The Streetcar Chronicles: Part I Dude, Where’s My (Street)car

January 23, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedMany urban transportation historians point to Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s successful campaign to rid New York City and its boroughs of the streetcar as one of the key turning points in crippling public transportation across the country. It set a trend that made eschewing streetcars a trendy thing to do. He was heard to comment that streetcars were as obsolete as the sailing ship, perhaps reflecting his drive to banish any “relics” from the city that reminded him of the “old country” (LaGuardia was an immigrant himself). Well, sixty-five years after the demise of the last streetcar in New York City, I can confidently report the that streetcar (and its similarly healthy big brother, light rail) are doing just fine.

Take France for example. Since 1985, twenty-six new urban tramway systems have been opened in French cities. Many of these have expanded their systems and two new systems have already opened this year. The French tram systems also have many characteristics of light rail systems, including the general requirement to provide exclusive rights-of-way for trams except at intersections. The French took the lessons of the oil shortages of 1973 and 1979 to heart and adopted a long term strategy to improve mobility choices for French urbanites and provide a high quality, viable alternative to the automobile. Their ultimate objective was to create healthy, pleasant, attractive urban environments where short trips could access jobs, education, recreation, retail activity and health facilities without relying on the automobile. These systems were also designed with connectivity to other modes in mind. Each system (except Brest) has easy access to the local train station and expanding travel options (including high speed rail).

Now shift to the United States. It may be surprising to some but American cities have built 20 new light rail systems since 1981. Click below on our website for the details:

Now enters the streetcar. To date, a total of nine (9) new streetcar systems are under construction (and one extension to an existing streetcar system) and firm plans for a further ten (10) streetcar projects are progressing across the country. This has sparked the usual hue and cry from the naysayers. They blare that streetcars are obsolete and they get in the way of automobiles (and slow down traffic), and are expensive. But, maybe, just maybe, streetcars reflect and address the trends that many have detected across the country. The outward migration of people and their cars into the suburbs appears to have been slowed and actually reversed in some cases. Young people and young families are moving back into the city, drawn by the attraction of being in close proximity to their jobs, being able to walk to shopping, entertainment and recreation, and (in some cities like Portland, OR) take a short streetcar ride to these destinations. Survey after survey has revealed that many people are making the calculation that rather than spending two hours in their cars commuting, they want to move closer to jobs, recreation, shopping and the like in urban centers and have more time to spend with their families and enjoy other pursuits. To our delight, we conservatives (along with a large contingent of other different political persuasions) are finding that streetcars bring economic development, reinforce walkable environments, and encourage and cement cohesive neighborhoods. Streetcars also end up helping reduce our over-dependence on foreign oil by reducing the need to hop in the car for trivial journeys.

It is interesting to note the emerging trends that a number of studies have validated. These studies find that Americans are driving less (down 9% since 2008) and that many young Americans are not getting drivers licenses (In 2010, 26% of young Americans do not have a drivers licenses versus 21% some 10 years earlier). This latter trend says that many young people are forgoing owning an automobile, an increasingly expensive proposition (it now costs about $8,000 a year to own and maintain an automobile). Where streetcars are popular, so is biking and walking (and walkable environments).

Yale Professor Robert Spiller was recently quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying that “Young people don’t read newspapers, they don’t have landline phones and maybe they won’t buy suburban houses anymore.” The same article noted that the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Benjamin Bernanke, who is feverishly trying to revive the American economy through overworked printing presses, has commented a number of times that there are some things even aggressive monetary policy can’t change. The age of social media (smart phones, i-pads, tablets, texting, twitter, Facebook and the like) has diminished young people’s need for an automobile, indeed to see the automobile as a rite of passage. Increasingly, it is a very changed (and changing) world out there. The desire for streetcars in urban areas is but one reflection of that change.

It is also interesting to note that in a US News and World Report list of ‘The Ten Best Cities for Public Transportation’ in the U.S., nine of those cities have rail transit service (and the 10th is building an automated rail system). And seven of these cities are either operating, constructing or planning streetcar systems. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Today’s opponents of streetcars clearly have an well-“oiled” ax to grind. Otherwise, why would they rely on obfuscating strategies rooted in misinformation? And why else do we get titles such as ‘The Streetcar Swindle’ and ‘The Great Streetcar Conspiracy,’ hyperbolic titles saturated with fear of a future that won’t benefit entrenched interests.

In my next installment, we’ll look more in depth at the streetcar in the U.S. and its pace of development in numerous cities across our great land.

Glen Bottoms serves as Executive Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation, based in Arlington, VA

Tags: light rail, streetcars, sustainable transport, urban public transport