Reflections: The Rise of the Modern American Streetcars

It’s been just over two years since I published my first piece, “The Rise of the Modern American Streetcar.” Writing for a (mostly) European audience, I gave a background to the strange social and economic factors behind the rise and fall of streetcars in America, and their more recent reemergence. I thought it exciting, especially for my introduction to journalism and internet commenters, to be writing at a time when the uncertainty of the streetcar renaissance was palpable, at least in Atlanta. Funnily enough, CNU Atlanta wanted to share an excerpt of this piece and it’s still there.

Now, with the Atlanta Streetcar completed (arguable) and hit with hindsight, my naiveté is a little clearer. Two years since it went live, we’ve had time to watch the streetcar play out and read endless reaction pieces, so I thought I’d reflect a little as well.


The Rise of the Modern American Streetcars

In the past twenty years, cities across America have been bringing back a seemingly antiquated transportation method, the streetcar. The most well known of these is the Portland Streetcar, the first system to utilize modern streetcars, but according to a recent article from the Associated Press by Jason Keyser, there are over 30 American cities that are bringing back their streetcars. Cities such as Houston, Atlanta, Raleigh, Detroit, and Kansas City are only a few of the cities that have recently invested in modern streetcars, many of which are running on or near the routes of earlier streetcars.

But why are streetcars making such a comeback in cities across America? Why did they ever go away?

Atlanta Streetcars_1902

Before the automobile became a central aspect of the American Dream, streetcars drawn by horses or mules began roaming American cities and towns since the early 1800’s, with the first line opening in 1832. Streetcars made it easier for people to move within cities and facilitated the flow of people to city centers from surrounding neighborhoods and suburbs, and also cleaned up American streets as they became favored over horse- and mule-drawn carriages. Streetcar companies competed for service routes and many coalesced during the early 1900’s. Take for example my fair city of Atlanta, Georgia: many routes ran through the city, but by 1902 nearly all routes were under the auspices of the Georgia Electric & Rail Company, later to become the market-dominating Georgia Power.

Atlanta Streetcars_1947

Leading up to and immediately following World War II, America’s streetcars reached their zenith; during the War, they were used by working Americans as an alternative to driving during times when oil was rationed and new tires were scarce. But after the War in the late 1940’s and on, streetcars in every major city began disappearing. This decline of streetcars from cities in post-World War II America is the result of three factors: the Modernization of American culture, the suburbanization of American cities, and the resurgence of the Automotive Industry.

Modernism is the artistic and cultural trend of rejecting traditional cultural and artistic styles in favor of new ones based on the impacts of modern technology, and it enveloped the western word from the beginning of the late 1800’s through the mid-Twentieth Century. Modernism impacted the American culture by illustrating how life could be in a world with futuristic technology to lighten the labors of Americans, be it through new toasters or hydroelectric electricity production, or through new automobiles. After the semi-moratorium placed on auto manufacturers during World War II ended and auto manufacturers no longer needed to produce tanks, planes, and other equipment, the auto industry exploded. Car-makers advertised their vehicles as the most futuristic and essential products on the market; they were the fastest, most efficient, and most cost-effective means of personal transportation, and they seemed to encapsulate the idea of American freedom. Take for example these Oldsmobile commercials from 1948.

With inexpensive land and plenty of working-age men home from the War the housing industry exploded and suburbs cropped up further and further away from city cores, drawing people out of the cities with them. The suburb was seen as the realization of “The American Dream:” a house with a nice green lawn, a couple of kids playing in a sprinkler, a car in the driveway (or two), and a white picket fence.

Conversely, streetcars came to be viewed as an antiquated technology, not just by the general public, but also by planners and governments. Buses became the more favorable option for public transportation, due to their increased flexibility in regards to routing and adapting to ridership patterns, as well as decreased infrastructural demands and maintenance. As a result, mostly government- and municipal-run bus lines began replacing (mostly private) streetcars in cities all across America. In the South, serving diverse communities through one transit system became a problem due to the Jim Crow laws that segregated much of American life, bus lines included. 58 years ago, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man and sparked the Civil Rights Movement. The controversy surrounding bus lines and racial inequality in America disintegrated the reputation and ridership of bus lines further and only accelerated the ascension of automobiles as the main form of transportation for Americans.

