleys not conducive to moving thousands of students by automobile, the Morgantown people mover carries 15,000 passengers per day and is essential to the life of the university. It was an exorbitantly expensive project, $411 million in 2011 dollars, but had a defined, existing ridership target, has performed well for more than 30 years, and must be considered a good investment.

The Detroit People Mover is more like airport or hotel people movers, as it connects the parking decks of the Renaissance Center with stations inside downtown buildings. It was built not to promote downtown street activity but rather to serve motorists working in downtown buildings. To the Motor City's credit, it produced a project that fit a particular need and has adequate ridership to show for it, with about 2 million annual trips (8,000 per day). At the other end of the spectrum is the Jacksonville Skyway with its puny 470,000 annual trips. The project, which has an annual operating deficit of $4 million, was built to last through 2036. Hence the Jacksonville Transportation Authority can anticipate spending $100 million during the next 25 years on just 1,900 daily trips. But tearing it down, as a city council member recently suggested, would mean repaying the FTA for its investment, a lump sum payment of $80 million.

Tampa was lucky enough to have the rare federal project that was actually destroyed. The Harbour Island People Mover connected downtown to what was effectively a suburban shopping mall built on a small spit of land just offshore, close enough that former President Gerald Ford hit a golf ball from the island to the mainland during a 1983 visit. The Ledger, a local newspaper reported in June 1985 that the Harbour Island development "is expected to be an additional economic bonanza for Tampa, a city already viewed as one of the nation's premier growth areas." But suburban residents already had suburban malls and did not need to go downtown for the same experience, people mover notwithstanding. By the mid-1990s Harbour Island was hemorrhaging money, and the people mover, capable of carrying 100 people per trip, was averaging just two. The developer offered to sell the people mover to Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART), the regional bus system, for only $1, but HART wisely declined. Demolition of the line, which prompted newspaper headlines like "People Mover Doesn't" and "Nearing the End of the Line," was completed in February 2000.

The ignominy of the Harbour Island People Mover did not end with its destruction. The Beneficial Corporation, developer of Harbour Island, had an agreement with HART to operate the people mover through 2015, and in the settlement that preceded its dismantling, Beneficial gave HART $5 million as seed money for the TECO Streetcar Line. The money from one failed downtown circulator was used to fund another.

Today HART does not know if it will be able to continue running the streetcar. In August 2011 the Tampa Port Authority board voted to end its $150,000 annual operating subsidy, rejecting a middle-ground plan to reduce the subsidy to $50,000. The new streetcar's ridership is marginally better than the Jacksonville Skyway's, at 501,959 trips in 2010, but HART expects a fiscal year 2013 total of just 330,000 trips, or a 50 percent drop. Perhaps those old-timey TECO cars will not be too sorely missed after all.

A New Way for Streetcars

There is nothing inherently wrong with streetcars as transit. The problem is in how they are deployed. The original streetcar systems were largely straight-line routes serving central business districts. The point was to get people to the CBD, where they would move around on foot. To this day the urban cores that lend their names to multi-county regions remain the most engaging, comfortable, and interesting places in the metro area to walk. The buildings are varied, attractive, and close to the sidewalk, street trees are common, and fenestration allows two-way communication between occupants of the buildings and the people on the street.

Proprietors need pedestrians to access their businesses; for them the money for urban circulators would be better spent bringing people to the urban core or improving the streetscape. In emerging large cities—the places now green-lighting light rail—streetcars, because of limited capacity, are not up to the task of delivering human payload. What, then, is an appropriate use for the modern streetcar?

Downtown boosterism has worked best in places like Madison, Charlottesville, Burlington, Boulder, and Morgantown. These are college towns, where young, relatively active people are accustomed to walking around universities that serve as second downtowns.

College towns are ideal for public transit because they follow the original purpose of moving people from nearby suburbs to the CBD. Students tend to live in clustered housing near the university, their primary destination. Of the 30 most transit-efficient cities in the U.S. (defined by the number of passenger trips per mile of transit service provided), 16 are college towns such as Athens, Iowa City, Chapel Hill, and Ann Arbor. The other 14 are mainly large, dense cities with excellent rail transport such as San Francisco, Boston, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C. (all of which also have significant student populations, though not the 25 percent threshold I use to classify college towns).

