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

Foxx unveils $98B budget to expand safe, clean transportation options

The budget reflects an ambitious 30-year vision for the U.S. DOT to take the U.S. “Beyond Traffic,” toward a transportation network that matches the changing geography of where people live and work and fosters innovation and adapts to evolving technology.

FTA issues Agency Safety Plan proposed rule, Proposed National Safety Plan

Both are statutory requirements first authorized by Congress in MAP-21 Act in 2012 and reauthorized in the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act in 2015.

President Obama plan would provide $32.4B boost for transportation

Proposal calls for a $10-per-barrel fee on oil production to fund public transit annually, with another $10 billion going toward new federal funding streams for cities and states that cut carbon emissions from their transportation sectors

Added enforcement leads to FRA’s highest-ever penalty collection rate

For Fiscal Year 2015, the agency will collect 75% of all civil penalties it issued to railroads for violating federal safety regulations — a 6% increase over FY2014, and the largest percentage rate ever collected by the agency.

NTSB's Most Wanted List focuses on technology

The list calls for promoting both the availability of collision avoidance technology in highway vehicles and the completion of rail safety initiatives to prevent accidents. The list also calls for strengthening occupant protection in all modes of transportation

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 number 1 resource for vocational 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