“Successful advertising, low fuel costs, & dropping prices were more responsible for the fall of the streetcars than GM and its co-conspirators.”

But the story of the fall of America’s streetcars and the rise of automobiles has a more sinister element as well. Under the guise of various companies, General Motors, Phillips Petroleum, Firestone Tires, Mack Trucks, and Standard Oil conspired and purchased over 100 streetcar companies in 45 cities across the United States. Their effort spanned from the early 1920’s until the mid 1940’s when they were indicted on charges of conspiring to monopolize interstate trade. However, charges were minor, with GM being fined only $5,000 and each convicted individual charged only one dollar each. Despite the seemingly broad reach that GM and its co-conspirators had over the streetcar market, it is widely accepted that their impact was little compared to the economic and social shifts towards car-ownership and suburban living entailed above. Automobile companies did play a huge role in bringing the streetcar industry to an end, but successful advertising, low fuel costs, and dropping prices were more responsible for that than GM and its co-conspirators.

Effects of Suburbia Manifested

Today, the results of the car-centric “American Dream” are manifest in urban decay, sprawling suburbs, increased greenhouse gas emissions, increased automobile traffic, immense public spending for highways and maintenance, increased impermeable surfaces and storm water runoff, and communities that lack social interaction. In addition to this, the social and health costs are enormous as well, with urban sprawl a major facilitator in inactivity, which correlates to obesity, hypertension, and anxiety. Increased emissions from increasing driving in sprawling cities also is a major factor in childhood and seasonal asthma, as well being responsible for 28% of greenhouse gas emissions in 2011. Additionally, long commutes are major daily stressors, and are even a cause of political disengagement: a study in the journal American Politics Research found that the relationship between low-income people and long commutes is especially impactful, concluding that “if we are serious about enabling citizens to be more participatory in politics, then we should also discuss what can be done to lessen the day-to- day burdens on citizens that erode the resources necessary for habitual political participation.” All of these factors combined have resulted in the current state of the nation; our enormous road infrastructure is crumbling beneath our cars, our populace is under stress, mentally and physically, as a result of long commutes to and from suburban planning originally contrived to alleviate stress. Again, take my home town of Atlanta for example: Charles Montgomery, citing research by Lawrence Frank and his team of researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, states that people living in Atlanta’s suburbs are likely to weigh ten pounds more than their counterparts in the neighborhoods surrounding Atlanta’s MARTA system and that almost all Atlantans, 94% of them, commute to work in personal vehicles.


Today, streetcars are seen as the solutions to these suburban woes. Portland’s streetcar illustrated the impact that investing in urban cores with reliable, comfortable, safe public transportation can do. In 2007, The New York Times reported that the Portland Streetcar “has helped sweep in $2.4 billion in new commercial and housing development, with 7,248 new housing units,” a huge return on the original $100 million dollar investment raised through local taxes to build it. Since then, dozens of cities across American have constructed or are in the planning stages for streetcars and light-rail, hoping to reap similar benefits. Streetcars, such as the Portland Streetcar, spur denser development in urban areas, often as in-fill development that makes use of abandoned or dilapidated spaces within developed urban areas. This development results in jobs created in the surrounding area, increases property values, and increases ridership of all other means of public transportation as well. Cities are also using streetcars and improved public transportation systems to attract young adults; “young creatives,” “Millennials,” “Gen-Y’s,” or whatever else the newest generation to enter the workforce is being referred to have the lowest number of licensed drivers, lowest rates of driving, and are the largest group of increased public transit ridership.