The highest and best use for a streetcar system is to connect dense student housing, a university, a functioning downtown, and a regional shopping venue, hospital, or other large attractor in a community of around 100,000 people. Athens, Gainesville, Norman, and Bloomington are ideal for this type of alignment (as is Lansing, which has opted to build a bus rapid transit system). We already have models for how to do this. Three systems in France provide exactly this kind of service: LeMans, Orleans, and Reims carry between 35,000 and 48,000 trips daily on systems that have between 6.9 and 11.2 miles of track. These streetcars—called tramways there—not only serve universities and downtowns but also take advantage of the tram's small footprint by wending between buildings, using rights of way that are useless to larger mass transit vehicles or automobiles.

Planners in Tampa and other streetcar cities have been betting on modal magnetism, the notion that the inherent attractiveness of rail will get people to use it even if there is not an existing demand for the service. This idea is wrong, and it has not worked. Transit projects should be built not to create demand but to serve the demonstrated needs of the public.

Not every circulator streetcar project is doomed. Two newish outdoor malls (or "lifestyle centers") in Southern California—Americana at Brand and the Grove—have circulating fleets of garish, old-fashioned streetcars. People drive to the lifestyle centers, park in vast parking decks, and ride the trolley past fountains, high-end storefronts, pedestrians, and outdoor diners enjoying California's glorious weather. These private streetcars fill the same role as the TECO streetcar, but without hitting up taxpayers. At Brand and the Grove the developers are entirely on the hook for the cost of the streetcars, and no one mistakes the systems for mass transit. This is a model that works: The shoppers get taken for a ride, but taxpayers do not. 

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  1. It worked in Ogdenville!

  2. Liberal mayors have a desire to turn their cities into Disney type amusement parks. I don’t get it. Since they love to spend money, I would think that making their cites commuter, business, and resident friendly would be the main objective.

    1. why should an urban lub-rahl mayor give a rip about suburban commuters? dont like it?…there’s quality JERBS in the burbs at the mall or scooter stores.

      1. Because commuters pay taxes and spend money in the cities. I live in New Jersey and avoid New York City as much as possible.

      2. I can’t tell the difference between your labored, ironic misspellings and your regular misspellings.

        1. another S C O O T E R parasite sucking govt teat

          1. What does that even mean?

      3. why should an urban lub-rahl mayor give a rip about suburban commuters?

        Someone clearly hasn’t read the history of the last 60 years of urban renewal in this country.

    2. I’m appalled at what Bloomberg has done to the Times Square area. It is Disnely land now.
      In fairness, this process started long before Bloomberg, but he has taken up several notches.

      1. I’m more appalled that the GW Bridge cost $12 to cross.

        1. I am appalled that such things are not privately owned with the owners charging whatever the fuck they want for people to use it.

          1. Can’t tell if serious. I always thought that private ownership drove prices down.

  3. Apparently, there were a lot of city planners who never got their model train for Christmas as kids.

  4. Tampa has been trying to get people downtown for as long as I can remember. I worked on Harbour Island when it first opened as a retail location, with stores, food court, full restaurants, etc., and it only did business for a short while before becoming just an occasional lunch destination for people working downtown. Eventually, the whole thing was reduced to a hotel and restaurant, with most of the island going residential.

    The trolleys are more of the same. The world was supposed to revolve around Ybor, Channelside, and downtown. But the truth is, the Tampa Bay area is very spread out and has lots of competition for people’s entertainment time. So we very much resist any attempts to concentrate us all in one area.

    There are things to do in Ybor/Channelside/downtown–Tampa Theatre, a few decent restaurants, museums, the aquarium, the Ice Palace, and so on, but not enough to make it the go-to place for a large percentage of the population on a week-in, week-out basis.

    For the record, I’ve used the trolley maybe twice.

    1. It’s hard for anyone around there to compete with Mons Venus.

      1. What they should’ve done was give Redner a permit to open a nude club in Channelside.

    2. Urban mayors have this desire for people to return to the good old days of smokestack factories connected with worker housing. Imagine, if you will, a ball-bearing factory in downtown M?nster, the whole thing ringed with anti-aircraft guns. This is the forward-looking vision.

    3. Tampa has been trying to get people downtown for as long as I can remember.

      The first thing to look at is parking. Are you charging people out the ass to park? Are you enforcing the shit out of them with tickets, boots, and towing? If so, then don’t be surprised if they don’t show up.

