May 31 2018
Streetcars have a long and storied past in America. Various kinds of streetcars still run in New Orleans, Omaha, Kansas City, Denver, Salt Lake City, Baltimore, San Francisco, and dozens of other cities.
The streetcar craze began in New York City in 1832, with horses pulling streetcars along fixed tracks set in the road. Later horses were replaced by steam-powered cables and eventually electricity.
San Francisco opened its now historic cable car system in 1873. Based on mine car operations, the cable car used a mechanism—a “grip”—to latch onto a moving cable. This form of streetcar eventually spread to most large U.S. cities.
Los Angeles—now known for its car culture—once boasted the largest trolley system in the world, with more than 1,100 miles of track traversing the sprawling metropolitan area.
For a number of economic, political, and cultural reasons, streetcars fell out of favor, with some systems facing bankruptcy in the 1920s. As automobiles became more prevalent, cars competed for space with streetcars, and eventually undermined streetcar operations and schedules.
After World War II, Americans could increasingly afford cars, with auto production picking up after wartime limits on manufacturing ended. Bus systems increasingly took the place of streetcars, offering a lower cost alternative. By 1955, most of the nation’s streetcar systems had been dismantled.
We are in the midst of a streetcar revival. Beginning in the late 20th century, communities increasingly recognized that roads couldn’t be continuously expanded to accommodate more people and cars. Instead, cities of various sizes began to invest in developing and expanding multimodal transportation networks, including streetcars, bus rapid transit (BRT), and other forms of public transit.
Portland, Oregon, launched its trend-setting streetcar in 2001, and other cities such as Tucson, Detroit, and Salt Lake City followed. The new streetcar systems not only improved transportation but also helped drive economic development alongside the lines. Milwaukee, Oklahoma City, and Tempe all have streetcar systems under construction.
Many regions have developed plans for streetcars—and other public transit improvements—but still need federal funding. Congress increased our nation’s investment in public transportation programs for Fiscal Year 2018, though the long-term picture for public transit funding remains unclear, which makes it harder to move projects like these forward, given they require several years of dependable funding.
To bring streetcar systems and other public transit options to more regions, Congress needs to commit again to public transportation funding in the 2019 budget and in any infrastructure legislation. Streetcars are helping improve mobility and revitalize many city centers—and every community should have similar opportunities to benefit from public transportation.