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The streetcar makes a comeback

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted May 14, 2001

When Judy Garland won her academy award for "The Trolley Song" from "Meet Me in St. Louis," in the mid-1940s, there still were a lot of cities, large and small, that had trolleys or streetcars. But as soon as World War II came to an end, streetcars were discarded from the American transportation scene with reckless abandon. The bus was the in thing as far as public transit was concerned.

But the public didn't like the bus and so the automobile all but did in public transit in this country, as public policy was shifted more and more toward the automobile.

A street car in San Francisco. Alcatraz is in the background
A street car in San Francisco. Alcatraz is in the background

The streetcar itself just about disappeared from American streets. We were down to just five cities with real streetcars by the 1970s. Beginning in 1981, a higher class, more expensive cousin to the streetcar, called Light Rail, began to appear throughout North America. It uses larger vehicles, most often run in train sets and on its own right of way off the streets except perhaps for a short stretch downtown. In many places light rail has been a rip-roaring success, to the point where voters have even voted to tax themselves to build new and expanded systems.

But now something funny is happening. The streetcar itself is making a comeback.

In a couple months, an actual "in the street" trolley line will be launched in Portland, Oregon. Portland has a very successful light rail system with two lines running and two under construction. But this new trolley line uses new cars about two-thirds the size of the light rail cars and connects some important urban centers all in the street. The cars are built in the Czech Republic since no one in this country has built a streetcar since 1953. Some cars just like the ones for Portland are also being built for another little line in the street in Tacoma, Washington.

This follows the revival of streetcars on Market Street in San Francisco. They were taken off of Market Street and the line was put into a subway in the 1970s. The tracks were never taken out and the block by block service was operated by a trolley bus. That patronage was very weak. There was agitation to bring the streetcars back. Then one year the cable cars had to be taken out of service to be repaired. The city, to mollify tourists, brought back streetcars on Market Street using museum cars and some of its vintage equipment. Streetcars on Market Street were such a hit that immediately there arose a demand for the service to not only be permanent, but to be expanded to Fisherman's Wharf. After years of wrangling and volunteer work, the line was opened in February 2000. It too has been a rip-roaring success. Equipment can't keep up with the demand.

Now streetcars are also returning to Philadelphia. Buses replaced the Girard Avenue streetcar line in 1992, after 94 years, but the public wanted rail back. At first, the line was going to be turned into a light rail route. Now, streetcars built 50 years ago are being rebuilt with air conditioning and wheelchair lifts. Next year the streetcar will be back in Philly!

Streetcars never left New Orleans. But they did leave Canal Street in 1964. Ever since, there has been a movement to bring them back. Now it is happening. Fifty-year-old cars are being rebuilt to look like cars that are 80 years old but again with air conditioning and handicapped facilities. New Orleans is so into bringing back the streetcar that service will be restored to the Desire line (as in A Streetcar Named Desire) within the next several years as well.

Boston was going to scrap its 50 some year-old streetcars on the shuttle line at the Ashmonds end of the Red Line subway. Local residents put up such a campaign that now these streetcars are being rebuilt to run at least another 15 years.

A new line, but using cars that are over 50 years old, began operating in Kenosha, Wisconsin last year, linking the commuter rail station with trains to Chicago to a new housing development on the lakefront.

Steetcars will soon be operating between Tampa and Ybor City in Florida, using new cars built as replicas of those built in the 1920s. A streetcar line is also under construction in Little Rock, Arkansas and lines have been authorized for Wilmington, Delaware and Sioux City, Iowa.
There are about a dozen other cities that are looking seriously at bringing back the trolleys. So much so that the American Public Transport Association (APTA) has asked Bill Lind and me to write the book on what is the right way to bring about the return of the streetcar.

Very few things which were ever this close to being extinct have come back this strong, except perhaps for the bald eagle and that took the endangered species act to help it along. What brought back the streetcar was a combination of common sense, a desire for those better times of yesteryear and the fact that you just can't keep something as good as the streetcar down for too long. "Clang, clang, clang" may be coming to your neighborhood before long.

Paul Weyrich is president of the Free Congress Foundation.

Other related articles: (open in a new window)

  • Public transit is making a surprise comeback by Paul M. Weyrich (May 22, 2000)
    Paul Weyrich on the increasing -- and very surprising -- use of public transportation and what's causing it
  • A new light on the transit debate by Eric Miller (March 27, 2000)
    Conservatives and lovers of the free market often side with cars over public transportation, but a look at history reveals that government was the one that made them popular, says Eric Miller

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