Where the streetcars went

[Permalink]

I know all the other major cities at the time had streetcars, but having them in Detroit, where my parents lived when they were younger, presented a unique situation. My dad would be especially nostalgic for them, telling me how far he could go for what? A nickel? It’s was like hearing about going to the movies at that time!. In “Thunder City”, by Loren D. Estleman, the story of how Henry Ford started his rise is fictionalized, as is the story of the streetcars. According to his version of it, farmers from just south of Detroit to Monroe, close to the Ohio border, were to be offered money for their land upon which would be built a streetcar line that would link the two cities. Unfortunately, just about anyone who was manufacturing - or attempting to manufacture - autos didn’t want that to happen. And of course, there’s a crooked Irish boss involved, who just happens to be in charge of public transit…hmmm… Anyhow, it’s a great story. And there was one operating streetcar left in Detroit when I grew up, but it was more of an amusement that a mode of transport.

2 Likes

Here in Cincy we’re building a new one.

Take that, National City Lines!

3 Likes

And in DC, but they’re having problems with that

1 Like

There are a lot of downtowns in the northeast with suspiciously wide main streets, the streetcar tracks long since torn up.

4 Likes

Here, too. Plenty of politics and red-faced shouting.

The Vox article is generally a good summary, but it misses this major factor:

Before the Holding Company Act, it was common for electric utilities to subsidize street railway operations that they owned out of the money they earned providing electric service. The Holding Company Act shut that down.

1 Like

I still think it was mostly due to this guy and his evil “freeway” scheme.

12 Likes

… because we are staring into the maw of a new dark age, when everything must be for profit. The roads must make a profit. Therefore toll roads.



The air must make a profit. You will rent it from Airco! Haven’t paid your rent? They’ll send some enforcers around later this afternoon to strangle you.

7 Likes

Thank You! Thank You! Thank You! for publishing the link to the Vox piece.

How nice to read a well-researched, balanced analysis of the demise of the streetcar.

The article covered the main points well. There were additional (surmountable) problems with street cars.

One of the biggest was central a design decision: street cars of the era went down the center of streets. This caused multiple issues.

  1. One had to walk through traffic to get to the streetcar. Women especially hated this, as they were regularly carrying groceries and herding children across busy streets.

  2. Car accidents. The streetcar era had terrible drivers . When an automobile collided with a street car, which was a daily occurrence in LA by the 1920s, other auto drivers would (slowly) drive around the wreck and keep going. But everyone on the street car had to wait until the authorities cleared them to move again. This made street cars unreliable for commuting. Using a street car for any distance meant risking one’s job.

  3. Walking up into the street car. I know this sounds odd, but those three steps up were so inconvenient that the Pacific Electrics (the "Red Cars) protoyped special cars to adress this issue.

Notice how modern street car systesm address all these points by having elevated stations with easy pedestrian access.

There was an additional factor: Class. Cars were glamorous, what you used if you were moving up in the world. Street car was how the average joe got to work. Given the opportunity, what would any aspirational American prefer?

Like so much in America, unspoken class competition lurked behind seemingly unrelated public policy choices.

10 Likes

I would be leery about quoting the Wikipedia article on the conspiracy angle, there’s considerable discussion on the page about editing with dubious sources for effect rather than what the original article stated. The money has been on the car and bus side of the propaganda equation for a long time now.

1 Like

obligatory 99% invisible podcast explainer.

1 Like

The car companies bought them up and closed them down in the 40s and 50s and were eventually fined one dollar.
The irony here in Vancouver is that much of the Skytrain track built since the 80s and 90s covers much of the same lines as the Inter-urban system that was built in the 1890s and was shut down by the 50s.

Streetcar epiphenomena:

Trolley Parks.

Streetcar companies would build amusement parks just outside of urban areas, at the end of the line, to encourage ridership.

Oaks Park in Portland and Kenneywood in Pittsburgh are the two examples I know of.

7 Likes

I love blowing peoples minds when I mention that Rodger Rabbit was all about streetcars and freeways

1 Like

Ray Bradbury – Dandelion Wine – Ch. 20, “The Trolley”

1 Like

Seattle has built a vanity project streetcar for Paul Allen.

And they put them back in Nottingham a few years ago.

San Francisco has a fleet of vintage streetcars. I was pretty stoked to have ridden some of 'em on my last SF trip.

http://www.streetcar.org/live/

1 Like

Toontown == Chinatown.

2 Likes

I think we all know that Toontown is located at the back of Disneyland. Dur.

2 Likes