  5. I lived for a few years on St. Charles Ave. in New Orleans and worked in the business district. The streetcar was the most convenient commute I ever had.

  6. Hey, at least in Seattle, when you ride the trolley, you get to ride the S.L.U.T.!

    1. maintaining their ironic hipster cred!

    2. Best. Bureaucratic screwup. Ever.

      1. What a bunch of fucking morons. “Hey, I’m too stupid to read the fucking acronym.”

        1. As we’ve discussed before, there should be a consultant firm based solely on identifying unfortunate acronyms, anagrams, or similarities to bad foreign words (just in the major languages).

  7. Burlington has no trolley. A long standing pipe dream of the socialist party here was to build a Disney style monorail (cue Homer Simpson) but the price tag was to much even for lunatic Vermont progressives to swallow.

    1. I think the article is referring to the city’s Church Street pedestrian mall, which is effectively the most important feature of the entire city, arguably more important than the lake marina.

    2. Maple syrup sales will only take you so far.

  8. Editor missed out on a better headline — A Streetcar Named Swindle

    For shame

    1. I was just thinking along those lines. I read the article a few weeks ago in the print edition and can’t remember a single riff on that theme. Perhaps it’s a little too… on the nose? Mmm?

  9. tl;dr

    I thought that streetcars were commonplace a century or so ago, until automobile related rent seekers succeeded in getting them phased out.

    Now a different set of rent seekers wants them back.

    Irony much?

    1. I thought that streetcars were commonplace a century or so ago, until automobile related rent seekers succeeded in getting them phased out.

      I’m a little skeptical of that story. Isn’t it just possible that streetcars lost popularity because people, like, preferred automobiles?

      1. Supposedly there was a conspiracy where GM and other companies bought up the streetcar companies and replaced them with buses.
        Supposedly GM got some help from the government pushing through legislation that raised the streetcar companies’ cost of doing business, for example anti-trust legislation requiring power companies with streetcars to become separate businesses, removing the source of cheap electricity.

        Others say it was simply a lack of demand.

        Depends on who you ask.

        1. For the curious:


          Or, “No one will drive cars around when they can take the trolley for a nickel!”

          /Who Framed Roger Rabbit

        2. The GM conspiracy is a myth.

          But the idea that “automobile related rent seekers” had an affect on market based transportation is true.

    2. Even if the conspiracy theories are correct, buying a competitor specifically to shut them down isn’t rent seeking.

      1. Pushing for legislation that raises the cost of business for the streetcar companies is.

        1. True, all transportation should never have been subsidized or regulated.

    3. This is certainly the received wisdom here in the Detroit area, and, in fact I think there’s a movie about how GM killed Detroit’s streetcars.
      I have no idea whether the legend is true, however…

  10. New slogans for Democrats:

    “Moving into the Future with 19th Century Technology!”

    “Next Step, Horses for All!”

    1. brilliant! please send them an application.

    2. Forward!

  11. comprised of

    “composed of” or “comprising”

  12. welcome to portlandia: where supposedly health conscious citizens and able bodied college students are spared the burden of walking thanks to a 5 mph (at best) multi-million dollar train that blocks all traffic through downtown (note: idling is the most efficient way that cars create pollution). and until the finances of this pork enterprise became too overwhelming for the rest of the pork public transit system, riding this awesome 19th century technology was entirely “free.”

    1. Portland: where any and all bad ideas have a good chance of being implemented.

      I had the good fortune to grow up there before most of the cutesy hipster shit existed. I don’t even recognize the place, now.

      1. Same thing with parts of Brooklyn.

      2. i fled to a sparsely populated county across the river. alas, still have to go to portland for work. on a positive note, hipster alberta street isn’t nearly as violent and deadly as when i grew up there. and the food cart explosion is pretty cool. looking forward to how this sudden influx of entrepreneurial spirit will influence the otherwise hostile business climate at city hall.

    2. health conscious citizens and able bodied college students

      Is that what they’re calling the large teenage homeless population now?

