Government Issues

Streetcars: The Transit System America Threw Away

Posted on June 4, 2014

Dupont Circle Station in D.C. David Kidd/Governing
Dupont Circle Station in D.C. David Kidd/Governing
(By John Martin - This story was originally posted by Governing)

In the 1951 sci-fi movie "The Day the Earth Stood Still," pedestrians are seen descending staircases on the edge of Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. These days, the stairs are still there, but now they’re blocked off. They led to a once-busy 75,000-square-foot below-ground streetcar station built in 1949. The station has been closed since 1962.

Dupont Circle’s ghostly streetcar station is another reminder that America once had an extensive and efficient interurban transit system. Now, as cities from Buffalo to San Diego look to light rail — today’s iteration of the streetcar, which itself evolved from the horse-drawn omnibus — it’s worth thinking about the astonishing transit system we built and then threw away.

RELATED: Light rail vehicle market to reach $11 billion by 2020

A century ago, there were nearly 34,000 miles of streetcar tracks connecting neighborhoods to downtowns, and towns to neighboring towns. (I’ve been told that it was possible to travel from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia on local streetcars and trolleys, although that would have been one long and unpleasant trip.)

Overwhelmingly, those tracks were built by private investors. In the late 19th and early 20th century, it was streetcars, not automobiles, that created the first suburbs.

If you live in an urban area, the evidence is all around you. I live in D.C., not far off Connecticut Avenue, which is broad and gently graded because of the streetcars that once ran along it. The Chevy Chase Land Co. built Connecticut Avenue across miles of farmland to take people from the suburb that still bears the company’s name to downtown D.C., eventually linking up to that now-deserted Dupont Circle station.

Connecticut Avenue’s streetcar tracks are long gone, but down in Georgetown, you can take a bumpy car ride along blocks of cobblestoned side streets where trolley rails remain in place.

Upriver from Georgetown, broad, parklike medians run through the affluent Palisades neighborhood, reminding residents of the trolleys that once rattled past their houses. Here and there, abandoned steel trestles rust away.

You don’t have to be an archaeologist to unearth bits of the transportation system that carried so many of our ancestors around. Some parts of it are still in use: Automobiles now zip under Manhattan’s Park Avenue via the Murray Hill Tunnel, which was built for streetcars. And vestiges of some of America’s original streetcar systems remain in daily operation, most notably in New Orleans and San Francisco.

San Francisco’s cable cars operate mainly for the pleasure of tourists. I rode on one of the successors to the cable cars, the hybrid light rail/streetcar system known as Muni Metro, just after it went into service in 1982. A couple of decades later, I rode it again, and those once-shiny cars were showing some age with dents and graffiti. That’s natural; things fall apart. Which leads me to wonder: Will there come a time when our descendants stumble across the abandoned remnants of the light rail lines that we’re so busy building today?

After the Great Depression, streetcars began a slow decline, falling victim to the automobile. But trolleys and streetcars weren’t a failure. They lasted from the early 1800s into the 1960s. It’ll be a long time before we’ll know if the light rail we’re building now can match a record like that.

View comments or post a comment on this story. (3 Comments)

More News

FTA proposes rule to improve testing, reliability of new transit buses

The proposed rule would establish minimum performance standards, a new pass-fail grading system for bus testing and a weighted scoring process that would better assist local transit agencies in purchasing an appropriate vehicle.

Canadian goverment to provide ongoing support for public transit

Ensured that it will be an equal-funding partner in major transit projects by committing itself to a federal contribution limit of 33% for the Public Transit Fund. Also announced was a subsequent increase in the contribution limit to the P3 Canada Fund from 25% to 33%.

Tennessee ride-sharing law hailed as model for nation

The bill, which Gov. Bill Haslam signed into law on May 20, appears to block traditional cab services from incorporating app-based hailing of cabs into their business models and also sets up insurance requirements.

S.F. officials vow to ride public transit for 22 days

The challenge, spearheaded by the advocacy group San Francisco Transit Riders, will continue until June 22 and aims to help city officials gain familiarity with public transit and inspire them to improve the experience. 

D.C. Metro railcar purchase hits potential snag

If the FTA determines within the next several weeks that the 5000-series, which were purchased using federal funds, should not be retired so soon, WMATA probably will forgo purchasing the 220 new 7000-series cars.

See More News

Post a Comment

Post Comment

Comments (3)

More From The World's Largest Fleet Publisher

Automotive Fleet

The Car and truck fleet and leasing management magazine

Business Fleet

managing 10-50 company vehicles

Fleet Financials

Executive vehicle management

Government Fleet

managing public sector vehicles & equipment

TruckingInfo.com

THE COMMERCIAL TRUCK INDUSTRY’S MOST IN-DEPTH INFORMATION SOURCE

Work Truck Magazine

The resource for managers of class 1-7 truck Fleets

Schoolbus Fleet

Serving school transportation professionals in the U.S. and Canada

LCT Magazine

Global Resource For Limousine and Bus Transportation

Please sign in or register to .    Close