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We miss streetcars’ frequent and reliable service, not streetcars themselves

By Owain James - April 17, 2019



The United States is well into a building boom of modern streetcars. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) reports that 22 new streetcar projects have opened since 2013 with dozens more in various stages of planning.


These projects are part of a wider movement over the past several decades to revitalize downtowns. Kansas City’s 2014 streetcar project was pitched as a way to reconnect the neighborhoods of the city and getting people back to downtown without cars. Russ Johnson, a leading streetcar booster on the city council at the time, argued that the KC Streetcar could bring back the kind of connectivity that his mother enjoyed when she graduated high school in 1951 and could “live, work and play without a car.”


The myth that the destruction of streetcar systems in the U.S. was a conspiracy by auto manufacturers to undercut useful public transit by replacing streetcars with buses and thus sell more cars, as depicted in the 1996 documentary Taken for a Ride, is one that persists to this day despite debunking. While it is true that Kansas City, like many American cities at the time, had an extensive public transit system, it was not the fact that it was a streetcar- based system that made it so useful.


The key to successful transportation infrastructure is whether it can get you where you need to go conveniently, not whether it runs on rails or rubber tires. It sounds like a simple point, but focusing on the mode rather than the quality of service leads to disappointing projects that don’t live up to the hype. The Kansas City streetcar is effective at moving people along its two miles of track, but unless it matches the range and frequency of its 1920s predecessor, it will never be a strong alternative to cars.

Perhaps more importantly, public transportation doesn’t need to be made of streetcars to deliver what streetcars once did.


The level of transit service in U.S. cities in the heyday of streetcars has been unmatched since, but the switch from streetcars to buses is not responsible for this decline. As automobile traffic increased, streetcars had to compete for road space that was filling up quickly. While streetcars ran on tracks, these were almost always installed on roads that were open to all automobiles, so streetcars had to sit in traffic like everyone else.


“It sounds like a simple point, but focusing on the mode rather than the quality of service leads to disappointing projects that don’t live up to the hype.”


While we look back on streetcars with nostalgia and new streetcars as cutting edge, the opposite was true in the streetcar’s heyday. Urbanites in streetcar cities valued the ability to move quickly around a city for a mere $.05, but by the time of the streetcar’s demise, they were widely considered to be backwards and obsolete.


Many riders welcomed the replacement of streetcar lines with modern buses which were quieter and considered cutting edge technology, more appropriate for the modern age. Streetcars, meanwhile, were old, noisy, crowded, and slow.


The debut of buses did not relieve transit lines of their traffic woes, but the new buses offered other advantages. Washington, DC historian John Deferrari in his book Capital Streetcars: Early Mass Transit in Washington, D.C., writes that there was “surprisingly little contention” about converting the Connecticut Avenue streetcar line to buses. The story was much the same on lines elsewhere in the city. In fact, riders were often quite positive about the change, noting that buses were quieter and faster. The complete changeover in DC was even done at the urging of the Public Utilities Commission, the local body responsible for regulating streetcars. The owners of the streetcars at the time saw it as an expensive investment that would also leave them responsible for removing the old streetcar tracks.


Blaming the switch to buses for the decline in transit service is a mistake. Competition with the personal automobile, both for riders and for road space, led to death spirals of falling ridership, increasing fares, and service cuts. CityLab’s extensive history of U.S. mass transit points out that systems running on their own lanes or track, free of other traffic, survived, while those running in mixed traffic collapsed. Only the latter, they argue, could compete with cars by providing frequent service that would not be slowed down by traffic.


Another underlying problem was that urban mass transit was privately owned and never had been very profitable. Most streetcars were land speculation ventures, like LA’s Pacific Electric Railway which was built primarily so people could reach new housing that was being built. DC’s system was propped up by its much more successful electric company subsidiary, PEPCO, but Congress banned holding companies from owning both electricity and transit companies in the 1930s.


“What made streetcars successful in their heyday wasn’t the tracks, but the investment in extensive service that was both frequent and far-reaching.”


As cities attempt to rebuild the transit infrastructure that once existed, it’s important to remember the right lessons. What made streetcars successful in their heyday wasn’t the tracks, but the investment in extensive service that was both frequent and far-reaching. People rode streetcars because they could get them where they needed to go quickly and conveniently, and they will ride buses for the same reasons.


Owain James

Owain James is a recent grad of American University’s School of Public Affairs and is Mobility Lab’s Graphics Intern


Note that the citizens that complained about noisy streetcars were comparing rail vehicles that were built in the 1900's against reasonably modern buses, because they had no experience wit the PCC car design of the 1930-1955 era. Modern streetcars (and light rail transit vehicles) continue to include the low-noise design features of the PCC era.

Also note that the streetcar lines that survived the massive post-war conversion to buses featured traffic free subways, elevated structures, and/or traffic-free lanes within the street surface. A good example are the surviving four lines of Boston's Green Line Subway, of which one line (D-Riverside) uses a former commuter railroad bed to run twice as far as the other three branches. Accordingly, lines that feature at least some degree of separation from street traffic congestion are often classified as 'light rail' even though the vehicles themselves are indistinguishable from newfangled streetcars!


Conversely, buses that operate in traffic-free lanes of public streets and/or private rights of way (former streetcar or railroad beds, etc. with severely limited stops are often described as 'bus rapid transit'. Boston's Silver Line 1, 2 & 3 operate dual mode buses that operate in all-electric mode in a bus subway from South Station to Transit Way in South Boston. In turn SL 3 as a section of bus only private right of way alongside a commuter rail line in Chelsea.

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