  13. There is a widespread fraternity of intellectuals who, regardless of their other political leanings, passionately believe in City Planning, and all its subsidiary passions. They tend to love various forms of ‘light rail’, because such projects are fairly inflexible and that very inflexibility will give them ammunition to argue for later projects intended to thwart the common people’s deplorable tendency to live in cities they way they want to rather than as the Planners say they should.

    The Planning Passion occasionally produces wonderful results, but this is usually coincidental, as the widening and straightening of the streets of Paris may have resulted in beautiful broad vistas while being undertaken for the convenience of riot control via cannon fire.

    1. But SimCity is FUN!

    2. Central planning in favor of automobiles was a mistake, but it somehow doesn’t follow with statists that central planning for anything else might not turn out so great either.

      1. It NEVER follows for Statists that central planning might not work out. Without Central Planning to serve as their Divine Right of Kings, they might get judged on merit.

    3. UCSB has this nice little recessed community center right beneath the radio towers. Benches and fountains, tall walls (18 feet) and three large stair way entrances. I later found out it was so designed for riot control. High ground and narrow openings for all the police.

  14. Isn’t there some future-town in New Mexico that they want to build and try out everything that will potentially be found in all future cities (e.g. automated cars, vast moving sidewalks)? Seems that would be a smarter way to go than streetcars.

    On another note, they mentioned on the radio yesterday that Jerry Brown is very interested in the Google-driven car and that he received a ride in one to Google headquarters. The radio hosts were wondering who would want that; meanwhile I was screaming at the cars around me incapable of driving in a straight line without stopping every 35 yards. I would welcome automaticically driven cars if for no other reason than it frees up time for me to just sleep or read or something.

    1. Also, DUIs go away.

      1. To be replaced by problems with viruses.

      2. That is an optimistic assumption.

        Operating a computer that drives your car for you with a BAC of 0.081 is just as dangerous as going into a public area with a loaded gun and putting on a blindfold and shooting in a random direction. Otherwise it wouldn’t be against the law.

        1. Oh, no. You won’t be allowed to operate the computer. The computer will give you a menu of destinations based on past use patterns as determined by Experts. YOU will duly push the button that signifies you chosen destination (how long do you suppose it will take them from first implementation to give you a ‘type in address’ option?), and the rest will be done by the car.

          Assuming the experts didn’t make any catastrophic mistakes.

          How many deaths do you think it will take before such a system gets shut down for good?

  15. The pattern appears to be that streetcars work in university towns, or in cities with no many 20-something inhabitants that they are effectively “aging university student” towns.

    The reason seems pretty straightforward to me: you ride the streetcar if you want to get hammered, because it’s cheaper than a cab. Or you ride the streetcar to school if you can’t count on getting a parking space before class.

    1. Or you put them in where the mayor wants a hip, urban “idea factory” where young people in high tech and biotech fields will engage in “creative friction”.

      One day these idiots will realize that The Next Big Thing is going to come out of a garage in North Platte.

      1. Idea factories are totally something that a politician can decree into existence, just like the arts districts that mayors of aging suburbs think will save their towns.

  16. The Portland streetcar was initially centered around the NW 23rd Avenue shopping district, as I recall. It was really just boosterism for the 23rd Ave. boutique shops. They must have expanded it to include some downtown routes.

    Light rail makes sense in certain instances as a commuter alternative to cars or heavy rail in high-volume corridors. The light-rail system has generally in Portland has generally been successful, I believe, though their system of paying fares outside the train but with no turnstiles is a monumental money-loser.

    1. Largely a failure.

      People keep pointing to Portland as a “light rail success”… almost as if repeating it often enough makes it so.

      Like many public transport agencies nationwide, TriMet is in a deep financial hole. For its current fiscal year, TriMet is facing a $27 million deficit, and there is no relief in sight. As the rail-volutionaries celebrated in the face of financial catastrophe, it was hard not to think of an old story about fires and fiddles.

      It’s somewhat odd that Portland is considered ideal for transit development. Motorists here face none of the hellacious conditions that denizens of Los Angeles or Washington endure, and like most cities in the American West, its layout is decentralized. (Many of the area’s big employers are actually located at highway exits outside the city limits.) Most neighborhoods have a suburban feel, with wide streets and single-family homes. And then there’s the weather. Two hundred days of rain a year is not exactly conducive to the walking and busing way of life ? at least if you value dry feet. (Although we do have the rain to thank for Portland’s booming craft beer business.) Huddling and shivering at a rainy rail stop may be “green,” but it’s certainly not very pleasant. Unsurprisingly, then, only 7.4 percent of all work trips in the Portland area are undertaken on public transport.

