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Demise of the Streetcar in the United States

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Demise of the Streetcar in the United States

A historic Melbourne tram operating the free City Circle route around central Melbourne, Australia.

Christopher MacKechnie

Demise of the Streetcar In The United States

In 1950 large amounts of streetcars moved across every major city in the United States, effortlessly carrying billions towards their destination. By 1970 streetcars were gone from every city, with a small but notable exception for cities that had private rights of way for streetcars - Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, New Orleans, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh. The private rights of way, by avoiding conflicts with automobile traffic, enabled a handful of lines to survive (to this day) in the above cities.

Of course, streetcars thrive in other parts of the world - Toronto, Ontario, Canada and Melbourne, Victoria, Australia have large fleets (see pictures of the Toronto streetcars and Melbourne trams ), as do many cities in Europe, especially eastern Europe. What happened in the United States? Why did Los Angeles destroy its network of suburban red Pacific Electric cars and urban yellow Los Angeles Railway cars, only to spend billions of dollars building light rail lines on the very same rights of way they abandoned fifty years ago?

Those of you who have seen Who Framed Roger Rabbit? will undoubtedly have an answer: it was a conspiracy by National City Lines, a subsidiary of General Motors; Firestone Tire Company; and others to make people drive more. Indeed, a lawsuit based on such a conspiracy won in court, although the fine against General Motors was only $1. However, the reason goes much deeper than that, and has its roots in World War I. Here are six reasons why we no longer see streetcars in the United States:

Six Reasons Why Streetcars Were Phased Out in the United States by the 1960s

  1. A Federal Wage Board in World War I mandated wage increases for streetcar employees without any concurrent demands for increased productivity or even taking into account what effect these increases would have on the streetcar networks. At that time all streetcars were operated with two employees - the driver and the conductor who collected fares - and some cities, San Francisco included, had municipal ordinances forbidding streetcars from being operated with one employee.
  2. Franchise agreements limiting fares to 5 cents, even during the massive inflation that occurred during those war years meant that revenue could not keep pace with rising costs. Note that while today's government subsidies can allow absurdly low transit fares, before subsidies began in the 1960s all operating revenue, and almost all capital revenue, had to be self-generated by the transit network.
  3. As more and more people bought automobiles, large amounts of off-peak and weekend riders chose to drive to their destinations instead of taking transit. This phenomenon, which persists today, causes rampant peaking in many transit systems, necessitating the expensive operation of buses that are only needed for two hours at a time despite the fact that most union contracts call for drivers to be paid for a minimum of four hours per shift.
  4. Anti-monopoly regulations during the Depression forced electric companies to divest their streetcar subsidiaries, further starving the streetcar systems of needed funding to replace worn-out track and rolling stock. During World War II, record high ridership due to gasoline rationing caused severe wear and tear on the rolling stock, and although the record high ridership generated high revenues, post-war operator strikes forced the diversion of capital revenue to operator wages.
  5. The introduction of the mortgage interest deduction stimulated the rampant growth of suburbs laying far beyond the extent of the streetcar network. Because there was no money to extend the streetcar network, these new suburbs, if served at all, had to be served by buses.
  6. Ever since General Motors, through its Yellow Bus subsidiary, began building buses they have offered them on credit to transit systems, while similar credit was not offered to these systems by streetcar builders. As a result, buses were the only vehicle that could be afforded by many operators.
Of the above reasons, three can be attributed to socialist meddling by the government and another to tax policy, while one was due to the rising American standard of living. That leaves one reason - the lack of credit offered to streetcar purchasers - that could theoretically be connected with the Roger Rabbit conspiracy.

Streetcars In Other Countries

Arguably, the reason streetcars continue to thrive in Europe is that the enormous cost of post-war rebuilding meant that until relatively recently Europeans did not have as much money to purchase automobiles as Americans. The fact that Eastern Europe - historically poorer than Western Europe - has the lions share of trams supports this assertion. By the time that Europeans could afford cars en masse in the 1970s, the environmental movement had begun and transit came back into favor. Another solid reason is that many Europeans continue to live in central cities dating back before the advent of the car - because these cities, such as Amsterdam, were not built to take advantage of the car they have limited space for parking and therefore, to avoid the hassle of looking for scarce and expensive parking, many Europeans would rather take transit.

The Rebirth of Streetcars

We seem to have come full circle in terms of using rail for urban non-rapid public transit in this country . Many light rail systems have opened, and many more are under construction, since the first modern light rail line opened in San Diego in 1981. More recently, streetcars, which differ from light rail in that they usually operate exclusively in traffic lanes, have opened up in Portland and Seattle and are under consideration in many more cities. After many years of desiring to live in the fast lane on the freeway, are Americans coming back to wanting a slower pace of life that they feel the streetcar represents? At this point, the modern streetcar lines that have opened have been very short, novelty-like lines rather than the robust commuter routes that once operated. When we see an American city construct a network of eleven lines crisscrossing the central city like Toronto has or the twenty-nine lines operated in Melbourne, then we will know that the streetcar has a chance to live again. By allowing the streetcar to clog up the middle of the street once again, the city that introduces such a network will be declaring that roads are for people, not cars, and the city will be making a statement for a sustainable future.

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