June 4, 2014

Streetcars: The Transit System America Threw Away

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.

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  • Jon E.[ June 5th, 2014 @ 12:20pm ]

    Wow. Those that ignore history are condemned to repeat it. Those trolley systems weren't abandonded,and they were not bot by GM and shut down to encourage the adoption of the personal automobile by the masses (urban legend). Trolley systems were replaced by bus systems for economic reasons. Bus lines were less expensive to operate than trolleys, and less costly to build because there were no rails. Extending service to rapidly growing suburbs could be accomplished quickly, by simply building a few bus stops, rather than taking years to construct rail lines. So, buses replaced streetcars. For similar reasons, with personal preference for individual transportation, private cars also played an important role in the demise of streetcars.

  • R Troy[ June 5th, 2014 @ 12:25pm ]

    My hometown of Scranton PA was a pioneer in streetcar systems, and you could ride between there and Wilkes Barre by trolley at one time. Now all that is 'left' is a very nice trolley museum which uses its own and other tracks to connect from downtown Scranton all the way to the local stadium that houses the New York Yankees Triple A baseball beam. I'd been to Dusseldorf Germany a number of times; they have a modern, easy to use streetcar system in addition to their subway. As I understand it, many European cities also have extensive streetcar systems. It's only the US that forgot how good they can be!

  • Brett[ June 7th, 2014 @ 12:37am ]

    Well today gas is more expensive &today's street cars are super smooth do not cost as much to run as buses much more rider friendly! They are not nearly as noisy & stinky diesel pollution.they actually improve quality of life health & well being of communities. We need a new deal from Europe,maybe they send us a few thousand of their old trams for our cities Like we did for them after ww2 akA The New Deal it would be a thank you gift to help reduce are carbon foot print greatly. We are only 5% of the population and produce 25% of the greenhouse gases This would create jobs as well!

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