      1. Interesting. I haven’t lived in Portland for over 20 years, so I’m not as up-to-date on these things as I could be.

        Commuter traffic on US-26, I-5 and I-84 has always been hell on a mile-per-mile basis (and my dad says it’s gotten much worse recently), so I can see the potential for light-rail, but it sounds like the system is not good enough, and the commuting distances aren’t far enough, to get people out of their cars.

        I’m also not surprised the system in Portland is a financial quagmire. The city has always been a poorly run left-wing mess.

        Here in the DC area, car commutes during peak hours are so brutal that standing in overcrowded Metrorail trains doesn’t seem so bad by comparison. I commute off-peak, so driving’s not bad for me.

        1. You might recall a term Portlanders were using when they were building and planning the thing: the light rail mafia.

          This moniker was given to high-ranking officials who were purchasing up land along the routes.

        2. Here in the DC area, car commutes during peak hours are so brutal that standing in overcrowded Metrorail trains doesn’t seem so bad by comparison.

          Don’t worry, the Council overlords in DC will fix that with their plan for trolleys on the very busy K Street, by removing travel lanes for the cars. Fecking idjits.

          After driving into DC for 18 years, I will now be driving, against traffic for 80% of the way, to Bal’mer for my new job. Hallehfuckinguela.

          1. After driving into DC for 18 years, I will now be driving, against traffic for 80% of the way, to Bal’mer for my new job. Hallehfuckinguela.

            As a reverse-commuter for the last 25 years, I approve this message.

            1. It’s a longer commute distance-wise, but it will take about the same amount of time; it’s mostly highway, thank Zod.

              I will miss the smoking hot joggers along the Rock Creek Pkwy. [sad face]

              1. I hear that if you take the BW Parkway up to Baltimore you can watch NASA nerds Segway to work instead.

                1. On the BW Parkway?? Brave or fucking nuts, you decide.

        3. Here in the DC area, car commutes during peak hours are so brutal that standing in overcrowded Metrorail trains doesn’t seem so bad by comparison. I commute off-peak, so driving’s not bad for me.

          I had the misfortune of flying into Reagan Airport to go to a conference in Virginia right during rush hour. I resolved right then and there to never live anywhere near DC.

    2. TriMet’s profligacy has not made success any easier; its financial distress is a caricature of the governmental largesse that is now dousing municipal and state budgets in red ink nationwide. The findings of a recent audit are breathtaking. TriMet funds “the entire health care tab for union employees, their families and all retirees?.TriMet is actually responsible for more in fringe benefits than wages.”

    3. The Portland Streetcar is run by a “private” organization under contract from the City of Portland. It’s separate from TriMet and TriMet’s Max light rail although TriMet does subsize the streecar’s operations.

      More on TriMet’s “success”:

      TriMet, Portland’s transit agency, has made the largest cuts in its history, including reductions in bus service, fare increases, and elimination of free rail rides in downtown Portland (the free bus rides were eliminated last year). Meanwhile, it is using nearly $10 million of money supposedly dedicated to the Milwaukie light-rail line to remodel its offices.

  17. In my area, southcentral PA, the local newspaper and many local officials were gung ho on a light rail line going from the suburbs to Harrisburg, where most of the suburbanites worked.

    Nevermind that we really didn’t have much of a traffic problem to begin with. The idea was to spend the money, build it, and then we’d all suddenly decide to get out of our cars and take the train, even though it would be massively inconvenient and take more time out of our day.

    We poor, beknighted taxpayers just didn’t recognize the value of this, and it’s basically dead. The local elites hate us.

    1. The self-styled Intellectual Elite, which includes most editorial writers and the political class, has never forgiven the middle class workers for not falling in line as good Socialists after WWII. They keep trying to cram people back into that mold, and then sulking when it doesn’t work.

      1. “What’s the Matter with Aurora?”

    2. a light rail line going from the suburbs to Harrisburg

      Was it west or east shore? One hting is for sure, Harrisburg would go broke selling water in a desert.

      On a related note, holy shit, I didn’t know the Walnut Street bridge was wiped out in 96.

