Streetcars of desire
Could a trolley revival save the American downtown?
Tue, Nov 25 2008 at 4:33 PM
Inside the streetcar ride at the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum (Photo: Katy Rank Lev).
My husband is obsessed with streetcars. Really any sort of public transportation, but something about trolleys sends him driving to the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum, or pulling over on our bikes to examine the early 20th-century tracks still peeking through Pittsburgh’s streets in some neighborhoods. These eco-friendly vehicles are romanticized in film, have become iconic of America’s glorious past, and represent a time when folks paid a nickel to jump on board and head toward a booming city center filled not with rushing SUVs, but foot traffic.
Some cities, like Pittsburgh, saw rapid development as a result of streetcar availability. The neighborhood of Morningside, where we live, was a rural farming community until the city laid a streetcar line in 1905. Within a few years, a booming neighborhood, two square miles, had cropped up around the line, which carried workers and shoppers the five miles toward downtown, the riverfront, the steel mills.
One hundred years later, streetcars are making a comeback and, just as before, the “if you build it, they will come” principle seems to apply to urban living. Portland, Ore., is perhaps the nation’s leading example of streetcar success. According to Portland Streetcar Inc., since 2001 when the city laid the tracks, nearly 10,000 residential housing units have gone up and $3.5 billion has been invested in property within a few blocks of the line.
Streetcars are the iPhone of transportation— a revision of something old to expand it in ways both helpful and far-reaching. According to the American Public Transportation Association, use of public transportation in general rose by 5.2 percent in the second quarter of 2008, but use of light rail or streetcar rose 12.3 percent. As of 2007, nearly 2,000 miles of tramways were either operating or planned in American cities and these numbers are jumping daily — the New York Times predicts a 10 percent growth in streetcars in the next decade. Cities from Detroit to Tucson to Little Rock are embracing streetcars and their eco-friendly efficiency in moving folks from here to there.
Modern streetcars run on tracks nearly flat to the road, powered by overhead electric wires. In most cities, the cars open from both sides so people can load in and jump out much faster than they could from a bus. With the average streetcar holding around 130 people, that makes for big savings in fuel emissions, not to mention safety in city centers with far fewer cars congesting the roadways.
Streetcars in North America fell by the wayside for about 50 years and, as so many people moved to suburbs or purchased personal cars, you might think such service is impossible for American urban living. According to APTA research, a full-on streetcar revival is actually practical for nearly any city or town. Particularly when paired with a solid light-rail or bus system, a streetcar is an ideal answer for shuttle shoppers, tourists and workers around up to a 10-mile loop.
Since, as APTA studies point out, a mile of streetcar only costs a city about $10 million (compared with nearly twice that for light rail service), construction of streetcar lines are good economic choices for cities looking to increase jobs, stimulate the American economy (laws indicate 60 percent of streetcar cars and lines must be American-made) and cut back on the damage we do to the environment.
Any way you look at it, streetcars' benefits are hard to ignore. There's something valuable about such a romantic vehicle. A streetcar is not a bus; it’s way cooler. You get to jump on board and pretend you’re in San Francisco. You stir up nostalgia and get to live those great stories your grandparents tell about the good old days, when things were just … better.
APTA says streetcars are the ticket to recovery of lagging cities, because they bring people (the lifeblood of a downtown) to the city center. Commuters, shoppers, tourists, theater-goers, sports fans and anyone with a reason to go downtown can benefit from streetcar service, saving their quarters for trolley fare and not worrying about the meter. Maybe your town will be the next to unearth a streetcar line. The fares have changed (around 60 cents per ride in most cities), but the benefits to your community, Mother Nature and your imagination have grown in leaps and bounds.