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What's Right with this Picture?


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Photo:       Peggy Webb, courtesy of Henry Ewert

Photo from frontispiece of The Story of the B.C. Electric Railway by Henry Ewert (Whitecap Books Ltd., 1986).

What’s Right with This Picture?

 Everything. It is a fine summer day in New Westminster, British Columbia, in the year 1909. Car 39 has stopped briefly on Park Row on its way into town. It carries its passengers through a world that is ordered, serene, at peace. Their eyes feast upon the glories of Queen Anne architecture. They hear the birds and the trolley wire sing a duet in an ether as yet unpolluted by engine noise or boom boxes.  Their poised servants, the motorman and conductor of the car, stand as visible assurances of responsibility and reliability. God is in His Heaven and all is right with the world.

To us, the picture is almost painful. It reminds us of a world we had, and have lost. But it does more than that. From the standpoint of public transportation, it points not only to the past, but also to a possible future. This photograph shows a virtually perfect integration of a highly attractive, widely desirable means of public transit—the streetcar—with the environment in which it operates.

The streetcar right-of-way is visually less conspicuous than the boardwalk on the other side of the street. The track is barely visible, and much of the track bed appears to be planted with clover (or maybe just weeds). The wires are few and the poles blend in with the trees. The car, though large for its time, is small enough so that its surroundings dominate the view. It is all done to a human scale, comfortable, friendly, welcoming.

How many 21st century Americans, if offered such a streetcar for their own town or city, would turn it down? Offer it we can, because the cost of building and operating a streetcar like this, a Heritage trolley, is remarkably low—lower than any other form of rail transportation. As our study will show, virtually any place that wants a streetcar line can have one.

The genesis of this study lies in a remark the mayor of Milwaukee, John Norquist, made to the authors. “When I tried to get the people of Milwaukee to go for Light Rail, they said, ‘No thanks. We don't even know what Light Rail is.’ When I said instead, ‘Let's bring back the streetcars,’ they replied, ‘Hey, that’s a great idea!’”

All across the country, transit advocates, transit agencies and local officials see the need for rail transportation. While buses in many places carry only the transit dependent, rail service can appeal effectively to riders from choice—people who have cars and can drive, but choose to ride transit instead. Most riders from choice represent a car removed from rush hour traffic, which benefits everyone, including the person who still drives.

The problem is, how to get started? Most cities and virtually all towns lost their rail transit at least half a century ago. Most of their citizens have never ridden a train of any kind. It is hard to go to people who have never been on a train and ask them to vote hundreds of millions or billions of dollars for “Light Rail,” a term that has no meaning to them.

But a streetcar is different. Even if they have never ridden or even seen a streetcar, there seems to be an ancestral memory of what they were, and it is a pleasant memory. It brings to mind an earlier and happier time, when “going down town” was a major event, and downtown itself was an exciting place to shop, go to dinner and see a show. Streetcars fit a downtown well, and not only downtowns but also older residential neighborhoods and new developments built to traditional designs. All of these are coming back, or trying to, and streetcars can help.

Not only do people understand what a streetcar is, and think well of it, a proposal to bring back streetcars need not break the bank. Instead of asking the voters for hundreds of millions of dollars, a few million will usually suffice, at least to get the first line up and running. Often, the money may be available without any new taxes.

Hence the purpose of this study: to show cities and towns, and transit advocates in them, how they can inaugurate rail transit in a way that makes it easy. The answer is simple: bring back the streetcars! We will take a broad look at the return of the streetcar—it is already happening—and then carefully examine three case studies of successful new streetcar lines: McKinney Avenue in Dallas, which uses Vintage (antique) streetcars and volunteer labor (and keeps costs remarkably low); Memphis, Tennessee, which also uses vintage equipment but has professional operators who are transit system employees; and Portland, Oregon, which recently opened the first post-war streetcar line that uses modern equipment. Each of these case studies offers a model other cities and towns can follow.

Of course, we do not intend to present streetcars as the solution to all transit needs. They cannot carry vast crowds of commuters in from the countryside at high speeds; that requires commuter rail. They cannot offer fast suburban service; that need is met best by Light Rail. They cannot substitute for subways in large cities (though they may usefully augment them, and complement the bus system).

What streetcars can do, almost everywhere, is help rail transit make a start. They can give people something to see, ride, understand and like, so that when it does come time for commuter rail or Light Rail, rail transit is no longer an unknown quantity. People can relate to it, in their own town or city, because they have ridden it or at least enjoyed the sight of it passing by. And, knowing what rail transit is, they feel comfortable voting for more.

We do not mean to suggest that the streetcar is useful only as an appetizer before a larger rail transit banquet. It remains a good and useful way of getting around town, all on its own. In fact, when other modes of rail transit are available, people still like streetcars. When San Francisco built a subway under Market Street, it ended streetcar service on the tracks above (while wisely leaving them in place). Several years ago, it put the streetcar service back, using Vintage trolleys. Now, those streetcars are full, because many regular riders prefer riding them to the subway. Similarly, when the authors visited Toronto a few years ago, the Toronto Transit Commission told us that of all the transit modes they offered—bus, trolley bus, subway, and streetcars—people said in surveys that they liked the streetcars best.

That brings us back to our wonderful photo from New Westminster, British Columbia, in 1909. Our ancestors were not fools. They had some good things going. If we are as wise as they, we will know that what worked once, can work again. The same simple, inexpensive technology, the unobtrusive tracks and wires, the charming trolley cars with their inlaid wood and brushed brass that carried our forefathers in safety and comfort around their cities can carry us around ours. Perhaps the best resource for a community looking for new transit solutions is a picture of its own past.




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