Washington, D.C. Streetcar Nightmare: Then and Now

D.C. residents breathed a sigh of relief when streetcars disappeared in 1962. Now they're back.


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Washington D.C.'s new streetcar line "was ill-planned, ill-thought-out, ill-engineered, ill-everything," recently deceased former Mayor Marion Barry said in 2014. There have been minor accidents, constant engineering problems, and the system has missed its targeted opening date by more than three years. Perhaps D.C. planners never would have embarked on this folly if only they had studied the long and turbulent history of street cars in the city.

For about a hundred years, these surface-level rail cars crisscrossed the capital. Although they they were an important technology in their time, street cars involved major engineering headaches and they required an enormous amount of capital investment and maintenance. Contrary to the myth peddled by transit nostalgics, when streetcars finally disappeared from the district in 1962, the public collectively breathed a sigh of relief.

Now that the new D.C. streetcar line is finally—allegedly—set to open in a few weeks, a new book titled Capital Streetcars: Early Mass Transit in Washington, D.Cmeticulously recounts the story of the old system.

The book, which is straight, objective history, and doesn't take a position on whether building new streetcars is good policy or not, was written by John DeFerrari, a local historian who writes regularly at the the Streets of Washington blog.

Reason TV's Jim Epstein sat down with DeFerrari to talk about what the pre-1962 streetcar system can teach us about the new 2.2-mile line on H Street.

About seven minutes.

Written and edited by Jim Epstein. Camera by Joshua Swain and Todd Krainin

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