The first urban light rail system was simply a relatively small, boxy car pulled by horses over rails imbedded into the street. The first system of this type began operations in New York City in 1832 (two years before Brooklyn, across the river, was incorporated into a city itself). The horsecar was much more efficient than the coaches then in use. Running along rails eliminated most of the friction, allowing horses to pull a much greater load with a lot less effort. Soon horsecar lines criss crossed the City of New York. The rapidly growing City of Brooklyn began its own series of lines in 1854.
Next someone attached a car to a constantly running cable underground. The Cable Car was born, and was larger, faster, and less polluting than horses.
Next came the electric generator and motor technology. In 1888 Richmond, Virginia became the first city to successfully electrify a streetcar line, and Brooklyn followed shortly thereafter. Electric streetcars soon replaced the cable cars and, of course, the horselines. Electric streetcars were tagged the ‘trolley’ after its original electronic pick-up devise, called a trawler. Soon whole centers of activity developed around trolley stations.
What would change all that would be, of course, the automobile with some old-fashioned political meddling:
Beginning in the 1920’s, however, the trolley companies (all privately owned) began to face a number of problems. This was a time of expanding automobile ownership and increasing automobile traffic. Furthermore, local governments were becoming increasingly hostile to trolley operators. Track repairs were often hindered by demands on transit companies to also repair adjoining streets; simultaneously, municipalities made additional claims on their revenues. In New York the nickel fare was mandated despite inflationary trends, making once profitable trolley lines (and subway and elevated lines) into money losing propositions. Of course, shortly after the city took over transit operations, the fare was raised.
But by the mid to late 1950’s, trolleys almost disappeared in American cities due to what was essentially a strongarm lobby by the competition. A company called National City Lines, jointly owned by General Motors, Standard Oil and Firestone Tires, operated under the cover of small bus companies, systematically buying up privately owned streetcar companies, replacing streetcars with busses. National City Lines also lobbied local governments rigorously to eliminate trolley lines, calling them a hindrance to traffic. Ultimately, National City Lines was found guilty of actual criminal conspiracy to destroy the American streetcar system.
Fifty-five plus years later, trolleys are making an urban comeback as an excellent mode of urban transport that is clean for the air, gets people out of cars and parking lots, and encourages walkability:
Now streetcars are making a comeback nationwide. In the past decade, new lines have started running in eight cities; nearly a dozen more will be under construction this year. With (New York City) Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposed 16-mile, $2.5 billion Brooklyn-Queens Connector, New York will join the parade. If completed, the line would link Sunset Park and Astoria via the East River waterfront.
But the author of this article, Yonah Freemark, a city planner at Chicago’s Metropolitan Planning Council and the creator of The Transport Politic website, warns of the nuances which can make a trolley line successful. You don’t just “build it and commuters come.” Atlanta streetcars are apparently as slow as the Peach Tree city’s miserable traffic:
Caught in the same congestion as the city’s drivers, its streetcar suffers from miserable speeds (less than 10 miles an hour on average) and terrible reliability. As a result, it has struggled to attract riders; the system carries only about 2,000 passengers a day — as many as just one rush-hour subway train in New York. While smoother and more comfortable, it is slower than run-of-the-mill buses, which means people whose bus route was replaced by the streetcar are spending more time on their commutes.
The faster and more dependable a streetcar line, says Freemark, the more time it will save riders, and the more likely people will choose it rather than polluting. To make lines run more efficiently, include dedicated lanes. (Apparently the Paris region’s 65-mile streetcar system is a textbook example of a successful, rapid streetcar system: trams save time, so riders make over 900,000 trips each day — far more than on the 117-mile Washington Metro train network, for example.)
Dallas, of course, is reviving and expanding street car lines. Neighborhood innovator and creator of The Better Block Project Jason Roberts recently told The Dallas Morning News he sees the extension of the trolley in Oak Cliff a quality of life boost:
I’m really happy to see the streetcar line continue down to the Bishop Arts District. Our ultimate goal with the Oak Cliff Transit Authority was to have it return to Jefferson Boulevard where we have the most contiguous Main Street style buildings that suffer from a lack of parking… My vision is to have the line continue to Jefferson and retrace part of its original footprint there. Once the streetcar gets deeper into neighborhoods, it has a great potential to be solid option for residents going to the districts, kids going to school, and people getting to work.
I am already seeing the real estate potential, and it could happen in more places than Oak Cliff. But Freemark advises cities to consider the whole package for maximum success — dedicated lanes, syncing stoplights to automatically turn green (or be prevented from turning red) when trams approach, and eliminating stops. Development policies should also support the use of the streetcar. In Chicago, many neighborhoods along the planned trolley route suffer at the hands of zoning laws that “severely restrict the scale of buildings allowed (and therefore potential riders) and requires developments to include a significant number of parking spaces (which in turn encourages driving).” People who hold fast to a car-dominated city, he says, fight increasing density and reducing parking requirements.
But taking a stand in favor of these measures is vital; without them, the streetcar will be too slow to provide improved transportation for the people who need it, and it will attract too few riders to justify its construction.