      1. West Shore. Cumberland county doesn’t want it.

        And the ice took out the western side of the span. They put two ugly white water tanks on the surviving support to keep it from moving–and they’re still there 15 years later.

        Oddly, the original builders placed the supports on the river bottom–they aren’t dug in. That’s why they were swept away.

        1. Oddly, the original builders placed the supports on the river bottom–they aren’t dug in. That’s why they were swept away.

          I never knew that. And yet the supports for the old bridge next to the Rockville Bridge are still there over 160 years later.

  18. Fort Worth unfortunately wants to have a ‘modern streetcar’ too:

  19. I’ve lived in 2 cities with a lightrail system, and I found both to be quick and convenient forms of transportation. The key is that both traveled partly through areas without roads, kind of like shortcuts right to and from major hub points.
    I’ve never been on a streetcar, but if all they do is run along streets where buses already run, it doesn’t make any sense to spend the money on new streetcar systems.

    1. When streetcars were developed, a rail vehicle powered by overhead electricity was the only feasible technology to transport large numbers of people on streets. There was mostly dirt streets, no pressurized tires or effective suspension, and no self contained propulsion source that was effective in the application (steam streetcar attempts were uneconomical).

      It makes sense that privately organized transit companies replaced streetcars with buses when the contributing technology became available. Buses make use of pavement that got installed regardless of streetcars, allowing consolidation of infrastructure needs by eliminating rails and wires. Eliminating infrastructure maintenance is a huge efficiency gain even if internal combustion is slightly less efficient than electric motors. A steerable vehicle not confined to a fixed route also has safety and flexibility advantages.

  20. You are being extraordinarily charitable in describing the Detroit People Mover. It was so far over budget the Reagan administration threatened to pull the funding. It was crumbling before it was finished. It has never paid for itself. It is an urban novelty at best.

    Now there is talk of a 100 million dollar light rail line that would cover only 3 miles of Woodward Ave. This is another colossal waste of money for a city that already sits on the precipice of insolvency. Public safety and schools are a mess yet somehow light rail is taking precedence.

    1. “But, we can’t have a world-class city without light rail!!!”…..1#p2674522

    2. No kidding. Anyone who has so much lived in Michigan knows the DPM is a damn joke. City can barely afford to keep it running and it’s been on the chopping block for years.

  21. …and fenestration allows two-way communication between occupants of the buildings and the people on the street.

    Really? “Fenestration”? You couldn’t just say “windows”? You had to make me feel like an idiot for having to look up an obscure word I’ve never heard or read in 25 years of experience with the English language? Fuck you Mr. Scheib.

    1. dude, words based on “fenestration” are the best words ever and you should know them. Haven’t you ever taken latin class?

      There’s the word “defenestrate”, which is to throw someone/something (usually someone) out a window. Hilarious, why the hell is there a word for that? But it comes from the Romans/Latin. Kinda makes sense, they were a violent people.

      And then you can go forward from there and make up your own words. Throwing oneself out a window could be “autodefenestration”, which could describe suicides in one word. Window guards could be for the prevention of “Accidental pedoautodefenestration”. It’s awesome, you can go on and on

  22. Sorry, but before Disneyland, “people mover” was applied to a slidewalk at the 1964-5 NY World’s Fair. Yeah, Disney gets incorrect priority credit for all kinds of stuff like that.

    Why don’t those toursit-seeking cities do like the Bronx with its Bronx Trolley? It’s a bus made up to look like a trolley car, in the manner of the “40 and 8” trains used in parades, that makes a loop to a few tourist attractions.

  23. “The [contemporary] streetcar is like a bus on rails, but it has no advantages over a bus”

    this is very apt. The problem with a lot of streetcars is they don’t go on any route that’s any better than the normal street, with too many stops too close. From what I understand Newark’s light rail is ridiculous in this fashion, it even stops for car traffic!

    It’s a problem that any mass transit system can run into and that removes the advantage if it comes up. Even on the Pascack valley line, one of NJ’s train lines on old rails, the Montvale and Park Ridge stations are only like 1000-2000 ft away, it’s like a 5 minute walk. It’s not too much of a problem, because the stations are there from way back in the day, and the towns are developed around them, so there’s sufficient density near those stations, but it still seems close.

  24. recognition for the cinema and updates.

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