The Future of Transportation

Cities may become more and more dissimilar from their suburban surroundings as neighborhoods and communities closer to urban cores adopt more multi-modal means of transportation (biking, taking transit, walking, car-sharing, etc.) and encourage denser development. Suburbs, on the other hand will change much more gradually. Exurban communities will continue to solely utilize cars for transportation, but more suburban communities are beginning to diversify their transportation portfolio with county- or municipal bus systems that allow them to connect to city or regional transit systems, or even go as far as this German suburb that replaced all of its cars with bicycles. Bus rapid transit (BRT) is also a favorable option for suburban communities or cities looking to increase access to public transportation. BRT promises the speed of light- or heavy-rail with the flexibility, adaptability of buses, and low costs compared to streetcars or light-rail since they run on existing road infrastructure. However, the average American’s impression of buses compared to trains and streetcars is still low, according to Annie WinSock at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, the co-author of a 2011 report on BRT in America. Just as no two cities are the exact same, nor will the exact same blends of transportation methods work for every city in America. It is on the shoulders of urban planners, city officials, and all those concerned with the future of their cities and regions to support and utilize the methods of transportation that work for their city so that they can draw young talent, new ideas, and provide a positive experience for their riders, drivers, bikers, and pedestrians.

Siemens liefert Straßenbahnen des amerikanischen Typs S70 nach
In December 2013, this was the best look the public had of the future system. Note the motion blur on this speedy streetcar.

Though there are several different theories for this generational preference for transit over driving, from increased awareness of driving’s impact on the environment, to economic downturn, to shifting social norms, one thing is certain: cars are no longer the only reliable option, or even the best option in many cases, to get Americans where they are going. Along with the increase in public transportation ridership and cities investing in streetcars, there has been an uptake in biking and bike-share programs, as well as car-sharing and crowd-sourced taxiing services. These services are built on our increasingly mobile lifestyles and technologies, made possible by the internet and widespread through our smartphones, and are growing everyday. Michael Melaniphy, President and CEO of the American Public Transportation Association put it nicely: “There is a sea change going on in the way that people look at transportation. Americans want travel choices; they want to be able to choose the best travel option for their lives. This is an exciting time for the public transportation industry as more and more Americans support it and want it.”

As streetcars begin to return to cities across the United States, more Americans will leave their cars at home, or not even own one; Portland demonstrated that. More and more people will live in communities serviced by transit, be it streetcars, buses, or trains. They will check the app on their smartphones to see how long before they need to be at their stops, what cars are available through their car-sharing programs, or if they need to call a crowd-sourced taxi service. But the first thing that they will think about before they walk out the door will be, What’s the best way for me to get where I need to go today?


I like to think that my writing and critique has sharpened since then. Maybe not.

Many aspects of this story have played out in the two years since this went live: If you build it, they won’t necessarily come; There’s more to the street than just the streetcar; and there’s a reason streetcars went the way of the dinosaurs.

About a year and a half after I published this, published a couple of great pieces that pointed out that the decline of streetcars in America coincided not just with increasing affordability of and access to automobiles, but also simply due to the gridlock caused by more automobile traffic on the roads. Additionally, the automobile industry waged a savage war on pedestrians and the cities that attempted to impose safety regulations on cars. Through lobbying at the state and national level, car companies simultaneously criminalized jaywalking and crippled cities by , and later got the Federal Government to foot the bill for the highways that drove development out of cities for the rest of the century.

Efforts by cities to combat the rising automobile death count, such as Cincinnati’s effort to require governors to limit speeding, did not go over well. Or at all.

Looking at the Atlanta Streetcar and its route, it’s clear now that streetcars alone do not transform the streets they ride on. That requires changes to zoning to allow for denser, smaller scale development, city support for businesses along the line that may have suffered during construction, and developers building infill development. Atlanta is making strides in those directions and growth is happening,

“Judging a project that is built to last decades on the scale of a single year is frivolous, if not outright foolish.”

People expect instant solutions to problems nowadays, that’s just a result of how the Internet has changed culture, commerce, and communications. Tap a button on your phone and your world changes. But judging a project that is built to last decades, if not longer, on the scale of a single year is frivolous, if not outright foolish. The Tube in London is one of the most heavily used transit routes in the world with over a billion passengers every year and it will be 153 this year. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

This topic also leads into the next several pieces I’ll be posting looking at transportation planning in the Atlanta region and Georgia as a whole. Next time, on The Suburban City.

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