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Bring Back the Streetcars!


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Bring Back the Streetcars!

The title of our paper—the fourth in our series of studies of public transit, considered from a conservative point of view—is straightforward enough. Short of replacing the propellers on our beanies with trolley poles, we could not make it plainer. Virtually all American cities and many towns, even relatively small ones, used to have streetcars. Someone took them away from us (if you want to know who, ask Roger Rabbit). And now we want them back. We want to be able to ride a mile and smile the while, just as our grandparents did, on steel rails under electric power. What could be more natural for conservatives than wanting something good we used to have and have lost? 

But why, you may ask, do we see an old-fashioned technology (“old-fashioned” is not a bad word to conservatives) serving as tomorrow’s urban transportation? To answer that question, we need to step back a bit and look at more than public transit. We need to see an important change in the context in which public transit operates.

The Context: Restoring Our Cities and Building New Towns

For more than half a century, the context in which public transportation operated was increasing suburbanization, sometimes called “sprawl.” Driven in part by government policies and in part by normal human desires for space, privacy and safety, more and more people moved out of cities and towns and into suburbs. There, they lived in single-family homes on lots large enough for children to play in, which meant relatively low density. They shopped in shopping centers several miles from their homes. Schools were also often beyond walking distance. Usually, they worked even farther away. Most Americans live this way today.

As conservatives, we do not join the Left in condemning suburbs. We understand why many people want to live in them. They are good places to have children and raise a family. Most American families with children will probably continue to live in suburbs. Government should not try to keep them from doing so.

But over the past several decades, two important counter trends have developed, trends that provide a new context for bringing back streetcars. Just like the suburbs, these trends also reflect what many people want.

The first is the recovery and restoration of city centers. All over the country, from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon, “downtowns” are making a comeback. Why? Because even when people live in suburbs, they want a physical “center” to their lives that offers more than a shopping center can. They want a place not too far from where they live that offers noble, historic buildings, real architecture instead of mere construction. They want the major entertainment venues only a city can support, sports stadiums and concert halls, museums and theaters. They want restaurant districts with independent restaurants, not chains, and specialty shops, like good used bookstores, that need a city to survive. They simply want the old experience of “going down town,” where doing so is an event in itself, in a way that going to the shopping center can never be.

Cleveland, Ohio, provides a good example. From the 1890s through the 1930s, Cleveland was America's model city. Its downtown was a splendid place, full of grand buildings, wonderful stores, excellent restaurants and one of the best public libraries in the country. Euclid Avenue—once considered the most beautiful street in America—bustled with activity, the sidewalks thronged with well-dressed people shopping at distinguished department stores such as Higbee’s and Halle’s.

Then, in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, Cleveland’s downtown faded away. The great stores closed, the good restaurants followed. The buildings grew shabby. Litter blew through the streets and bums and beggars took over the parks. It seemed as if the middle class that had moved to the suburbs had lost all interest in the city itself. They never came there any more.

Then, in the 1990s, the situation turned around again. The malls and shopping centers started drying up, and people began coming down town. The city built a new baseball stadium. Cleveland Union Terminal was redeveloped. The old industrial area called “the Flats,” down along the Cuyahoga River, became a major restaurant and entertainment district. The city swept up the litter and encouraged the bums to move on. Now, if you visit downtown Cleveland, you will find once again a vibrant urban center, with lots to do and lots to see (go on a weekday, when you can visit the interiors of Cleveland’s great banks; they rival anything you will find in London or Paris). What has happened in Cleveland is happening elsewhere; city centers are coming back to life. (And if there is a downtown anywhere that begs for Heritage streetcars, it's Cleveland’s.)

On a somewhat smaller scale, something similar is occurring where people live. While suburbs are great places to raise children, more and more Americans don’t have children (a sad development, we would note). Some are “empty nesters,” whose children have grown up and moved on. Others are not marrying, or are marrying but not having children. For many of these people, the spread-out nature of the suburb (you usually cannot walk to anything) is inconvenient. In response, some are returning to urban living. Others are rediscovering towns.

How many people have visited a small, historic town and said to themselves, “Boy, would I like to live in a place like this!” Well, thanks to an architect named Andres Duany and a movement called Traditional Neighborhood Design, you can. In the 1980s, Mr. Duany pioneered a then-radical notion: building new towns, designed just the way they would have been in the l9th or even 18th century, as alternatives to suburbs. His towns had all the features towns used to have: grid street patterns; alleys (to keep parked cars and garages off the streets); a mix of residences, shops and businesses; even front porches and picket fences. Mr. Duany’s towns are designed for people, not for cars, and people love them. If you visit one of his developments, such as Kentlands, Maryland, near Washington, D.C., you will see why. And, people will pay to live there: homes in Kentlands sell for a premium of $30,000 to $40,000 over the same floor space in surrounding suburban developments.

Traditional Neighborhood Design, as towns such as Mr. Duany’s are called, is spreading, just as the revival of downtowns spread a decade or so ago. Both provide context for bringing back the streetcars. It is not merely that streetcars can serve downtowns and small towns, and serve them well, as we know from history. The fact is, towns and especially downtowns need streetcars.

Photo: W.S. Lind

Main Street Kentlands: Streetcars would be a perfect fit.

In a town or downtown setting, streetcars do many things. Obviously, they provide mobility, without the automobile and in a way that is friendly to pedestrians. In addition, they bring development and channel it where it is wanted. They attract tourists. They let people who use transit to get to town move around in the downtown (in transit language, the “distributor” function), or, in Traditional Neighborhood Design residential areas, they pick people up from near their homes and take them to the commuter rail or Light Rail line (the “collector” function) to go into the city. They bring new people to transit; as San Francisco Municipal Railway General Manager Michael T. Burns said, “People who wouldn’t ride a bus will ride a streetcar.”1 And, perhaps most important, streetcars say, “This town, this downtown, is here to stay. It’s not going to go down hill again.” George Sanborn, reference librarian of the Massachusetts State Transportation Library, put it well.  “Every city’s streetcars were different. When the streetcars went away, so did the flavor of that city.”2 Bringing back the streetcars puts back the flavor our cities and towns have lost, and tells the world that it is not going to go away again.

In their heyday, (streetcars) were machines that generated affection, combining power and modesty. They were real trains but without the noise and smoke; they went over high bridges and quietly down tree-lined streets, across wide distances, into bustling downtowns—yet for all their modern power and range, you could catch them on your own street corner.  The future of the trolley…may depend on certain memories, of that swaying and quiet clicking, the arrival heralded by a familiar bell.3




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